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13 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Canterbury

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Oct 7, 2019

Canterbury, a busy market city, located in the county of Kent, 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 and historically significant attractions. Shoppers will want to check out the historic streets of the King's Mile, with its specialty shops, galleries, and cafés.

Must-dos include visiting The Canterbury Tales, with its re-creation of the sights, sounds, and smells of Chaucer's medieval England; stopping in at the Canterbury Roman Museum, a fascinating look into the city's Roman roots; and taking a historic river tour on the Stour.

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. To ensure your Kent travel itinerary is chock-full of fun things to do, be sure to read right through our list of the top attractions in Canterbury.

See also: Where to Stay in Canterbury

1. Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, striking Canterbury Cathedral-the "Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion," and one of the country's most important (and oldest) Christian structures-reflects components of various architectural styles from different centuries.

A must-visit when in Canterbury, this popular attraction is infamous for having been the place where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Becket had crossed paths with King Henry II, whose knights reputedly 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. Be sure to also venture down to the crypt, notable for its fine decorative flourishes, and for souvenirs, visit the cathedral shop just around the corner on Burgate Street.

For a truly unique experience, plan a stay at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. Owned by the cathedral, this splendid luxury hotel 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

Official site: www.canterbury-cathedral.org

2. Cathedral Precincts

Cathedral Precincts | Neville10 / photo modified

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.

Other points of interest include a healing garden, used to grow the herbs once used by monks for medicinal purposes; the Chapter House, once used as a meeting space; and the attractive Christ Church Gate, built in 1517 and now the main entrance to the Precincts and the cathedral.

3. St Augustine's Abbey

St Augustine's Abbey

St. Augustine's Abbey, an English Heritage property located just outside the city walls, is home to the remains of the abbey founded by St. Augustine in 597. 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.

An interesting museum has been constructed on the site, featuring a great deal of informative displays, exhibits of artifacts, and virtual-reality recreations related to its long rich history (audio guides are available with admission). A fun addition for kids is the chance to don a monk's habit.

A gift shop is located on the premises, as is a picnic area and pleasant gardens with views toward the cathedral.

Location: Longport, Canterbury

Official site: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/st-augustines-abbey/

4. The Old City

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. Be sure to also pop into the 12th-century Eastbridge Hospital.

Location: Stour Street, Canterbury

5. The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales | Ben Sutherland / photo modified

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. A gift shop is also located on-site.

The Canterbury Tales also offer a variety of fun things to do for families, including operating the "Medieval Story Garden," and you can enjoy a guided tour followed by a good old-fashioned "Knights Tournament," and a Friday evening campfire (summer only).

Location: St. Margaret's Street, Canterbury

Official site: http://canterburytales.org.uk/

6. Beaney House of Art and Knowledge

Beaney House of Art and Knowledge

Those interested in cultural pursuits should also pop into the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge. Most often referred to simply as "The Beaney," this fascinating facility-part museum, library, and art gallery-boasts an excellent collection of paintings, engravings, and prints, along with European ceramics, Asian porcelain, and Anglo-Saxon jewelry.

Completely refurbished and reopened in 2012 in what's become the city's cultural hub - the Marlowe Theatre is also located in the vicinity - the building itself is something of a tourist attraction, designed in an attractive Tudor-revival style and constructed in the late 19th century.

Notable exhibits include artworks by European Old Masters, including the likes of Van Dyck, along with important sculptures and English ceramics. In addition to its fun children's workshops and educational programs (which include the chance to dress up in period costumes), the museum houses an exhibit kids will love: a history of the beloved cat character, Bagpuss. Guided tours are available, and there's a good café serving light snacks and lunches.

Address: 18 High Street, Canterbury

Official site: https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/beaney/

7. Canterbury Castle

Canterbury Castle

While only a small section of this once great fortification remains, the Norman-era Canterbury Castle is one of the oldest of Britain's castles. Begun by William the Conqueror around 1070 as one of three "Royal Castles," it became a prison for a period before being abandoned. Although closed for repairs until 2021, you can enjoy good views over the ruins from a variety of vantage points; once it reopens, you'll be able to 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 its bandstand, fountain, tearoom, children's maze, concerts, and an ancient burial site known as Dane John Mound that dates back to the 1st century.

Address: Castle Street, Canterbury

8. St Martin's Church

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 and just a short stroll beyond St. Augustine's Abbey is St. Martin's Church. Considered the "mother church of England," it's not only the oldest surviving church in the UK, it's the oldest church in the English-speaking world. Built as a private chapel for Queen Bertha in the 6th century, it contains numerous even older Roman bricks incorporated into the Anglo Saxon choir, including remnants of a Roman tomb.

