Great Britain

About Great Britain

Great Britain is the largest island of the British Isles that lie off the northwestern coast of continental Europe. Together with the north eastern part of Ireland (Northern Ireland), it forms the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which covers a surface area of 248,527 km² and is home to about 64 million people (2014), who often call their country simply "UK" or "Britain". Great Britain is divided into England, Wales and Scotland and each of these three fascinating countries has its distinct character, culture, traditions and even language. From cosmopolitan cities to medieval villages, thousand year old monuments to modern museums and rolling hills to snow-capped mountains – Great Britain boasts a plethora of exciting sights and a wealth of diverse landscapes. Let's thread in the footsteps of Robin Hood and Co. and discover these ancient lands, which have been settled since prehistoric times.

England occupies the largest part of Great Britain. It stretches from the south to the border of Scotland in the north, while to the west it is bordered by Wales. London, located in the south east of the country, is not only the capital city of England but also of the entire UK. What started in the 1st century AD as a Roman settlement on the Thames River has now become one of Europe's largest metropolitan areas. London is a world-class city in every respect: financial centre, economic hub, arts, entertainment, shopping, heritage and modern sights – no wonder that this exciting place attracts millions of visitors every year! If, however, you had to stay just in London while on holiday in England, it would be a real pity as there is so much to discover in every corner of the country. For instance, the stunning coastlines of Devon and Cornwall in the south, the enchanting villages of the Cotswolds and enigmatic Stonehenge in the west, the prestigious university city of Cambridge in the east, and last but not least the ancient Roman Hadrian's Wall, the breathtakingly beautiful Lake District National Park and the North York Moors National Park in the north.

Wales covers the western part of Great Britain and the majority of its about three million inhabitants lives in the south of the country, in one of the three biggest cities of Newport, Swansea or the capital Cardiff. Wales is bilingual and although Welsh is spoken widely, you don't necessarily need to have knowledge of this Celtic language when travelling in Cymru (Wales) - English is perfectly fine. Wales is a country of outstanding natural beauty - its pristine beaches are regularly awarded the Blue Flag and its lakes and mountains are perfect for outdoor activities like hiking, cycling and mountain biking. Besides its unique landscapes and nature, Wales boasts a wealth of historic treasures. Whichever part of the country you visit, it is really hard not to come across a place that is not associated with some myth or legend. For instance, Llyn Llydaw at the foot of Mount Snowdon is supposedly the lake where King Arthur's legendary sword Excalibur was thrown. Or was it rather Llyn Ogwen? One thing is for sure - Arthur and Merlin are the names you will come across over and over again when travelling Wales.

Scotland stretches in the northern third of Great Britain and its territory also includes more than 790 islands that can be divided into four main groups (Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands, Inner and Outer Hebrides) plus the Isle of Arran, Isle of Bute and St. Kilda. While Glasgow is the largest Scottish city, Edinburgh, located on the Firth of Forth, is the capital city. This cosmopolitan city is a great place to stay during your Scotland holidays and the perfect starting point for exploring this country's epic landscapes. These include endless sandy beaches (sometimes with sea so blue that it is hard to believe you are not in the Mediterranean), dramatic cliffs, foggy moors, "Celtic rainforests", rivers and lochs. One of Scotland's most inspiring natural settings is certainly the Highlands that are traversed by glens and dotted with enchanting mountain villages, mysterious castle ruins and countless whiskey distilleries.

Vacation Rentals and Holiday Homes in Great Britain

Enjoying nature in Great Britain

Outdoor enthusiasts, why not spend your next nature holidays in Great Britain? This lush green island in the north west of Europe boasts a wealth of beautiful urban and captivating wild landscapes: vast parks, landscaped gardens, spectacular cliffs, rolling hills, dark forests, soaring mountains, endless beaches, glistening lakes and mysterious moors. Summer is certainly the best season to explore the scenic marvels of England, Scotland and Wales, as temperatures are pleasantly warm and it is also the time of year with the least rainfall. However, certain natural spectacles such as the fascinating Aurora Borealis phenomenon can only be experienced during the cold months.

