There’s no shortage of destinations that are sure to surprise the first-time traveler in the UK, whether that’s with their unique offering of regional cuisine, a thick accent, or ancient traditions. But where are the spots with the biggest culture shock in UK territory?
That’s what this guide is all about. It hops from the highlands of Scotland in the north all the way to the wave-washed beaches of Cornwall in the south, on the hunt for the regions and places that we think are likely to take you by surprise.
There’s a good mix, too…From Celtic lands of old Wales where castles sprout from the mountainsides to the rolling moors of Yorkshire and the happening inner-city districts of London, there’s something for all culture-vulture travelers in the offing. Let’s begin…
London is one of the biggest cities in the world. It would be hard for anyone who’s not dropping in from say, Shanghai or Karachi, to get their head around this sprawling megalopolis. Seriously – the size can be daunting. There’s a range of almost 32 miles from Dagenham in the east to Old Windsor in the west, and upwards of 24 miles from Croydon in the south to the town of Watford in the north.
But it’s not just the dimensions of London that mean it offers arguably the biggest culture shock in UK territory. It’s also the incredible diversity of the place. For example, although many a traveler will associate the first city of Old Blighty with vinegar-doused fish and chips and jellied eels, you’re actually more likely to come across a smoke-plumed Turkish shisha joint or a Nepalese curry kitchen.
But the multiculturalism of London is one of its major draws. The town has been a gathering point for peoples of all different backgrounds and faiths for decades. And it shows – mosques pop up between the hipster cafes of Camden, there are Jewish quarters in Homerton, whole rows of Bangladeshi curry houses down Brick Lane, and a Little Italy in the relatively sleepy area of Clerkenwell.
A couple of nights in the great big capital of England should be enough for any traveler to realize that sightings of grand Buckingham Palace and regal statues in St James’ Park are really just one side of the coin. The raw, authentic part of London is about culture shock after culture shock, what with its spice-plumed eateries and edgy art galleries. We love it!
Wales occupies a fair whack of the western portion of the mainland United Kingdom. It’s a country that’s millennia old, having been inhabited by Neolithic farmers as far back as 6,000 years BC. Later, the Romans came and conquered the place, but were eventually ousted in favor of fearsome Celtic and Brythonic tribes. They, in turn, then gave way to the fabled Welsh princes and warlords of the Middle Ages – people like Owain Glyndwr and Gruffydd ap Llywelyn.
Despite being conquered by the English under Edward I in the 1300s and 1400s, Wales still retains a clear and distinct sense of identity from the other home nations. For one, they don’t speak English in Wales. They speak Welsh, which at last count was one of the few growing minority languages in the whole of Europe. More topically, the Welsh have their own rugby team and football squad (ever heard of Gareth Bale?).
The point here is that anyone looking to hop across the border from England to Wales, or indeed anyone who ever meets a Welsh person anywhere on the planet, should be aware that there’s a difference between the two. Recognize that Wales has its own history, its own culture, its own capital. And never, ever ask if it’s a “town in England.” Please don’t do that!
If you think you can manage all that culture shock, then there’s plenty on the menu in these parts. The south is a land of wild beaches struck by surf waves. The north – around the soaring summit of Yr Wyddfa – is a place of mystical mountain beauty dotted with aged slate mines and fairy-tale villages.
No list of the places with the biggest culture shock in the UK could possibly miss out on Scotland. Located on the far northern end of the British Isles, it’s a country that’s proudly different to England in so many ways. In recent years, the cultural divergence between the two nations has even informed the debate around potential Scottish independence, something that came to a head in 2014 with the advent of a referendum on whether this should actually become a totally separate country in its own right.
Anyway…let’s not talk politics. Let’s talk history. Scotland was its own kingdom by the 9th century AD, forged from a series of separate regions that had suffered wars with the Romans and regular raids by Vikings over the centuries before. They famously fronted up to the English under the leadership of a certain William Wallace, later declaring independence from the crown in 1314. Said independence was short lived but it cemented the idea of Scotland as a standalone entity from the union, a sentiment that survives to this day.
Culturally, Scotland has plenty to shock the would-be traveler crossing the border from England. Bagpipes are one – you’ll hear them around every corner in Edinburgh. The food is another – the national dish here is a haggis, neeps, and tatties (sheep’s pluck and potatoes). Then there’s the terrain. Scotland hosts the highest mountains in the UK. They begin in Loch Lomond and range up to Wester Ross in a glorious show of barren ridges that’s like something out of Game of Thrones.
Cornwall is a downright stunning part of the UK. Poking out into the Atlantic Ocean from the West Country, it’s like a long, bent finger. The northern side (or, at least, they call it the north coast even though it kinda’ faces west) is a world of rugged bays and sweeping beaches, now famed for having the best surf in the country. The south is rockier and beset by coves and white-sand strips, dotted with resort towns and quaint villages.
A sense of independence and difference runs very deep in Cornwall. In fact, a drive for Cornish independence has been a thing since something like 1480, when an armed rebellion was launched to protect the right to tin mining in the county. There was another rebellion in 1497 against taxes introduced by Henry VII. More recently, there have been official government petitions to recognize Cornwall as an independent state and calls for a regional heritage body to manage the county’s history sites.
The most striking example of the unique Cornish culture surely comes on St Piran’s Day in March. It’s the celebration of the patron saint of the region and is officially observed in towns big and small, from Penzance to Redruth. Also notice the balmy temperatures – the south end of Cornwall is set apart from the UK in that it’s the only place in the country with a sub-tropical climate. St Ives has the palm trees to show for it, too!
Last but most certainly not least on our list of the places with the biggest culture shock in UK is Yorkshire. Ask a native of this northerly cut-out of the country where they’re from and they’ll hardly ever answer, simply, “England.” Most will say “Yorkshire,” or as many like to call it, “God’s Own Country”.
There’s no denying that Yorkshire is downright beautiful. It flits between bucolic valleys known as dales, where ancient farmsteads sit beside babbling rivers, up to windblown moors carved up by rough-stone walls. There’s a sense of rawness and raw beauty to it all that’s unique to the north, shared only by a few counties.
The history also helps to set Yorkshire apart. One trip to the stunning medieval city of York and you’ll be able to trace the long Viking past of this part of the UK. Head to the JORVIK Viking Centre for that, where you’ll see how the town was actually laid out by the hands of Scandinavian warriors way back when.
Yorkshire has more nuances. It’s famed for its hearty food – you haven’t been until you’ve sampled a fluffy Yorkshire pudding doused in gravy in a fire-warmed pub somewhere in the countryside. It’s also a bit of an incubator for fantastic cricketers, and it’s supplied Britain with some of its most-loved exports, from the Brontë Sisters to Wensleydale cheese.
The places with the biggest culture shock in UK – our conclusion
Don’t go thinking that just because the UK is relatively small that there’s nothing that can shock on the cultural side of things. On the contrary, there’s such amazing diversity in this island nation that we think you’re likely to be surprised from the get-go. You can find that things can change a whole load by simply hopping a single county line. Plus, there are separate nations to get through, from Wales in the west to Scotland in the far north.