England’s ecclesiastical capital, Canterbury is a city with two universities, lots of preserved Medieval architecture and the oldest operating school in the world.
For hundreds of years Canterbury has been dominated by the Bell Harry Tower of the UNESCO World Heritage cathedral, which is still the tallest landmark in the city.
It was in the cathedral that the Archbishop Thomas Becket was famously martyred in 1170. Part of the same UNESCO ensemble are the oldest parish church in England and the Abbey that signified the rebirth of Christianity in England at the end of the 6th century.
The city is still partially enclosed by a wall first constructed in Roman times, and sits on two arms of the River Stour for leisurely walks and guided boat trips.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Canterbury:
1. Canterbury Cathedral
Seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Canterbury Cathedral is England’s principal Christian monument.
In the Middle Ages it was Northern Europe’s most venerated pilgrimage site for the tomb of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop who was murdered by followers of King Henry II near a doorway to the cloister in 1170. The cathedral was founded in 597 and then rebuilt in the 11th century.
This Norman construction was badly damaged in a fire in 1174 and restored in various Gothic styles.
Give yourself as much time as you can afford, to see the Perpendicular-style nave, with marvellous fan vaulting at the crossing, the sublime 14th-century choir screen, the 14th and 15th-century cloisters, beautiful Romanesque side chapels and stained glass windows dating from the 12th century.
2. St Augustine’s Abbey
A testament to the revival of Christianity in England, St Augustine’s Abbey was founded by St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 598. For centuries it was Kent’s only religious house of real significance, and its importance was recognised by invading Danes and the Normans, who constructed a Romanesque monastery to replace the old Saxon buildings.
The abbey was abandoned in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, but a piece of Romanesque architecture can be found in a row of semi-circular arches.
You can also track down the graves of St Augustine and other early Archbishops, as well as traces of the Anglo-Saxon St Pancras Church.
The abbey’s stunning 14th-century Gothic gatehouse, Fyndon’s Gate is intact, and has a chamber where Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria spent the night in 1625 after their marriage at the cathedral.
3. Beaney House of Art & Knowledge
In a Tudor Revival house on the High Street is Canterbury’s central museum, library and art gallery.
The attraction takes the name of James George Beaney, the Canterbury-born surgeon who emigrated to Australia and had a political career before leaving £10,000 to Canterbury to set up the museum.
Inside there’s a large set of works by another Canterbury native, the Victorian landscape painter Thomas Sidney Cooper, along with a few Old Masters, including a portrait of Sir Basil Dixwell by Anthony van Dyck.
The museum exhibits are arranged like a cabinet of curiosities, with Egyptian and Greek artefacts, local Anglo-Saxon finds, ethnographic exhibits, minerals and natural history specimens.
4. St Martin’s Church
In the same UNESCO site as the cathedral and abbey is the oldest church in the English-speaking world.
St Martin’s Church dates from the end of the 6th century, but includes even earlier Roman elements like a brick tomb.
The church was established by the pagan King Æthelberht of Kent to allow his Christian wife, Bertha, a Frankish Princess, to practise her religion.
In the church’s stonework you can see hundreds of Roman bricks, although it isn’t known if these are from a surviving Roman building or were reused in Anglo-Saxon times.
The baptistery has an astonishing Norman tub font, fashioned from Caen stone and with carvings of arcades and interlocking circles.
5. Canterbury City Walls
The Romans were the first to build walls around Canterbury towards the end of the 3rd century.
Even as the layout of the city streets changed through Anglo-Saxon and Norman times, the circuit of walls remained pretty much the same.
These defences were breached a few times between the 9th and 11th century, during a deadly Viking raid in 835 and an eleven-day siege by a Danish army in 1011. More than half of the ring of walls survives, built from flint and ragstone and dating mostly to between the 14th and 16th centuries, at a time when there were fears of a French Invasion during the 100 Years’ War.
There are 24 Medieval towers still standing, and at the former Queningate, pieces of the Roman wall uncovered in excavations have been put on show.
The last of seven Medieval city gates defending Canterbury, the 18-metre Westgate is a formidable 14th-century construction beside the River Stour.
The gate is composed of Kentish ragstone, a hard blue-grey limestone, and has a drawbridge still marshalled by a portcullis and wooden doors.
In the stonework of the two drum towers flanking the portal, you can make out some of the UK’s oldest gunloops, eighteen in total, while there are machicolations below the battlements joining the towers.
The gate contains a museum for the painted plaster maquettes for the bronze sculptures adorning the Lords Chamber and Westminster Palace.
They represent the 16 barons and two bishops who signed the Magna Carta in 1215.
7. Westgate Gardens
One of the most serene spots in Canterbury is this historic garden on the banks of the Stour as it flows towards the Westgate.
This space has been open since Medieval times, putting it among the country’s oldest gardens.
The garden, with formal flowerbeds, incorporates a part of Canterbury’s Roman wall and the former London Road Gate.
There’s a beautiful Norman arch, relocated here during the Victorian period from the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey.
