GREAT BRITAIN (United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland)
The greatest country on earth, a bit biased maybe, but for me it still is. It's not perfect, it doesn't have the beautiful desert scenery of Chile, the mountains and volcanoes of Ecuador, the beaches of Thai Islands, or the weather of Southern Spain. It does have incredibly beautiful scenery of it's own though, lush green countryside, gentle rolling hills, the jagged scottish mountains, lovely outlying Scottish islands, The slow life of the Fens, the giants causeway in Ireland, the quaint beaches of Dorset and Devon. GB is not just London and Stonehenge! Britain is made up of 4 distinct countries with their own traditions, languages (although all speak English) and governing body. Northern Ireland is the only one not connected to the mainland, Britain consists of Scotland, Wales and England, as sealed in 1707. The British Isles consists of Britain and all the various small islands off it's coast. These include The Isle of Man, The Channel Islands, The Isle of Wight, and all the Scottish islands of it's West and North coasts.
Northern Ireland is the only country i've never visited, it's so close i've not rushed to see it. The fact it has it's on and off trouble with mafia-style gangs based on religion doesn't endear me. I went to Scotland ('Alba' in the local gaelic) to see some friends, and decided to spend some more time seeing some of the country. Scotland is the looker when it comes to this nation, it has exceptionally beautiful coast lines, soaring mountains, wild and ragged islands, and long silent lochs. The Capital Edinburgh is full of grand buildings and monuments. The Scots call it 'The English City', or the 'Festival City' after the World's largest Arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival in August. I travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow, one of the toughest cities in the nation. It's history is based around ship building, although most of that industry is gone. Numerous reminders linger. I took the train from Glasgow to Mallaig, considered one of the 10 most beautiful rail journeys on earth, and they're not wrong. Mallaig is the ferry port for the Isle of Skye, and does a mean Fish & Chips. The sunsets on the Isle are amazing, the lonely mountains and big skies (see pic below).
Growing up in Herefordshire on the Welsh border, I've made numerous trips into Wales, and have been to most of it's parts. From countless hikes into the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons, to canoeing around the Isle of Anglesey, walking the Pembrokeshire coast and wandering the Dan Y Ogof caves. The Welsh scenery is as beautiful as that of Scotland, only a smaller scale. The Southern central area of Wales is taken by a lot of towns connected to the Mining industry, most of which has gone. As such it is blighted by poverty and dreary grey dwellings. One town I've been to a lot, is the border town of Hay on Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll in Welsh), which is home more second hand books than you could ever want. The main sellers are the large Cinema Bookshop, Castle Bookshop, and 2nd largest in the world, Booths, owned by an eccentric local.
As I was born English, I've spent nearly all my life living within her borders. I've also travelled much of the country. Whether around the gorgeous and relaxing yorkshire dales, with their small roads that bounce around small hills. Or chilling out in the artisan and beatnik town of Brighton on it's shingle beach. I grew up in Herefordshire, where the countryside is best admired from one of the many hills that dot the county. Traditional farms scatter the landscape, cut up by the River Wye. Symonds Yat is an area of outstanding beauty and wildlife. My earliest holidays with my family were down in the small towns with lovely sandy beaches on the Cornish coast, like St. Ives and the surfboard capital, Newquay. I've spent far too much time in Weston Super Mare, which isn't very super, and photoshops it's postcards to give it blue sea. It's actually brown due to being at the mouth of the mighty Severn estuary. It's neighbour to the north, Bristol, is the largest town in the West of England, and has an attractive University, as well as the traditional area of Clifton. When I lived in Herefordshire, all I could think about was escaping to a large metropolis like New York City or London. It's not very easy to move to New York, so I moved to London and never left. I love it here and am never bored, there are just too many possibilities. I use a Vespa Scooter to cover most distances, and also cycle and walk. Cycling through the great parks like WImbledon Common and Richmond Park can't be beat on a warm sunny day. On the few weekends when it's hot, I like nothing more than to disappear out of London into the lovely surrey countryside and head to Great WIndsor Park. Just sitting and chilling by the lake on the clipped lawns. My adventures in the UK are not over, and even though I've seen a lot, there's still more to see. Such as the Lake District, Fens, Cotswolds, Cusine capital Ludlow...