The graveyard is also of interest, and is where Mary Tourtel, creator of the iconic British fictional character, Rupert the Bear, is buried.

Location: 1 N. Holmes Road, Canterbury,

Official site: www.martinpaul.org

9. Canterbury Festival

Canterbury Festival | Les Haines / photo modified

The annual two-week Canterbury Festival, held each October and billed as "Kent's International Arts festival," is one of the most important cultural happenings in South East England. Attracting audiences of up to 70,000 people, the festival crams in an impressive 200 fun things to do, including classical music, contemporary dance, comedy, world music, theater, lectures, and visual arts.

The venues are equally as impressive and certainly add to the experience, and include Canterbury Cathedral and the Marlowe Theater, as well as a huge marquee designed specifically for such events.

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.

Address: 8 Orange Street, Canterbury

Official site: www.canterburyfestival.co.uk

10. Canterbury Roman Museum

Canterbury Roman Museum | Michael kooiman / photo modified

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 pavement-discovered after bombing of the city in WW2-the museum includes significant Roman finds, including a horde of silver, 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 reproduction Roman marketplace, and handle replica dishes in the recreated Roman dining room. Guided tours are available for groups, and need to be booked in advance; workshops and educational programs for kids are also available.

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.

Location: Longmarket, Butchery Lane, Canterbury

Official site: http://canterburymuseums.co.uk/romanmuseum/

11. Westgate Towers Museum & Viewpoint

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 over the old London road, the Westgate was one of seven such structures constructed to defend the key 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, which included everything from a place to hang the bodies of convicts to collecting tolls from pilgrims.

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, police station, and military communications facility in WW2). And, of course, there's the view. Standing more than 60 feet high, the battlements of the Westgate offer 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.

Other fun things to do include participating in the Westgate's "escape room" attraction, or grabbing a bite of lunch or dinner in the restaurant set up in the former jail. If time permits, be sure to wander the neighboring Westgate Gardens, one of the country's oldest public parks and home to a 200-year-old oriental plane tree, and the attractive Tower House, home of the city's mayoral offices.

Address: 1 Pound Lane, Canterbury

Official site: www.onepoundlane.co.uk/westgate-towers#the-guard-chamber-1-1

12. Eastbridge Hospital

Eastbridge Hospital | Matt Brown / photo modified

Located in the center of the Old City section of Canterbury, the Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr, Eastbridge-now most often simply referred to as Eastbridge Hosptial-offers a fascinating glimpse into the concept of medieval hospitality. Established in the late 1100s as a place of a hospitality (the original meaning of the word "hospital"), the facility was said to have been built to house pilgrims visiting the city to pay homage to Thomas Becket.

Although still in use as an almshouse for the elderly, much of this remarkably well-preserved facility can be toured. Highlights include visiting its two chapels and the various exhibits housed in the Undercroft, some of which detail its use as a schoolhouse for a period (Christopher Marlowe studied here as a young student).

Be sure to also spend time exploring the old Franciscan Gardens, part of the grounds of the order's original British settlement (open spring to fall), along with Greyfriars Chapel, built in the 13th century as a guesthouse for visitors.

Address: 25 High Street, Canterbury

Official site: www.eastbridgehospital.org.uk

13. Chilham and Chilham Castle

Chilham and Chilham Castle | Andrew Bowden / photo modified

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 Park, Chilham, Canterbury

Official site: www.chilham-castle.co.uk

Where to Stay in Canterbury for Sightseeing

We recommend these convenient hotels in Canterbury close to the top sights, like Canterbury Cathedral:

  • Luxury Hotels: You can't get any closer to the cathedral than Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, a four-star luxury hotel located in the Precincts featuring direct access to the grounds after-hours, quality accommodations, a full-English breakfast, a library and lounge, and a restful sleep. ABode Canterbury is another good four-star luxury choice, popular for its central location, professional staff, traditional room décor, and modern bathrooms. A high-end stay can also be enjoyed at L'hote, a lovely hotel with great staff, a restaurant, and concierge services.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Best Western Abbots Barton Hotel offers affordable rates and is set amid sprawling grounds. It offers a fun old-world style and Jacuzzi baths. An easy walk to the downtown area, the Canterbury Hotel offers clean, comfortable rooms and suites, a pool, and complimentary breakfast. Another good option is the Cathedral Gate Hotel, noteworthy for its central location, free Wi-Fi, and great breakfast.
  • Budget Hotels: The budget-friendly Premier Inn Canterbury City Centre Hotel features modern décor in its comfortable rooms and a friendly multilingual staff. The charming B&B-style The Millers Arms comes with comfortable rooms and a tasty breakfast buffet. Backpackers would do well to check into Kipps, a hostel-style facility with a pleasant garden.

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