There’s really no surprise that St. Albans is frequently cited as one of the best places to live in the UK. A cathedral city and market town, steeped in history, with lots of green space, outstanding schools, and an abundance of bars and restaurants. All this and just a 20-minute direct train ride from London’s St. Pancras and with excellent motorway links to the M1, M25 and A1M. It’s a commuter’s haven offering that bit of community, calm and country, a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of London.
“Snorbens” commuters aside, tourists and pilgrims flock to St. Albans year-round to soak up the captivating spirit of the town whilst revelling in its rich history from days bygone. A weekend break in St. Albans will take you back over 1700 years to the birth and resting place of Britain’s first Saint, and the town from which the hot cross bun originated!
Don’t waste any time! Drop your bags off at the hotel, and then head out by foot to The Waffle House for a spot of lunch. Located within a 16th Century watermill along the River Ver, they serve the most delectable sweet and savoury waffles, also catering to gluten or dairy-free diets. From BBQ pulled pork to banoffee, there’s quite a selection to whet your appetite. In warmer months make the most of alfresco dining on their outdoor patio area.
You’ll no doubt be ready for a good walk after a lunch of pure indulgence, and you’re perfectly placed now to begin your self-guided tour of St. Albans. Cross over the road and enter in to Verulamium Park, named after the Roman City of Verulamium over which it resides and once the third largest town in Roman’s Britain. Start by taking a clockwise stroll around the large ornamental lake, with River Ver alongside on your left. If you’re lucky enough you may get to spot a kingfisher or heron – lookout for the bird-watchers with their long camera lenses!
At the other end of the lake, follow the path to the right going slightly uphill and leaving the lake behind you. If you take a look to your right in the middle of the grass you’ll see remnants of the Roman wall, built between AD265 and 270. The wall doesn’t stand quite so intact today, but you can still trace its 2-mile circuit around the city it was built to defend.
Take a right at the crossroads in the path and follow this alongside the hedge, walking parallel to the lake, just higher up. Check out the view across to St. Albans Cathedral from here, and don’t worry, you’ll be back to visit the Cathedral over the weekend.
Walking along the path you’ll come to a play area – ideal if you’ve got kids in tow as there’s everything from a playground to outside gym and mini-golf to beach volleyball court. There’s even a fab splash park for the little ones open in the summer months.
Immediately after the playground, you’ll see a pathway to the left leading up to a white building in the middle of the fields. Head up there to the 1800-year-old Roman Hypocaust. It’s really quite remarkable to see the surviving foundations of this Roman townhouse and its incredible mosaic floor made up of 220,000 “tesserae” cut from natural stone. Amazing to think how similar mosaic patterns are still very much used today in floor and wall tiles – geometric flower designs are very on-trend at present!
Head back down to the playground area and cross over the path, past the tennis courts to the “Inn on the Park” – a cutesy café if you fancy a coffee break. It’s also got a fully licensed bar if you’re up for something stronger!
Behind the café beside the car park, you will then come to Verulamium Museum. With recreated rooms, discovery areas and video footage, the Museum allows you to explore everyday life in Roman Britain.
For your last bit of Roman history for the day, when you come out of the museum head out the main entrance of the car park and follow the road round to the left. Cross over the main road at the pedestrian crossing in to Gorhambury Estate to see the remains of the Roman Theatre of Verulamium, the only visible one of its kind in Britain built around 140AD.
You can now return to your hotel a whole lot more knowledgeable about Roman Britain!
Choices choices. The night is yet young. I’d start the evening off with a pre-dinner cocktail at The Gin Cave on Holywell Hill. With a selection of over 70 small batch gins that have been thoughtfully paired with a variety of mixers, you’re bound to find one you’ve not yet tried! https://www.thegincave.co.uk/
If you fancy a lighter bite to eat in the evening, head next door to The Bishop’s Cave, under the same management, where you can enjoy a cheese and charcuterie board along with a great selection of wines and craft beers. https://www.thebishopscave.co.uk/
If you fancy a proper sit-down meal, then take your pick from the below, all a short walk away, depending on what cuisine grabs your fancy for the evening. If you’re in the mood for Italian, look no further than L’Italiana located in French Row beside the Clock Tower. Authentic, fresh and homely Italian food doesn’t get better than this https://www.litaliana.co.uk/st-albans
If a fish affair is more appealing to the palette, head to Lussmanns, a sustainable fish and grill restaurant next to the Cathedral overlooking the Vintry Gardens. Founding members of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, they have several awards to their name and are the only UK restaurant group to be completely MSC friendly. You’ll be eating ethically here for sure!
As a third alternative, head to The Loft, set in a 600-year-old building with wooden beamed ceiling and enjoy upscale, modern British food cooked with creativity and TLC. The Loft won Hertfordshire Restaurant of the Year at the SME Business Awards and is listed in the Good Food Guide.
If you’re not ready to call it a night, head to Sucker Punch just up the street for another cocktail… Hertfordshire’s finest cocktail bar with table service. That’s if you’re lucky enough to get in, but you can book in advance.
Ready to go again? St. Albans is a market town and Saturday is market day! Start your day at the top of St. Peter’s Street and work your way down through town taking in the various market stalls along the way – over 160 of them. The market’s history goes way back as far as the 9th century and had a special Royal Charter issued in 1553.
