What were they for? How did they get here? What do they mean? So many questions surround the ring of massive prehistoric stones found at Stonehenge and the fact that we’ll probably never have any concrete answers only adds to the mystery and allure of the site.
Ancient burial ground, a place of healing, a venue for important ceremonies or worship, a way to study the stars. Many speculations have been made over the years as to what Stonehenge ultimately was used for, but even in an era where nearly every question can be answered via a quick search into Google, we still don’t know the exact purpose Stonehenge served for the people who built it. Scientists and historians can’t even agree on precisely how it came to be here. (Although, general consensus these days is that it probably wasn’t the work of aliens or wizards. Bummer.)
Constructed somewhere around 5,000 years ago, each stone weighing several tons and requiring transport from miles away, the mystery of just how these stones ended up in perfect architectural symmetry in the middle of the English countryside, long before modern machinery would have made it a much simpler feat, is perhaps what entices so many people to visit this ancient iconic site year after year.
Stonehenge, together with nearby Avebury which features the largest stone circle in the world, is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most-visited cultural monuments in the UK. From London, Stonehenge and Avebury are just a scenic, two-hour’s drive away, and the best way to visit both sites is via a good, old-fashioned day trip.
How to Visit Stonehenge & Avebury on a Day Trip from London
If you’re planning to visit both Stonehenge and Avebury on a day trip from London, you’ve got two options:
The Organized Tour
This is the best choice if you’re not entirely confident in your left-side-of-the-road driving skills, or if you prefer to have a guide to lead you around the sites.
Several different companies offer Stonehenge and Avebury day trips from London, the going rate of which is currently around £80/person including entrance fees into Stonehenge. (Avebury is free to visitors.) As we didn’t choose this option ourselves, I can’t recommend a specific company to use, but a quick read through online reviews should help you decide which company’s tours you’re best-suited for.
The DIY Option
For independent travelers who don’t like to be strapped to a specific schedule (and can safely drive on the left), the DIY option will likely be best.
For this option, if you don’t already have a car, you’ll need to rent one. In London, we always found the best deals with Enterprise, but you may want to shop around just in case. If you’re hoping to beat the crowds to Stonehenge, I suggest picking up your car the night before so you’ll be ready to leave first thing in the morning. This is what we did, and although the weather forced us to leave too late to beat the crowds, it made our day trip to Stonehenge and Avebury run much smoother. After you’ve got your car, all you need is a full tank of petrol and your GPS pointing to Stonehenge and you’re ready to go!
Visiting Stonehenge: The Experience
We probably brought this on ourselves planning a trip to Stonehenge on a weekend in late November, but instead of the clear skies our weather app assured us we’d experience over the weekend, we woke up the morning of our day trip to Stonehenge to snow. Just flurries, but enough that we weren’t sure if getting on the road for two hours would be the right thing to do. So, instead of leaving London early like we’d hoped and arriving at Stonehenge just before opening time, we ended up waiting an hour to see what the weather would do before deciding we could risk it.
Luckily, as we made the drive west, the snow stopped and the clouds parted revealing those clear, blue skies the weatherman had promised us. However, since we left much later than expected, we missed arriving before opening and Stonehenge was already super busy. Like, way busier than I ever would have expected on a freezing cold Saturday in November. Those people-free shots in the early morning light I was hoping to get definitely weren’t going to happen now.
Tip #1 – Tickets into Stonehenge are timed entry. To ensure you get the timeslot you prefer, buy your tickets online. (They’re slightly cheaper this way, and you won’t have to pay for parking!) You can purchase tickets on arrival at the visitor center, but you’ll have to wait in the queue and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the time you were hoping for.
Tip #2 – To avoid paying an extra fee for an audio guide, plus having to wait in a separate queue to get it, download a free one to your phone before you go.
We had already bought our tickets online, so we were able to skip the ticket queue and head straight for the shuttle buses, which also had a queue. After a 5-minute ride, we were let off on a quiet road a short distance from the actual Stonehenge site. It was almost 11:00, and the sun high in the sky as we meandered up a well-worn dirt path, joined a few hundred other people along the outer rim of a boundary rope, and cast our eyes onto … a collection of gigantic rocks in a field.
It was just as underwhelming as it sounds.
Unless you manage to score an after-hours private tour (which requires special permission far in advance and costs double the price, details here), you’re not actually allowed into the area where the stones are. All you can do is walk around the perimeter of the rope and look at the famous stones of Stonehenge from a considerable distance, which, let’s be honest, really isn’t all that exciting.
Tip #3 – Visitors to Stonehenge tend to congregate along the area of the rope closest to the stone circle (for obvious reasons), but if you head over to the opposite side, there’s more breathing room and, in my opinion, better opportunities for more interesting photos.
Tip #4 – Speaking of photos, since there isn’t much else to do at Stonehenge than capture evidence to prove you’ve been there, you’ll want to bring your best camera. If you can, try to visit anytime other than mid-day when shadows and other visitors are at their peak. Opening time and sunset will offer the best light.
We spent a little over half an hour walking around Stonehenge, and while I guess it was cool to get to see such an iconic place in person, I just couldn’t get into it. Even the pictures I took fell completely flat.
I tried to do the artistic minimalist thing, and got a picture of rocks … with lots of sky.
Even sun stars couldn’t spare me from capturing the most basic Stonehenge photos ever. It’s hard to take anything here that hasn’t already been done ten thousand times before. I ended up giving up and taking photos of the sheep that graze on the farmland beside Stonehenge instead.
