(Last updated on: 06/01/2021)
There are many must-see Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. Whether you are exploring the UK from overseas or looking for the perfect staycation, there are plenty of rural tourism destinations to keep you busy in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In this article I will tell you about the best places to visit- the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK that should be on your ticket list!
What are Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK?
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK are certain places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland that have been designated for conservation due to being particularly beautiful and adding value to the area. They are usually countryside spaces. Abbreviated to AONBs, these areas are designated by the relevant public body in each part of the UK:
- Natural England
- Natural Resources Wales
- Northern Ireland Environment Agency
(Note- Scotland’s National Scenic Areas are the equivalent to AONBs in the rest of the UK).
The designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK are protected in similar ways to the UK National Parks. However, the bodies responsible for this have no planning powers. There is also limited opportunity for much outdoor recreation at AONBs. These areas are labelled as such in order to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the designated landscape’. The secondary aims for AONBs are to meet the need for quiet enjoyment of the countryside, and to have regard for the interests of those who live and work there. You can now see the boundaries of all of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England on Google Maps, thanks to a successful campaign by the National Association of AONBs.
All of the AONBs are, as you might imagine, are beautiful. Below you will find 10 of the best Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK, how to get there and some things to do too!
Established as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1967, Anglesey covers 85 square miles. Located on the Isle of Anglesey off the north-west coast of Wales, the Anglesey AONB covers a third of the island – predominantly coastline, but also Holyhead Mountain and Mynydd Bodafon. Around 7000 people live within the Anglesey AONB boundaries.
With holiday destinations and plenty of things to do, it is no surprise that this is one of the most popular Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK for visitors. Sandy beaches and mountain walks make for the perfect day out!
To get to Anglesey you need to drive via the A55 which you can access from the M56, M6, M53 and M54 as well as the city of Chester in England. You can reach nearby parts of Wales (such as Bangor, Holyhead and Rhyl) by train from London, Crewe, Manchester and Warrington.
There are so many places to stay in Anglesey. From Llanfair Hall with its log cabin and peaceful glamping pods in a secluded area to the stunning Beach Motel in Trearddur Bay overlooking an amazing Blue Flag Beach, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Old coach houses have been turned into hotels, and there are so many holiday cottages to pick from too.
For things to do in Anglesey, you won’t run out of ideas too quickly. There are so many beaches to visit – the sand is just waiting to be turned into castles, and the views are spectacular too. With coastal walks a-plenty, water sports, boat trips, old buildings to discover and so much more, a trip to Anglesey is a must if you’re looking for a UK break somewhere beautiful. Seawake offer some brilliant boat trips in the area, and there are some stunning National Trust properties in this part of Wales too.
#2 Giant’s Causeway
Most people have heard of Giant’s Causeway, and it definitely is one of the most famous Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. Located on the north coast of Northern Ireland, it isn’t far from Bushmills. As well as being an AONB, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of it is owned by the National Trust. From the Chimney Stacks to the Giant’s Boot, there is plenty to see here.
To access Giant’s Causeway by road, drive via the B147 Causeway road. There is on-site parking for visitors. A park and ride service is on offer between March and October from Bushmills Village. There are various other public buses too. You can reach the area by train from Belfast or Londonderry, if you get a train to Coleraine and change to a bus connection – the Ulsterbus 172.
The best thing to do at Giant’s Causeway is walk. Whether you prefer a gentle stroll or a more invigorating hike, there is bound to be a route to suit you. Take your camera and make sure you capture some of the scenery that makes this one of the favourite Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. Depending on what time of year you visit, there are different events taking place here. There is even a Saint Patrick’s Day Leprechaun Hunt!
The Causeway Hotel is one of the best places to stay when visiting the area. It is just a 5 minute walk from the Giant’s Causeway, and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. They do beautiful food here, too! Other options include the Bushmills Inn and the Smuggler’s Inn, both highly recommended by previous guests and offering easy access to Giant’s Causeway.
#3 Quantock Hills
For a Jurassic coastline covered in the most amazing flora you could possibly imagine, Quantock Hills is an incredible choice. The hills are privately owned, and usually visited mostly by people who live nearby. The biodiversity here is incredible. If you are interested in nature, plants and wildlife, the area is well worth visiting. You’ll be able to get an insight into the history of this part of Somerset, and the views will take your breath away.
