An experiment in urban planning in the 1960s and 70s, Milton Keynes is a new town on a grid pattern of boulevards.
That alone makes it a fascinating place, as Milton Keynes looks like no other town in the country, with a high-rise central business district, profusion of modern buildings and regimented layout.
Much older constituent towns and parishes are incorporated into the borough, like the picturesque Stony Stratford and Bletchley, remembered for the Government Code and Cipher School, which intercepted the Axis Powers’ communications in the Second World War.
As a planned town Milton Keynes has a surfeit of greenery, and more than 20 million individual trees.
There are parks at every turn, no end of ideas for family days out and a huge shopping centre right in the middle of town.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Milton Keynes:
1. Bletchley Park
It’s impossible to overstate how crucial this 19th-century estate in the south of Milton Keynes turned out to be.
Here during Second World War codebreakers like Alan Turing repeatedly cracked secret Axis communications like the Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.
In the decades following the war the full extent of their achievement became clear, and it is believed that that their work helped shorten the conflict by up to four years.
Bletchley Park is open to the public and in 2014 the house and its blocks and huts were given a multimillion pound refit.
Exhibitions go into detail on topics like the star mathematician Alan Turing, the enigma machines, Lorenz Cipher and Japanese Codes.
You can step into the offices of Alan Turing and another codebreaker Alastair Denniston, and see the restored working Bombe computer used by these cryptologists.
2. National Museum of Computing
Opened in 2007 at Bletchley Park, this museum is devoted to acquiring and restoring historic computer systems.
The setting is noteworthy for computer heritage, as Block H was the world’s first purpose -built computer, containing six Colossus computers by 1945. These were designed to help with the cryptanalysis of the German Lorenz cipher.
There’s a restored Mark 2 Colossus from 1944, part of an exhibition exploring the mind-boggling code-breaking activities that took place at Bletchley Park.
You can also view a timeline of computing, checking out the oldest working digital computer, the Harwell Dekatron/WITCH from 1957. Other landmark pieces of hardware include a Marconi Transistorised Automatic Computer, an Elliott 803 and restoration products like the PDP-11-based air traffic control computer installed at the London Terminal Control Centre in the 1980s.
3. Woburn Abbey and Gardens
In 1547 the Cistercian Woburn Abbey was taken from its monastic order and given to the Dukes of Bedford who have lived here ever since.
From the middle of the 18th century the abbey was rebuilt in a Palladian style, employing three of the leading architects of the era, in Henry Flitcroft, Sir William Chambers and Henry Holland.
You can tour Woburn Abbey from around Easter to October to see one of the world’s finest private art collections.
Rembrandt, Velázquez, Murillo, Gainsborough, van Dyck and Hans Holbein the Younger are all represented, but the collections of Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds are astonishing, with 24 and 12 pieces respectively.
There are 24 rooms in the abbey to peruse, while outside are 28 acres of divine gardens including a gorgeous 18th-century Chinoiserie Chinese Dairy.
And for longer walks, the Abbey’s deer park has native species like red and fallow deer, as well as exotic sikas, rusas, barasinghas, milus and chitals.
4. Milton Keynes Museum
In the Parish of Wolverton and Greenleys, Milton Keynes Museum is at a Victorian model farm, a complex created for agricultural research in the industrial age.
When this was constructed in the 1800s it was in open countryside, but has since been engulfed by Milton Keynes’ 20th-century sprawl.
The museum dips into the history of the town and its countryside from the 1800s onwards, dealing with agriculture, industry, domestic life and commerce.
You can view home and shop interiors, vintage trams, steam tractors, printing machines, vintage mechanics’ tools and loads more.
Wolverton has been the site of a railway works since 1838, and has some exciting memorabilia from the history of rail travel.
One of the quirkier exhibits is a British Telecom “Roadphone” a transportable working handset and dial, the size of a truck trailer.
5. Willen Lakeside Park
In the eastern part of town is a massive open space formed around a “balancing lake” on the River Ouzel, which was built to capture floodwater to prevent damage downstream.
The southern portion of the lake is a recreation area.
Wake MK is here, providing lessons in wakeboarding, kitesurfing, kneeboarding and waterskiing.
There’s also a “splash ‘n’ play” park for youngsters, with more than 60 water features like a water tunnel, water cannons and special water play area for toddlers.
Another attraction on the south shore is the Treetop Extreme high ropes course.
The north lake is more sedate as a sanctuary for migrating aquatic birds.
6. Peace Pagoda
Facing the peaceful north lake at Willen is the first Buddhist peace pagoda to be built in the western world.
In was constructed in 1980 by nuns and monks of the Nipponzan-Myōhōji order, and sits alongside temple and monastery.
The cherry trees above the complex were planted to remember victims of war, and you can locate the One World Tree, festooned with written prayers and messages of hope.
You’re also welcome to call in at the temple and see its Japanese and Zen gardens.
7. Stony Stratford
In the same borough, Stony Stratford’s Georgian houses and coaching inns are in stark contrast to Milton Keynes’ grid pattern and modern buildings.
It is by far the oldest settlement in Milton Keynes, earning town status in 1215 and dating back at least to Roman times.
Stony Stafford is where the Roman road, Watling Street forded the Great Ouse River and later developed as a settlement on England’s coaching network before the advent of railways.
Very unusual for an English town, Stony Stafford has some 350 independent businesses, and a place as old as will always be steeped in legend.
