12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Canterbury
Canterbury, a busy market city with much of its medieval character intact, is famous as the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church. Regarded as the cradle of English Christianity, it was here that St. Augustine made his first converts among the pagan Anglo Saxons and where, in 597, he became the first bishop. His burial place in St. Augustine's Abbey, just outside the city walls, was a much-revered shrine until the building of neighboring Canterbury Cathedral.
Designated as one of Britain's Heritage Cities, Canterbury is also a cultural and entertainment destination boasting numerous things to see and do. Shoppers will want to check out the historic streets of the King's Mile, with its specialty shops, galleries, and cafés. Must-dos include The Canterbury Tales, with its re-creation of the sights, sounds, and smells of Chaucer's medieval England, and the Canterbury Roman Museum, a fascinating look into the city's Roman roots. Sports fans should check the schedule of the Kent County Cricket Club's Spitfire Ground, St. Lawrence, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the country.
See also: Where to Stay in Canterbury
1 Canterbury Cathedral
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, striking Canterbury Cathedral reflects components of various architectural styles from different centuries. A must-visit when in Canterbury, it's famous for having been the place where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Becket had crossed paths with Henry II, whose knights misinterpreted a comment he made wishing the Archbishop "gone" as an order to kill him. Nearly 900 years later, it's still chilling to stand in the exact spot in the Northwest Transept where this heinous crime was committed.
Another interesting spot to check out is the choir. Boasting a choir screen dating from 1411, the magnificent stone work is decorated with angels carrying shields and the crowned figures of six monarchs: Henry V, Richard II, Ethelbert of Kent, Edward the Confessor, Henry IV, and Henry VI.
For a truly unique experience, plan a stay at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. Owned by the cathedral, it combines superb views overlooking beautiful gardens with wonderful views of the cathedral, as well as exclusive access to the Cathedral Precincts. Another must-do is a guided tour (opt for the longer 60-minute version covering the Great Cloister and Chapter House, well worth the investment of time). The cathedral is also famous as part of the Pilgrim's Way, a route for pilgrimages from Winchester and Rochester.
Address: 11 The Precincts, Canterbury
2 Cathedral Precincts
The area immediately surrounding Canterbury Cathedral - Cathedral Precincts - is also worth exploring. The most interesting of the buildings lie to the north of the cathedral and are grouped around Green Court. One highlight is the roofed Norman staircase leading up to King's School Hall. One of the oldest schools in the world (founded around AD 600), King's School spawned many a famous Englishman, including dramatist Christopher Marlowe and William Somerset Maugham. Also of interest is the Norman Water Tower, once part of an ingenious water supply and sewage disposal system that ensured epidemics were virtually unknown in the Close.
3 St Augustine's Abbey
St. Augustine's Abbey (1846), an English Heritage property just outside the city walls, is home to the remains of the abbey founded by St. Augustine in 604. St. Augustine's Gate and the Cemetery Gate date from the 13th century, and are where the foundations of the old abbey church and the graves of St. Augustine, King Ethelbert, and his wife Queen Bertha have been found. There are also excavated remains of the early Saxon Church of St. Pancras, including rare Roman artifacts.
Location: Longport, Canterbury
4 The Old City
The pedestrianized area of Old City Canterbury is home to numerous historic timber-framed buildings. An unbroken row of particularly fine houses with typical overhanging upper floors can be seen in narrow Mercery Lane, many of them pre-dating Queen Elizabeth I. One remarkable survivor is the Tudor Queen Elizabeth's Guest Chamber, notable for its attractive plasterwork. In the corner of Mercery Lane is The Chequer of the Hope, successor to the pilgrim hostel mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Another High Street landmark worth visiting is the 12th century Eastbridge Hospital.
Location: Stour Street, Canterbury
5 Canterbury Heritage Museum
Tourists eager to learn more about the history of Canterbury and the surrounding area should visit the Canterbury Heritage Museum. In an imposing medieval building on Stour Street, the museum includes the ancient Poor Priests' Hospital, with its magnificent beamed ceilings. Displays feature Anglo-Saxon treasures, rare Tudor painted plaster, and the historic Invicta steam engine built by Robert Stephenson. The museum also houses the wonderful Bagpuss and Rupert Bear exhibit, a tribute to two of the UK's most iconic children's TV characters.
Another museum worth visiting is the interesting Kent Museum of Freemasonry in St. Peters Place, with its exhibits portraying the history of the movement from its earliest days. Those interested in cultural pursuits should pop into the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge. Part museum, library, and art gallery, the facility boasts an excellent collection of paintings, engravings, and prints, along with European ceramics, Asian porcelain, and Anglo-Saxon jewelry.
