People & Places
The UK: What to Know, Where to Go & What to Pack
February 25, 2020
The United Kingdom is anomalous among countries. It’s a country, in and of itself, but it’s also a collection of constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those of us on this side of the pond who simply call the entire country Britain, Great Britain, or – worse – England, do the full breadth of the country a disservice. Though they may rally around a single flag, each constituent country cultivates and celebrates its uniqueness.
That said, you can view a trip to the UK as a “threefer” – for the cost of a single plane ticket, and a single stamp on your passport, you get access to three distinct countries. Spend time in the dense, city-packed England, before trekking to Wales to see the green countryside, castles and impressive Roman ruins. Tour the rocky hills, picturesque islands and hip cities of Scotland, before puddle-jumping to Northern Ireland to explore Belfast and the Causeway Coast.
And wherever you go, some activities don’t change. Down a pint in a traditional pub (replaced, though many have been, with corporate chain pubs), catch a footie game, eat a slap-up curry meal and discover historically significant sites pretty much wherever you turn.
The UK is often branded among diehard travelers (sometimes derogatorily) as a “safe” place to travel. They speak the same language as us, have many of the same customs and enjoy many of the same creature comforts. The whole experience isn’t, frankly, all that culture-shocking. But who really cares? Those kinds of complaints are ultimately the territory of one-upmanship in the travel community, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. The UK is an awesome place to travel.
What to Know
This section will offer a quick rundown of things you should know before you travel to the UK. Think of it like the ‘Introduction’ section of a guidebook. We’ll look at the UK from four different angles here: culture, climate, money and safety. Read more travel tips here for our rundown on different countries.
It’s tough to talk about UK culture for a couple reasons. Firstly, it’s pretty close to home, having greatly informed North American culture – after all, England colonized the continent, and the Scottish and Irish diaspora followed. Secondly, there’s no monolithic “UK culture” – as mentioned, each constituent country is unique.
Worse, many attempts to define certain cultural aspects of the UK come off sounding stereotypical (although travel writing runs this risk discussing any country).
It’s true that you can find fish and chip shops, Bobbies, red phone booths and ramshackle pubs across England. It’s true that you’ll find haggis and kilts in Scotland, (though they’re mainly limited to formal occasions). It’s true that sheep outnumber people roughly three-to-one in Wales. And, although the drink is brewed in sovereign Ireland to the south, Guinness does remain massively popular in Northern Ireland.
Beyond stereotypes, though, there are rich cultures to discover. It’s no secret that the UK has produced a wealth of great literature, art, music, architecture and, yes, even cuisine. The museums are stuffed with fine things to ogle. The music venues and comedy bars ooze with class and confidence. The architecture runs the gamut between stately and homey. And, in total, there are currently 187 restaurants in the UK with one or more Michelin stars.
Culturally, the UK has a lot going on!
Speaking of stereotypes, there’s the matter of the UK’s climate. It’s mostly true what you’ve heard. The country can be overcast and veiled with a fine drizzle of rain for a fair part of the year. Its temperate oceanic climate spreads the annual rainfall pretty evenly throughout the year, though spring tends to be the driest season. As for temperature, it’s pretty moderate: the summers are generally warm and the winters generally cool.
Ask a local, and they’ll probably tell you that the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. So variable is the temperature that you might be in for sunshine one day and snow the next. Given the swings in climate, your best friend on a trip to the UK will be merino wool apparel from Unbound Merino.
Our t-shirt 3 pack and merino wool socks for men are not only quick drying, but they can either insulate or breathe, depending on the situation. All our merino wool apparel is uniquely suited for a country where weather fluctuations are the norm.
One US dollar, at the time of writing, equals .75 pounds. Or, expressed the other way around, one pound is equal to 1.33 US dollars. If you’re looking to do a quick calculation in your head, it’s dead simple. Just tack on a third of the price tag and you’ll get an approximate understanding of the cost. So, for instance, if something costs six pounds, you know that it’s roughly 8 US dollars.
If that sounds unfavorable to the dollar, it’s because it is. The pound is strong, so things may seem pretty expensive in the UK, especially in London.
According to Numbeo, which we use as our go-to site for worldwide cost of living, the cost of an inexpensive meal in both London and Edinburgh is $20 US, on average, while the cost for two at a mid-range restaurant is about $74. The averages in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, are a little lower – $16 and $47, respectively.
Still, there are deals to be found across the UK. You can easily find discount passes to attractions and landmarks. A BritRail pass allows you to move throughout the country by train for a reasonable, upfront, single cost. And if your food and drink budget is tight, there are plenty of discount supermarkets, like Asda, Tesco and Lidl, where you can eat on the cheap.