The Rose and Crown Inn on the High Street was supposedly where the child King Edward V stayed before being whisked to London by his uncle Richard III, never to be seen again.
Grab a “Town Walk” leaflet from the tourist office to immerse yourself in this historic place.
8. Woburn Safari Park
On Woburn Abbey’s immense grounds is a 360-acre animal park where many of the inhabitants live in enormous enclosures.
A visit begins with a Road Safari, in which you’ll drive through the Northern Plains (bison, Zebra, wild horses), Savannah Grasslands (antelopes, white rhino, ostriches), Kingdom of the Carnivores (tigers, wolves, bears and lions), Giraffe Junction and the African Forest, home to monkeys and the endangered eastern/mountain bongo.
You’ll follow up the Road Safari with a Foot Safari to view smaller creatures like ring tailed lemurs, meerkats, Asian short clawed otters and a great deal more.
Look out for the timetable as there are regular talks and demonstrations, offering insights on anything from cockatoos to Humboldt penguins and Asian elephants.
9. Milton Keynes Theatre
If you’re hankering for some live entertainment the Milton Keynes Theatre is one of England’s premier performing arts venues.
It was a latecomer to Milton Keynes, opening in 1999 after 25 years of campaigning and planning.
The auditorium is state of the art, able to raise or lower its ceiling depending on the size of the production, so catering to both large-scale touring West End productions and more personal plays.
The theatre stages Royal Shakespeare Company productions, stand-up shows by nationally-renowned comedians, performances by the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, blockbuster musicals, touring cover acts and much more.
10. National Radio Centre
While you’re at Bletchley Park there’s a side attraction that merits your attention in a new building close to the main entrance.
Managed by the Radio Society of Great Britain, the main exhibition at the National Radio Centre is a complete précis of the history of radio communications technology.
You can go on the air at a high-tech amateur radio station, watch informative films take part in hands-on experiments and fiddle with interactive displays.
A new exhibition also sheds light on the history of the Radio Society of Great Britain and the part that Voluntary Interceptors played in the UK’s Second World War effort.
11. Emberton Country Park
Outside the town, but within Milton Keynes Borough, Emberton Country Park is 200 acres of mature and unblemished parkland on the Great Ouse River.
The park has five kilometres of walking and cycling trails, snaking through meadows, woodland and five different lakes.
There’s an information centre to help you get the most out of the park’s facilities and informing you about the waterfowl and other wildlife that make their homes here.
All five lakes welcome fishing and the park offers fishing permits in every season, while there are two dedicated areas for barbecues and picnics in summer.
Next to Milton Keynes Theatre and The Centre:MK shopping mall, Xscape is an indoor adventure sports centre.
You’d never expect to find a ski resort in Buckinghamshire, but that’s exactly what awaits you at Snozone, where there’s an indoor slope with real snow.
Confident skiers and snowboarders can try freestyling, while there are lessons for newcomers and a sledging piste for kids.
Elsewhere, iFly is an indoor skydiving experience that children as young as four can take part in, while there’s an 18-lane bowling alley and a Cineworld multiplex cinema (including a 4DX screen). These are all backed up by restaurants and a handful of lifestyle stores.
13. Thrift Farm
A working farm on the southwest edge of Milton Keynes, Thrift Farm is somewhere for kids to interact with animals.
All the typical farmyard breeds are here, like chickens, pigs, donkeys, ducks, geese, goats and sheep, together with smaller animals like guinea pigs and rabbits.
Kids can also wear themselves out on the playground and adventure course, while there’s a cafe, picnic area and a shop selling eggs laid by the farm’s chickens, ducks and geese.
New in 2018 is a market garden, which supplies the cafe and local restaurants with produce like tomatoes, broad beans and courgettes.
Something else to like about Thrift Farm is that most of the staff are participants in a scheme to help people with mental health issues and learning difficulties develop life and employment skills.
14. Gulliver’s Land
Especially for younger children (aged 2-13), Gulliver’s Land is a theme park loosely based on Jonathan Swift’s satire and set next to Willen Lakeside Park.
The park has more than 70 attractions, with rides, shows and amusements, many of which are designed exclusively for toddlers and under-5s.
These are found across seven different zones, each with a theme, like Western World or Liliput Castle.
There are roller coasters, giant tea cups, carousels, as well as waterslides at the Splash Zone, which also has water play installations like sprays, cannons and a giant tip bucket.
Older kids, aged six and up can put on protective gear and take each other on at the indoor NERF Zone, while just beside the main theme park is the Dinosaur and Farm Park, with life-sized animatronic dinosaurs, and domestic animals to meet and feed at the farm.
15. The Centre:MK
Milton Keynes has one of the 15 largest shopping malls in the UK, with more than 270 stores and services in two complexes joined by an arch.
The Centre first came about in 1979, and that originally building has Grade II listing for its avant-garde lines, while expansions have been made in 2000 and 2010. The mall is anchored by large branches of the department stores House of Fraser, John Lewis and Marks and Spencer, while its various arcades and courts are adorned with some noteworthy works op public art, like kinetic sculpture by Liliane Lijn hanging from the ceiling of the Midsummer Arcade.
Most British midmarket and upmarket fashions are represented at The Centre (Cath Kidston, Hawes & Curtis, Hobbs, Warehouse), along with dining options like Costa, Cafe Rouge, Pizza Express, Pret and Patisserie Valerie.