A stunning hour-and-a-half train ride through the English countryside takes you to Salisbury, home of the famous Stonehenge. It’s an easy day trip, but I found that Salisbury has a lot to offer, and in fact, Stonehenge is the least impressive part of the town.

The Stonehenge ruins in Salisbury, England

Salisbury has been an important site throughout human history. Over 5,000 years ago, Neolithic man was dragging huge stones, weighing up to 55 tons from Wales to Salisbury to build Stonehenge. The area was a huge settlement and is surrounded by ancient burial mounds and historical artifacts.

While Stonehenge is impressive and still one of the most important historical sites in human history, Salisbury itself is even more impressive. Beautifully preserved, this picturesque English country town offers a lot to do and will leave a far more lasting impression on me than Stonehenge.

Originally, “Old Sarum” (as the old town was called) was constructed and used by the Romans and early Saxons as a fortification. With the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the fort and cathedral were moved to the present-day location. The new city never had any defensive walls, as it’s surrounded by rivers on three sides and located on a hill.

Houses in a row in Salisbury

The city has been immaculately preserved. During the German Blitz, Salisbury wasn’t bombed, as the Germans used the church as a marker and were under strict orders not to damage it. Around the city, one can see Elizabethan, Jacobin, and Victorian-style homes all squished together down tiny streets. The town market square is very well preserved, and outdoor cafes line the area. (Of course, there’s also a church there too.)

Modernity has crept in, but not at the cost of this scenery. There’s a McDonalds and a Burger King, but you wouldn’t notice them unless you fell upon them. They don’t stick out like eyesores and blend quite nicely with the surroundings. Thank God for strict zoning laws, huh?

The highlight of this whole trip was Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral was built in 1238 and still stands, albeit with some adjustments, 750 years later. This huge Gothic cathedral is surrounded by grass and cloistered in a little community with a few smaller churches, homes, and other buildings. Of all the churches I’ve seen in Europe, this ranks as number one.

Salisbury Cathedral is very famous in England

Inside (no photos allowed), this church is laid out in the traditional cross format with an entrance at one end and the prayer area at the other. Huge ceilings and large stained-glass windows adorn the sides, and the choir and seating area line the middle. What made this church really special were the tombs inside. The walls are lined with the tombs of dead bishops, kings, and queens. They are beautifully ordained in figures and symbols from the person’s life. In the Trinity, there is a tomb that dates back to 1099. Walking past the tombs of so many historical figures, including some that signed the Magna Carta, was breathtaking, especially to a history geek such as myself. The church also houses one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta left in existence. Seeing it and the church are both free.

Street view of a street in Salisbury, England

Salisbury can make a great day trip from London, but to truly appreciate the area, it’s better to spend a night or two. Walk around this historical town, visit Stonehenge, its little cousin Avebury, the cathedral, and journey into the country. There’s a lot to do in Salisbury, and it’s a great respite from the chaos of London.

For more information, visit my page on backpacking Europe or my guide to England.

  1. NomadicMatt

    Sorry this did not go into more depth but I didn’t have as much time to write about the history of Stonehenge as I would have liked.

  2. From memory, the Salisbury version is meant to be the best (condition wise) of the four. I think I also saw one in the British Museum (which has a collection of nearly everything!). There is a newer Magna Carta in Parliament House in Australia (not one of the original four, but a copy made some years later, but still in the 1200s) which Australia bought many years ago (no idea who was selling them). It felt special to see this remarkable historic document – most things like this from the 1200s have obviously not survivied the passage of time.

  3. Great webapge Matt! Hope you dont mind – put a link to your blog from my blog. Just started the travel blogging adventure – so any tips are great! ( I sent you an email about how to create webpages, etc)

  4. Great! Your photos are fantastic. I want to go!

    I’ll be in Europe in January, not the best time of year. I’ll add Salisbury to my list of places to visit. It will be a busy three weeks.

  5. Wow…what a beautiful church…and good on ya for respecting the no photos rule. I’ve been to so many churches where people have a blatant disregard and disrespect…gets under my skin.

    A visit to Stonehenge was (still is) on my list of things to do before I die – so last time I was in London, I set aside a day to go…rented a car and ventured out onto the linear parking lot that they call the M-4 (I think)…found I had no tolerance for English traffic and bagged the whole idea. Next time I’m taking the train like you did!

  6. I enjoyed both Salisbury and Avesbury when we were in England. While visiting Salisbury we stayed a bit too long in the evening within the grounds to find that they lock some of the gates of the Close. I’m not sure if they still do that now or not. It turned our walk into a bit of an adventure, trying to find an open gate and wondering if we’d be spending the night on the cathedral grounds.

  7. doug

    Actually, photos are allowed in Salisbury Cathedral:

    It is a magnificent structure with beautiful two-tone stonework, ceiling mosaics and stained glass windows that will force you to say, “wow” over and over and over.

    But for another cathedral and beautiful old city that are more off the beaten track and thus less crowded, check out Wells. It is about 60 miles west of Salisbury and, in my opinion, an even more beautiful cathedral. And it is only about 6 miles north of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.

  8. I must say I was half expecting your post to talk about how great Stonehenge is, but in fact felt a breath of fresh air when you mentioned it was the least impressive and Sailsbury has much more to offer. I completely agree with you as I took time to visit stonehenge to tick it off my checklist but honestly I wasn’t really impressed. I think it is the mystery that shrouds Stonehenge that makes it interesting rather than the actual site itself.

  9. Praveen

    I visited Salisbury and Winchester cathedrals on the same day and found both to be beautiful with fascinating architecture. Its more picturesque in the evening! I agree that the old world charm remains in English towns even though they try to catch up with modern times.

  10. Just wanted to say that you CAN get right up to the stones at Stonehenge provided you arrange a private guided tour with masses of advance notice. For groups of 10 (I recall) or more you can get a private tour before or after the main part of the day when the site is open to the general public. So, if you are in a group and planning well in advance you have the option to wander amongst the stones rather than circling the edges.

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