To access Quantock Hills, the 28 bus from Sedgemoor is ideal. To drive, access the A38 and A39 from the M5 – there are car parks in the area. When looking for places to stay, choose from a variety of campsites. Mill Farm, Moorhouse Campsite and Currypool Mill come highly recommended. There are also plenty of holiday cottages and hotels nearby.
For things to do in the area, walking is the number one. You can explore this beautiful green space with its hills and coastal paths on foot no matter what your walking ability is. You can also cycle or horse ride here! Head to the visitor centre to pick up a map and see what route suits you – this is located at Fyne Court, once the home of Andrew Crosse, an early pioneer of electricity. Nether Stowey is nearby, too. This is the start of the 51-mile Coleridge Way, and was once the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – a famous Romantic poet.
#4 Blackdown Hills
Located in Devon, Blackdown Hills has been one of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK since 1991. You can access the Blackdown Hills by car from the M5 at junctions 25 to 29, or by train at nearby Taunton, Honiton or Axminster. Buses are few and far between, here!
There is so much to see here. From the beautiful nature itself to Hembury Hillfort – a prehistoric hill fort with huge defence ramparts – and plenty of nature reserves, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Mires and commons, moors and bogs: there is a little bit of everything in this incredibly biodiverse area of England. Walk, cycle or ride a horse through the Blackdown Hills and take in the amazing scenery.
Places to stay here are abundant, too. The Belfry at Yarcombe is an award-winning B&B in a historic school building, and Blackdown Views is a brand new eco-house that combines sustainability with luxury! With holiday cottages and campsites in the area too, you won’t struggle to find accommodation for your trip to one of the best Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK.
This was the first of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK to be designated as such, back in 1956. Chosen for it’s amazing limestone coast and the huge variety of natural habitats here, you really will be wowed by the scenery. Dramatic coasts and award-winning beaches make for somewhere that will take your breath away…
Part of the Swansea Bay area, you can access Gower by car, train and more. The M4 is your route into this part of Wales, and you can get trains here from all over the UK. You can even fly into Swansea Bay from Gatwick, Heathrow, Cardiff and Bristol Airports. There are frequent bus services from Swansea to Gower Monday through Saturday.
Explore the Vile of Rhosili and its remarkable wildlife, or walk the coast and admire the bright blue sea. Hop between the traditional villages in the area and potter down their lanes, stopping for refreshments along the way. There are endless things to do and see in Gower! With four National Trust properties too, you’ll never get bored here.
If you’re looking for places to stay in Gower, there are a handful of stunning hotels to choose from. From Oxwich Bay Hotel (a cosy seaside property with its own restaurant) to the Culver House Hotel, a 19th-century house with modern suites inside, there will definitely be something that suits you!
#6 Mendip Hills
The Mendip Hills are one of the more famous Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. Located in Somerset, you can combine a visit here with a trip to the Quantock Hills above. Many people also choose to visit the famous Cheddar Gorge and the smallest city in the UK, Wells, during their trip too.
Designated in 1972, the Mendips are a range of limestone hills. There are three nationally important semi-natural habitats which are characteristic of the area. These are ash–maple woodland, calcareous grassland and mesotrophic grassland. Thanks to these, there is an abundance of flora and fauna to discover.
Access the Mendip Hills from the M5 and A38 from the west, or the A37 and A39 from the south. You can also access Mendip by bus from many major train stations nearby (such as Bath Spa, Castle Cary and Yatton) if you don’t drive!
This is one of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK with the most things to do. Offering access to the Wookey Hole Caves and with long-distance footpaths in place, caving and walking are two popular activities here. Simply strolling around the hills and admiring the view is enough for many people, though. The nearby towns and villages, such as Axbridge, and the Strawberry Line are perfect for resting in between walks, too.
Hotels are plentiful here. Harptree Court is an 18th-century B&B with its own treehouse and free Wi-Fi, while Feather Down Cheddar Gorge offers gorgeous log cabins for your trip. There are barns, farms, campsites and more. You’ll easily find somewhere to get your head down!
#7 Ring of Gullion
This place is completely unique. With semi-wild heaths, bogs and woodland as well as neat fields, this is a ring of low, rugged hills. They form a natural rampart around the Slieve Gullion Mountain. There are, of course, many myths and legends associated with this Northern Irish AONB. It oozes history and charm, and its beauty really is outstanding.
