England’s 9th largest urban centre has the cachet of being both a historic cathedral city and a modern manufacturing hub.
The 14th-century St Michael’s Cathedral was bombed out in the war and its ruins have been conserved as a symbol of peace next to a bold, modern cathedral built in the post-war period.
In the Cathedral Quarter are traces from when Coventry was a cloth-making capital in Medieval times, like the astounding St Mary’s Hall from the 14th century.
For a lot of the 20th century Coventry was a hotbed for British vehicle and cycle manufacturing, and the prestige brand Jaguar is still headquartered in the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Coventry:
1. Coventry Transport Museum
Given its manufacturing heritage, Coventry is an appropriate place for a transport museum.
Here you can run the rule over the world’s largest collection of British-made vehicles, among which are many Jaguars, Triumphs, Humbers and Standards.
Some of these have exciting tales to tell, like the Austin Metro owned by Lady Diana, a Humber Staff Car that General Montgomery rode in during the Second World War and the bus that carried Coventry City football team on their parade after they won the FA Cup in 1987. Two head-turners are the Thrust2 and the ThrustSSC, which broke the world land speed records in 1983 and 1997. The latter hit 763 mph and became the first road vehicle to break the sound barrier.
2. Coventry Cathedral
The 14th-century Gothic St Michael’s Cathedral was bombed out on 14 November 1940 during the Second World War.
This structure has been left in a state of ruin as a memorial, allowing you to walk through the nave and ponder the window tracery.
The tower is the largest surviving remnant, and is a working bell-tower that has a visitor information centre on its ground floor and can be climbed for £4. The new cathedral next door was designed by Basil Spence and consecrated in 1962, and has been voted the UK’s favourite 20th-century monument.
Make time to see the immense tapestry of Christ by Graham Sutherland, the stained glass windows by Lawrence Lee and the Expressionist Great West Screen by John Hutton.
3. St Mary’s Guildhall
A window on Coventry’s distinguished Medieval past, St Mary’s Guildhall was built in the 1340s and then enlarged to its current proportions at the end of the century.
It was the headquarters of the influential St Mary’s Guild, and then a unified set of guilds until they were suppressed by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
At that time, the mayor and corporation of Coventry moved in and remained until the 20th century.
St Mary’s Guildhall is free to enter, and is one of the most beautiful surviving guildhalls in the UK. You can hear about Shakespeare and Mary Queen of Scots’ stay at St Mary’s in Tudor times, and admire collections of art, weapons, armour and furniture.
Best of all is the Great Hall, which has Medieval stained glass, angels carved into its ceiling beams and one of the UK’s most valuable tapestries.
4. Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Locally known as The Herbert, this sensational gallery and museum has strong collections in visual arts, archaeology, natural history and social history.
Start at the British Life and Landscapes exhibition where there are works by important 20th-century English painters like Paul Nash, L. S. Lowry, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg, The outstanding piece in the art collection is Lady Godiva, by the Pre-Raphaelite John Collier, appropriately displayed in Lady Godiva’s home city.
The archaeology department takes you from Prehistory up to the Stuarts in the 17th century, drawing on Stone Age ceramics, Roman artefacts from Coventry’s Lunt Fort, Anglo-Saxon tiles, vessels and weapons.
But richest of all is the Medieval collection, harking back to when Coventry was thriving.
From this period you can inspect a 15th-century helmet, carved choir stalls from a Carmelite friary and high-quality stonemasonry from a Benedictine priory.
5. Holy Trinity Church
The only Medieval place of worship in Coventry to come through the war unscathed, the Holy Trinity Church has one of the tallest spires (73 metres) of any non-cathedral church in the country.
The church was consecrated in the 12th century and updated in the 17th century and then in the 1850s, by the renowned restorer George Gilbert Scott.
What makes the Holy Trinity exceptional is its engrossing “Doom” painting of the Last Judgment above the tower arch.
This was composed in the 1430s, but would have been covered over with limewash during the Reformation.
The work was rediscovered in 1831, but restoration work wouldn’t begin until the 1990s, and the painting was unveiled once more in 2004.
6. War Memorial Park
After the First World War the city bought 50 acres of land from the Lords of Styvchale Manor to lay out a park in memory of the Coventry’s war dead.
The gardens were completed across the 1920s and 30s, while the focal point is the 27-metre monument built from Portland stone and dedicated in 1927. At the start of the 2010s the park was given a multimillion pound makeover and has since earned coveted Green Flag status for its upkeep and facilities.
In one part is the memorial and garden, while the other has playing fields, a “Splash ‘n’ Play Park”, a golf course and tennis courts.
In spring and summer there’s a lot going on, like the Sikh and Hindu Vaisakhi Mela festival, the Caribbean Festival and the famous Godiva Festival, which we’ll talk about later.
7. Warwick Arts Centre
The well-regarded University of Warwick is under five miles southwest of Coventry, and is the second largest arts complex outside of London’s Barbican.
The Warwick Arts Centre is in the middle of the university campus and puts on more than 3,000 individual events a year.
There’s drama by leading theatre companies, art exhibitions, national opera, talks with Nobel Prize-winning writers, comedy, classical and contemporary music, dance and movie screenings across five venues.