London's green oases
London is a prime example of how nature can be harmoniously integrated into a metropolis. Despite being extremely big, the UK's capital is an extraordinarily green city boasting thousands of hectares of diverse open spaces, where you can relax after your sightseeing tours, go for a stroll, work out or watch birds and even other wild animals. For instance, one can even observe herds of freely roaming deer at Richmond Park. With an area of over 900 hectares, it is the largest park in London and one of the eight Royal Parks, which also include the famous Hyde Park. Besides these, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is also a true nature paradise and it is not far from the city centre either. This World Heritage Site houses one of the world's largest collection of living plants and it features beautiful landscaped gardens and several glass houses, where not only exotic plants but also plants from ten different climatic zones prosper.

Fossil hunting in southern England
The Jurassic Coast is located in the south of England and stretches from East Devon to Dorset. It is England's first natural World Heritage site and its entire length of 155 kilometres spans 185 million years of the earth's geological history. As you follow the cliffs from west to east, the different geological periods will unfold before your eyes in chronological order. The first and oldest layers date from the Triassic period; they are followed by layers from the Jurassic period, while the final and youngest layers are attributed to the Cretaceous period. Countless fossils have been found on the Jurassic Coast's stunning beaches and with a little bit of luck, you will also return from your England holiday with a million year old Ammonite souvenir!

Mountain wilderness in Wales
Wales is a country of outstanding natural beauty. Where could one experience nature's wild side better than in the rugged Snowdonia Mountains of northern Wales? The Snowdonia National Park is one of the oldest national parks in Britain and home to the highest peak in Wales – Mount Snowdon. This 1,085 metre high summit can be reached via various hiking trails leaving off at different starting points. However, we have to warn you, ascending this mountain won't be easy, as the terrain is very rocky with steep gradients. But once you have left all these obstacles behind and reached the summit, all your efforts will be rewarded with the most spectacular views of this untamed wilderness, shaped by glacial forces thousands of years ago. Moreover, on clear days, you can even see as far as the Isle of Man and even Ireland.

Aurora Borealis in Scotland
The Scottish highlands with their picturesque lochs and glens are without doubt one of the most scenic landscapes of the entire UK but in order to experience the extraordinary phenomenon of the northern lights, you will have to travel even further north. One of the best places in Scotland to witness this mesmerizing natural light spectacle is the coast of Caithness at the northern most edge of Scotland. The Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides or the Orkney Isles are also perfect as these remote regions are so sparsely populated that light pollution does not affect the colourful 'Merry Dancers', which are most likely to occur in very cold and clear autumn and winter nights.

We hope that we could give you some inspiration for your next nature holidays in Great Britain and always remember, with the right clothes, there is no such thing as bad weather!

Castles and palaces in Great Britain

When it comes to historic monuments and heritage attractions, Great Britain is unbeatable. There is hardly another country in Europe with such a high density of magnificent castles and palaces from all ages. Thousands of these spectacular structures have been built on the British Isles since the Norman Conquest in the 11th century AD. While the medieval castles are all very plain and heavily fortified – their main purpose was to provide shelter from enemy attacks and to defend the lands – the stately homes and palaces built during following centuries are lavishly decorated works of art, reflecting the wealth and power of their owners. It wasn't an easy choice but we have picked some impressive castles and palaces awaiting your visit when on holiday in England, Scotland or Wales.

The Buckingham Palace should be on top of your sightseeing list when visiting the UK's capital city. This magnificent 18th century palace located in the City of Westminster is the Queen's official London residence and administrative headquarters. It has more than 750 rooms, 20 of which (19 state rooms and the ballroom) as well as the gardens are open to the public every year in August and September. The Changing the Guard ceremony, however, can be observed all year round.

Prison, palace, fortress – during its more than 900 years of existence, the Tower of London has served various purposes and witnessed many a brave person losing his/her head. Luckily, for the past centuries it has been fulfilling a much more delightful task: the keeper and protector of the Crown Jewels. The royal regalia are exhibited at the Jewel House, but there is much more to see at the Tower. For instance, the White Tower, the Yeoman Warders, Henry VIII's armour, torture instruments…Oh and supposedly some illustrious ghosts, too!

Our next castle is located in the southwest of England. Tintagel Castle sits enthroned on the spectacular cliffs of the northern Cornwall coast. Unfortunately, only ruins have survived of this glorious 13th century castle that was built on the foundations of a Roman settlement, but it is nonetheless a magical place – and not just due to the breath taking views. Tintagel is shrouded in myths and legends revolving around King Arthur who, according to legend, was born here, and Merlin after whom the nearby cave was named.