Halfway down through the market on your right you’ll see the white imposing building of the St. Albans Town Hall, now home to the St. Albans Museum and Gallery that reopened its doors in 2018 following a £7.75m 5 year restoration project. Well worth a visit, it is now a leading centre of arts and culture, spread over 3 floors housing works of art, heritage displays and showcasing a frequently changing range of exhibits. You can also take a look around the former Assembly Room, Court Room and Cells all magnificently and sympathetically restored.
Continuing on your stroll through the market, towards the bottom you’ll reach Market Place where there’s a selection of hot and cold street food stalls where you can enjoy lunch on the go.
Saturday Afternoon in St Albans:
When the road forks at Market Place, take the right pedestrianized fork over the cobble stones of French Row. There may no longer be horses and carts passing through, but there’s still much evidence of Medieval England surrounding you, none more so than the Clock Tower built in 1405 which claims to be the only remaining Medieval belfry in England. Naturally, the clock tower has an impressive historic legacy, right from its inauguration. Picture here the wealthy merchants sticking their middle finger up at the construction of the Cathedral nearby with its own similar clock, and you’ll get a feel for why this Clock Tower was built by local merchant Thomas Wolvey proving a point on behalf of the civic authorities, trying to assert their strong-arm against the power of the Abbot of St. Albans.
If you’re lucky enough to be here on a weekend between Good Friday and September (coronavirus pandemic aside too!), then you can climb the 93 steps to the top of the Clock Tower for some fab views across this Roman town. The Clock Tower’s bell was last rung in 1901 for Queen Victoria’s funeral.
Cross the road at the Clock Tower and head right down George Street, past the 15th century timber-framed buildings indicative of tudor times. There are some cutesy boutique shops, restaurants and bars down here too. When you come to Romeland, take a left and follow the path to the impressive main entrance of St. Albans Cathedral, also known as the Abbey.
Before going into the Abbey, you may just want to glance to your right across the Romeland Hill Garden of Rest to a large archway and surrounding buildings. These make up the premises of St. Albans School – not only is it Hertfordshire’s oldest school, but it’s also one of the oldest schools in the world, frequented by no less than the late Professor Stephen Hawking who moved to St. Albans in 1950 – he built his first computer with his Maths teacher here. There really is history in the making all around us in St. Albans!
Now enter the Cathedral to explore this incredible shrine to Britain’s first Saint, and the oldest place of Christian worship in Britain. It boasts the longest nave of any Cathedral in England and the architecture dates back to Norman times, with Roman and Gothic influence thrown in to the mix. The stained glass windows mustn’t be missed dating from 1376 to 2006 and paying tribute to many historic events and people over the years from royalty to world wars. The Cathedral offers up to 3 guided tours daily, free of charge, if you’d like to hear about more about its history and hidden gems from experts. It also does a “daily highlights” shortened 25min tour if you’d just like a taster – check the times before you visit. For a special treat, you could time your visit to coincide with the daily Evensong and listen to the Cathedral choir resonating through the Abbey.
Sticking to the centre of St. Albans, when you’ve recharged your batteries and are ready for some fine dining, head to Thompson’s. It’s an independent, family-run and multi-award-winning restaurant at the top of town. It’s got a cosy cocktail area to have an aperitif on arrival and in addition to à la carte options, offers a 7-course tasting menu if you’re up for the challenge – truly scrumptious!
If you’ve managed to see all the above, you’ve probably had a busy couple of days, so I’d suggest a lie-in as that’s what Sundays are for right?! You could then have a mooch around the shops – there are 2 outdoors shopping centres in St. Albans – The Maltings and Christopher Place – as well as all the shops you’ll have passed alongside the markets the day before. Alternatively, have another meander through Verulamium Park as it’s a haven of tranquillity and there’s bound to be something you missed yesterday! http://maltingsshoppingcentre.co.uk/
Either way, you can’t bid farewell to St. Albans without a visit to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, located on the corner of Verulamium Park, that lays claim to being the oldest pub in England. Why not enjoy a Sunday roast here before heading home? https://www.yeoldefightingcocks.co.uk/
St. Michael’s Manor Hotel is a 30 room English country-style manor hotel set in an idyllic country garden setting with its own lake. Verulamium Park is on your doorstep, and it’s an easy stroll to the town centre and Cathedral.
Torrington Hall is a 19th-century mansion home and a grade II listed building beside the Cathedral. Whilst it doesn’t have much in the way of facilities, the residence has been beautifully restored to create 12 well-appointed rooms, and you can’t get much more central than this!
If you don’t mind being a mile or so outside St. Albans to have the added benefit of an indoor pool and spa, opt for Sopwell House. It’s a country house hotel with a relaxed but luxurious atmosphere, plenty of public areas and picturesque grounds. You can still walk into St. Albans from Sopwell House in about 20 minutes. https://www.sopwellhouse.co.uk
1: St. Michael’s Manor hotel, St Albans – https://stmichaelsmanor.com/
2: Tewin Bury Farm hotel, Welwyn – https://www.tewinbury.co.uk/
3: North Hill Farm (Glamping), Chorleywood – https://www.northhillfarm.co.uk/glamping
4: Number One Port Hill, Hertford – https://www.numberoneporthill.co.uk/
5: The Farmhouse at Recoats, Hitchin – https://farmhouseatredcoats.co.uk/
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