Comfortably inside the London’s M25, Watford is a market town that developed during the Industrial Revolution and was absorbed by the capital in the 20th century.
The town is on the banks of the River Colne and is as green as it gets, with sweeping parks like Cassiobury, once the site of a Tudor palace.
Close by are the Warner Bros. Film Studios at Leavesden, where the Harry Potter films were made, now putting on an action-packed studio tour using real sets, props and costumes.
Watford is a shopping and entertainment centre, with two well-regarded theatres and captivating history at St Mary’s Church, which contains a marvellous Renaissance chapel.
War historians can delve into the Battle of Britain not far away at Bentley Priory, which was the headquarters for the RAF Fighter Command in the Second World War.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Watford:
1. Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio Tour
The Warner Bros. Film Studios at Leavesden are inside Watford Borough, and every one of the Harry Potter movie productions was based here in the 2000s.
So after the final Harry Potter film came out, the studio set about creating a tour using authentic props, animatronics, special effects, costumes and sets from the movies, or recreations built by the same people who worked on the movies.
The three-hour tour throws you into the world of Harry Potter, leading you into the Great Hall, down the Diagon Alley and onto Platform 9¾ where you can climb aboard the original Hogwarts Express carriages used in the film.
Ultra-fans will have the time of their lives picking out obscure props and checking out every little detail in the costumes like quidditch uniforms, Yule ball attire and the Weasley family jumpers.
2. Cassiobury Park
Watford’s town park is in the grounds of Cassiobury House, the estate of the Earls of Essex, which was pulled down in 1927. Most of the space is decked with well-tended lawns, clustered with exotic trees like an American pin oaks, scarlet oak, a swamp cypress and a cedar of Lebanon, some of which date back hundreds of years.
There’s an abundance of water thanks to the River Gade and Grand Union Canal, supporting birds like grey wagtails, water pipits, green sandpipers and redshanks at different times of year.
Cassiobury Park has two cafes, two outdoor gyms, two children’s playgrounds and a miniature railway that operates on weekends and during the school holidays in good weather.
3. Cheslyn Gardens
The history of this 3.5-acre garden is surprisingly recent.
The land belonged to the Earl of Essex until 1888, and in the 1940s was sold to the architect Henry Colbeck and his wife Daisy.
The couple built a house and laid out an enchanting garden over two decades before selling it to Watford Council in 1965. The gardens are a treat, decorated with sculptures and planted with exotic species collected by the Colbecks on their travels around the world.
There’s a formal garden at the front, while there’s woodland the further back you go.
Since the council took over, a rock garden, pond and herbaceous borders have been added.
You can bring youngsters to the aviary, which houses quail, finches, budgerigars and other small birds.
4. Watford Palace Theatre
Even if you don’t plan to watch a show, the Edwardian Watford Palace Theatre (1908) will stop you in your tracks.
The powerful facade has alternating bands of brickwork and white limestone topped by a pair of copper-clad domes.
In its early days the Palace Theatre staged music hall shows (similar to American vaudeville), and hosted big pre-cinema stars like singer Marie Lloyd and actor Evie Greene.
After more than a century the Palace Theatre is still a producing theatre, giving a chance to young talent, while also hosting touring musicals from the London’s West End, as well as choirs, orchestras and live screenings of performances from the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in summer.
5. Bushey Rose Garden
A recommended detour a couple of miles from the centre of Watford, is this charming garden in the grounds of the long-defunct Herkomer’s Art School, founded in 1883. Hubert von Herkomer was a successful Victorian social-realist painter.
After closing and demolishing his school he commissioned T. H. Mawson, the most distinguished landscape architect of the Edwardian era, to design this listed formal rose garden.
Restored in 2010, the garden is planted with boxwood hedges, mature trees, perennials, bulbs and a delightful assortment of roses.
There are also fragments of the art school and a listed fountain, rose temple and summer house.
6. Bentley Priory Museum
In the Second World War this 18th and 19th-century stately home and deer park in Stanmore was the home of RAF Fighter Command, which coordinated the defence of the country during the Battle Of Britain.
The RAF was based at Bentley Priory until 2008 and although there were plans to construct housing here, the historic house was turned into a museum in 2013. The attraction dives into the history of the house, which has lots of surviving architecture by one of the mainstays of British Neoclassical architecture Sir John Soane.
But the thrill lies in the Battle of Britain exhibition, which has a timeline of the campaign, introduces the protagonists like Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and has a database of serving aircrew.
There’s a recreation of the Filter Room and a model of the Operations Room.
7. Watford Museum
On the Lower High Street the Watford Museum collects pieces relating to local industry, archaeology and the Cassiobury Estate.