In order to be able to visit the following two castles, you will have to travel to the far north of Great Britain, as they are located in the breath taking Scottish Highlands. The Eilean Donan Castle sits on an island in Loch Duich and you can reach it by crossing the footbridge. Despite being largely ruined, Castle Urquhart on the banks of famous Loch Ness is still hauntingly beautiful. Like Eilean Donan, it is one of the most photographed castles in entire Britain. Besides your camera, keep your binoculars ready when visiting Urquhart – in case Nessie decides to show up.

Glamis Castle is another fascinating Scottish castle. With its turrets and the beautiful landscaped gardens, it strongly resembles a French chateau. Join a guided tour to learn everything about this stunning castle that served Shakespeare as a setting for his famous play 'Macbeth' and that is believed to be one of the most haunted castles in Britain.

With more than 600 of these architectural marvels, Wales can be rightly called the country of castles. Conwy Castle and Caerphilly Castle, which were both built in the 13th century, are two particularly impressive Welsh castles. Conwy's eight mighty towers rise against the picturesque backdrop of the Snowdonia mountains, while Caerphilly in southern Wales is the largest Welsh castle and a well-preserved specimen of a medieval concentric castle. With its massive stone walls and a sophisticated defence system consisting of moats, drawbridges, towers and curtain walls we find it is an absolutely intimidating and magnificent sight. By the way, the castle's ruined south east tower has a sharper lean than the Tower of Pisa.

This is just a small selection of stunning castles and palaces in Great Britain and there countless more which are also worth a visit, e.g. Warwick Castle, Bodiam Castle, Windsor Castle, Blenheim Palace, Hampton Court, Edinburgh Castle, Caernarfon Castle and the list goes on.

Culinary delights of Great Britain

Great Britain is famous for cosmopolitan cities, picturesque villages, magnificent palaces, romantic castle ruins, ancient monuments, beautiful landscapes and not so great food. The local dishes are heavy, pretty tasteless and lacking in diversity. This is at least what one gets to hear over and over again when asking foreign visitors what they think about British food. Quite peculiar actually, as Britain's turbulent past did not leave its food culture entirely untouched. For instance, the Romans brought wine, the Vikings the art of smoking fish and the Crusaders citrus fruit from the Holy Land. During the Age of Exploration, exotic spices from overseas breathed new life into British cooking and along with the multitudes of immigrants from all corners of the British Empire, new recipes arrived.

Whether Italian, French, Thai, Turkish, Indian or Chinese - today you can sample any type of food you crave when on holiday in Great Britain and especially in London. However, with such an abundance of different styles, don't forget about the local specialities, which are also highly recommended. Many of these meals, for instance the full breakfast (regional variations), the iconic fish and chips and the classic Sunday roast are enjoyed all over the United Kingdom, whereas other delicacies are particular to England, Scotland or Wales and as you will see, some of these dishes come with pretty funny names.

So, what's hiding behind or rather in this mysterious dish called 'Toad in the Hole'? Well, it is not toads, thanks God. This traditional English dish consists of sausages baked in a pudding batter similar to Yorkshire pudding that is served with roast beef. It is usually served with gravy and vegetables. Despite its little enticing name, this meal is hugely popular in the British Isles and one explanation for its name is that the sausages resemble toads sticking their heads out of their holes.

Our next funny food was invented in the southwest of England. The Stargazy pie is a delicious Cornish fish specialty and its literally outstanding characteristic is pilchards whose heads stick out from the crunchy pastry crust as if they were gazing at the stars. Try it at a restaurant in Devon or Cornwall – if you don't mind the fish staring at you.

When on holiday in Scotland, you will certainly come across a specialty called 'Cullen Skink'. It is a thick soup and don't worry, the main ingredients are not lizards but smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. So, how come is it called 'Cullen Skink' then? This can be easily explained: Cullen is a fishing village on the north eastern coast of Scotland and the place where it was invented and 'skink' is the Scottish term for a beef shin or knuckle, which the soup was originally made from.

Another recipe with a slightly misleading name is the 'Welsh rarebit' or 'rabbit'. Don't be disappointed if you order this dish at restaurant in Wales, hoping for a delicious rabbit roast, and instead you get served a toast. However, the Welsh rarebit is a not just a toast with molten cheese, it is very tasty gourmet toast and one of the most famous Welsh dishes.

