How to spend a day out in St Albans
PUBLISHED: 16:33 07 October 2019
Hertfordshire’s only city, historic St Albans draws in visitors from across the world. Its mix of ancient and bang-on-trend make it a beguiling place
As a proud resident of St Albans, I'm bursting with ideas of places to go and things to see, and have given quite a number of guided tours to visiting friends. Sometimes though it's not until you detach yourself from the sites you're so used to seeing, the cobbled paths you're so used to walking and the coffee shops you're so used to haunting that you see the value in what you have, through the eyes of an outsider. Being 'a tourist' in my own town is something I love to do and it's the only way to discover new places that have popped up, hidden gems, and fresh perspectives.
You know St Albans is an important site of Roman history of course. So you can't visit without a trip to the Roman Theatre, the Roman ruins in Verulamium Park, and to explore one of the fascinating museums.
Not Roman, although built in part with stone plundered from ancient buildings and erected as a shrine to Britain's first saint, Alban, thought to have been killed on this spot by Roman soldiers, St Albans Cathedral is spectacular. Known by most as 'the abbey', it dominates the city skyline from atop a steep hill and has the longest nave in England.
Coffee and cake
I'm not a great fan of high street coffee chains - you can't beat supporting independent local businesses and trying somewhere different. Space is limited, so I suggest hitting these popular spots at off-peak times (or shadily standing around outside and nabbing a free table as soon as it appears).
Gail's, Market Place Your one stop shop for breakfast, lunch and light snacks. I guarantee you'll go in just wanting a coffee and end up ordering a delicious sweet or savoury item. I know I'm guilty. It all looks so damn tasty. My only 'chain' of choice, you'll find these dotted about some trendy areas of London too.
Nkora, Market Place In the same area as Gail's, and just up the road from St Albans Museum + Gallery, you'll be drawn in by the smell of coffee beans (but the wooden chairs mean you won't stay for long). Sometimes the queue is out the door but don't let that put you off - grab a take out and, on a sunny day, head to Vintry Garden by the cathedral.
Pudding Stop, Verulam Road There are so many reasons to visit this place and each of them is sweet, naughty and delicious. It's open early til late each day and Sunday night is movie night here - what's better than sinking into a chair with a treat, a free film and your best people? This is definitely on my to-do list. If you don't make it to the shop, where they also serve craft beers and 'pudding wines', look out for the Pudding Stop van, usually parked up around the Christopher Place end of town at weekends or at the train station on weekday evenings.
The Exquisite Peacock Emporium, The Maltings A relatively new addition to The Maltings shopping area, this is a heavenly pit stop in a central location. Shoppers flock here for a gorgeous-looking mocha and indulgent muffin with shopping bags engulfing their feet.
Of course this is purely my opinion, but you can't beat a trip to Waterstones (and naturally sink into a chair with a book and a coffee) and Clarks Camera Centre where you will most likely end up treating yourself to a vintage camera (at least I do!).
And a special shout out to the Shop On The Hill for being a constant source of jewellery inspiration (I wear a lot of rings). There's a tonne of independent stores (ok, and chains) waiting for you, it just depends what you're looking for... Here's my pick of the rest:
L A James of St Albans, George Street Just one of a cluster of antique shops on George Street, your retro fix starts now.
Lush, Victoria Street The smell of bath bombs will force you to walk in the door, I guarantee it.
The White Company, Christopher Place Your little bit of monochrome luxury for the home and body can be found in the designer area of the city.
Empire Records, High Street Independent record store open seven days a week with a treasure trove of new and used LPs.
Hotel Chocolat, The Maltings Indulgent treats have to happen, occasionally. Sample some of the tastiest chocolate here.
Beer Shop, London Road A one stop shop for craft beers and tasty trials on tap. Find it outside the main shopping district on your way to The Odyssey cinema.
Clinton's, St Peter's Street Yes, it's still here! The loveliest selection of cards and gift wrap in town.
Explore the High Street and smaller shopping areas of The Maltings and boutique stores of Christopher Place.
Check out the new St Albans Museum + Gallery, with its restored court room - in which you can enjoy a coffee - and jail, plus a large art gallery and exhibition spaces.
From Easter to the end of September the medieval Clock Tower is open at the weekend. It's worth the claustrophobic squeeze up the spiral staircase for a view over the historic city centre.
Afterwards, explore the two small shopping arcades opposite which also have plenty
of opportunities for a drinks stop. Don't forget that Holywell Hill, London Road and Chequer Street are all shopping areas too; they have a little less footfall but quirky shops worth perusing.
Walk through Waxhouse Gate and enter St Albans Cathedral from either side - take the left and you'll be entering the main visitor entrance or take the right path through the graveyard to see the grandeur of the building's front and enter straight into the nave. You'll find a shrine to St Alban and lots of awesome stained glass (and if you catch mass, the amazing smell of incense).
Descend the hill and grab an ice cream en route - you can usually find an ice cream van here - and when you're on level ground and can hear the faint murmur of the ancient Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub before you round the corner, you know you've found Verulamium Park.
Enjoy a stroll around the lake, not missing the Roman wall ruins and hypocaust, of course. Stop for refreshments at the Inn On The Park, and go and explore Verulamium Museum where you'll learn all about this important Roman site.
When you've finished, cross through the car park and do a loop around St Michael's churchyard. Pass the school, follow the road around to the left, and cross the main road to visit the Roman Theatre on the Gorhambury Estate. Coming back the same way, follow the road around the bend and walk through the very pretty St Michael's village. If you feel inclined, stop off at The Waffle House and, depending what takes your fancy, pick the trail back up at the entrance through to the park, or loop back around into the town centre via the quaint cottages of Fishpool Street.
Come rain or shine
Well, it is England. If it rains you'll be dry and entertained at these indoor spots:
- Restored Art Deco Odyssey Cinema
And on a sunny day, it's great to be outside in these green spaces - perfect for a picnic:
- Vintry Garden, adjacent to the cathedral.
- Verulamium Park.
- Clarence Park, ideal if you've come by train.