There is so much geology and biodiversity here. A great way to explore it is through a self-guided audio tour or with one of many experienced tour guides. They are able to bring the area to life with their local knowledge. Learn about the history and nature of this fascinating part of Northern Ireland. Taking a simple stroll through the Ring of Gullion will leave you feeling tranquil, that’s for sure.
Access the Ring of Gullion from either Belfast or Dublin via the Forkhill B113. Look out for signs to Slieve Gullion Forest Park. There are no public transport options that lead directly to this AONB.
There are various hotels within a few miles of the mountain and the Ring of Gullion. Carrickdale Hotel has beautiful spacious gardens, and the Killeavy Castle Estate gives you the chance to stay in an actual Irish castle! There are cottages and B&Bs in the area too, so you’ll find somewhere that works for you.
#8 Tamar Valley
You’ll find this AONB spread across Cornwall and Devon. It is where, in 1844, a copper seam was found that lead to a 50-year mining boom and the creation of Europe’s biggest mine: Devon Great Consols. The landscape here is green and diverse. There are forests and meadows and everything in between, with plenty of birds to see.
Access the area by taking the M5 to Exeter and joining either the A38 or A30. Either will lead you to the Tamar Valley. If travelling by train head to Plymouth, and catch the scenic Tamar Valley branch line train!
With plenty to do in the area, you won’t get bored. Choose from the heritage railway or horse riding, or try your hand at archery. Jump on the Tamar Passenger Ferry or simply take a walk along one of the many walking routes in this beautiful part of England. Cycling is a great way to see everything Tamar Valley has to offer, too. And bird spotting is something you can’t overlook – you never know what you might see!
From various private farms and cottages to a wealth of nearby hotels, Tamar Valley isn’t short of places to stay. Hotel Endsleigh is quaint and lovely, while Beera Farmhouse offers some of the very best views in this magnificent area. Whether you want somewhere traditional or somewhere with all the best modern amenities, you’ll find it here.
#9 Isles of Scilly
This is the smallest of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. But despite being small in size, the Isles of Scilly are so rich in nature and beauty. From the granite cliffs to the sandy bays that sparkle in the sunlight and the picturesque harbours dotted throughout the islands, you’ll be in awe. The wildlife here is abundant, and there are even some unique species to spot!
Just 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, accessing the Isles of Scilly is possible by ferry – from Penzance Harour – or fixed wing plane, from Land’s End, Newquay or Exeter Airports.
So what can you do on the Isles of Scilly? There is so much to choose from! Admire the wildlife, go for long walks and take a boat trip. Indulge in water sports, photograph the harbours, explore the Tresco Abbey Garden or sunbathe on one of the many sandy beaches here. The opportunities really are endless!
Across the islands you’ll find many places to stay. From the gorgeous Star Castle Hotel located on the Garrison of St Mary’s Island to luxury spa hotel Karma on St Martin’s, you might struggle to pick somewhere – but this only because there is such a wealth of amazing options at your fingertips.
#10 Arnside and Silverdale
This is another of the smaller Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. It is on the border between Lancashire and Cumbria, and was designated in 1972. Made up of low limestone hills and luscious grassland, there is so much nature to discover here.
Access the area by the Furness train line between Barrow and Lancaster, with stations at both Arnside and Silverdale. There is also a shuttle bus from Silverdale Railway Station to the village, on a hail and ride basis.
Walking through this AONB you’ll be treated with spectacular views and a huge array of wildlife from cows to bees and everything in between. Visit the Heron Corn Mill, or head to the RSPB Leighton Moss Visitor Centre for some fun bird spotting activities. There is even an arts and crafts trail here!
From camping and caravan sites to self-catering cottages, there is accommodation galore across Arnside and Silverdale. Gibraltar Farm Campsite offers stunning views of Morecambe Bay, while the Silverdale Hotel is a lovely family-run B&B offering a traditional countryside stay.
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK: Learn more
The UK has a lot to offer both inbound tourists and domestic tourists, and these 10 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK prove that to be so! If you want to learn more about this type of tourism, I recommend you take a look at the following articles-
- The best UK national parks to visit and why
- Homestay tourism: What is a homestay?
- A guide to hiking through the Mendip Hills
- Things to do in Cheddar, Somerset
- Things to do in Burnham on Sea