Even in the category of desserts, we find specimens with strange names. 'Spotted Dick' admittedly sounds little appetising, it tastes really good, though. It is a classic English steamed pudding made from suet pastry with dried fruit (raisins or currants). It is usually served with custard and has a long tradition dating back to the 19th century. Probably in order to avoid grossed looks or bursts of laughter, this pudding is sometimes also called spotted dog.

The next recipe also originated in the 19th century. As the name suggests Eton Mess was invented at Eton – Eton College to be precise. This dessert is easily prepared and comprises fresh strawberries, whipped cream and pieces of meringue, and this mix might look a bit messy to the one or other. By the way, the Scottish Cranachan is very similar with the difference that it uses raspberries instead of strawberries and roasted oats instead of meringue pieces.

Our last dessert recommendation is the Banoffee pie – taste it and find yourself what's behind the name but be warned, this sweet temptation is absolutely irresistible!

In the footsteps of the Royal Family in Great Britain

From William the Conqueror to Richard Lionheart, Henry VIII right through to Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I and Victoria…Great Britain would hardly be imaginable without its legendary kings and queens. They are as inseparable from the country as the traditional Sunday roast. Since the accession of the first English king to the throne in the Early Middle Ages, countless generations of monarchs from various dynasties have followed. The current Queen Elizabeth II comes from the House of Windsor and has been fulfilling her duties as Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth for more than 60 years, which makes her one of the longest reigning monarchs in the UK. To us, this is reason enough, to discover some exciting places in England, Scotland and Wales associated with Britain's present Royal Family and other kings and queens of the past.

The first stop of your royal sightseeing tour should of course be Buckingham Palace, which is one of London's most famous attractions. This magnificent neoclassical palace is located in the City of Westminster and has served the country's sovereigns as their official London residence and administrative headquarters since 1837. It has 775 rooms and the 19 state rooms, the ballroom as well as the beautiful gardens can be visited once a year in August and September – so don't miss this unique occasion. By the way, do you know how you can tell if the Queen is at home or not? Just look at the flag flying on the Buckingham Palace – if she is, you will see the Royal Standard and if not, the Union Jack.

Next stop is Westminster Abbey, which is just a 15 minute walk away from Buckingham Palace. During its 700 years of existence, London's famous Gothic church has witnessed countless coronation ceremonies and royal weddings, including the recent wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011. Moreover, it is also the resting place of 17 British monarchs and many other renowned statesmen, scientists, writers, musicians including Sir Isaac Newton and Geoffrey Chaucer. With its impressive stained glass windows, monumental sculptures, murals and paintings, Westminster Abbey is a comprehensive work of art and a London highlight.

Windsor Castle in Berkshire is another beautiful royal castle not to be missed. It is one of the official residences of Her Majesty the Queen and its history spans nearly one millennium. This and its incredibly vast surface area of about five hectares make it not only the oldest but also the largest inhabited castle in the world. Absolute highlights are the splendid State Apartments and the St George's Chapel. While the former houses some of the greatest works of art of the Royal Collection, the latter is considered to be a prime example of English Gothic architecture featuring the magnificent fan vaulting.

Scotland is also brimming with places linked to the British royalty. For instance, Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire has been the traditional summer holiday retreat of the Royal Family ever since it was acquired by Queen Victoria and her husband, who fell in love with the beauty of the Scottish Highlands. The Ballroom as well as the castle's beautiful gardens featuring a flower, vegetable and water garden, are open to the public. In contrast, the Palace of the Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh is the reigning monarch's official residence in Scotland. Its origins date back to the medieval era when it still was an Augustinian monastery. A famous historic royal, who also lived in this palace, was Mary, Queen of Scots. Her chambers, the State Apartments and the Queen's Gallery must be seen.

The last stage of our royal sightseeing tour through Britain takes us to Wales. Although the western part of Great Britain is often titled the land of castles, the following places with connections to the Royal Family are not castles, but stately homes. For instance, Ynyshir Hall is an elegant mansion in Mid Wales and was once owned by Queen Victoria, and Princess Margaret once lived at the Plas Dinas Country House near Caernarfon. Today, both places have been converted into luxurious hotels and if you decide to stay at one of these places during your Great Britain holidays, you can expect to be treated like royalty!

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