Pilgrims have been coming to Canterbury since the infamous murder of Thomas Becket in the city’s cathedral in 1170. They have since been joined by visitors who appreciate the medieval beauty and cosmopolitan atmosphere of this attractive Kentish city.
The base of the head of the Church of England, Canterbury's magnificent cathedral (www.canterbury-cathedral.org) was founded in 597 and rebuilt in the 11th century in glorious Gothic style. It's an awe-inspiring sight, especially its 12th-century choir, medieval stained-glass windows, soaring vaulted ceilings, Romanesque crypt and tranquil cloisters. The shrine to the unfortunate archbishop is behind the high altar.
The medieval cobbled streets surrounding the cathedral are filled with pretty half-timbered buildings, many holding independent restaurants that reveal the city’s thriving dining scene. Despite its rich past, the city isn’t bogged down by the weight of its own history. That’s helped by the lively presence of four universities and some bold modern architecture, including the Marlowe Theatre, dedicated to its illustrious playwright son.
A comfortable bed
The luxurious 15th-century bed and breakfast House of Agnes (www.houseofagnes.co.uk) has eight rooms in its main house, all with a geographical theme (Venetian, Parisian etc). There's a stable block with eight modern, streamlined rooms set in the extensive gardens. Doubles cost from £92 (Dh439), including breakfast.
Occupying a handsome Georgian town house a short walk from the centre, Canterbury Hotel (www.thecanterburyhotel.co.uk) offers traditional rooms and exceptionally friendly service. When the weather is warm, the glass doors to the heated indoor pool open into the adorable, flower-filled courtyard garden. Doubles cost from £85 (Dh406), including breakfast.
Find your feet
Although Canterbury sprawls a bit, its centre is compact and it’s easy to see the main sights on foot. Winding north of the cathedral just off the High Street is the King’s Mile, a jumble of streets that make up the heart of medieval Canterbury. In contrast to many homogenised British city centres, there’s an astonishing collection of independent shops, restaurants and pubs along cobbled streets.
The Great Stour River splits into two and flows through the north-eastern areas, offering riverside walks through the Greyfriars Gardens and the much larger Westgate Gardens. You can still see some remnants of the ancient Roman walls that once encircled the city.
Walk west along the High Street and you see the tourist information centre (www.canterbury.co.uk) within an imposing Victorian structure that also holds the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge (www.canterburymuseums.co.uk/beaney). This quirky museum is free and holds eclectic collections of art and artefacts.
Meet the locals
Student-friendly Canterbury is hardly lacking for meeting places, particularly along the High Street. The streets near the cathedral teem with bars and cafes, including Butchery Lane, with its cosy Shakespeare pub (www.shakespearecanterbury.com) and buzzing Club Burrito (www.clubburrito.com).
Check out the classy cafes in the Goods Shed (www.thegoodsshed.co.uk), a converted warehouse near Canterbury West train station. There's also a food hall and a very good daily farmers' market.
Book a table
Deeson's British Restaurant (www.deesonsrestaurant.co.uk) makes superb use of local produce – including food from its own smallholding – in its innovative cuisine. Start with a rich chicken liver parfait with hazelnut mayonnaise (£7 [Dh33]) before a sublime, succulent salt marsh lamb with garlicky mash (£21 [Dh100]).
Seafood lovers should make a beeline for Chapman's Seafood Bar and Brasserie (www.chapmanscanterbury.co.uk), whose owners also run one of the largest fish wholesalers in the region. If you're not there on a Wednesday for the all-you-can-eat-mussels night, then try the catch of the day (from £16.50 [Dh79], which could include a divinely cooked whole sea bass with lemon and rosemary.
Tamago (www.tamago.restaurant) does an excellent job serving what it calls Japanese soul food in a laid-back little cafe. There's a choice of curries, bento boxes and ramen in generous portions. Try the spicy kimchi ramen for £11 (Dh53).
There's a range of British and international high-street brands all over the city centre, including quintessentially English brands Cath Kidston and Lakeland. Outdoorsy types can get their hiking and camping gear at branches of Cotswold Outdoor and Blacks. Fans of antiquarian books can have a good rummage through the rammed shelves of the Chaucer Bookshop (www.chaucer-bookshop.co.uk).
What to avoid
Canterbury is popular with school groups, so be prepared to wade through a sea of students at certain times of the day.
Take a ride on the punts that make their lazy way along the Great Stour through Westgate Gardens. There are also boat trips that go through the medieval city centre, which are entertaining thanks to knowledgeable commentary by the boatmen.
British Airways (www.ba.com), Etihad (www.etihad.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) fly from the UAE to London from Dh2,600 return, including taxes. The flight takes seven hours. Direct trains (www.thetrainline.com) to Canterbury operate from London from Dh145 return and take about one hour and 20 minutes.