From punting on the river, exploring the grand university colleges and picnicking in the parks to dancing to live music at night, Cambridge gets a first for its attractions. This summer, there’s a Sculpture Promenade and Han China exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk) and sports-related exhibitions and events at the Cambridge and County Folk Museum (folkmuseum.org.uk).
The new Varsity Hotel (01223 306030, thevarsityhotel.co.uk, doubles from ?165) has a rooftop terrace with a cinema, a spa, and rooms with four-posters and Union Jack pouffes.
• 45mins to London’s King’s Cross station, or to Stratford for the Olympic Park (via Tottenham Hale) in around one hour 20 minutes
Oxford’s charms are similar to those of Cambridge: you can poke around the grand college buildings, go punting on the river, or embrace the nightlife, shopping, and burgeoning microbreweries trend – look out for pubs serving beers from the Compass, Shotover and White Horse breweries. There are two tastefully arty hotels in the centre: the Old Bank (01865 799599, oldbank-hotel.co.uk, limited availability, doubles ?132) and the Old Parsonage (01865 310210, oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk, doubles ?220).
• Paddington 55 minutes
The posh Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames is quintessentially English, boasting rowing regattas, historic pubs frequented by royals, manor houses and iron age forts nearby. The Hotel du Vin (0845 365 4438, hotelduvin.com, doubles from ?130) is a modern boutique hotel with a Georgian facade, just 50m from the riverbank.
• Paddington 58 minutes, via Twyford
The Cotswolds has dozens of picture-perfect honey-coloured villages, thatched inns, amazing restaurants, and posh farm and antiques shops. To randomly pick one of dozens of fabulous hotels, The Wheatsheaf Inn (01451 860244, cotswoldswheatsheaf.com, little weekend availability, doubles from ?130) in Northleach has hip decor and celebrity fans.
• Paddington to Kemble (20 minutes by taxi to Northleach) 1 hour 18 minutes
The city of St Albans, with its Roman museums, golf courses and children’s wildlife attractions, is also home to a 500-year-old country house hotel, St Michael’s Manor (01727 864444, stmichaelsmanor.com, doubles ?165), which is offering free taxis to the station during the Olympics.
• St Pancras 17 minutes
Vincent Van Gogh once walked from London to Old Welwyn to visit his sister, so it’s definitely within easy reach of the capital. The Welwyn area has several attractive country homes to hide away in, just like Elizabeth I did at nearby Hatfield. Only the Tudor banqueting hall of Hatfield Palace, and the wonderful gardens, remain, but on the site is Hatfield House (hatfield-house.co.uk), an example of superb Jacobean craftsmanship. In Datchworth, the Coltsfoot (01438 212800, coltsfoot.com, doubles ?139) has 15 suites, with exposed timbers. In Welwyn, the White Hart (01438 715353, thewhiteharthotel.net, doubles ?115) is a 17th-century coaching inn.
• Welwyn North to King’s Cross 27 minutes
Geoffrey Chaucer would recognise Canterbury today, from the towering cathedral – England’s oldest – ruined abbey, castle, churches and city walls. But the city these days also is a great shopping destination, and a hub for the arts. Head to the King’s Mile for quirky, independent shops and then catch a show at the Marlowe Theatre (marlowetheatre.com), which has a lovely riverside restaurant. The House of Agnes (01227 472185, houseofagnes.co.uk, limited availability, doubles from ?89) dates from the 13th century, with a walled garden, an honesty bar and a library.
• 56 minutes to London St Pancras
Chichi Whitstable and arty but kitsch Margate are the obvious Kentish coast options. Broadstairs is truly the British seaside: sandy beaches, Punch and Judy shows; fish and chips; ice-cream parlours and old-fashioned arcades among higgledy piggledly Victorian architecture; fishermen’s cottages and cobbled streets. Dickens holidayed there regularly for 20 years, and you can stay at Bleak House, where he wrote David Copperfield, on the cliffs overlooking Viking Bay. It has recently been restored and has four luxury bedrooms (01843 865 338, bleakhousebroadstairs.co.uk, doubles from ?195), plus tearooms and a smuggling museum in the basement. Or try Belvidere Place, a gorgeous contemporary boutique hotel (01843 579850, belvidereplace.co.uk, doubles from ?130).
