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Best place to live in the South East?

This city was home to the UK's first saint, the first hot cross bun and has a totally glorious cathedral towering above it. You guessed it - it's St Albans! Whoop whoop! Read our guide to this fab city here.

We are all  going to be spending rather a lot of time at home over the next few months – what better time then to appreciate where you live, or, alternatively, to indulge your property porn fetish. Rightmove here we come! 

The Sunday Times has just released its annual round-up of the best spots in the country to hang your hat – it’s Best Places to Live Guide 2020. Altrincham in Greater Manchester took national top spot (pah!), but St Albans won Best Place to Live in the South East and the lovely Bishop’s Stortford also made the list. Bravo. So, grab yourself a cuppa and a hot cross bun (or an Alban Bun – the original Easter treat, don’t you know…) and enjoy the Muddy Guide to St Albans.

Take some time (once this is all over) to wander St Albans’ ancient streets and you’ll discover an historic metropolis complete with buzzing independent shops, markets, a packed calendar of events and one of the best pub cultures in the country. Oh, and it’s just over 20 minutes from St Pancras, which is convenient.

The City

St Albans (or Verulamium as it was known back in Roman times) is a good looking place – there’s no doubt about that – with its magnificent towering cathedral, cobbled streets and the verdant green space of the Verulamium Park. It is, of course, hugely popular with young families moving out of London, and it is this influx of London-led tastemakers that has created a surge in brilliant new hangouts.

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban

Head to George Street, in the Cathedral Quarter, for hip restaurants, bars and coffee shops, with the quaint Village Arcade also boasting great independents. St Peters Street is where the markets take place, and it’s also home to the St Albans Museum + Gallery. Make sure not to miss the brilliant Art Deco Odyssey Cinema – situated a little further from the centre on London Road.

Eat

For a long while, the St. Albans food scene has been mostly chain-based, and, although we love a Wagamamas as much as the next noodle slurper, it’s super exciting that the city’s culinary culture is evolving at lightspeed.

So, what do we recommend? For coffee or brunch, we’d suggest Hatch or the ever popular George St Canteen. Or, if you just want a bun and a latte, pop in to family bakers Simmons in their wonderfully ancient and beamy central premises near the 15th century clock tower. Of course, if it’s the weekend, you could always go all out with Craft & Cleaver’s indulgent ribs and burgers bottomless brunch – how many Mimosas do you reckon you could handle in 120 minutes? Another weekend brunch option is The Ivy on Verulum Road (think Eggs Benedict and Chips and an Ivy Royale).

George Street Canteen

For a smart lunch, of course, or in a similar vein, there’s Lussmanns. Now Lussmanns are a well known collection of Hertfordshire based bistros focusing on sustainably caught fish and other delicious seasonal offerings – the St Alban’s restaurant is down a characterful cobbled central street.

Lussmanns

More casual lunching options include Zero Sushi Bar (we all need those omegas right now) and the wonderful Waddington Road Coffee and Kitchen on – you’ve guessed it – Waddington Road.

Fancy lunch in the sticks? Only a few miles from the centre of St Albans, the cosy but contemporary – and totally gorgeously located – Prae Wood Arms, is a great call for a pub lunch. Carpenter’s Nursery (and farm shop) has a great cafe – the Potting Shed – grab a latte and browse the wonderful local produce and plants on offer. Just don’t blame us if your credit card doesn’t get through the gauntlet unscathed. Or, if you find yourself  Wheathampstead way, what about a sarnie or salad at local favourite, Charlie’s?

Dinner. This is when you are spoilt for choice. St Albans just gets better and better.

Dylans Kings Arms

Dylans Kings Arms is a real local favourite – a cool and quirky pub with restaurant food that has people salivating and swooning. Be warned: it’s hard to get a table at the weekend, so book ahead. You can always head to the bar for a drink before going on to Loft or The Abbey. At the helm of the award-winning Loft restaurant is Michelin starred Head Chef Jonathan Beattie and The Abbey is run by a talented team with experience gained at Soho House and Petersham Nurseries.

