Britain’s best comeback towns and cities to visit, from Bishop Auckland to Plymouth

Britain’s best comeback towns and cities to visit, from Bishop Auckland to Plymouth

January is the time to look forward and think big. And there is inspiration, and enjoyment, to be found in these transformed towns and cities.

Each has been thoroughly spruced up following an era of decline, while every place we suggest offers dazzling reasons to visit for an off-beat weekend break.

Riverside regeneration

Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland - 12th September 2023: Sunrise over the Clyde Waterfront in central Glasgow, Scotland
The city’s river area has evolved from abandoned dockyard district to a suave new strip (Photo: Getty)

Glasgow’s evolution is the epitome of a comeback. Its post-Second World War blight, once the bottom fell out of the shipbuilding business that had previously rendered it the wealthiest city in the British Empire, is well documented. Glaswegians often quote that “the Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the Clyde”. And, sure enough, it was the rebirth of the city’s river area from an abandoned dockyard district to a suave new strip embodying Glasgow chic that radically redefined the Scottish metropolis.

The roster of new riverside attractions added since the late 80s includes the SEC Centre, Scotland’s largest exhibition space and the striking Riverside Museum, telling the story of Glasgow through a varied transport collection and other exhibits, and now one of the nation’s top paid-for visitor attractions. Combined domestic and foreign city tourism, despite the Covid pandemic, rose to 2.65 million in 2022 from 2.5 million in 2019.

Clayton Hotel opened in 2022 and incorporates a 19th-century Customs House in a sleek, 303-room lodging, right beside the Clyde. Doubles start at £100, but online offers often bring tariffs down further. claytonhotelglasgowcity.com

Maritime magic

Hull

Hull Marina, East Yorkshire at twilight.
Beautified Hull is silencing its critics (Photo: Getty)

Hull has, in recent decades, expended a lot of effort in silencing its critics: these even included one of sits most famous former resident, poet Philip Larkin, who referred to the Yorkshire port as “fishy-smelling” and “on the road to nowhere.”

The current redevelopment of Hull’s Maritime District is breathing further vitality back into a city where the appeal for visitors was mainly concentrated in its cobbled Museums Quarter.

This includes the refurbishment of the Grade II-listed, 1870s-built Hull Maritime Museum by 2025, the addition of two historic ships reflecting Hull’s nautical heritage and a new and improved Queens Gardens – one of Hull’s most-popular green spaces. The change seems to be paying off: Hull’s visitor economy rose by 12 per cent in 2019, the last year for which statistics are available.

Holiday Inn Hull Marina is located right inside the new Maritime District development. Doubles from £120. ihg.com

Brand-new heart

Plymouth

Plymouth, United Kingdom - August 27, 2015: Tourists walk along Southside Street in the Barbican, Plymouth, UK,
Southside Street: the Barbican, is studded with attractions (Photo: Andy Parker/Getty)

Back in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t Britannia that ruled the waves: it was Plymouth. The thriving seaport was perfectly poised for voyages such as Sir Francis Drake’s and James Cook’s, and it later became the main base for the Royal Navy. Second World War bombings razed much of the city, and its revival took some time. But Plymouth’s big plan now is to position itself as the premier tourist destination in Devon and Cornwall – no mean feat – and as one of Europe’s finest waterfront cities, no less: and by 2030, too. It’s already an excitingly long way along that journey.

Plymouth centre has undergone a huge resurgence since the opening of major cultural venue The Box in 2020: a slick gallery and exhibition space that has attracted over 600,000 visitors thus far. Its main railway station is being transformed into an attractive new gateway for the city, too.

Meanwhile, the port’s enchanting historic quayside, the Barbican, is studded with attractions such as the Mayflower Museum that remembers the Pilgrim Fathers momentous 1620 voyage from Plymouth to the New World. Here, the new-for-2024 crowd-pleaser is set to be a 38m-high Ferris wheel on the nearby Hoe, offering unparalleled views of the storied harbourfront and the indented coast of western Devon and eastern Cornwall beyond.

The Fox on the Hoe is a just-opened Grade II Victorian townhouse with three-person apartments from £195 per night. foxonthehoe.com

Adrenaline rush

Blaenau Ffestiniog

Llechwedd slate mine tourist attraction, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, north Wales, UK. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Mining heritage draws visitors to Blaenau Ffestiniog (Photo: Getty)

Once this hilly north Wales town sported the biggest slate mine on the planet and, along with other quarries in the region, roofed the world with its superlative supplies of the finely grained rock. The collapse of the slate industry ushered in an era of decline, but today the future is much brighter for Blaenau Ffestiniog. And the reason for the renaissance is slate once again.

The Llechwedd Slate Caverns opened to visitors in 1972, but it is the caverns’ expansion into one of Wales’s premier adventure tourism destinations that has been game changing. Zip World Slate Caverns offers high-octane thrills from one of Wales’ leading downhill bike parks to the world’s speediest zipline, whooshing over the old slate quarry workings, while below in the slate mines you can take on a subterranean ropes course or jump for joy through a cavern more capacious than St Paul’s Cathedral on a giant trampoline.

Zip World Slate Caverns became Wales’ eighth-most popular visitor attraction in 2021, while Blaenau is now the centre of the UK’s latest Unesco World Heritage Site, the Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales.

Perched high on the mountain slopes, Plas Weunydd has safari tents and shepherd huts with stark views of the slate-rich surroundings. Doubles from £360 for a two-night minimum stay. plasweunydd.co.uk

Coal to cool

Bishop Auckland

Viaduct at Bishop Auckland
Bishop Auckland has plenty of history, as well as fresh attractions (Photo: Getty)

Over the past decade, one fantastically ambitious scheme, the Auckland Project, has changed Bishop Auckland in County Durham from a somewhat shabby coal town to an attraction-studded spot on the northeast England tourist circuit.

Sights to see now include the Auckland Tower, which reveals views across the town, a Mining Art Gallery that offers unique perspectives into the lives of coal miners, a museum charting the history of faith in Britain and the bishops palace of Auckland Castle (sparkling after a multi-million-pound refurbishment and bounded by a beautiful deer park).

The 38-room Park Head Hotel, also part of the Auckland Project, opened its doors in 2023, 2km northeast of town. Doubles from £72. Parkheadhotel.co.uk