Stranded among the drained marshes and peat bogs of the Somerset Levels, Glastonbury is a town on dry ground below the mysterious Glastonbury Tor hill.
For a millennium Glastonbury was the scene of an abbey of serious power, still impressive nearly 500 years after it was suppressed and left in ruins.
The abbey has spellbinding Gothic architecture, and there’s an array of separate monuments, from a remarkable Medieval kitchen to a historic pub, all with ties to the old monastery.
Glastonbury swirls with Christian and Pagan folklore, and draws a big new age and Neo-Pagan community.
That hill, Glastonbury Tor is a National Trust site with natural springs rising from deep within its rock, and huge rings of terraces on its slopes, built for reasons that are still unknown.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Glastonbury:
1. Glastonbury Festival
A mainstay of the UK’s summer festival season, Glastonbury is a world-famous performing arts event that sprang from the counter culture of the late 1960s.
A lot has changed since the first free festival almost 50 years ago, not least in the price of tickets and how quickly they sell out.
Tickets go on sale as early as October, eight months before the event takes place at the end of June, while the lineup is normally announced around February.
On this farm a few miles east of the town, there’s comedy, dance, a theatre & circus, art installations and market stalls across a world of different areas, where you could spend the whole weekend simply wandering around.
But then you’d also miss out on the stellar, multi-genre music, covering rock, electronic, soul, reggae, jazz and almost anything you can think of.
The event is known for raising vast sums for charities like Water Aid, Oxfam and Greenpeace.
2. Glastonbury Tor
Venerated since the Iron Age, Glastonbury Tor is an isolated sandstone hill over the Somerset Levels.
With almost precipitous slopes that have strange, man-made terracing, the hill crests at 158 metres and is topped by the roofless St Michael’s Tower, the last fragment of a 14th-century church torn down in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
It was during this event in 1593 that the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Richard Whiting was hanged, drawn and quartered here for treason due to his loyalty to Rome.
The Tor is claimed to have been the site of Avalon from the Arthurian Legend, and so is thought to be the location of the Holy Grail.
In the Pagan Celtic tradition it has been mooted as a gateway to the fairy realm of Annwn.
Those terraces have aroused curiosity for hundreds of years, as it’s not known whether they were used for crops, defence or as some sort of sacred labyrinth for pilgrims.
3. Glastonbury Abbey
Although now an enigmatic ruin, you can’t overstate the power that Glastonbury Abbey wielded in Medieval times.
Until it was dissolved in violent fashion, the abbey had massive landholdings around Somerset and its impact can still be felt today.
For one it helped drain portions of the low-lying Somerset Levels, but its monks also spread the idea that Glastonbury was Avalon and that King Arthur was buried here (you can even see the purported site of his tomb). Founded in the 600s, the site grew steadily over the next 500 years and its great church was rebuilt in the Early English style after a fire in the 12th century.
The towering ruins of the transept convey just how imposing this building would have been.
Even in its state of ruin, the Lady Chapel is held as one of the UK’s great Early English monuments for its highly decorative chevrons and capitals with floral patterns.
4. Abbot’s Kitchen
The largest monastic building intact at Glastonbury Abbey, the Abbot’s Kitchen is an amazing slice of Medieval history dating back to the 1300s.
This is one of the world’s few surviving Medieval kitchens, built with an octagonal footprint and a pyramidal roof in the time of Abbot John de Breynton (1334-1342). First, it gives a sense of just how well the Abbots lived, but the technical details are also interesting.
The kitchen is configured like a giant chimney, with smoke from four big fireplaces conducted up to an opening in the roof, while clean, cool air from other openings would descend to the kitchen’s floor.
One reason the Abbot’s Kitchen has stayed intact is because not long after the Abbey was dissolved this building was used as a meeting house by Glastonbury’s Quakers.
5. Somerset Rural Life Museum
On an idyllic farm around a 14th-century barn, this museum chronicles the history of Glastonbury’s everyday people and has just reopened after a £2.4m makeover.
That barn is Grade I listed, and was a “tithe barn” belonging to the abbey and used to store wheat and rye.
In the neighbouring farmhouse are galleries going into themes like crafts, education, folk festivals and remembrance customs for the dead.
The courtyard and barn have all sorts of old-time equipment for farming, fishing, digging peat, willow coppicing and producing cider, milk and cheese.
There are also interpretation boards labelling the farm’s historic buildings, as well as a cider apple orchard, a beehive and rare poultry and sheep breeds.
6. Chalice Well
Issuing from the ground near the foot of Glastonbury Tor, Chalice Well is also known as the Red Spring for the reddish hue that comes from iron oxide deposits.
These waters have been visited for more than 2,000 years and are believed to have healing properties.
You can get there in 10 minutes or so from the centre of Glastonbury.
The well itself is covered with a wood and wrought-iron cover made in 1919. From there the water cascades down a terrace into two circular pools, all embedded in sweet landscaped gardens.
From these pools there’s a meandering stone channel through the lawn.
Take a seat on a bench and contemplate the red waters, flowers and neatly trimmed shrubs.
And if you visit outside opening hours there’s a tap outside connected to the well.
7. White Spring
Over Well House Lane from the Chalice Well is another natural spring rising from the depths of the Tor.
What’s interesting is that where the Chalice Well has a red hue for its iron content, the White Spring (as the name tells you) is white for its calcite.