The venue is worth mentioning as it’s a pedimented Georgian townhouse, built in 1775 and then housing a brewery for 90 years from 1867. The most valuable objects on show are artworks from Cassiobury, with family portraits and landscapes of the house and its park by J. M. W. Turner and the Georgian painter John Wootton.
This is accompanied by pieces by Dutch and Flemish Masters like Adam Frans van der Meulen and sculpture by Jacob Epstein, among others.
There’s a gallery dedicated to Watford F.C., which features a stage costume worn by the club’s most famous fan, Elton John.
8. St Mary’s Church
Off the High Street in an atmospheric churchyard, St Mary’s Church has stood since the 12th century.
It’s a fine building to behold, with flint walls and limestone window dressings.
Most of the older architecture dates to the 15th century, although the church did go through a big restoration in the 1870s.
The leading Victorian restorer George Gilbert Scott designed the oak box pews in a Decorated Gothic style.
Head to the south wall of the nave where there’s a white marble tablet in memory of one Jane Bell – the inscription was written by the great Georgian man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson.
Best of all is the Essex Chapel for the Cassiobury Estate, founded in 1595 and with sumptuous marble memorials fashioned by Nicholas Stone, 17th-century master-mason to James I and Charles I.
9. Oxhey Park
The Green Flag is the highest award a local public park can earn in the UK, and Oxhey Park on the River Colne wins every year.
This is recognition for its safety, level of maintenance and how much it involves the local community.
Oxhey Park has gentle hills, which are a hit with sledders on snow days in winter, while there’s quirky public art, a fishing pond, a children’s playground, outdoor gym and mini football pitch.
At the time of writing the council was fielding proposals for improvements like a skateboard park, cycle paths and a new cafe.
10. Rickmansworth Aquadrome
Within the M25 a little way west of Watford tow centre is a 41-hectare nature reserve on the site of a former gravel quarry.
The Rickmansworth Aquadrome is at the north end of the Colne Valley Regional Park and decades of gravel extraction up to the 1920s left behind two large lakes that filled naturally with water after the quarry was abandoned.
An interesting piece of trivia is that some of the gravel was used to construct the original Wembley Stadium, England’s national football stadium in 1923. Fringed with oaks and willows, the lakes are a habitat for herons, swans, kingfishers and a diversity of butterflies, and are used for sailing, windsurfing, canoeing, kayaking and fishing.
11. Watford F.C.
There hasn’t been a better time since the 1980s to watch the local football team play.
By 2018 Watford (The Hornets) had been in the Premier League for four seasons, establishing themselves as a top tier stalwart under the ownership of the Pozzo family.
The newly expanded Vicarage Road holds 21,438 fans and has a stand named after the musician and lifelong fan Elton John, who became chairman in 1976 and oversaw the club’s glory days in the early 80s when they came second in the league in 1983 and almost won the FA Cup in 1984. There’s a feast of sport in winter in Watford as Vicarage Road is shared with the rugby club Saracens, who won the English Premiership in 2017-18 and have a squad crammed with international stars like England fly-half Owen Farrell.
12. Bhaktivedanta Manor
This Arts and Crafts mansion was gifted to the Vedic spiritual teacher (Hare Krishna guru) A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada by George Harrison of the Beatles in 1972. Bhaktivedanta Manor is the London temple for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), but both the house and its restful gardens are open for visits, yoga classes, talks, vegetarian cooking classes and an array of retreats.
Harrison participated in a campaign to save the manor from closure in the 1990s and was a regular visitor right up until he passed away in 2001.
13. Hertfordshire Fire Brigade Museum
Sharing a street with the Watford Museum, this small but engaging museum is in a purpose-built shed at Watford Fire Station.
The space is filled with archive photographs, old helmets, banners, vintage fire hydrant signs and station bells.
Best of all is the vintage machinery, like a restored steam powered engine and a 1937 Leyland open pump escape.
If this piques your interest the museum has irregular opening times but is normally open on Saturday afternoons in the summer.
14. Watford Colosseum
The brick-built Watford Colosseum was constructed in 1938 and was then known as the Watford Town Hall Assembly Rooms.
The auditorium made waves at the time for its superlative acoustics.
These have recently been tested again and still hold strong because of the flat floor, shoebox shape of the hall and materials used in its construction.
The venue was a traditional concert hall until the 1990s when it was relaunched as the Colosseum, booking tribute acts, kids’ workshops, stand-up comedians, party nights, and occasional concerts by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Watford Philharmonic Society.
15. Parents Paradise
If you’re in Watford with kids under 11 there’s an indoor soft-play centre for a fun and stimulating couple of hours.
Parents Paradise has a bounce pad, slides, climbing nets and electric go-karts for children between the ages of five and eleven.
Added to that are a toddler play area and a designated zone for babies under 18 months.
There’s also a cafe serving nutritionally balanced meals and catering to children with egg, gluten and nut allergies.