Language: English (Welsh in parts of Wales, Gaelic in remote parts of Scotland)
Currency: Pound Sterling
Visa: Most Western countries don't require a visa.
Plug: British 2 flat horizontal pins, with vertical flat pin in triangle arrangement
GMT: GMT 0 (+1 BST)
GDP Ranking (IMF): #22 £22,830
Communications: Country code is +44
Health: No vaccinations or preventative medicines are needed for GB. Social health care is available to residents, and hospitals are of good standard and in most towns.
When to Visit: Contrary to the common image, it doesn't rain all the time in Great Britain. The UK has lots of different climatic areas, with the South West and South East (including London) being the driest. The centre and north of the country tend to be the wettest. The UK has cold winters and warm summers. June to August will see temperatures usually over 20c. Late April and May tend to be surprisingly warm and sunny. In England and Wales, temperatures rarely dip far below 0c in the winter months. Late June to mid August are the school holiday months, when tourist sites and accommodation will be the most busy.
Personal Safety: Outside of large cities, crime is unlikely to effect the visitor. Towns popular with tourists are likely to be targets for petty crime, mainly pickpocketing. Areas of bigger cities, particularly Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London should be avoided if alone at night, although well lit populated central areas will be fine. Areas around train stations tend to be a bit dodgy. Certain neighbourhoods are best avoided, for example Brixton (after dark), Peckham and Tottenham in London, Moss side in Manchester, St. Pauls in Bristol, and the Gorbals/East End areas in Glasgow. Gangs of youths are particularly best avoided, they will usually be armed with knives and willing to use them. However, as in most places, it's very rare for a tourist to be a victim.
Getting Around: The UK has excellent transport links to all parts of the country. Rail reaches most towns, however prices are high if turning up on the day. It's best to pre-book up to 6 weeks before hand to get cheaper prices. Use trainline.com or other sites, prices rarely differ. Most towns have intercity buses (Megabus or National Express being the main traders), and local buses that go to villages and the nearest big town. Ferries ply their trade to all islands, as well as to Eire, France and the low countries (Benelux). Planes ply most large metropolis, although it's usually quicker to get the train, apart from London to Scotland and Belfast. Hiring a car is another good option, although most roads are busy and all towns and cities have parking costs of one kind or another. If hiring a car, remember Brits drive on the left.
What to see/do: With thousands of years of history, and centuries as a global superpower, one can spend years seeing all the sights the country has to offer. Most tourists will likely just visit London, Oxford and Stonehenge, on the tourist triangle. But there is so much more to see for those stepping off the tourist trail. Most tourists heading out of London stop off at Windsor Castle for their castle visiting. However, 80 miles North is the gorgeous Warwick Castle, which you can explore and see medieval activities. While in the Midlands, head to Ironbridge, where iron was formed into structures for the first time. A period town exists to give a glimpse into Victorian Britain. The Lake District is very popular for those looking to see 'quaint' Britain, and do some hiking. Less popular, but equally attractive is Snowdonia, in North Wales. Bournemouth is a very popular holiday resort on the south coast, with a nightlife to match. But around the corner is a natural arch into the sea and less crowded beach at Durdle Door. Nearby is the very pretty Lulworth Cove. For those looking for a more raw experience and avoid the crowds, head to the Scottish isles, where beautiful scenery and a slower way of life exists. The Isle of Skye is very scenic, and the Outer Hebrides or the Orkney Isles even better. Although not advised during Winter! For those looking for more traditional and quaint areas of England, head to Yorkshire and it's welcoming warm attitude. The town of Holmfirth was the setting for a popular comedy TV show in the UK, and is as real as it gets. With a hire car, pop out to village pubs in the surrounding area for a pint.
