Delve inside some the UK's most popular destinations, and discover something new.
From a staring competition with the Hulk at London’s Madame Tussauds (warning: you’ll lose) to the mystical energy of Stonehenge, the UK offers a massive variety of entertainment through its many attractions. For homegrown visitors and eager tourists alike, each hides that little something extra under the surface.
Wherever you’re off to on your next UK day trip, get ahead of the guidebooks with our roundup of the best lesser known facts.
Located just west of London’s epicentre, Madame Tussauds has been enthralling visitors of all ages since it opened its Marylebone Road doors way back in 1884. And that wasn’t even the start of the story.
Now boasting over 250 individual waxworks of some of the world’s most famous individuals – from the Queen to Dua Lipa (a queen in her own right) – it all began in 1777 when Strasbourg-born Marie Grosholtz modelled the famous author and philosopher Francois Voltaire.
That means there’s a huge amount of history held within the walls of Madame Tussauds. To put that into context, what else was happening back in 1777? Well, the US adopted its stars and stripes flag, and the first version of the US Constitution was approved. That means Madame Tussauds modelled her first waxwork before the Constitution as we know it even existed.
Dominating the Southbank skyline, the London Eye has been a central London landmark since it formally opened to celebrate the new millennium on 31 December 1999. It didn’t open to the public until almost three months later though, which makes it ideal for a tricksy pub quiz question.
The Eye’s 32 capsules (one for each of London’s boroughs) move at a speed of 26cm per second, but there is no capsule No. 13 – a pretty common occurrence across the UK. A lot of hotels don’t have a room or even a floor numbered 13 either, although the origins of its unlucky associations remain unclear. Either way, it has stuck to British history and what was the world’s largest observation wheel at the time of opening has followed suit.
Covering over a thousand years of history across its 90-minute running time, The London Dungeon was quite the operation to build. A team of 300 people made the Dungeon possible, including a dedicated taskforce of 100 builders drilling through six-foot-thick walls and digging three stories down. If you want to know what dropping three stories feels like, The London Dungeon also has that covered.
Back in 2010, London commuters were so terrified of The London Dungeon advertising campaign – which saw Queen Mary transform before their very eyes into a zombie – that the digital posters had to be taken down. That said, they are a perfect example of what’s in store for visitors when The London Dungeon opens its doors again – complete with realistic unsettling smells, wildlife and one or two genuine human remains. Spooky.
Speaking of history, Warwick Castle has way more than its fair share. Prison, torture chamber, elegant home, fortress, central England tourist attraction… the vast walls have seen it all.
Revamped in the 16th century in time for a visit by Queen Elizabeth I – (we’ve all given our homes a quick spruce before an important guest, right?) – and home to the world’s most powerful catapult, it may surprise many to know that Warwick Castle was once owned by a two-year-old girl named Anne.
Anne inherited the estate from Henry de Beauchamp, the 1st Duke of Warwick, when he died in 1446. Sadly, she only held onto it for three years before her untimely passing at the age of five – but for those three years she had quite the pad to her name.
Another London landmark that’s impossible to miss, The Shard stands 306m tall – the height of 175 average-sized UK men standing on top of each other’s shoulders. Fact.
As well as boasting viewing platforms that spread across floors 68, 69 and 72, the tallest building in Western Europe also boasts a toilet that offers you a view from 244m above ground level whilst… umm… taking care of business.
If that wasn’t enough, the very top of The Shard hosts penthouses reportedly worth £50 million, with inarguably the best view of the city. Although finished in 2012, the penthouses remained vacant five years later as the wealthy reportedly turned their nose up at living south of the river. Three years later, they may well have some pretty high-profile residents.
Thorpe Park, one of the UK’s most popular theme parks, is quite literally its own island. Sure, there are roads to get you there, but its mixture of family friendly attractions, thrill rides and horror themed experiences are truly on a land of their own.
As well as boasting the world’s tallest wing coaster (The Swarm), the world’s first horror-themed roller coaster (Saw), the world’s steepest drop ride not controlled by brakes (also Saw) and being able to call itself the UK’s wettest theme park, thanks to all its water rides, Thorpe Park also sells over 750,000 donuts each year. They even have their own donut factory. Delicious.
ZSL London Zoo has been open since 1828 – the same year the United States elected its seventh president Andrew Jackson. They’re now on president No.45, if that helps build a timeline in your mind.
