If you love beautiful churches, Roman history, and/or cute buildings, then St. Albans is a must for you.
During my time in London, I made a day trip up to St. Albans twice. Once to see the Christmas markets and again just for fun because I liked it so much the first time. It’s such an easy day trip from London that I thought I’d show you why you need to visit.
A little history
St. Albans was first settled during the Iron Age by the Celts and, in AD 43, adopted the name Verulamium after the Roman conquest of Britain. It then became one of the largest towns in Roman Britain. Around AD 250, a citizen of Verulamium named Alban was martyred for his Christain faith. In 793, King Offa founded St. Albans Abbey and the town grew from it. In 1455 and 1461, St. Albans was host to two battles during the War of the Roses. King Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1539. In 1877, the Abbey Church was granted Cathedral status and the town was given a city charter. Today, the city and its surroundings have 129,000 people. To read more about the town’s history, check out this link.
Getting to St. Albans
Trains to St. Albans City Station leave from either Blackfriars or St. Pancras International on the Thameslink train service every 5-10 minutes or so for £8-12 return depending on when you travel. If you take the train that terminates in St. Albans, your trip will be about 45 minutes. If you take the train that terminates in Bedford, your trip will be around 30 minutes. Both trains will get you to St. Albans for the same cost!
What to do in St. Albans
The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower was built in 1412 and is the only medieval town belfry in England. The townspeople used it to assert their freedom, power and wealth in the face of the premier Benedictine Abbey of England (St. Albans Cathedral). You can climb to the top for views of the city.
St. Albans Cathedral
St. Albans Cathedral was begun in 1077 atop an earlier Benedictine abbey founded by King Offa in 793. It’s probably most famous for its shrine of St. Alban, Britain’s first Christian saint, making it the oldest place of continuous Christian worship and pilgrimage in Britain. It’s definitely a must-visit stop on your day trip to St. Albans!
The cathedral is truly a monstrosity, dominating the skyline of St. Albans. It also takes quite a bit of time to walk around! You know I love churches, so I wouldn’t recommend this one lightly.
Each Wednesday and Friday, a market runs the length of St. Peters Street. Dating back to the 9th century and officially chartered in 1553, the market is great to peruse as you wander around the centre of town.
If you visit around Christmas, you’ll find a fantastic 60+ stall Christmas market, without the crowds of the markets in London. It’s in the walled garden just next to the cathedral.
About 3/4 miles from the St. Albans town center lie the ruins of Sopwell Nunnery, a Tudor mansion built on top of a medieval nunnery dedicated to St. Mary that was established in 1141. The nunnery prospered for 400 years and it was supposedly where Anne Boleyn stayed before she wed Henry VIII! Henry dissolved the nunnery in 1537 and gave the property to a military architect, who then demolished the nunnery to build a new house. He later decided to build a bigger house at the spot but died before it was completed, so what you see are actually those ruins from the incomplete house.
It might not look like much, but it’s pretty cool to wander around the ruins and take a couple photos. You’ll also get great views of St. Albans Cathedral.
Parish Church of St. Peter
The Parish Church of St. Peter has been on the site since the 12th century. During the 13th century, it was constructed into the form it retained until the 19th century. The church appears today as it was in the 19th century. The interior was relatively simple but the stained glass was really pretty. Not much of the original glass remains so the majority of the windows are from between 1863 and 1872.
The garden surrounding the church is also really pretty, with several sculptures and lots of trees and plants.
The Verulanium Museum houses artifacts from the Roman city of Verulanium. It’s an everyday life museum, meaning you’ll find some recreated rooms.
Near the Verulanium Museum are the ruins of a Roman Theatre that could seat up to 2,000 people. It was built around 140AD and it’s the only example of its kind in Britain. Nearby are the foundations of a Roman villa and some Roman shops.
Also near the Verulanium Museum is the beautiful mosaic floor of a Roman townhouse.
I’m not huge on shopping, but St. Albans has a ton of shops. Check out their cute arcade or one of the many shops around the centre of town!
Where to eat
I can only attest to the quality of this pub because I ate there both times I visited. It’s delicious and has been around since the 1400s. In fact, the War of the Roses started just outside its doors! It’s located in the town centre, just by the clock tower.
Abigail’s Tea Rooms
This is a tea room right by the Cathedral. We almost ate lunch here but were really craving some pub food. It did look good, though, and it has great reviews online!
The White Hart
This pub, from the 14th century, is the place where England declared war on Spain. It’s also supposedly haunted by a lady who hit her head in their restaurant. If you’re keen on it, it also has 15 rooms you can stay in.