The Muddy Insider Guide to St Albans
Home to the UK's first saint, the historical city of St Albans is now a melting pot of cultural sights, foodie hotspots and buzzing independents. Fancy a Muddy guided tour?
Ok, so not many of us are going very far this summer, with the usual family holiday to the Med off the cards (thanks Covid!). And a UK coastal break is about as hard to come by as hen’s teeth, so why not spend some time exploring what’s right here on our doorstep? Stay with us here…
We’ve put together the Muddy Guide to St Albans – Herts’ historic metropolis, complete with funky, buzzing independent shops, markets, a packed events calendar and one of the best pub cultures in the country. Oh, and it’s really well connected – just over 20 minutes from St Pancras. Handy, eh? Care to join us for a virtual tour to whet your appetite for the real thing?
St Albans (or Verulamium as it was known back in Roman times – and the third biggest Roman town in Britain, we’ll have you know!) is pretty good looking as cities go – with its magnificent towering cathedral, cobbled streets and the verdant green space of the Verulamium Park. It’s hugely popular with young families moving out of London, and with this influx of London-led tastemakers has come a surge of cool new hangouts.
Head to George Street, in the Cathedral Quarter, for hip restaurants, bars and coffee shops, with the quaint Village Arcade also boasting fab little independents. St Peters Street is where the markets take place and it’s also home to the St Albans Museum + Gallery.
For shopping, make your way to the High Street and Holywell Hill for a mix of high quality chains, well-established independent clothing stores, and a smattering of quirky gifts and interiors retailers. Plus, there’s the Maltings Shopping Centre on Victoria Street.
FEELING PARCHED OR PECKISH?
Fuel up for a day of exploring at Hatch on Holywell Hill (think hearty brunch buns and loaded waffles), George St Canteen (where breakfast is served ’til 4pm), or Megan’s at the Old Bell (an all-day café in a gorgeous converted pub) on Chequer Street.
If it’s the weekend, you could go all out with The Ivy on Verulum Road for indulgent Eggs Benny. Or grab a coffee and pastry to-go at Inn on the Park followed by a leisurely amble around Verulamium Park.
CHECK OUT THE LOCAL HISTORY
St Albans has cobbled streets galore and it’s a great blend of old and new. The Clock Tower (the only surviving medieval town belfry in England) was built opposite the Abbey in 1405 as a symbol of defiance against the Abbot of St Albans – top tip: be sure you’re comfortable with small spaces before attempting the Medieval stairs!
And of course, a trip to St Albans wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Cathedral. There you’ll find the Shrine of St Alban and the longest nave in England (you might recognise parts of if you were glued to The Crown on Netflix). Book the Cathedral’s Tower Tour for the full tourist experience, and remember to look up: the ceilings, mosaics and stained glass are stunning. There are tonnes of events and exhibitions held here throughout the year too, so check what’s on before you visit in case you need to book ahead.
And if history’s your thing, pop in to the Verulamium Museum which is built on the site of the old Roman town and houses golden coins, intricate plasters and mosaics.
Fancy a breath of fresh air? You’ll find 100 acres to explore at Verulamium Park, which takes in a lake, part of the River Ver, and is also home to The Hypocaust, an impressive Roman mosaic and feat of ancient engineering, which is now housed in a modern building, with free entry to visitors.
SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP
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 and crafts at the other. There’s also a Farmer’s Market on the second Sunday of each month and the brilliant monthly St Albans Vintage and Antiques 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, as well as in the Village Arcade, across from the Clock Tower, where independents rule.
If you’re looking for gifts, head for Holywell Hill, and visit Muddy Award-winning interiors store, Cositas, an Aladdin’s cave of quirky gifts and stylish interior talking points. Get lost in a book at gorgeous trad book shop (and Muddy Awards Finalist) Books on the Hill. And find Gallic style in spades at Simply French, women’s fashion boutique.
Over on George Street there’s a great vintage place, Little Viking, in the Courtyard. For gorgeous and affordable jewellery, pop in to Muddy Awards Jewellery Store Finalist, Amalily. And find totally covetable interior design pieces and home furnishings at Emma’s House, and Flower Box (along with beautiful blooms, natch!).
Dotted amongst the upmarket chain boutiques on the High Street, you’ll find local fave, Raindrops on Roses – one of those gift shops where you can find something for any recipient (last minute bday pressie, anyone?) and all profits go to cancer charities, too. For sartorial style The Dressing Room is absolutely worth a peruse if you’re in the mood to treat yourself, (when aren’t we?!), as is Chloe James, with its cleverly curated clothing and lifestyle offering.
If it’s artisan food and drink you’re after check our the independent Flagship Wines on Hatfield Road to be spoilt for choice, or the Fleetville Larder further down the same street, with its fabulous selection of cheeses and deli-based delights. And if you’re up for a short drive out of town, Smallford Farm Shop is fab (there’s a café too) – it was recently listed in The Times as one of the UK ‘s top 30 farm shops!
DINE OUT IN STYLE
St Albans does pretttty well when it comes to fine dining and gourmet grub. For a smart casual lunch, there’s Lussmanns – which, if you don’t already know the name, is a collection of Herts-based bistros focusing on sustainably caught fish and other seasonal dishes. The St Alban’s outpost is down a characterful cobbled central street.
