Things to See and Do in Salisbury with 500,000 Years of History
From the Salisbury Cathedral to Stonehenge. From the ruins of the medieval settlement at Old Sarum to one of the finest local history museums in England. Salisbury has some 500,000 years of history for visitors to see and explore. Whether you are looking for things to do in Salisbury for a day trip or thinking about spending a few nights there, this list will give you a good idea of all that is on offer in and around this designated heritage city.
Aerial view of Old Sarum, on the outskirts of Salisbury, Wiltshire.
The aerial photograph above shows Old Sarum, with the outskirts of present day Salisbury just beyond it. Old Sarum is in fact the site of the first settlement in the area. Archaeologists have found evidence for Stone Age habitation here, but it is the Iron Age hill fort that offers visitors the first substantial signs of human occupation. The Romans called the place Soverodonium.
Following the Norman Conquest, a motte and bailey castle and a cathedral was constructed within the hill fort. Not that long after this site was deemed unsuitable. This was as much to do with petty politics, it seems, as poor living conditions, which provided the grounds for the Pope to grant permission for the cathedral to move from here to its present position on the banks of the Avon River – about a 40 minute walk away.
In the centuries following the construction of Salisbury Cathedral from 1220 to 1258, the city became quite prosperous. First because it was a convenient stopping point for traders moving between Southampton, London and Exeter. Salisbury also owed much of its increasing prosperity then to the developing wool trade.
Salisbury did not develop into a large, powerful English city. Industry, mostly cloth, remained small-scale well into the 19th century. By which time Salisbury was already becoming well known place to visit. Perhaps one of the most famous, and early, 19th century visitors was the artist John Constable. In 1825 he painted the much admired view of Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishops’ Grounds. In part to make travel easier between London and Salisbury, a rail track was built in 1857.
And that railway line still brings many visitors to the Wiltshire city today. At around 90 minutes by train or car, Salisbury is a perfect destination for a day trip from London. And given all there is to see and do, Salisbury is equally suitable for an overnight stay. If archaeology and exploring historic cities are your passions, these suggestions will give you much to think about when planning a trip to Salisbury for a day or more.
Things to See in Salisbury
Ruins of the Norman castle sit on a motte within the Iron Age ramparts at Old Sarum.
Old Sarum is one of those sites that has been used by different people for centuries, if not millennia. The obvious features on the artificial hill today are the ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort, a Norman motte and bailey castle and the ruins of a Norman cathedral. This is what preceded the present day city of Salisbury.
Today the site is managed by English Heritage. Visitors have to pay to enter the inner bailey of the Norman castle, but are free to walk around the ramparts and what is the outer bailey in which the ruins of the church can be seen. In fact, this is a popular dog-walking area for locals.
St Thomas’ Church
The central portion of the Doom painting above the nave, showing showing Christ and his Apostles.
St Thomas’ Church is as old as Salisbury. First a wooden structure used as a house of worship for those craftsmen building the cathedral. Much of the stone church we see today was constructed in the 15th century.
What is particularly interesting about this church, and why you should go inside, is that it houses the largest and best preserved Doom Painting in the United Kingdom. Painted above the nave in 1470 by an unnamed artist, it depicts the the Last Judgement. It was covered over with white lime wash not that much later, in the early 16th century during the Reformation.
This extraordinarily detailed painting was not seen again until 1819 and not uncovered fully until 1881. In 2019 Salisbury’s Doom Painting was fully restored, and is on display free, for all to see.
You can read more about St Thomas’ Doom Painting, with photographs.
The Wessex archaeology gallery in the Salisbury museum.
Set in Cathedral Close, the museum is housed in King’s House. So named because it was here that King James I of England and his wife Anne of Denmark were entertained in 1610 and 1613.
The museum has a number of very impressive collections, including archaeology, fashion, fine arts, ceramics and glass and social history. The Wessex archaeology gallery displays 2,140 artefacts, including excavated finds from Stonehenge and Old Sarum. The fine art collection, well over 4,000 items, includes five 5 watercolours by J.M.W Turner. Other artists represented in the collection are John Constable, Augustus John and Rex Whistler. The museum also holds about 2,000 examples of 18th and 19th century ceramic and porcelain, and a fashion collection with garments as old as 300 years.
The museum is open seven days a week, so no disappointment arriving to find it closed. Find more information about the museum, its collections, access details on their Website.
A view of the western end of Salisbury Cathedral.
People come from all over the world just to see the magnificence of Salisbury Cathedral. At 123 metres high (or 40 ft), this is Britain’s tallest spire. The church’s turret clock was installed in 1386 and is still working, making this the oldest mechanical clock in the world. The Cathedral’s cloister and Close are both the largest in Britain. The Chapter House houses the finest of four surviving original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts.
Besides a walk around the church, with some excellent examples of medieval tombs, you can also take a guided tour of the church tower. Climbing up into the roof space with its 13th century wooden beams is an adventure itself. Here you can see medieval graffiti left by the builders, as well as stand at the base of the tower and stare up into into England’s tallest spire.
Read more about the Tower Tour in our illustrated review.
The Cathedral’s Chapter House provides an interesting setting for the display of the Magna Carta: stained glass windows and medieval stone sculptures.
The Magna Carta is a charter that was first issued in June 1215 by King John, in an attempt to prevent civil war between the King of England and his barons. Today this document has come to symbolise justice and human rights. And has not only inspired civil liberties movements in Britain, but around the world.
There are only four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. And what is arguably the best preserved of the four can be seen in the Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral. An interesting interactive display explores all aspects of the Magna Carta, its history and relevance today.
To see the Magna Carta you need to Book Your Visit in advance.
Things to Do in Salisbury
Walk Around the Close
This aerial view of Cathedral Close from the west over the Avon River shows just how much there is to explore, historic houses, museums and of course the cathedral itself.
At over 80 acres, the Cathedral Close in Salisbury is the largest in Britain. The Close has a number of historic houses and museums that are open to the public. These include, Arundells, the home of the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, Mompesson House, an 18th century townhouse under the care of the National Trust, the Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum and the Salisbury Museum. You can find out more about these and other features of the Close, in our Self Guided Tour of Salisbury Cathedral Close.
The Close is also a relaxing space to escape the city. Bring your own picnic or buy one from the Bell Tower Tea Rooms.
Walking Tour of Salisbury
St Ann’s Gate, one of the few entrances to Cathedral Close, built when the close was walled in about 1331.
Although Salisbury has many of the shops and restaurants that you will find in any English city or large town, the city has retained some historic charm. There are a number of buildings and architectural features that point to Salisbury’s prosperous, medieval past. Classic timber-framed buildings have been sensitively restored and are still fully functional buildings. Follow our Self-Guided Tour of Salisbury to learn more about the city’s medieval history.
Places to Visit Just Beyond Salisbury
Walking tours of the stone circle are available at dawn and dusk, during which you get to walk amongst the stones.
Stonehenge is a very popular tourist attraction, with over a million visitors each year. Most people only visit the stone circle, but this is just one part of a much larger, complex prehistoric landscape. The large sarsen stones came from Marlborough, a distance of about 32 km, while the smaller bluestones are from the Preseli Mountains in South Wales, a distance of some 320 km.
You can book dawn and sunset tours, which allow you to enter the stone circle.
Find out more about Visiting Stonehenge and Associated Sites.
Visiting Salisbury? If you are planning a trip to Salisbury in the English county of Wiltshire, check our Salisbury Travel Guide for History Lovers. Whether you are thinking of a day trip or staying for a few nights, we have more suggestions and recommendations for your trip.