In the far southeast of England, you could say there are two Kents.
There’s the soft rural Kent of posh towns, National Trust houses and quaint villages, and then coastal Kent, fortified to defend the entranceway to England but also adapted for seaside fun in the 19th century.
In rural Kent, the county lives up to its nickname the “Garden of England” for its verdant countryside of hop farms and orchards, and florid villages with pastoral scenes of duck ponds, pubs, village greens and Norman churches.
Something in the Kent countryside that you won’t see anywhere else are “oast houses”, barns and houses on hop farms with conical roofs capped by a white vent to draw in air and dry the hops that would be stored on the upper floor.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Kent:
As beautiful as it is significant, Canterbury is a university crammed with history.
It is the seat of the British Isles’ first diocese, founded in the 6th century.
The Archbishop of Canterbury remains one of the most influential public figures in England.
The magnificent Norman and gothic cathedral is the showpiece of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was the scene of one of the pivotal moments in English medieval history: The murder of the Archbishop Thomas Beckett by supporters of King Henry II at the altar in 1170. There’s much to keep you enthralled in Canterbury, whether it’s Roman mosaics, the ruins of the castle and abbey, the city walls or the bulky Westgate, the biggest medieval city gate in England.
This town has always been the entranceway to the British Isles from continental Europe, and is the main ferry port for crossings from France and Belgium.
Approaching from the water, the first thing you see are those exalted white chalk cliffs.
On land you can take a memorable walk along the grassy cliff-tops, on a route that will get you to Kingsdown eight miles away.
As the closest port to France, the town needed to be fortified, and Dover Castle took its current form in the 12th century, during the reign of Henry II. There’s an overwhelming amount of history on this site from the Roman Lighthouse (one of England’s oldest buildings), to the 18th century artillery emplacements and the secret Second World War tunnels.
As with six other beaches within a brief drive, Ramsgate Sands is a Blue Flag beach traced by a promenade and cliffs.
When the weather’s good there’s all the nostalgic treats of an English seaside resort, and in winter and autumn it’s a brooding scene for invigorating walks.
Ramsgate has the distinction of being the only Royal Harbour, and this is best seen from the long piers that protect it from the open sea and give it an almost-Mediterranean accent on the hottest days in summer.
Also a must is a descent into the Ramsgate Tunnels, deep air-raid shelters dug for the Second World War and now open for tours.
With the advent of steam power and railways in the 19th century Londoners were able to get to Broadstairs in a matter of hours, and they came for the sea air and seven bays of inviting golden sand.
Charles Dickens chose Broadstairs for his holidays and wrote David Copperfield at Bleak House on the cliff above Viking Bay and with views of the North Foreland chalk headland.
On sunny days Broadstairs is still the Thanet’s best option for a day at the seaside, thanks to its historic high street with independent shops and the retro charm of old-school holiday amenities like beach huts, a bandstand and 50s-style ice cream parlours.
Like Dover, Sandwich was one of the Cinque Ports, a confederation of five medieval towns on the Kent and Sussex coast that cooperated for trade and defence.
And there are lots of hints about Sandwich’s history around the town today, like gates from the old town fortifications, two stunning almshouses and a handful of pubs that have been serving customers for hundreds of years.
Rural ways of life in days gone by are explained at the White Mill, a windmill built in the 1700s and fully restored.
And a few minutes outside the town is Richborough Castle, a ruined but compelling Roman and Saxon fortress and the mooted landing site for the Claudian Invasion in AD 43.
If you’re familiar with the early chapters of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations then you’ll feel like you’ve read about the muddy Medway River, even if the author never mentioned it by name.
Dickens grew up close by in Chatham and moved back to Gad’s Hill Place, a mansion just outside Rochester later in life, where he passed away.
But Rochester has more going for it; the castle has a 12th-century keep with walls and towers that are almost complete despite their great age.
It’s a breathtaking sight, equalled by the Norman and Gothic Rochester Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century but is the seat of a diocese that goes right back to 604, making it the second-oldest in England after Canterbury.
Around a meander in the Medway, Chatham is a town soaked with naval history.
From 1567 to the 1980s the Royal Navy Dockyard was here, and is now conserved as the Chatham Historic Dockyard.
If you’re inspired by the age of sail the dockyard will blow your mind, not just because of heritage ships that you can board, like HMS Gannet, but for facilities such as the Grade I-listed ropery, a 364-metre-long building that still produces rope commercially.
A nice complement to the dockyard is Fort Amherst, constructed in 1756 to protect the dockyard in case of a French invasion.