Being part of an educational institution there are often post-performance talks by artists and actors, as well as theatre workshops by some of the country’s top companies.
8. Coventry Music Museum
Coventry and Warwickshire have produced some modern music trailblazers, and they are all celebrated at this spirited museum.
You can take a closer look at artists like the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, who was a member of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and produced the famous electronic arrangement of the Dr Who theme.
Coventry was also ground zero for Two-tone, a multicultural cross-pollination of punk and ska.
There’s a lot of exhibition space devoted to the genre and its most famous band, The Specials.
The museum also has a chronology of the history of music in the region, going back to Roman times, a reproduction of a record shop booth and an interactive recording studio.
9. Midland Air Museum
In two hangars and a grassy space at Coventry Airport, the Midland Air Museum is a showcase for British and international post-war aircraft design.
It comprises the Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre, named after the Coventry native who invented and patented the first turbojet engine in 1930. A small sample of the many aircraft on show includes a Gloster Javelin, a Lockheed Starfighter, a MiG-21, a Panavia Tornado, an Avro Vulcan and a Dassault Mystère IV. There’s also an exhibition about the career of Frank Whittle and an array of piston, gas turbine and rocket engines, five by Rolls-Royce and five by Armstrong Siddeley.
10. Lady Godiva Statue
Lady Godiva was a real historical figure, an 11th-century noblewoman who was wife to Leofric, Earl of Mercia.
According to a popular legend she rode naked (covered only by her long hair) on horseback through Coventry in protest at her husband’s excessive taxation of his tenants.
Her modesty was preserved because the whole city averted their gaze, save for one man, a “Peeping Tom”, who is supposed to have been struck blind as a poetic punishment.
This is the origin of the term “Peeping Tom”, while the statue of Godiva’s legendary ride can be seen atop a solemn plinth on Broadgate and was erected in 1949. Also on Broadgate is a clock with a figure of Godiva that appears on the hour, watched by Peeping Tom.
11. Lunt Roman Fort
In the south of Coventry is a Roman fort, partly reconstructed by the Royal Engineers in the 1970s following an archaeological survey.
The fort’s exact roots are unclear, but it is believed to date from around 60AD, and was put up in the wake of the Roman defeat of East Anglia’s Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudica.
The camp has the typical square footprint of a Roman fort, except for one portion on the east side where there’s a circular bulge that has been rebuilt.
There’s nothing else like this in the Roman Empire, and it is believed this “gyrus” might have been used to train horses.
The granary and gatehouse have also been rebuilt and the fort’s small museum has a colour representation of the frieze from the Trajan’s Column in Rome.
Since 2014 a former industrial zone east of Coventry University has been reborn as a hub for creative, young and independent businesses.
In repurposed warehouses and the alleys between them are vintage clothes shops, graphic design and animation studios, candle-makers, a micro-brewery and pub and a vegan cafe.
The Box is a stylish 500-capacity performing arts venue, while maybe the quirkiest thing at FarGo is a museum devoted entirely to the American 20th-century TV actor Phil Silvers, best known for Sergeant Bilko.
13. Kenilworth Castle
This magnificent castle was raised in Norman times, and testifies to pivotal events in English Medieval and Tudor history.
The six-month Siege of Kenilworth, the longest in English history, took place here in 1266 during the Second Barons’ War.
Later, Queen Elizabeth I was received at Kenilworth in 1575 with great fanfare by her friend and suitor, the Earl of Leicester.
The castle was updated throughout this time, but was gutted by Parliamentarians in 1649 to prevent it being reused.
The ruins are extensive and enthralling, with an 18-metre tower built for Elizabeth I that you can now climb, and the majestic the Gothic Great Hall, ordered by John of Gaunt in the 14th century.
You’ll need a day to see everything, from the interactive exhibition in the Tudor stables to the cultured Elizabethan garden.
14. Stoneleigh Abbey
Another great excuse to visit Kenilworth is Stoneleigh Abbey, a stately home on the site of a Cistercian abbey that was founded in the 12th century.
The abbey passed to the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Leigh in 1558 after the religious order was dissolved by Henry VIII. The lavish home that followed mixes Elizabethan and English Baroque architecture, due to a ceremonious west wing that was completed in 1726. There are also elements from the old abbey, most visibly the gatehouse from the 1300s.
One regular guest at Stoneleigh was Jane Austen, who was friends with the Leigh family.
You can take a special Austen-themed tour at the house, which is open five days a week.
In the grounds are restored gardens by the eminent 18th-century landscaper Henry Repton.
These, and the view over the River Avon, can be appreciated at the cafe in the abbey’s orangery.
15. Coventry Godiva Festival
Coventry has the UK’s largest free family festival, taking place in War Memorial Park over three days at the end of August and start of September.
The event started out in 1997 and has always been known for its consistently strong alternative rock bill, complemented by some more mainstream artists.
In the last few years, the Happy Mondays, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Buzzcocks, the Stranglers have all played here.
There are two fields at the festival: The Family Field with all sorts of things for children, like a funfair, petting farm and falconry demonstrations, as well as a charity village and community stage.
The Main Field has music for all tastes.
In 2018 the headliners were 90s pop stars Ronan Keating and Gabrielle, but you can head off to see what else you can find around the food stalls, acoustic stage and craft and vintage market.