6 The Canterbury Tales
A visit to The Canterbury Tales attraction on St. Margaret's Street is a must. As the name implies, the museum is dedicated to the life and times of English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Credited by scholars as the "Father of English Literature" (he predates Shakespeare by some 200 years), Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are brought to life in an interactive mock 14th-century pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. If possible, time your visit to catch the Chaucer Festival, a celebration each August that pays tribute to the author's work.
Location: St Margaret's Street, Canterbury
7 Canterbury Norman Castle
While only a small section of this once great fortification remains, Canterbury Norman Castle is one of the oldest of Britain's castles. Begun by William the Conqueror around 1070, it became a prison for a period before being abandoned. You can explore portions of the remains, including one of the towers and the ground floor of the keep. The castle is a sightseeing highlight of the City Wall Trail, as are the Dane John Gardens, with their bandstand, fountain, tearoom, and children's maze.
Location: Castle Street, Canterbury
8 St Martin's Church
Just because you've seen the cathedral, doesn't mean you're through visiting Canterbury's many historic religious sites. Outside the city center beyond St. Augustine's Abbey is St. Martin's Church, considered the "mother church of England" because it is the oldest surviving church in the country. Likely built for Queen Bertha, it contains numerous even older Roman bricks incorporated into the Anglo Saxon choir.
Location: St. Martin's Hill, North Holmes Road, Canterbury
9 Canterbury Festival
The annual two-week Canterbury Festival, held each fall, is one of the most important cultural events in South East England. Attracting audiences of up to 70,000 people, the festival crams in an impressive 200 things to do, including classical music, contemporary dance, comedy, world music, theater, lectures, and visual arts. The venues are as impressive as the events, which include Canterbury Cathedral and the Marlowe Theater. Another festival worth visiting is Stour Music, a 10-day event held each June that incorporates opera, choral and chamber concerts, as well as recitals.
Location: The Friars, Canterbury
10 Canterbury Roman Museum
Built around the remains of an original Roman town house, Canterbury Roman Museum is a must for anyone wanting to learn about Britain's Roman past. In addition to an exquisite 2,000-year-old mosaic, the museum includes significant Roman finds as well as a fun interactive timeline that tracks the journey back in time from present-day Canterbury to the original Roman settlement. Along the way, you'll learn how the town was built, visit an authentic Roman marketplace, and handle replica dishes in the recreated Roman dining room.
Location: Butchery Lane, Canterbury
11 Westgate Towers Museum & Viewpoint
Situated, as its name suggests, at the westernmost point of the old city's boundary, Westgate Towers Museum & Viewpoint is housed in the country's largest surviving medieval gatehouse. Built in 1380, the Westgate was one of seven such structures built to defend the access points into the city. Today, this impressive building houses a fascinating museum showcasing the history of the city along with its own storied past. A highlight for most is the opportunity to visit an original "felon's" cell dating from the early 19th century (the building once served as a jail and police station). And, of course, there's the view. Standing more than 60 feet high, the roof of the Westgate offers spectacular panoramic views across the historic city and its old medieval center, as well as the surrounding parks and gardens adjacent to the River Stour.
Address: 1 Pound Lane, Canterbury
12 Chilham and Chilham Castle
The delightful village of Chilham, just seven miles southwest of Canterbury, has one of the most picturesque village greens in England. Known as The Square, it's surrounded by numerous ancient timber-framed houses and is the site of the village's annual May Day celebrations, where you can experience traditional activities such as Morris Dancing. St. Mary's, the parish church, contains some magnificent tombs.
The grounds of 17th-century Chilham Castle - landscaped by Capability Brown - are well worth visiting. Highlights include a visit to the extensive terraces, the Elephant House, the bowling green, and its beautiful gardens. If time permits, be sure to opt for one of the superb guided tours of the house (a garden option is also offered). Along the way, you'll get a chance to brush up on the castle's fascinating history, as well as take a peek into the sumptuously decorated main hall and staircase, study, library, and dining room.
Location: Chilham Castle, Canterbury
Where to Stay in Canterbury for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient hotels in Canterbury close to the top sights like Canterbury Cathedral:
- ABode Canterbury: 4-star luxury, central location, professional staff, traditional room decor, modern bathrooms.
- Canterbury Cathedral Lodge: mid-range pricing, overlooking the cathedral, free English breakfast, lovely garden, library and lounge.
- Best Western Abbots Barton Hotel: affordable rates, sprawling grounds, old-world style, Jacuzzi baths.
- Premier Inn Canterbury City Centre Hotel: budget hotel, modern decor, comfortable rooms, multilingual staff.