Having housed some of the world’s most famous animals since then – including some enthusiastic penguins – perhaps the furthest reaching is a female black bear called Winnie. Calling ZSL London Zoo home from 1914 until 1934, Winnie became the unsuspecting inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh. Until he visited the zoo with his son, Christopher Robin (where do we know that name from?), Winnie was actually known as just Pooh.
It’s impossible to miss the imposing Tower Of London on the banks of the River Thames in the very heart of the city. Built as a royal palace and a defence system, it was founded by William the Conquerer in the ever-eventful year of 1066 – a date that will send shudders down the spine of any school child studying British history.
There are many weird and wonderful stories about the Tower. It has hosted 22 executions, including that of Anne Boleyn – one of Henry VIII’s doomed wives – and it is rumoured to be haunted by a veritable army of ghosts, not least a grizzly bear who lived in the tower. It housed a zoo once, in case you were wondering.
Perhaps most peculiar of all is its flock of ravens. Superstition states that if all the ravens leave the Tower Of London, the entire kingdom will immediately fall. So embedded in history is the fable that each raven has their wings clipped to make sure the United Kingdom withstands.
Teenage wizard Harry Potter dominates the Warner Bros Studio Tour, a celebration of JK Rowling’s tale of magic and mischief that has delighted readers and film viewers across the globe since he first graced pages back in 1997. (Meaning anyone who was eight years old when the book first came out are now in their mid-thirties…)
The experience came to life in Leavesden as the final filmed wrapped up in 2010, and Warner Bros were left with thousands of props. Rather than throw them away – the everyday fate for most film memorabilia – they collated them into a one-of-a-kind celebration of all things Potter, opening their doors in 2012.
One of the centrepieces of the tour is the Great Hall, one of the first sets to be built for the film series and one that appears in all but one of the films (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 did without, for completists out there). When the hall’s House Points Counter was first built, they apparently caused a national shortage of beads. The counter itself often doesn’t even appear on screen, presumably to the dismay of bead enthusiasts across the country.
Visitors to the old Olympic Park in East London’s Stratford will undoubtedly have looked up at the unusual ArcelorMittal Orbit, designed by sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond. It’s unique structure blends together playfulness and innovative design, made of 35,000 bolts and a staggering amount of steel – enough to build 265 double-decker buses. Blimey.
It’s also the home of the ArcelorMittal Orbit Slide. A giant slide should be a fun enough fact in its own right, right? Well, add that it’s the world’s longest tunnel slide at 178m long, and we’ll see you at the top… again and again… and again.
Houses Of Parliament/Big Ben
London’s truly iconic Big Ben (yes, we know that’s the nickname of the bell and not the actual tower) may be undergoing some seriously needed renovation work, but that doesn’t hinder the jaw-dropping prominence of the river’s adjacent estate. Also known as the Palace of Westminster, it’s the location for – pretty much – all of the nation’s most important decisions. We imagine it to be like West Wing but with more tea.
Boasting the biggest medieval roof in England, as well as over three miles of corridors and more than 100 staircases, the Houses Of Parliament cover over eight acres of land. It even contains a shooting range, a hair salon and a gym. Boris on a treadmill, anyone?
Famed for tradition, the entire building is steeped in historic artefacts, paintings and grandiose embellishments. The Lord Speaker himself, whilst in the House of Lords, is even seated on a sack of wool. It is representative of Britain’s great wool trade, don’t you know.
Before Warwick Castle, the Houses of Parliament… before England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland… before, well anything we know now, Stonehenge was arguably the first major attraction on these lands. The first stones are rumoured to have been laid sometime between 2400 and 2200BC. England itself wasn’t a country until around 3000 years later, so that’s something.
Nobody knows just how or why Stonehenge exists, but its existence is certainly of importance. Adopted as a spiritual home by many, some of its stones travelled nearly 200 miles – which is quite the feat back in those pre-transportation days. Quarried in the Welsh town of Maenclochog, it is presumed they were selected for their ringing qualities. It might even have been thought that the rocks carried healing powers.
As more people dedicate their lives to working out the mystery, Stonehenge welcomes over a million visitors a year to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, especially on the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Discover more inspiration for enjoying UK attractions in our Days Out guide.