London is something of a country in itself, and recommending what to do in one of the most well known and busiest cities on earth is a bit of a challenge. Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Buckingham Palace, Regent and Oxford St make up the main tourist areas. With Harrods over in Knightsbridge and Camden Market on the weekends. The main museum quarter is around South Kensington, with the Science, Natural History and Victoria & Albert all here. Galleries are a bit further spaced out, with the Tate Britain in Pimlico, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and the Tate Modern further East again in Bankside, near to the Shakespeare's theatre. Theatres are a plenty in London, mostly based around Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue area. Cinemas also abound in this zone. London's nightlife has suffered the closure of many of it's largest nightclubs over the years, and now has many small venues. A large number are based in East London, especially in the Shoreditch area and Brick Lane. Kew Gardens is in a leafy wealthy area of London, and contains lots of plants from all over the world. Nearby is Richmond, gateway to the huge Richmond Park, once used by Royalty to hunt deer. For up to date info on events and festivals in London, check here.
Food & Drink: Contrary to the opinions held by some nations, British food is great! Especially when some Americans think we eat squirrel and chipmunk, the latter is not even native to Britain. Traditional dishes have to be hunted down, in a sea of restaurants offering everything from Indian and Chinese to Ethiopian and Vegetarian Nepalese. Traditional dishes include the Scottish favourite Haggis (Sheep's innards, oatmeal and spices in a sheeps stomach), usually eaten on Burns day. Most other Scottish dishes are based around fish, such as Arbroath Smokies (wood-smoked haddock), Cullen Skink (haddock based soup) and traditional wild river caught Salmon. When waking up in a cold scottish Glen/isle, Porridge (oats and milk) is a common breakfast. Wales can offer Laverbread (seaweed mixed with oatmeal) often served with Monkfish, Leek Soup (The Leek is a national symbol of Wales), Cawl (A soup with lamb and leek) and Glamorgan Sausage (a non meat sausage). Food in Northern Ireland is similar to that of it's Southern Neighbour, Eire (Ireland). So Irish Stew is made with beef, not lamb as in the south.
England has a whole host of traditional dishes, but the way to the start the day, particularly if out sampling drinks the night before, is to have a 'Full English Breakfast'. The content varies, but usually involves sausages (meat (usually pork) and starch in a tubular skin), bacon, fried or scrambled egg, baked beans, fried tomato and mushrooms with fried bread. Wash this down with a mug of 'Builder's Tea'. You'll be full for the rest of the day, however if you need a snack during the day, try a sandwich (a filling between two slices of bread), available in countless varieties on every town and cities high streets. For lunch time on a Sunday, it's something of a tradition to head to a pub and have a sunday roast (slices of beef/pork/chicken, vegetables and yorkshire pudding (made from batter) with gravy (meat based warm sauce)). There are too many dishes to list here, but some traditional English foods to look out for include: Lancashire Hotpot (lamb with onion topped with sliced potato), Steak & Kidney Pie (beef and kidney with onion and gravy), Toad in the Hole (Sausage in yorkshire pudding batter), Stargazy Pie (Pilchards with egg and potatoes in a pie), Ploughman's Lunch (slab of cheese, pickle, thick bread and sometimes salad), and the easily available, Fish & Chips.
Britain also has a large selection of desserts, mostly based around available fruit, such as Apple/Rhubarb/Plum crumble/pie, Eton Mess (strawberries with cream and meringue), Gooseberry/Strawberry/Rhubarb Fool (fruit puree with cream and sugar). Other desserts include personal favourites Treacle Tart (pastry, golden syrup, lemon juice and breadcrumbs), Sticky Toffee Pudding (steamed cake with dates or prunes and toffee sauce, served with either custard or ice cream) and Trifle (Solid Custard, jelly, fruit, sponge cake and loads of whipped cream). Britain's cheese varieties should also be tried, with plenty to choose from, including Stilton, Cheddar, Wensleydale, double gloucester, Caerphilly, Somerset Brie, Hereford Hop, and Croglin's Cheese.
Other notes: British English differs from American English in a few ways, some words are pronounced differently or spelt differently. Most Brits will know what you mean. Soccer is an American word, Brits call it Football.