• 1 hour 22 minutes to St Pancras
The most atmospheric area of elegant Tunbridge Wells is the Pantiles, a Georgian colonnade with specialist shops, restaurants and bars. Some B&Bs and attractions are offering discounts over the Olympic period – go to visittunbridgewells.com for details. The Brew House (01892 520587, thebrewhousehotel.net, doubles from ?75) brings gloss to a period building.
• Around 50 minutes to London Cannon Street or Charing Cross
Around Ashford – itself unlovely, but with good rail links from Ashford International – are country pubs, vineyards and several charming villages, such as Pluckley, where the Darling Buds of May was filmed. Just outside, Elvey Farm (01233 840442, elveyfarm.co.uk, doubles from ?135) has stylish rooms in the converted stables, barn, oast house and granary, surrounded by Kentish countryside. The top suite has exposed rafters and a hot tub. Tenterden is another very cute village, with a 10-mile steam train ride to Bodiam, the Chapel Down vineyard and bargain B&Bs (tenterdentown.co.uk).
• 35 minutes to St Pancras
With tons of fun on offer, Brighton is almost a (smaller) alternative to London. It’s great for foodies (especially vegetarians), party people, shoppers, the gay scene, kitsch fairground rides, arts and sports. There is masses of accommodation in the city too: top picks include Kemp Townhouse (01273 681400, kemptownhousebrighton.com, doubles from ?95), Drakes (01273 696934, drakesofbrighton.com, doubles from ?115, limited availability) and The Twenty One (01273 686450, thetwentyone.co.uk, limited availability, doubles from ?95). Neighbouring Hove is more chilled.
• London Victoria 52 minutes
East Sussex’s county town, Lewes, is also its best-looking, with unspoilt buildings in an idyllic setting along the banks of the River Ouse, flanked by rolling South Downs countryside, perfect for rambling. Stay at the Pelham House Hotel (01273 488600, pelhamhouse.com, doubles from ?190), a boutique hotel in a restored 16th-century townhouse with views over the Downs.
• Victoria 1 hour 10 minutes
East and West Sussex meet Surrey and Kent in East Grinstead, an ancient market town with 14th-century timber-framed buildings, a 17th-century almshouse and an imposing 18th-century church. Winnie-the-Pooh’s adventures took place in nearby Ashdown forest (ashdownforest.org), and the Bluebell Railway (bluebell-railway.co.uk) heritage line’s steam locomotives chug past. The best hotels are slightly out of town: Alexander House (01342 714914, alexanderhotels.co.uk, dinner, bed and breakfast ?159pp, a five-star country house hotel and spa, or Gravetye Manor (01342 810567, gravetyemanor.co.uk, limited weekend availability, doubles from ?290), a 16th-century house with lovely gardens.
• 55 minutes to Victoria
Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town and was once the capital of Roman Britain. Visitors can brush up on their history at the well-preserved castle and several museums. The North Hill Hotel (01206 574001, northhillhotel.com, doubles from ?64.50) has some cute beamed rooms with sloping ceilings; or try Trinity Town House B&B (01206 575955, trinitytownhouse.co.uk, doubles from ?75).
• Around 45 minutes to Stratford or London Liverpool Street.
Towards the coast, the new Life House Spa (01255 860050, lifehouse.co.uk, ?149) in Thorpe-le-Soken makes a really relaxing retreat from the city, and offers an array of treatments, gyms and fitness classes, a great pool, gorgeous gardens, creative health food and bikes to borrow to cycle to the sea.
• Free pick-up from Thorpe-le-Soken station. Trains to Stratford (1 hour 10 minutes) or Liverpool Street (1 hour 20)
Saffron Walden is a charming market town with medieval and Tudor buildings, small cafes and craft shops in the historic Rows streets, and the wonderful Bridge End Garden with its hedge maze and recreated Victorian gardens. Debden Antiques (http://www.debden-antiques.co.uk/find-us-i-4.html ) is a 17th-century barn with a fabulous collection from Persian rugs to decorative clocks, and outside town are some of England’s vineyards.The Cross Keys (01799 522207, theoldcrosskeys.co.uk, doubles from ?90) is a timber-framed pub with six new rooms featuring iPod docks and freestanding baths.
