Hertfordshire: it's the Home County immediately north of the capital. London's roof, if you will. And while it might not have the beaches of Sussex, the hills of Surrey nor the fame of Kent and Essex, it still has a remarkable selection of day trips up its sleeves. Here are a dozen or so of our favourites, with brief travel information if coming from London.
Visit the historic city of St Albans
Trains from St Pancras.
There are few day trips out of London more alluring than St Albans. Astonishingly, you can get there from central London in just 18 minutes if you catch the right train out of St Pancras. What you'll find is picturesque old town with significant Roman remains, a museum and cafe built into an old court house (complete with jail cells), cute boutique shops, cafes galore and some of the best (and oldest) pubs in the country. You could spend a pretty fulfilling day exploring Verulamium Park alone. St Albans is fashioned around a magnificent cathedral (free entry), which houses the remains of the nation's first saint (no prizes for guessing). Read our full guide to London's closest city.
Romans under the motorway
Junction 6 of A1(M), or short taxi ride from Welwyn North station.
Herts has a lot of Roman stuff. The most remarkable must surely be the Welwyn Roman Baths. Here, you can walk full circle around the remains of a villa bathhouse of 1750 years ago. The most unusual aspect, though, is the setting. The remains are housed in a steel, temperature controlled room directly beneath the A1(M) motorway. Millions of people drive over this little bit of history each year without ever realising it.
Hatfield House: for fans of the Elizabethan
Junction 3 of the A1(M) or a short walk from Hatfield station.
Hertfordshire's most famous pile is a gorgeous Jacobean mansion with close links to Elizabeth I (and II). The future queen spent much of her childhood here, and several buildings from that era survive. The house is full of items connected to the Virgin Queen, including a very early pair of silk stockings. The grounds go on for ever and are also a mecca for Lizophiles — Elizabeth's Oak, where the Queen learnt of her regal promotion, is in the grounds, but is a replacement tree planted by the second Elizabeth.
Oh, and be sure to also pop into the neighbouring church of St Etheldreda, the final resting place of two British Prime Ministers, and where you can see this peculiar memorial to a Tudor mother and daughter.
Knebworth: dinosaurs and formal gardens
Junction 7 of the A1(M), or taxi ride from Stevenage station.
It was a dark and stormy night. Somewhere a dinosaur roared. That's a cryptic way of introducing Knebworth House and gardens, an absolute jewel on the banks of the A1. The famously cliched opening line was penned at the house by former occupant Edward Bulwer-Lytton (that's his lanky effigy in the image above). The dinosaurs came much later with the opening of a very densely populated dinosaur trail. The grounds are a joy to explore, while the play fort is one of the best our kids have ever conquered.
Paradise Wildlife Park: with bonus speedway
10 mins north of Junction 25 of the M25, or taxi from Broxbourne station.
Hertfordshire's other big dino trail can be found at this mid-sized zoo near Broxbourne. They're more recent, and a degree more toddler-terrifying than those at Knebworth, and can be viewed either on foot or by miniature train. Non-extinct wildlife can be found throughout the wider park, including a cheetah enclosure in which the big cats will come right up to you (behind safety glass). In an odd twist, the National Speedway Museum is also on-site and included with your ticket.
Hertford to Ware towpath
Trains from Moorgate or St Pancras (Hertford North), and Liverpool Street (Ware).
If you fancy a walk outside London, then this canalside amble is practically perfect. First, you get to explore the rather lovely towns of Hertford and Ware (both of which have excellent pubs to bookend your walk). Second, the trip is entirely beside water, following the course of the River Lea. It's only about 3.5 miles, which is long enough to enjoy the scenery and feel you've got some exercise, but short enough to not feel like hard work. Finally, both towns have direct rail links to London, making the whole trip straightforward.
The OTHER Natural History Museum
Regular trains from Euston to Tring (the station is a bit of a trek from the town centre).
The extreme western claw of Hertfordshire sequesters one of its best museums. The Natural History Museum at Tring is an outpost of the more famous South Kensington attraction. The country cousin is much smaller, but packs plenty in. Much of the collection comprises stuffed animals from around the world, but they're superbly displayed. While you're in the area, take a walk around the woods and hills that surround Tring, along the well-marked footpaths.
The obvious one: Harry Potter Studio Tour
Regular shuttle buses from Watford Junction, or free on-site car park.
You hardly need us to tell you about this much-advertised studio tour, on which you can see costumes, sets and props from the Warner Bros blockbusters. It's by far Hertfordshire's most popular attraction, and easily reached from Watford.
Ride the model train at Cassiobury Park
Best reached by Metropolitan line to Watford, though the park also has a large car park (watch out for the 30mph limit and speed camera on what looks like a much-faster Rickmansworth Road).
For Londoners without cars, Cassiobury Park is one of the most accessible parts of Herts. It's right next to Watford underground station on the Met line. In terms of just being park-ish, Cassiobury would be a match for any of London's Royal Parks. It has waterside walks, a sprawling playground, a splash park, a neat little cafe and some truly impressive mature trees. Best of all, a miniature railway will speed you around the park's western fringes.
Explore Historic Berkhamsted
More pretty walks can be found around the nearby town of Berkhamsted. The town itself is a bit of a gem, with a well-preserved high street running parallel to the dainty River Bulbourne. Its most famous feature is Berkhamsted Castle — a ruined hilltop fort that's free to explore. It was built in the time of the Conqueror and found itself at the centre of numerous sieges and feuds over the centuries. These days it's all at peace, and makes for a very pleasant picnic spot.
And finally... ride the Magic Roundabout in Hemel
You'll need a car to fully experience this one, though you can appreciate its majesty from the neighbouring multistorey car park.
Hemel Hempstead is a typical Hertfordshire New Town, with a pedestrianised high street leading up to the older village — fun to explore if you like varied architecture, but nothing to get excited about. What Hemel does have, though, is one of the UK's most notorious roundabouts. Dubbed the Magic Roundabout, this is a torus of six mini-roundabouts arranged just like a benzene ring (for any chemistry grads who happen to be reading). It even has a river through the middle. Navigating around it is mildly terrifying but one of those experiences every driver should try at least once.
All images by the author, except that last one because Google had a much better aerial view than the one we took from the multistorey.