THOMPSON St Albans

St Albans’ culinary pedigree also extends to the three-AA-rosette-awarded THOMPSON St Albans, run by the eponymous Phil Thompson – who incidentally gained a Michelin star while working with Jean-Christophe Novelli at Auberge du Lac.

Tabure

There are a few more great offerings away from the centre of town, including rib ‘n burger joint Crafted & Cleaver and two brilliant Turkish grill restaurants, Tabure and AYóS – the first on Spencer Street and the second nearer the station. We have only heard good things about these Mediterranean marvels.

Stay

Torrington Hall

Oh, St Albans! You could really do with a couple more natty boutique hotels!  St Michael’s Manor on Fishpool Street, possibly the most beautiful residential street in St Albans, is an established favourite. It’s a proper swanky hotel, so if you want somewhere simple, this might not be it. Torrington Hall is another option – a grand red brick pile positioned on Holywell Hill with views of the Cathedral. Rooms are elegant and spacious, with clean, modern decor, and the hallway is something else. THOSE TILES. And, of course there’s the wonderful Sopwell House just a sort drive out of town. This high-end country house hotel comes with a newly opened luxury spa. Heaven.

Cottonmill Spa, Sopwell House

Walk

St Albans has cobbled streets galore and it’s a great blend of old and new. Start from the Clock Tower, built opposite the Abbey in 1405 as a symbol of defiance against the Abbot of St Albans, and make your way to the Cathedral. From here, you can walk further into Verulamium Park where you can run around in over 100 acres and admire the lake and also walk along part of the River Ver. You can visit The Hypocaust, a Roman mosaic, and I would also recommend Fishpool Street where I can guarantee you’ll develop an obsession with door knockers. Look out for fish, foxes, goats and snakes. Another good approach to the Cathedral is from Holywell Hill.

Drink

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks with famous landlord Christo, dates back to the 8th Century. There are tunnels from the pub to the Abbey used by monks who wanted to pop out for a drink. It really is hard to choose between St Albans’ characterful and historic selection of pubs, but I do have a few favs. The Six Bells on St Michael’s St and the Lower Red Lion on Fishpool St are brilliant traditional pubs. And Dylans The Plough – a country gastro pub in the quiet (and very appropriately named) Sleapshyde hamlet near St Albans is very much worth the short drive.

The Lower Red Lion

At the crafty end of things, what about cheese wine and craft beer bar-cum-deli, Bishops Cave or its sister venture, the self explanatory Gin Cave over on Holywell Hill. The Snug – cocktails, craft beer, wine and grub – has taken over the historic Fleur De Lys on French Row and tuned it into a hip but cosy, contemporary space. Mad Squirrel Tap on the High St is also a great destination for craft beer fanatics. 

Mad Squirrel Tap

And for a real party vibe, what about Naughts + Crosses – a cool late night venue, with its slick booths and terraces – perfect for a night out with the girls. Or maybe hipster hub, Sucker Punch. Tequila anyone?

Shop

If markets are your thing, the Charter Market (earliest known date sometime in the 9th century) runs the length of St Peter’s Street, with street food at one end and fresh produce, craft, and stalls selling all sorts of things you didn’t know you needed, on the rest of the strip. There’s also a Farmer’s Market on the second Sunday of each month and the brilliant St Albans Vintage and Antiques Market monthly.

St Albans Antique and Vintage Market

And for boutiques and antiques shops, head to French Row, a parade of medieval shops leading to the wide high street, and George Street. Independents rule in these areas and in the Village Arcade, across from the impressive clock tower — built in the early 15th century and the only surviving medieval town belfry in England.

Cositas

St Albans is full of upmarket chains but the real gems are the independents. If you’re looking for gifts, head for Holywell Hill, where you should visit Cositas, which cleverly combines great gifts and interiors with regular workshops on painting techniques and offbeat workshops, such as Lampshade Making. Further along you’ll find White Mint – great for gifts and party stuff. Check out Rock Pop Candy for retro sweets, also on Holywell Hill. For vinyl, head for Empire Records in Heritage Close. And there’s a great vintage place, Little Viking, in the Courtyard, George Street.