If you fancy something a little more exotic, this year’s Muddy Award Winning Restaurant, Tabure, has a stunning modern Turkish menu. Or if Italian’s more your fare of choice, Per Tutti is an elegant and authentic indie alternative to the usual family-friendly chains.
Dylans The Kings Arms on George St is a local gem for lunch or dinner – a cool and quirky pub with restaurant quality food. Be warned: it’s hard to get a table at the weekend, so book ahead.
Or you could always just head to the bar for a drink before going on to Loft (also on George St) – award-winning contemporary fine dining, with Michelin starred Head Chef Jonathan Beattie at the Helm.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, a short drive away is Carpenter’s Nursery (and farm shop) which has a fab café – the Potting Shed – grab a latte and browse the local produce and plants. Just don’t blame us if your credit card doesn’t get through the gauntlet unscathed. Or, if you find yourself Wheathampstead way, grab a sarnie or salad at local haunt, Charlie’s.
TAKE IN SOME CULTURE
If you’re after big name comedians, musicians and events, the Alban Arena is your one-stop shop, but for something more theatrical, there’s The Maltings, which also runs The Roman Open Air Theatre Festival in the summer months, plus the Sandpit Theatre and Abbey Theatre, with performances from local drama companies and touring shows.
If you prefer the big screen, do it in style at St Albans’ independent, vintage cinema, The Odyssey, with its comfy seating and tables for drinkies. You’ll have to book tickets in advance though, as they sell like hotcakes!
Spend an afternoon wandering around the St Albans Museum + Gallery with 2000 years worth of local and worldwide history and contemporary works to explore, over three floors in the former Town Hall. There are regularly changing exhibitions and workshops too.
Or for something altogether calmer, how about Evensong at the Cathedral? Pop in during the week at 5pm, Saturdays at 4pm or Sunday: 6.30pm.
St Albans has its fair share of galleries too, if you’re into art (or just like things that look nice on the wall!) Nude Tin Can gallery is packed with contemporary pieces from emerging and established artists. Gallery Rouge and Whitewall Gallery both deal in fine contemporary art, while Collective is an artist-run, open-to-all creative hub.
HOW ABOUT A DRINK?
We’ve mentioned that St Albans is big on pubs. And there really is everything here, from proper historic ale houses to gorgeously refurbed gastro pubs. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks believed to be Britain’s oldest pub (now there’s a claim to fame!) dates back to the 8th Century – the monks dug tunnels from the Abbey so they could sneak out for a drink without being spotted (cool, huh?!). The Six Bells on St Michael’s St and the Lower Red Lion on Fishpool St offer more of the trad pub scene too.
Meanwhile, 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. And another outlier from the city centre is the Colney Fox, which also has rooms.
At the crafty end of things, what about cheese wine and craft beer bar-cum-deli, Bishops Cave or its sister venture, cockail and charcuterie bar, The Yard, both over on Holywell Hill. Try a wine tasting at Must Wine Bar on trendy George Street or head to The Snug for cocktails, craft beer, wine and grub, which has tranformed the historic Fleur De Lys on French Row into a hip but cosy, contemporary space. And if you like craft beer, the local brewery’s bar, Mad Squirrel Tap, on the High St is a must-visit.
If it’s more of a party vibe you’re after, Naughts + Crosses is a cool late night venue, with its slick booths and terraces – perfect for a night out with the girls. Or check out hipster hub, Sucker Punch for a steampunk sensation of a cocktail, or its recently opened Gatsby-inspired sister bar, Punchin’ Palooka.
AND FOR THE KIDS…?
School project on the Romans? No problem! Kids can get right in on the action here and bring it to live at the Verulamium Museum. There are also tonnes of workshops and museum hunts and story telling events here and at the St Albans Museum + Gallery.
Head to Verulamium Park to check out the wildlife on the lake, children’s play area and spash park (summer only).
And if they’ve been good treat them (and yourself) to something from dessert-lovers’ heaven, The Pudding Stop, on Verulam Road, where you’ll find everything from custard tarts to crumbles. Or an ice cream from Darlish in Christopher Place – locally made Persian ice cream in intriguing flavour combos with baklava or Turkish delight on the side. Indulgent, us?!
Where to stay…
If you fancy making a weekend of it (even if it is only a short drive from home – don’t worry, we won’t tell!) hang your hat in one of the lovely local boutique hotels for the night. St Michael’s Manor on Fishpool Street, possibly the most beautiful residential street in St Albans (*gets on RightMove immediately*), is proper swanky if you fancy a treat (and why not?!).
The gorgeous Sopwell House is just a sort drive out of town. It’s new luxurious spa, Cottonmill, is to die for – trouble is, you might not want to leave the hotel!
Torrington Hall is a grand red brick pile on the oh-so-convenient Holywell Hill with views of the Cathedral no less. Rooms are elegant and spacious, with clean, modern décor and tea and coffee facilities (although no breakfast – good excuse to check out the local offerings!)
ON THE MOVE?
Check out the brand new Insider Guides to cities and towns from the other Muddy Stilettos editors…