The UK is generally safe, though you should take the normal precautions: try not to stumble around unknown neighborhoods after dark, don’t loudly announce your valuables, and de-escalate any conflict you may find yourself a part of.
Although the UK has been spared the severity of North America’s gun crime epidemic, there has been a rise recently in knife crimes. There isn’t much, really, that you can do with that information other than, as mentioned above, try to avoid rougher areas and scenes of conflict.
If driving, please always be alert and cognizant of the fact that you’re driving on the left. Foreign drivers either oblivious to the rule, or simply not paying attention, are responsible for a score of vehicle accidents each year. And if you’re on foot, be mindful when crossing the road; we North American pedestrians tend to internalize the right-side frame of mind, so take a second to reorient before stepping out onto the road.
Where to Go
It’s not uncommon to choose just one of the constituent countries, but if you have the time, consider hitting all of them. In the following list, we’ve attempted to represent the spread, highlighting must-see spots from each country, some of which are no-brainers (ahem, London) and others you may not have considered.
London is what’s known as a “megacity”, with a metro population of over 14 million people. It used to be the most populous city in the world, before being unseated back in the 1920s. Still, London carries that swagger of being the centre of the earth. Its 32 boroughs, each with their own numerous neighbourhoods and high streets, bustle and buzz with energy. And its numerous monuments – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, to name just a few – are always packed with international tourists. The city is famously fashionable, so pack our merino wool clothing to fit right in – read about why merino wool is so popular here.
Head to Edinburgh any time of year, and you’re in for a good time. But head here the last three weeks of August, and you’ll catch the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. The city becomes a massive spectacle of theatre, music, comedy and street performance. It can be tough to find accommodation last minute when the Festival blows through, so plan in advance for an August arrival. Whatever time of year you grace the Scottish capital, bring our men's merino wool boxer briefs underwear to stay comfortable.
If you were alive in the 70s – or if you just had access to a good history textbook growing up – you know that the cultural perception of Belfast is coloured by The Troubles, a decades-spanning conflict that often spilled over into violence. But it almost seems like a shame mentioning it now. Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the city put its troubles behind, and began a quick and complete rebirth. Now, Belfast is a vibrant city packed with culture and excitement, and has arguably the best party scene in the entire UK.
Poised between a beautiful bay and a slew of castles, Cardiff transformed itself from an industrial city to a metropolitan European hotspot in no time. The Welsh capital is now an attractive shopping destination, and a major tourist hub in southern Great Britain. It has a wealth of Welsh history on display, and a good time attitude that often (almost always) spills out into the streets.
Newcastle Upon Tyne
Representing the north of England on this list is Newcastle upon Tyne (often just referred to as Newcastle). It has a reputation in the country for being a party destination, with innumerable clubs and bars. It might even be the analogous inspiration for Winterfell in Game of Thrones (maybe). Beyond its wild child reputation, though, the city is deeply artistic, and, like others on this list, contains impressive castles and historical buildings.
The Isle of Skye
Step off the ferry onto the Isle of Skye, and it’s like you’re stepping into either a fantasy novel or a whisky commercial. The rugged, mossy hills, low-hanging fog and tumbledown fishing villages are madly evocative. It’s a strong contender for the most picturesque place in the UK. Add to that the fact that the island produces some of the world’s finest Scotch (usually of the smoky, peaty variety) and it’s the ideal destination for someone who enjoys a dram with a view. Obviously, no one here would blame you for packing a fisherman’s knit sweater for the Isle of Skye, but pack a base layer of our merino wool shirts for men as well to help regulate temperature!
What to Pack
As mentioned, for a country as variable and unpredictable in temperature as the UK, you want to utilize merino wool’s capacity for breathability and insulation. It’s a perfect base layer in the winter, or only-layer in the summer.
If traveling in the summer, fall or winter, you’ll definitely want to pack something water-repellent like a rain jacket or shell. It’s not even a bad idea to pack one in the (relatively dry) spring. As always, check the temperature at your destination(s), adding layers accordingly, throwing in a coat, scarf and gloves when necessary, and check out our travel suggestions for wearing your merino wool outdoor clothing if heading to the UK for winter.
The UK is a fashionable country, by and large, (especially London), and although streetwear definitely exists, consider packing a few formal pieces, especially if you plan on dining somewhere nice.
The UK is a country of boots. Chelsea boots, cap toe, wingtip, brogue – you name it. If you’re looking to pack light, find a pair of boots you can dress up and dress down, and don’t even bother packing a second pair.
If you’re planning on doing some hiking, however, that’s a different story. You can still get away with boots, but you’ll want something hardier, like desert boots. For those looking to hit the coast in summer, forego boots in favour of sandals or runners.
For a three-in-one adventure, encompassing hikes, history and world-class nightlife, as well as a fair share of precipitation, head to the UK.