On the southwestern periphery of Greater London, Guildford is a prosperous town that has held onto its historic character.
This shines through on the High Street, laid with cobblestones and fronted by 17th and 18th-century facades that conceal far older buildings.
The Guildhall for instance dates from the 1300s despite its Baroque 17th-century lines.
Guildford has hilly topography on the North Downs, and Newlands Corner and Pewley Hill have dreamy views of Surrey’s rolling landscapes.
There are National Trust properties and noble estates all around Guildford, like the Elizabethan Loseley Park and the Georgian Hatchlands Park.
For a gentle walk can follow the towpath of the 17th-century Wey and Godalming Navigations, or hop on a boat for a tour in summer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Guildford:
1. Guildford Castle
Originally a Norman motte-and-bailey fortress, Guildford Castle reinforced several times over the next 300 years, but was primarily a royal residence, most notably for Henry III in the 13th century, and his son Edward I. The castle had been on the wane since the 17th century when the roof was removed, but was restored in the early 2000s.
You can head in to see a model depicting the building in its heyday as a royal palace at the turn of the 14th century, and go to the top of the Great Tower for a complete panorama of Guildford and the Surrey countryside.
The gardens around the keep have very colourful flowerbeds and a statue of Alice Through the Looking Glass, a memorial to the author Lewis Carroll.
He lived in Guildford close by at his sister’s house, the Chestnuts, from 1868 to 1898.
2. Spike Heritage Centre
This complex on the east side of Guildford is a rare opportunity to see the interior of an Edwardian Workhouse.
These institutions provided “employment” and housing for the destitute, in exchange for rather grim working conditions.
The Guildford Union Workhouse as it was known, was started in 1838, while the Spike Casuals’ Ward dates to 1905 and was constructed to keep undesirable inmates from the rest of the complex.
The Spike was saved from demolition in the early 2000s, and recreates the sights, sounds and smells of a workhouse.
You can step into a working cell to see how a vagrant spent his days, while exhibitions invite you to reflect on the treatment of the homeless, then and now.
3. Loseley Park
Outside the village of Compton to the southwest of Guildford is a fine Elizabethan manor house completed in the 1560s and altered very little since then.
This was constructed with material from the dissolved Waverley Abbey, after the Queen had deemed the residence too small for her to visit.
She stayed at Loseley Park on several occasions, and the carvings above the fireplace in the library, dating to 1570 commemorate one of her stays.
The great hall has ornate wooden panelling from Henry VIII’s banqueting tents and the now defunct Nonsuch Palace, and carvings by the great Anglo-Dutch woodcarver Grinling Gibbons.
Loseley Park has one of the few surviving paintings of Anne Boleyn, and two bedrooms used by royalty, the King’s Room (James I) and Queen’s Room (Elizabeth I). The walled garden was conceived by the acclaimed horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll, and is skirted by a wall believed to be as old as the house itself.
4. Watts Gallery
This Arts and Crafts gallery was purpose built for the Symbolist artist and sculptor George Frederic Watts, and opened just before he passed away in 1904. It is one of only a handful of galleries in the UK devoted to a single artist, and contains more than 100 of his paintings, spanning 70 years.
The Sculpture Gallery has the bronze Bust of Clytie, which caused a sensation in Victorian England.
Dozens of plaster copies were made, including one given to writer George Eliot.
In the wider Artists’ Village, you can enter Limnerslease, the Arts and Crafts house designed for Watts and his wife Mary Fraser-Tytler (a prominent artist in her own right) by Sir Ernest George.
The east wing houses Watts Studios, where there’s a gallery devoted to Mary Fraser-Tytler’s work.
5. Watts Cemetery Chapel
Managed by the Watts Gallery, the nearby Watts Cemetery Chapel was designed by Mary Fraser-Tytler and constructed by a group of amateurs (members of Fraser-Tytler’s evening class, and 74 villagers from Compton) from 1896 to 1898. The Grade I-listed building is essentially Romanesque Revival, while the interior is an Art Nouveau take on the Celtic Revival, borrowing from Romanesque and Egyptian design.
The villagers, overseen by Mary Fraser-Tytler, decorated the chapel’s interior, while George Frederic Watts painted the All-Pervading for the altar.
In the cemetery you can find memorials to George Frederic Watts and Mary Fraser-Tytler, as well as the graves of the Huxley family, including the famous author Aldous Huxley.
6. Newlands Corner
A breeze from Guildford, Newlands Corner is a beauty spot on a ridge in the North Downs.
This vantage point is at 173 metres, looking over the chalk grassland and wooded slopes of the Surrey Hills, and with cycle and walking paths streaking off in various directions.
The view is touted as one of the best in Surrey, and you can wander down the slope to the idyllic villages of Shrere or Albury for lunch by the Tillingbourne River.
Newlands Corner made international headlines in 1926 when the crime writer Agatha Christie staged a disappearance here; abandoning her car and making her way in secret to Harrogate in Yorkshire, where she was found 10 days later.
7. Guildford High Street
On a stiff hill, Guildford’s broad High Street flanked by historic building frontages, occupied by upmarket UK retailers like Mappin & Webb and House of Fraser.
You can’t miss the Guildhall, built in the 14th century and owing its current appearance to changes made in the 1680s.
On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in summer you can go inside the Undercroft, a 13th-century basement opposite the Angel Hotel.
The rich masonry in this space suggests it was owned by a wealthy merchant.
Up the slope, on the east end, stands the Jacobean Abbot’s Hospital, founded in 1619 and held as one the England’s most beautiful surviving almshouses, and still affording shelter to elderly residents.
