In the 13th century the whole city of Salisbury moved from its ancient hilltop two miles down the road to the floodplain of three rivers.
New Sarum, as Salisbury’s new settlement was once called, has an amazing Gothic cathedral with the tallest spire in the country and housing one of the oldest working clocks in the world.
On the Cathedral Close is a lineup of townhouses dating from the 1200s and formerly home to MPs and Prime Ministers.
Salisbury is in a region bursting with Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age history.
The countryside ripples with burial mounds, almost every chalk down has evidence of a prehistoric fort.
Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument known the world over, is under ten miles north of the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Salisbury:
1. Salisbury Cathedral
Seen for the first time, Salisbury Cathedral makes an unforgettable impression, especially if that sky-scraping spire is cloaked in low cloud or shimmering in the summer sun.
The 123-metre spire was topped off in 1549 and since then has always been the tallest in the UK. Salisbury Cathedral breaks other records, for the largest cloister in the country, while that clock mechanism is from 1386 and may be the oldest in the world.
There’s no face, as all clocks from that period used bells to mark the time.
The cathedral was built over 38 years up to 1258, and is in an unusually uniform Early English Gothic style.
The tower tour is a must if you can manage the 332 stairs, as you can examine the Medieval wooden scaffolding and contemplate dumfounding panoramas of Salisbury and the Wiltshire countryside.
2. Magna Carta Chapter House
In 2015 the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta went on show at Salisbury Cathedral’s Chapter House.
Dating to 1215, this document was a treaty between a group of Rebel Barons and King John, promising them freedom from illegal imprisonment, limiting feudal payments to the crown and protecting church rights.
It is claimed to be the historic basis of democracy, not just in England but also the USA because of its influence on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
The Salisbury copy is one of just four originals in the world and has an appropriate setting in the atmospheric 13th-century Chapter House.
It was brought to Old Sarum right after the document was signed at Runnymede, and has remained in the city ever since.
3. Cathedral Close
At 80 acres Salisbury has the largest Cathedral Close in England, and it’s an extraordinary place, suffused with history and home to a few of the sights on this list.
There’s architecture on Cathedral close from the 1200s to the 1900s, all facing that sublime cathedral.
We’ll come to Arundells and Mompesson House later, but you could devote some time to the Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum, chronicling the history of these Regiments, from the Seven Years’ War to Afghanistan.
The building housing Sarum College, a theological institution, was reputedly built by Sir Christopher Wren and dates to 1677.
4. Old Sarum
As you walk among the earthworks of Old Sarum a couple of miles north of the centre of Salisbury it’s hard to believe that there was once a whole city here until the 13th century.
Old Sarum is a chalk hilltop that had previously been a Neolithic settlement and then an Iron Age hill fort from 400 BC. In Norman and Angevin times, this was the site of a Royal Castle, cresting a motte (mound) in the centre and you can still make out the footprint of Salisbury’s first, Romanesque cathedral and the walls of courtyard houses in what used to be the inner bailey.
Pack a picnic, look over the verdant Wiltshire countryside and imagine the peaceful meadows at Old Sarum as bustling Medieval streets.
5. Mompesson House
This National Trust townhouse on Cathedral Close was constructed in the Queen Anne style at the turn of the 18th century.
It was built for Sir Thomas Mompesson, who was MP for the Salisbury constituency on three occasions.
Mompesson House is clad with the same Chilmark limestone as Salisbury Cathedral.
Some things to look out for are the masterful stuccowork on the walls and ceiling, the dignified oak staircase and wealth of period furniture.
You can also appreciate the delightful stumpwork (raised embroidery) in the Green Room, an assortment of English porcelain and the Turnbull Collection of drinking glasses crafted in the 1700s.
The walled garden has herbaceous borders and a lush central lawn, as well as a tearoom serving slices of home-baked cake.
6. Salisbury Museum
A superb attraction, not just because of the masses of local archaeology, but also for the historic venue.
The Salisbury Museum is in The King’s House, a stunning building going back to the 1200s and enhanced with a 15th-century that has three triangular gables and intricate mullioned windows.
King James I stayed here twice, in 1610 and 1613. In a region loaded with archaeological interest, you can bet that the galleries are full of treasures.
One is the Wylye Hoard, a trove of Bronze Age jewellery found in the namesake village in 2012. The Wardour Hoard has more than 100 copper alloy items from the Bronze and Iron Age, while the Amesbury Archer is the skeleton and of man found in a few miles away Amesbury.
He was buried around the same time Stonehenge was taking shape, and was interred with the oldest gold ornaments discovered in England.
7. St Thomas’ Church
The parish church of New Sarum was consecrated around 1220 and then enlarged in the 1300s and 1400s when the tower was built.
The church is on the beautiful St Thomas’s square, with a churchyard hemmed on three sides by historic houses.
On the aisles you can look up at the masterful timber framing in the roof, and in the Lady Chapel there are wall paintings depicting the coats of arms of Salisbury’s Medieval guilds.
The church’s standout feature is the Doom painting in the chancel arch, representing the Last Judgment and painted in the last decades of the 15th century.
8. Fisherton Mill
Open nearly 25 years, Fisherton Mill is the largest independent art gallery in the South of England.