• Audley End (two miles from Saffron Walden) is 53 minutes from Liverpool Street)
Near the beautiful North Downs, a great area for walking or cycling, are gorgeous villages such as Sheer and Haslemere, and appealing towns such as Dorking, near to Box Hill, focal point for spectators in the Olympic road cycling, and the setting of scenes from Jane Austen’s Emma, near which you can stay at the Denbies Wine Estate (01306 876616, denbies.co.uk, fully booked during the cycling, otherwise available Monday to Thursday, doubles from ?98).
• London Waterloo is 50 minutes from both Dorking and Boxhill & Westhumble stations
Suffolk is a lovely county to explore, especially its old wool towns, once the focus of medieval England’s textile trade. Pretty Lavenham has historic buildings, a 16th-century guildhall, a “wool church”, antique shops and art galleries. The Old Rectory (01787 247 572, lavenham-old-rectory.co.uk, doubles from ?225) is a stunning Georgian house with cosy pastel-coloured rooms with modern bathrooms, and three acres of gardens. Or in the centre, The Swan (01787 247477, theswanatlavenham.co.uk, doubles from ?195) has a real sense of history with its timber beams, leaded windows and medieval wall hangings, but modern furnishings. Other notable villages nearby include Long Melford and Stoke By Nayland, where The Crown (01206 262 001, crowninn.net, limited availability, doubles ?120) is a revamped inn with luxury rooms.
• Colchester is a 30-minute taxi ride from Lavenham; direct trains from Colchester to Stratford take 45 minutes
With a 900-year-old cathedral, quaint shopping streets and a medieval Great Hall, Winchester is a stunning historic base among rolling countryside. Day trips could be to Laverstoke Farm (laverstokepark.co.uk) Portsmouth, Southampton, Jane Austen’s home in Chawton, or even the Isle of Wight. In town, the Hotel du Vin (01962 841414, hotelduvin.com, doubles from ?145) is set in an early Georgian building dating from 1715.
• One hour to Waterloo
Pangbourne is a pretty village on the river Thames with views of the Chiltern Hills, and for a day trip, Basildon Park (nationaltrust.org.uk), an 18th-century Palladian mansion with 400 acres of parkland. The Elephant (0118 984 2244, elephanthotel.co.uk, doubles ?40 during the Olympics, limited availability) is an opulent Empire-themed hotel in the village.
• London Paddington 51 minutes
Windsor is a must for many tourists, with its palace, Great Park or – for kids – Legoland (legoland.co.uk). With the rowing at nearby Dorney, it’s busy for the Olympics, but try staywindsor2012.co.uk for a list. Alternatively, not far away is glorious Stoke Place (01753 534790, stokeplace.co.uk, doubles from ?105), a beautifully decorated classic Georgian boutique hotel in Stoke Poges, famous for Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
• Windsor-Paddington 29 minutes; Gerrards Cross-London Marylebone 25 minutes
The hills and woodlands of the Chilterns form a beautiful area for walks and country pubs. You could base yourself in Great Missenden, a quaint village where Roald Dahl lived and which is home to a museum about his work (roalddahlmuseum.org). The Nags Head Inn (01494 862200, nagsheadbucks.com, doubles from ?140, not 28-30 July) is a transformed 15th-century inn doing Anglo-French food. Walk from Princes Risborough to Wendover and you’ll pass Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat. Or book a stay at stunningly stylish The Crown (01494 431283, thecrownamersham.com, doubles from ?95, not 4 August) in Amersham – it’s hard to believe you can reach somewhere so rural and lovely on the tube, yet it’s the last stop at the western end of the Metropolitan line.
• 46 minutes to Marylebone from Great Missenden; 50 minutes on the Metropolitan line from Amersham to Baker Street, or 39 minutes by overground train to Marylebone
All prices and availability correct for the Olympics period at time of going to press. Fastest train times quoted; check nationalrail.co.uk for delays/disruptions during the Games
• This article was amended on 30 June to correct the sentence which stated Hastings and Rye are in Kent. They are in East Sussex