In 1995 a subterranean chamber was discovered on the High Street, and this is believed to be vestiges of the Guildford Synagogue, going back to the 1100s.
If true, it would be Western Europe’s oldest surviving synagogue.
8. Guildford Cathedral
In a prominent spot on Stag Hill, Guildford Cathedral soars over the University of Surrey campus.
This striking Art Deco and Neo-Gothic monument is the work of Edward Maufe, active for most of the 20th century.
Construction began in 1936 but was interrupted by the Second World War and the cathedral wouldn’t be completed until 1961. There are two sets of carved glass angels by the glass engraving artist John Hutton, one above the western entrance and the other standing over interior doors to the south porch.
The interior is light and free of clutter, with flooring made from Italian marble, walls clad with pale limestone from Somerset and majestic vaulting over its aisles.
The wooden cross outside predates the cathedral and was erected in 1933 to mark the future site of its construction.
This is made from Burma teak from the ship of the line, HMS Ganges, launched in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1821.
9. Dapdune Wharf
In the middle of the 17th century the River Wey was made navigable, linking it to the Thames at Weybridge, some 15 miles to the north.
A century later this waterway was lengthened down to Godalming, another five miles southwest of Guildford.
The 20-mile Wey and Godalming Navigations remain open to pleasure boaters, and if you’re on foot, the towpath weaves through the green Surrey countryside.
Dapdune Wharf in Guildford harks back to shipping on the waterway, and is managed by the National Trust.
The visitor centre has interactive exhibits about the navigations, as well as a stable, smithy, preserved Wey barges and a cafe.
Every half-hour a boat sets off from Dapdune Wharf for a 40-minute trip, with a volunteer recounting the history of the waterways and area.
10. Hatchlands Park
Under five miles east of Guildford is Hatchlands Park, an estate with a red brick country house raised in the 1750s for Admiral Edward Boscawen.
He commissioned the illustrious architect Robert Adam, then at the start of his career, to design the interiors.
This was Adam’s first country house commission, and from April to October you’re able to tour six restored rooms to admire his work, as well as collections of paintings and musical instruments.
There are 40 keyboard instruments, comprising one of the largest collections of its kind in the world, along with a portrait of Shakespeare from 1610 and Venus and Adonis by Titian.
Outside is a refined parterre and 422 acres of parkland, where you can find a Georgian icehouse, a pair of resident donkeys, sprawling woodland and fields grazed by cattle.
11. Shalford Mill
On the River Tillingbourne under two miles from the centre of Guildford there’s a mid-18th century watermill in a supreme state of preservation.
The Shalford Mill operated almost 24 hours a day from its foundation until 1917, and has been safeguarded as a National Trust property since 1932. Its excellent condition is partly down to the work of the Ferguson Gang, an eccentric group of well-off women who recognised the value of the mill, raised money for its repair and then donated it to the National Trust.
Head in to look at the mill’s machinery, like the drive shafts, pit wheel, oat crusher and to admire the diamond pattern leaded windows and learn more about the Ferguson Gang.
12. Guildford Museum
On Quarry Street, fringing the castle grounds, the Guildford Museum is in a set of historic buildings incorporating Castle Arch, a Gothic gateway to the castle.
The museum moved here in 1898 and its origins lie in the Surrey Archaeological Society, which was founded in 1845. In the archaeological department are Neolithic ceramics, Roman coins and Medieval games counters, seals, arrowheads, floor tiles and wall hangings.
There are also intriguing pieces of Guildford’s social history, like ration books and a Home Guard helmet from WWII, a 19th-century snuffbox and Victorian and early-20th century consumer products.
In the art and textile collection is the Braganza embroidered box, dating to the 1600s and covered with bible imagery.
13. Stoke Park
This generous park a little way from London Road station wins the Green Flag award every year.
Stoke Park had been part of a manor until it was donated to Guildford by Lord Onslow in 1925, and has retained much of its 18th-century layout.
If you’re on the hunt for an affordable summer’s day with children, Stoke Park ticks plenty of boxes.
There’s a paddling pool, 18-hole mini golf course and skate park.
You can also find a sensory garden and rose garden, while the 18th-century walled garden contains formal flowerbeds and the park’s tennis courts.
Much of Stoke Park is rolling grassland, serving as the site for the Surrey County Show on the bank holiday at the end of May, when you can check out arts and crafts, inspect award-winning livestock, sample food and watch equestrian shows.
14. Pewley Hill
This hill climbs above the River Wey to the southeast of Guildford, and can be reached on foot in a few minutes from the centre of town.
As the main prominence in the area, Pewley Hill was the scene of a semaphore station in the 19th century, forming a line that ran from Portsmouth to London.
The Admiralty semaphore station from 1822 is still here and has since been turned into a coveted private home, with a cupola that replaces the semaphore.
The vistas of the Surrey countryside from Pewley Hill are a joy, and if you keep going southeast you’ll enter the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, crossing scenic farmland on Pewley Down.
15. Clandon Park
Four miles east of the centre of Guildford, this refined Palladian country house from the 18th century was gutted by a fire in 2015. Clandon Park was designed by Italian Giacomo Leoni, who was partly credited with bringing the Palladian style to England.
The grounds, with two elegant parterres either side of the house, were laid out by Capability Brown, the leading garden designer of the day.
The National Trust intends to restore Clandon Park’s ground floor to its 18th-century splendour, adding 21st-century exhibition space to the upper levels, with work beginning in 2019. When this article was written in 2018 the house was inviting visitors to come, put on a hardhat and look around the damaged interiors to see the parts of the house that escaped the worst of the fire damage.