The venue is a converted Victorian brick grain mill, built in 1880, and combining ample exhibition space with artists’ studios and a cafe.
The gallery is dedicated to work by local and national painters, sculptors, ceramicists, glassmakers and jewellers, and has a quick turnover, with something new for every visit.
Fisherton Mill is as much a place to go shopping for one-of-a-kind arts and crafts, with a gift shop selling pieces by more than 200 different artists, while the cafe has won multiple awards.
There’s a lively calendar of workshops for skills like interior design, knitting, needle felting, calligraphy and glass design.
The former Prime Minister Edward Heath lived at this Grade II-listed house on Cathedral Close from 1985 until his death in 2005. Heath was in office from 1970-1974 and presided over the UK’s entry to what is now the European Union.
When he passed away, Arundells and its contents were bequeathed to a charitable foundation to be turned into a museum covering his career.
In summer Arundells is open every afternoon apart from Thursday and Friday and has all kinds of interesting things to see.
Heath was a musician and yachtsman, so there’s a great deal of sailing memorabilia, as well as a Steinway piano, along with European and oriental ceramics and art by Winston Churchill and Walter Sickert.
Arundells is rooted in a Medieval canonry, and was redesigned by John Wyndham in the 18th century.
It is enveloped in a two-acre walled garden backing onto the River Avon.
10. Harnham Water Meadows
The Romantic landscape painter John Constable was enamoured of Salisbury, and you can trace his footsteps through the idyllic Harnham Water Meadows between two branches of the River Nadder to the southwest of the city.
There’s a two-mile circular walk, setting off from the cathedral into a large irrigation system of floated water meadows, drained into a grid of channels back in the 1600s.
Cattle continue to graze in these fields, and the prospect of the cathedral from the water meadows is often cited as one of the most beautiful in the country.
Try to come early in the day when there’s a veil of mist floating above the meadows.
Constable painted Salisbury Cathedral from Meadows at just this spot in 1831.
Salisbury is the closest city to Stonehenge, which is less than ten miles to the north and can be visited by coach tour if you don’t have a car.
As possibly the most famous prehistoric monument in the world, Stonehenge hardly needs introduction: It’s a circle of standing stones, each measuring up to four metres in height and believed to have been raised up to 5,000 years ago.
The theory goes that the largest hunks of bluestone in the outer ring were quarried in the Preseli Hills, and then somehow transported 160 miles to this site.
A visitor centre opened in 2013 brings you face to face with a 5,500-year-old man recreated from a skeleton, and has more than 250 Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age artefacts.
12. Wilton House
The town of Wilton is practically a western suburb of Salisbury and lies just three miles from the city centre.
A good excuse to make the journey is Wilton House, the seat of the 18th Earl of Pembroke.
This country house was originally an abbey, and after that was suppressed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century it became a stately home.
The Tudor residence can still be seen in the central tower on the eastern facade, while much of the remainder is Palladian, by the illustrious Inigo Jones in the 17th century, and Gothic Revival by James Wyatt in the early-1800s.
The Double Cube Room is considered among the most beautiful staterooms of the day, and was configured to show off the portraits of the Earl of Pembroke and his family by Anthony van Dyck.
You can also view works by Rembrandt and Brueghel brothers in the Great Anteroom and the Upper Cloisters.
13. Church of St Mary and St Nicholas
For a town of just 3,400 Wilton has a huge parish church, and this splendid Grade I-listed monument isn’t quite as old as it looks.
The Church of St Mary and St Nicholas went up at the start of the 1840s in a Romanesque Revival style, based on a Lombardy basilica.
It is distinguished by the separate campanile, more than 30 metres high.
What makes the building truly remarkable is that a lot of the fittings are much older.
The central apse window has French stained glass from the 12th and 13th centuries, and the south end of the side aisle has marble columns from Temple of Venus at Porto Venere dating to the 2nd century BC. There are also historic ledger stones and memorials brought here from the former Parish Church of St Mary, demolished in the 19th century.
14. Longford Castle
A mile or two down the Avon is a glorious Elizabethan Prodigy House, constructed on a triangular footprint across a few decades at the end of the 16th century.
Work had to be stopped when costs piled up because of the difficult subsoil, but began again in the 1580s after its owner Sir Thomas Gorges led Elizabeth I to gold at a shipwreck from the Spanish Armada.
The house is private and only opens for 28 days a year, and those days are booked up months in advance.
The reason being that Longford Castle has an incredible art collection, enriched with painting by Frans Hals, van Dyck, Thomas Gainsborough and David Teniers.
Also awaiting you are Brussels tapestries, European and British furniture from the 1700s and oriental porcelain.
15. Boscombe Down Aviation Collection
In a hangar at the Old Sarum airfield, under three miles from the centre of Salisbury, there’s a museum that was relocated here from the MOD facility at Boscombe Down in 2012. The exhibition has cockpits, nose sections and complete aircraft from the jet age following the Second World War.
You can come and size up a complete Hunter F6A, Sea Harrier, Jet Provost T4, Wasp HAS1 and Meteor MK D16, as well as cockpits of a Hunter F6, a Swift Supermarine, a Hawker Sea Hawk and a Canberra T4, to name a few.
These are all on display along with a host of engines and weapons, like a Sidewinder missile and the now banned JP233 and cluster bomb.