The White Spring is housed within a “water temple”, which is actually a vaulted Victorian well house constructed to maintain a constant flow after a cholera outbreak.
The well house is maintained by a group of new age volunteers who attribute healing qualities to the spring.
As with the Chalice Sell, there’s a tap outside, but you may like to go into the candlelit sanctuary to check out the new age imagery.
8. Glastonbury Tribunal
Looked after by English heritage, the Glastonbury Tribunal is a 15th-century merchant’s house with a slightly later Tudor facade.
Inside, the ground floor is a tourist information centre, but if you go upstairs is the Glastonbury Lake Museum run by the local antiquarian society.
The building has lots of riveting period details, like a Tudor Rose and coat of arms of Abbot Richard Beere (1493-1524) above the entrance.
It has been suggested that the building was used as the abbey’s court.
The rear room on the ground floor has ceiling panels, plasterwork and a window from Elizabethan times.
Under the arched braced wooden trusses in the museum upstairs you can ponder artefacts from a nearby Iron Age village.
Make sure to see the bronze Glastonbury Bowl, which was cast in the Iron Age, but then reworked with a new base in the 1st century.
9. George Hotel and Pilgrims’ Inn
An enchanting Gothic building, the George Hotel and Pilgrims’ Inn is thought to be the oldest purpose-built pub in the South West of England.
The George Hotel and Pilgrims’ Inn dates from around 1439 and was established to put up pilgrims visiting Glastonbury Abbey.
On the High Street take a minute to survey the facade and its three storeys of narrow, traceried windows, capped with castellations.
Above the portal you can make out the coats of arms of both the abbey and King Edward IV (1442-1483). Go in for a drink at the bar, or a meal under creaking Medieval wooden beams in a room warmed by a Tudor fireplace.
10. St. Margaret’s Chapel and Almshouses
On Magdalene Street, this Scheduled Ancient Monument is slightly withdrawn from the road down a close, so is easy to miss.
Once belonging to a hospital, the chapel dates to the start of the 14th century and is in a complex of buildings that went up around a century later.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the hospital was turned into almshouses.
The single-room chapel was completely restored in 2012 and is open daily for visits.
Outside is an adorable garden, framed by high walls and with borders ablaze with colour in spring and summer.
You can step inside one of the dwellings in the almshouses, humbly decorated as it might have been in the 19th century.
11. The Shoe Museum, Street
The shoe brand, Clarks was founded close by in the town of Street in the 19th century.
The Clark family were Quakers, who had a presence in the town since the 17th century.
And in the Quaker tradition, when the factory became mechanised in the 1860s the Clarks ensured that the whole town benefitted from their successful business.
They built a school, library, theatre and even an outdoor pool, as we’ll see later.
Although production has moved abroad, Clarks is still headquartered in Street.
Close by is the Shoe Museum, which opened in 1950, covering the 200-year history of the brand and displaying some 1,500 shoes.
You’ll learn how shoemaking machinery has progressed, view historic posters and ads, and tour the history of footwear, beginning in Roman times.
12. Ham Wall Nature Reserve
Out on the damp, low-lying Somerset Levels to the west of Glastonbury is a wetland reserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The ponds and reedbeds at Ham Wall used to be peat workings, which became redundant in the 20th century and were turned into a nature reserve in the 1990s.
Ham Wall is thronged with wildlife, and the stars are the bitterns and egrets that have chosen the reserve as a breeding ground.
Another year-round resident is the bearded tit, while hobbys can be sighted in summer and large numbers of starlings congregate in the reedbeds in winter.
Non-avian species to look out for include otters and noisy Iberian water frogs, and there’s a magical view over the wetlands to Glastonbury Tor.
13. Clarks Village, Street
In 1993 the old Clarks factory buildings were reworked to house the first ever purpose-built factory outlet in the UK. With its paved walkways, glass canopies, landscaped gardens and flowerbeds, Clarks Village doesn’t look much like a mall.
But there are more than 90 brands to be found here, like Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Timberland and The North Face, as well as a large Clarks factory shop that has discounts of up to 60% off the retail price.
There’s fashion, beauty and cosmetics, accessories, sportswear, homewares and a great deal more, all matched by a choice of UK high street eateries like Prezzo and Pret a Manger.
14. Greenbank Pool
Another Clark initiative, this lido in Street opened in 1937 to provide somewhere for its employees to swim.
Up until then most people bathed in the River Brue, which was a problem for women as many men would swim in the nude.
More than 80 years later the pool is a source of pride for the town, with an elegant Art Deco entrance.
If you’re searching for a family activity on a summer’s day, there’s a shallow area for children, as well as a small splash park with a slide and fountains.
The Greenbank Pool is heated and opens seven days a week throughout the year, with an extra half-hour evening session for grown-ups to swim in peace.
15. West Country Carnivals
Long after the Glastonbury’s more famous festival has packed up, a far older and perhaps kitschier celebration comes to town.
In the weeks after Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) a travelling parade of brightly lit themed carts (floats) visits towns all over the West Country.
This tradition goes back to 1605 and has its origins in Bridgwater, where a local Catholic priest had a hand in the gunpowder plot.
Glastonbury (19 November) may be the prettiest place to catch this spectacle, in which these privately funded carts might be based on movies, scenes from history, children’s stories, current pop songs or places around the world.
There’s always upbeat music and an accompanying troupe of gaudily dressed dancers.