The Victorian Tower House is in a Tudor Revival style and is now home to the Lord Mayor’s offices.
Take a seat by the Stour to watch the punts and ducks go by, and seek out the 200-year-old oriental plane tree, hard to miss for its gigantic trunk.
8. Christ Church Gate
The main gateway to the cathedral was raised in the first two decades of the 16th century and rises above Canterbury’s Buttermarket.
There’s a lot of detail to look out for, in the gate’s fine octagonal towers, with Perpendicular Gothic tracery, and the stonework in the archivolts of the Tudor arch in the main portal.
Above this arch are the coats of arms of the Tudor dynasty, including those of Catherine of Aragon who married Prince Arthur and then Henry VIII after Arthur passed away before he could ascend to the throne.
The original image of Christ in the central niche was destroyed by iconoclasts in the 16th century, and the current bronze sculpture is by the German Klaus Ringwald and was cast in 1990.
9. Marlowe Theatre
Named after the Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe, who was born in Canterbury, the Marlowe Theatre is the city’s premier performing arts venue.
The building used to be a cinema and was given a multimillion pound redevelopment at the beginning of this decade, reopening in 2011. The theatre has a packed programme of concerts, drama, musicals, operas, ballet, contemporary dance shows, children’s shows and performances by some of the UK’s best-loved comedians.
The venue is used by prestigious companies like the National Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath, Northern Ballet and the Glyndebourne Opera, so there’s always something worth checking out.
10. Canterbury Roman Museum
This museum’s story began in 1868 when workmen excavating Canterbury’s streets happened upon a Roman domus.
The museum was established until 1961, after further discoveries were made following bomb damage in the Second World War.
There’s a set of mosaics on a corridor dating to 300AD, as well as traces of frescoes and a hypocaust, all a few metres below street level.
In display cases you pore over pottery, glassware, building fragments from a temple at Longmarket and a Dea Nutrix figurine of a goddess.
Also here is the Canterbury Treasure, a silver hoard from the turn of the 5th century, minted in Milan and made up of ingots, a toothpick, jewellery, five plain spoons, five spoons with decorative engravings and two more spoons that have swan-shaped handles.
11. Eastbridge Hospital
On the King’s Bridge, this almshouse was founded in the 12th century, shortly after the death of Thomas Becket, as a place for poor pilgrims to stay while visiting his shrine.
The hospital continues to function as an almshouse, providing accommodation for Canterbury’s older citizens.
In that time, Thomas Becket’s tomb became a pilgrimage site, right up until the practise was outlawed in the Reformation.
You can head in to see the beautiful vaulted undercroft, where there are exhibitions on Canterbury’s past.
After that you can pause for a moment in the quiet Franciscan Gardens by the Stour, before entering the Greyfriars Chapel, the last remnant of a 13th-century Franciscan friary and the oldest Franciscan monument in the UK.
12. Stour Boat Trip
Departing below a replica ducking stool (a Medieval instrument for punishing women), just off the High Street, the Canterbury Historic River Tours company provides 40-minute trips along the Stour from March to October.
The journey, on a large rowboat, lets you see some of Canterbury’s Medieval monuments in a new way.
You’ll head out past the 13th-century Greyfriars’ Chapel and pass below the 12th-century Eastbridge and King’s Bridge.
There’s lots more Medieval industrial and religious architecture in the form of weavers’ houses and the 14th-century Blackfriars’ Dominican priories.
You’ll enjoy one of the best perspectives of the cathedral before docking once more at the ducking stool.
13. Kent Museum of Freemasonry
The largest trove of Masonic material away from London can be found just opposite Canterbury’s Guildhall near the Westgate.
This free museum is in a building constructed specifically for its role and dates to the early-1930s.
The exhibition is a sort of repository for items that Freemasons around Kent had assembled over the years, made up of abundant regalia, glassware, ceramics, paintings and books from various orders.
The best bit is the set of spectacular stained glass windows that were once installed at the former 19th-century Freemasons’ Hall in London.
14. Canterbury Tales
The foremost English Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer chose this city as the subject of his most famous work, the Canterbury Tales, about a group of pilgrims travelling through Kent to the tomb of Thomas Becket.
The Canterbury Tales attraction has a sequence of animatronic tableaux bringing the sights, sounds and smells of 14th-century Kent and Canterbury back to life.
Complemented by an audio-guide, the scenes recount five of Chaucer’s tales, dealing with topics like love, courtship, intrigue, infidelity and death, all told with Chaucer’s fabled sense of mischief.
15. Howletts Wild Animal Park
Up there with the UK’s most visited animal attractions, Howletts Animal Park is in 100 acres of historic parkland on a former manor less than 15 minutes from Canterbury.
There are 44 species here, all afforded lots of room, in glass-fronted enclosures and enormous wooded paddocks.
The park stands out for having the largest family of western lowland gorillas in the country, as well as the largest breeding herd of African elephants.
These are joined by Northern Chinese leopards, lemurs, lions, wolves, black rhinos and dozens more.
You can get some background on the species listening to keepers’ talks, while there’s also a high ropes course and zip-lines for kids.