8. Royal Tunbridge Wells
In the High Weald, a long ridge of craggy sandstone, Royal Tunbridge Wells is a moneyed town welcoming wealthy guests and residents since the 1600s, when they first arrived for the curative waters.
That sandstone geology is clear in the strange rock formations, Wellington Rocks on Tunbridge Common, and the sheer High Rocks just outside the town.
There are gardens in distinguished estates to idle in, like the house-less Dunorlan Park, Calverly Grounds and Scotney Castle, all as stately as you’d hope.
The local landscapes are out of a picture book, all hop farms, duck ponds, village greens, pub gardens and oast houses.
Just outside the M25, Sevenoaks is Kent’s first tourist destination for people travelling from London, and in turn has many residents who work in London.
Right in the north downs the local countryside is dappled with pretty villages like Otford and Shoreham, and the abundance of woodland gives you plenty of choices for walks.
But the main landmark is Knole House, a National Trust property and one of England’s most revered stately homes.
It’s a marvellous gabled 15th and 16th century building in four square kilometres of forest and open parkland where deer herds graze.
The house is huge considering its age, with more than 300 rooms and seven courtyards.
There’s much to love about the seafront at Deal, with rows of whitewashed cottages and grander, flat-fronted houses from the 17th and 18th century.
You can cut down little lanes with old gaslights and find English seaside staples like chippies and shops selling rock candy.
There’s also military history in the town, at Deal Castle, a Tudor 16th-century artillery fort with 66 firing positions and a low profile to make it less of a target.
Walmer Castle, further south has a similar outline and was built in the same period during the rule of Henry VIII. The pebble beach goes on for miles, running in front of the neighbouring towns of Walmer and Kingsdown, and has a belt of heathland behind where wild fennel grows by the beachfront track.
Whitstable is a seaside town full of character and with an authentic feel created by its fishing industry.
The local speciality is oysters, which have been harvested in the local waters for 2,000 years.
This activity took a bit of a hit in the post-war years, but has bounced back and is honoured every July at the Whitstable Oyster Festival.
Integral to any visit should be an amble around the working fishing harbour and market, and to get a table at one of the superb fish restaurants in the town.
Pebble beaches are also on either side of the harbour, and the Old Neptune that rare thing: A pub directly on the beach.
An offbeat relic from Folkestone’s seaside glory days is the Leas Lift, a short funicular railway transporting you from the seafront to the promenade atop the Leas cliff and installed in 1885. It’s a fixture of the town, and is maintained by a local non-profit organisation.
You can see as far as France from the Leas Promenade on a clear day, and the area at the bottom is the Lower Leas Coastal Park, including the beach with its colourful painted huts.
If you have a thing for Georgian and Victorian architecture you’ll adore Folkestone’s many whitewashed townhouses.
And the Creative Quarter is a quaint cobblestone street home to more than 100 artists, with galleries, studios and independent shops and cafes.
If for nothing else you should come this village outside Maidstone for the view from the south bank of the Medway, where the 14th-century bridge spans the river and is framed by rows of tall brick and timber houses and the tower of St.
Peter and Paul’s Church.
On the high street you’ll pass medieval almshouses and the beautiful George House, which was once an inn serving horse-drawn coach travellers.
Aylesford Priory, also known as the Friars, is unique in that it is was bought back by the Carmelites in the 1940s, 400 years after the monasteries were dissolved.
The peaceful grounds are free and always open, and you can also have tea and cake at the tearooms seven days a week.
A well to-do country town, Tenterden is a pretty slice of rural England, with a medieval church, a sweet little high street, old pubs, and is even on the Kent & East Sussex steam railway.
In the vicinity you can go for a tour at a brewery or cider press and even see a winery in action.
In the village of Small Hythe, close to Tenterden is Smallhythe Place, a charming 15th or 16th-century half-timbered house.
The property is now managed by the National Trust and was home to the Victorian actor Ellen Terry for almost 30 years.
Some of her possession are shown inside, like a letter from Oscar Wilde, a monocle belonging to Sir Arthur Sullivan and stage costumes from her career.
At the centre of the county, people come to Ashford from the villages and towns around for its shopping.
The Ashford Designer Outlet is probably the most famous destination here, with big reductions on luxury fashion brands.
Ashford is also at a nexus point between England and France, as this is the last stop for the Eurostar before it crosses the channel or terminates in London at St. Pancras.
Minutes from Ashford you have the sublime Godinton House, a gabled Jacobean stately home in flower gardens and with a treasured collection of porcelain.
And for walks, the Kent Downs are just north of Ashford, and you can easily get onto long distance paths like the Stour Valley Walk and the North Downs Way.