D. Copperfield

Men with style (or hoping to find style), should head straight for D. Copperfield This shop blends sharp and contemporary (which wouldn’t be out of place in a Tokyo boutique) and warm, traditional service. For contemporary grooming and beard trims, I recommend the Alternative Barbering Co on George Street. While you’re there, check out Cerimonia, for extremely stylish wedding garb.

Raindrops on Roses

Raindrops on Roses is loved by all. Profits go to cancer charities and it’s full of lovely things. Also recommended is The Dressing Room – very stylish, and not at all intimidating. And Chloe James is another shop to put on your list, with its cleverly curated clothing and lifestyle offering.

The Dressing Room

And now you’ve got your garb sorted, it’s time to sort out that barnet. Head to Trinder Hair Studios, George Street, Wilde About Hair, on French Row, or (chain offerings aside) there are  some great independent hairdressers – Anna Burns, Lee Moran and Michael James spring to mind.

Next it’s florists, and there are load of great contemporary offerings here. In no particular order, our favourites are: Flowerbox (which also extends to home and interiors and runs the BRILLIANT Flower School), Floral City (which incidentally offers flower parties), the lovely Lily Alley, Kendalls and Black Iris. Take your pick – no pun intended.

And finally on to food and drink – don’t miss wonderful independent, Flagship Wines on Hatfield Road or the Fleetville Larder further down the same street. There’s also a second wine-lovers haven in the Courtyard, George St – Thirty Nine 10.

Flagship Wines

Tourist

It goes without saying that you have to visit the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban while you are here. There’s the Shrine of St Alban and the longest nave in England are just two of the highlights. Scenes from The Crown were filmed here. If you’ve got children who have got project work on the Romans, or if you wish you knew a bit more about them, a visit to St Albans will do the job. Verulamium was the third biggest Roman town in Britain and Verulamium Museum is now built on the site of the Roman town. Here you will find golden coins and plasters and mosaics. If you’ve got children who have got project work on the Romans, or if you wish you knew a bit more about them, a visit to St Albans will do the job. Verulamium was the third biggest Roman town in Britain and Verulamium Museum is now built on the site of the Roman town. Here you will find golden coins and plasters and mosaics.

You can also visit the unique Clock Tower – top tip – be sure you’re comfortable with small spaces before attempting the Medieval stairs…

Look up!

Another great touristy thing to do is the Cathedral’s Tower Tour. You need to book for this but it’s a winner. And when you are in the Cathedral, remember to look up: the ceilings, mosaics and stained glass are stunning.

Kids

Depending on how long you are here, there are great theatre productions for children at the Sandpit Theatre. Again, you can head for Verulamium Park and then to the Verulamium Museum, where there are always great activities for kids at weekends and during school holidays.

Food-wise, I’d recommend treating the little darlings to a trip to pudding heaven. Pudding Stop, on Verulam Road, is perfect for a tea time treat – with every sort of pudding, from custard tarts to crumbles, on offer. Persian ice cream parlour, Darlish, in French Row, is also a great pit stop for weary family members in need of a pick me up!

Quirky

Look out for the history of the Alban Bun, the original hot cross bun, still made at nearby Redbournbury Mill.  During Easter, you can sample them at the Abbot’s Kitchen.

Culture

St Albans is very proud of its vintage and independent cinema, The Odyssey. You’ll have to book tickets in advance, it’s very popular.

The Odyssey

There’s the Alban Arena for the big names and events, but you’ve also got a choice between The Maltings and the Sandpit Theatre, both smaller, and with interesting things going on.

The new Museum and Art Gallery in the former Town Hall                            Photo: St Albans Museums

The St Albans Museum + Gallery in the former Town Hall is well worth a wander and for something calm and cultural, how about Evensong at the Cathedral. During the week: 5pm; Saturdays: 4pm; Sunday: 6.30pm.

Hipster

Sucker Punch, George Street                                                               Photo: Sucker Punch

Head straight for Sucker Punch on George Street for a steam punk sensation of a cocktail.

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