Warwickshire’s county town is a genteel sort of place on the River Avon, dating back to the start of the 10th century.
Warwick was founded by the sister of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Elder, and in 1088 became the seat of the Earls of Warwick.
Their castle is an icon of 14th-century military architecture but also a rip-roaring day out for families.
Warwick suffered a fire at the end of the 17th century, and its terraces of flat-fronted townhouses all followed, along with monuments like the Market Hall and the Collegiate Church of St Mary, in a backdated Gothic style.
An older survivor is the 14th-century Lord Leycester Hospital, while one stop on the train is Royal Leamington Spa, a distinguished Regency resort.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Warwick:
1. Warwick Castle
First raised by William the Conqueror during the Norman Conquest, Warwick Castle has kept its 14th-century military architecture intact.
The wing of the castle facing the town was reinforced during the 100 Years’ War, and the iconic Caesar’s and Guy’s Towers still stand guard.
Borrowing from French castle design, both are machicolated, while the Caesar’s Tower has a double parapet.
After the 17th century the castle no longer had a military use and became a palatial residence for the powerful Earls of Warwick, with gardens designed by Capability Brown.
The Great Hall and State Rooms testify to the wealth of the Earls, while the ramparts and towers have distant views over the Warwickshire countryside.
The castle is operated by the Merlin Entertainment (a theme park brand) and puts on jousting tournaments in summer, birds of prey demonstrations and has an 18-metre trebuchet hurling flaming rocks.
2. Mill Garden
This adorable half-acre garden is wedged between the Avon and Warwick Castle.
Mill Garden has been in the Measures family since 1938, and took on its design under the 60-year custodianship of Arthur Measures.
It sits on the roadway of the Old Castle Bridge, which was destroyed by a flood in the 18th century, and those surviving arches are covered with grass and flowers.
On the opposite side is the mighty Caesar’s Tower, forming a very omantic boundary.
In amongst the foliage are stone paths, plenty of benches and a hidden arbour facing the bridge ruins.
3. Lord Leycester Hospital
This magical Grade I-listed complex of half-timbered buildings has been a retirement home for former servicemen since the 16th century.
The beautiful structures go back a century before, when they were built as residences, meeting halls and dining halls for the newly combined Guilds of St George and the Blessed Virgin.
In the 17th century a banquet for King James I in the Great Hall put Warwick into debt for a whole decade.
Even older is the Chapel of St James the Great, dating to the 1380s.
You’ll be given a tour of the complex, and out into the garden, which has a 2,000-year-old stone urn from an Egyptian nilometer.
4. Collegiate Church of St Mary
Together with the castle, the 40-metre tower of this St Mary’s is a dominant feature of Warwick’s skyline.
To look at the Gothic lines of the tower and nave, you wouldn’t guess that they were built at the turn of the 18th century when the Baroque style was in fashion.
The Medieval church had largely been destroyed in the Great Fire of Warwick in 1693, but the resplendent Beauchamp Chapel survived and is a masterwork of Medieval art.
Even older is the Norman crypt, dating from the 1120s and containing one of only two original ducking stools in the UK. Be sure to climbs the 134 steps to the top of the tower for a view to treasure.
5. St Nicholas Park
This former meadow beside the Avon to the east of the castle was turned into a park for Warwick after the Second World War and abounds with leisure facilities in summer.
There’s a small Fun Park, with fairground amusements and a teacup ride, a mini-golf course, a skateboard/bmx park, a paddling pool, a leisure centre and a tea shop in a cute house with a thatched roof.
The east side of St Nicholas Park is open playing fields for football and other recreation, while the western nook has formal walks and flowerbeds.
On the Avon you’ll be able to hire rowboats or canoes, and the view of Warwick Castle over the tree line is sensational.
6. St John’s House Museum
This handsome Jacobean house close to Warwick’s town centre was started in 1626, although the site goes back much further, to the Hospital of St John the Baptist in the 12th century.
In the 17th century St John’s House was the residence of the Stoughton family, before becoming a school and then offices for the War Department in the Second World War.
The building has hosted the Warwickshire Museum since 1960, and has a Victorian classroom with preserved furniture, a Victorian kitchen and an exhibition of changing fashions through the centuries.
On the upper floor is a museum for the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers.
7. Market Hall Museum
Warwick’s handsome market hall dates from the last decades of the 17th century, and since the middle of the 19th century has been used exhibitions of regional natural history and archaeology.
The Market Hall Museum belongs to the Warwickshire Museum, alongside St John’s House and has recently been updated with the help of Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
Don’t miss Oisin the Deer, the skeleton of a prehistoric Giant Irish Elk, a species that spread across Eurasia until around 7,700 years ago.
Also special is the Sheldon Tapestry, one of a group of 121 woven in the 1580s for the home of Ralph Sheldon.
This work takes up an entire wall at the museum and has a map of Warwickshire.
8. Hatton Locks
For an excursion into the Warwickshire countryside you could follow the towpath of the Grand Union Canal out of Warwick a couple of miles until you arrive at this flight of 21 locks, dating to 1799. The locks allowed barges laden with sugar, tea, spices and coal to negotiate a climb of 45 metres across two miles.