Maybe it was because I couldn’t really grasp the magnitude of what it took to build Stonehenge while we were there. Or maybe it was because it was below freezing outside and the wind blowing in our faces made us feel like we were standing directly in front of a jet propeller. We couldn’t even hear our audio guides over the force of it. (There is nothing around to break the wind out here, so it was pretty miserable.) But we all just felt sort of bored, which feels terrible to admit about such an important piece of history.
Possibly if we’d visited on a more pleasant day, where we could have listened to the story of Stonehenge while we wandered around the perimeter of the stones, we would have enjoyed it more. I know for sure we would have enjoyed it more were we able to actually enter the area with the stones, but as it was, my favorite part of the whole experience was heading back to the visitor center and exploring the museum there because it was heated. Ha!
Tip #5 – If the weather’s nice and you’re up for some exercise, you can skip the shuttle on the way back and take the 1.5-mile scenic walk to the visitor center instead. The countryside is beautiful out here.
Tip #6 – The museum at Stonehenge is actually pretty decent. There are recreations of Neolithic houses from the era when Stonehenge was built, plus an exhibition area featuring fascinating objects and history that attempt to explain some of the mysteries surrounding Stonehenge.
Back in the car, we questioned whether it was worth it to keep going considering the weather clearly had it in for us, but I’m so glad we did because getting to see the stones at our next destination completely made up for any disappointment we felt at Stonehenge!
How to Get to Avebury from Stonehenge
Although not quite as architecturally significant as Stonehenge, the stone circle that surrounds the village of Avebury is famous for being the largest in the world. Its winding path through the open countryside allows for a more “hands on” experience, so if you were a little bummed about not being able to get close to the stones at Stonehenge, you’ll definitely enjoy visiting Avebury.
Avebury is about 25 miles north of Stonehenge. Just plot Beckhampton Road into your GPS, hop on the A360, and you’ll be there in about 40 minutes. The official parking lot for Avebury is at 1 Beckhampton Road. If you’re a National Trust or English Heritage member, you can park for free. The rest of us have to pay £7 for all-day parking or £4 after 3pm. Steep fees for parking, I know, but the site is free, so parking will be your only cost.
Visiting Avebury: The Experience
The National Trust parking lot at Avebury is perfectly situated for visiting the stone circles. As soon as we parked and started walking out into the adjacent field, there they were – a beautiful trail of gigantic upright stones for us to follow through the countryside. No ticket queues, no shuttles, no rope separating us from what we were coming to see, no selfie sticks to dodge. Just us, sharing a hundred ancient stones and the gorgeous English countryside with a handful of sheep.
We first followed the trail of the outer ring (the famous one) and then entered the middle of the monument where two smaller stone circles once stood, but only small remnants of them remain today. I loved being able to wander around freely, running my hands over the stones and admiring their character and imperfections. At the risk of using a word that’s practically lost its meaning these days, with the tourism element removed, Avebury just felt so much more authentic than Stonehenge. Having the opportunity to get up close and personal with something as old as these stones was just incredible. How they are even still here after 5,000 years of weather and modernization just blows my mind!
Tip #1 – Wear good walking shoes, or wellies if it’s been raining.
Tip #2 – Watch out for sheep poo. It’s like these sheep have never been taught to use a litter box or something. So primitive. :)
Besides the stone circles, there are a few other things worth checking out in Avebury, too, all within walking distance. Silbury Hill, the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, and West Kennet Long Barrow, a Neolithic burial tomb, are worth a peek. As is the village of Avebury, which is tiny, but cute and offers a couple souvenir shops, a National Trust museum, and a pub.
Final Thoughts – Obviously, if you made it through this whole post, you’ll know we enjoyed visiting Avebury loads more than Stonehenge. That’s not to say Stonehenge isn’t worth visiting, though. (It totally is, especially if you can join one of the private tours that provide access into the stone circle.) I just think it’s best visited with Avebury. Do the touristy thing, see the icon, but then go the extra mile and visit the one that’ll make you feel like you’ve just discovered one of history’s best-kept secrets. It’s worth it.
Nearby Towns to Visit with Stonehenge and Avebury
Always ones to make the most out of every situation – in this instance, having access to a car – we combined our day trip to Stonehenge and Avebury with a visit to the charming English village of Lacock. (Read more about our Harry Potter-themed visit to Lacock.) We loved this little town so much, but it’s not the only one worth visiting in this area. A few other good choices would be:
Castle Combe – West of Avebury, a bit further out than Lacock, is the town of Castle Combe. Set in the Wiltshire Cotswolds, this town looks straight out of a Hollywood movie. I really regret not getting to see it with my own eyes while we lived in England.
Bradford-on-Avon – An ancient market town along the river, Bradford-on-Avon features all sorts of unique shops and restaurants in a beautiful setting. There’s also an old bridge in town with a lovely view of the hills.
Salisbury – For those looking to dig a little deeper into the area’s history, Salisbury offers the opportunity to visit Salisbury Cathedral which contains one of the four original Magna Carta manuscripts. Also here is Salisbury Museum which gives a deeper insight into what you’ll see at Stonehenge and Avebury.
Bath – Featuring natural hot springs and gorgeous, honey-colored architecture, Bath is one of my favorite towns in the area. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do and see everything here in a single day (especially combined with Stonehenge and Avebury), taking a walk through the city and visiting the Roman Baths is a must.
If you started early enough in the morning, you should have no problem combining Stonehenge and Avebury with any one of the towns listed above. Just keep your eye on the time so that you can make it back to London in time to return your car before closing (assuming you picked it up the night before to get an early start).
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