For workers on the barges the flight was a difficult barrier to overcome, and was nicknamed the “Stairway to Heaven” as the remainder of the journey to Birmingham was easier and workers would be paid on arrival.
The locks remain in working condition, and you’re sure to see holiday barges making their way along the flight.
9. Hill Close Gardens
On a hillside over Warwick Racecourse, Hill Close Gardens is an outdoor attraction with an intriguing past.
These were 16 individual Victorian gardens, established to afford outdoor space to people who owned townhouses that didn’t have their own gardens.
Each plot was delineated by a wall or hedge and had a gate that could be locked.
Many had pavilions and summer houses so that families could pass the entire day on their plots.
Four of these houses are now listed, and after the gardens fell into disrepair a local trust was set up to restore them to their Victorian appearance.
Each plot reflects the personality of its 19th-century owner, and there’s a nursery selling plants propagated in these gardens.
10. Royal Leamington Spa
At just four minutes on the train, there’s no reason not to make time for this elegant spa town next door to Warwick.
Royal Leamington Spa was born after its waters were claimed to have healing properties in the 18th century.
Come for the marvellous stuccoed Regency architecture that fills the centre at Lansdowne Circus, Regent Street, Clarendon Square and much of the north-south Parade.
Unsurprising given the cultivated beauty of the architecture, Leamington Spas’ properties host posh bakeries, smoothie shops, tailors, boutiques and upmarket chains like House of Fraser.
Head for the grand Royal Pump Rooms, now housing a museum on the history of the spa.
11. Jephson Gardens
One of the essential things to do in Leamington Spa is to unwind in this park on the north bank of the River Leam.
Jephson Gardens started out as an informal riverside walk for the spa’s customers in 1831, before taking on a more formal design as a Victorian pleasure gardens in 1846. From that time on, the park was a place for national flower competitions, balloon rides, boating, light displays, brass bands, croquet and archery.
Today Jephson Gardens is a yearly Green Flag winner, and has the same formal layout, with beautiful flowerbeds, more than 140 different tree species, a glasshouse, a gorgeous Victorian tea pavilion, a sensory garden and performances by brass ensembles in summer.
12. Charlecote Park
In the care of the National Trust, Charlecote Park is a striking country house going back to the mid-1500s.
In the centuries that followed, the house was altered in line with changing fashions, until the 19th century when it was returned to an Elizabethan revival style.
Outside, the magnificent gatehouse has been unchanged since the 16th century.
The queen herself stayed in the room that has since become the drawing room, while the Great Hall has four centuries of portraits for the Lucy family, which owned the land from 1247 to 1946. The paintings of George Lucy from 1760 is by Thomas Gainsborough.
Touring the Library, Drawing Room, Billiard Room and Dining Room, you’ll come across period furniture, a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I and curios like a letter from Oliver Cromwell summoning Richard Lucy to Parliament.
13. Guy’s Cliffe House
On the Avon just before it bends round to Warwick are the ruins of a once opulent manor house.
Guy’s Cliffe House has a rather dark past, as it was developed by Samuel Greatheed, one of England’s wealthiest slave traders, and was most likely built by slaves brought over from the Caribbean.
Carvings in chalk caves on the site have been attributed to these slaves, as these would likely have been used as dormitories.
The house fell into disuse after the Second World War and was gutted by fire in the early 1990s.
Extensive tours are given of the property, including the intact chapel, which has been used for Masonic ceremonies since the 1950s and has a statue of Guy of Warwick, the legendary Medieval figure that Guy’s Cliffe is named after.
14. Kenilworth Castle
Five miles out of Warwick are the remnants of one of Elizabethan England’s grandest buildings.
Kenilworth Castle has Norman origins, and as a semi-royal palace was enhanced over several centuries.
Edward II was removed from the throne here in the 14th century, while during the Second Barons’ War a few decades earlier, Kenilworth Castle was placed under the longest siege in history, lasting six months.
Its apogee came in the 16th century, when the Earl of Leicester, courting Elizabeth I, turned the castle into a theatrical Renaissance palace to host the queen in 1575. You can go up the tower that Elizabeth stayed in, take a turn in the Elizabethan Gardens, check out the Medieval keep and Great Hall, and view exhibitions in the intact gatehouse and Tudor stables.
15. Warwick Arts Centre
The Warwick University campus, a few minutes on the way to Coventry, has the largest performing arts complex in the UK outside London’s Barbican.
The centre has two theatres, a concert hall, cinema, art gallery and an array of smaller venues.
Warwick University is arts-oriented, and the standard and variety of productions is impressive: One night you can catch a play by an international theatre company, and the next there will be a student-led production.
Concerts can vary from choral performances of Shakespeare’s texts and lunchtime classical concerts in summer, to well-known touring bands and tribute acts.
The cinema screens independent films, classics by the likes of Ingmar Bergman and lots of obscure movies you’re sure to have never seen before.