We took a day trip to Stonehenge while we were staying in Windsor. When I realized it was only about 70 miles away (an hour and twenty-minute drive) it seemed impossible to pass up. While Stonehenge is not technically one of the “Great Wonders of the World,” it certainly is one of the most well-known historical sites in the world. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its age (4,500 years old!!!) and the mystery surrounding its origins and purpose make it a popular draw for tourists.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect at the Stonehenge site. Of course, I’ve seen pictures in books and on the internet, so I knew what the stones would look like, but I didn’t know what the surrounding area would be like. To be honest, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Griswold’s visit to the site in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
I don’t own the rights to this video, or YouTube, or anything on it. I am just linking to it because I found it on the internet and it is funny. Please don’t sue me. If I ever need to remove it, just tell me and I will.
This is not to say I didn’t take our visit seriously, or didn’t try to learn something, but I did giggle to myself off and on the whole time there.
Stonehenge is technically in Wiltshire, England, but is better described as being in the middle of a big, beautiful field with nothing else around it. We didn’t see Wiltshire, or nearby Amesbury or Salisbury. It is very easy to get to from major roadways, but you don’t feel like you are near anything when you are there. As you drive along the road, all of a sudden it appears in front of you. A pretty cool sight.
The site is now managed by the English Heritage Trust. There is a Visitor Center, indoor exhibits, a gift shop, a café, and an outdoor exhibit, in addition to the stone formation itself.
I highly recommend reserving your tickets in advance. This allows you to bypass lines, or as I say now that I am in Europe, queues, and saves time and hassle. In fact, while the site does offer walk-up ticket sales, they say that the only way they can guarantee same-day entrance is if you book your day and time slot in advance.
Like most English Heritage sites, at Stonehenge you can buy souvenir guidebooks to take home with you, and audio guides to use while on site. I recommend using the audio guide because otherwise, you will just be walking around the pile of stones with very little additional information (unless you are well-studied on the history of Stonehenge). If I recall correctly (though my memory may be fuzzy), there aren’t a lot of informational markers or plaques at the site, just the numbers corresponding with the audio tour. Alternatively, you can download a free audio tour app on your phone, but I can’t vouch for it since we purchased the one available on site.
The Visitor Center has the Stonehenge Exhibition with artifacts and information on the history of the site. The outside exhibit has replica Neolithic Houses that model the homes and living conditions of the people who built Stonehenge. I appreciated that these are viewable before visiting the actual stone formation because they give you context and information about what you see.
That said, with my seven-year-old, we went through these exhibits at warp speed, so I think there was a lot I didn’t learn. I bought the souvenir guidebook before we left so I could read more later about what I saw. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but it’s a nice addition to our travel library! The English Heritage website on Stonehenge has a lot of really great information, too.
From the Visitor Center, getting to the rock formation can be accomplished one of two ways, by foot or by bus. It’s a one-and-a-half-mile scenic walk or a five-minute bus ride. We opted for the bus ride since it was a hot, sunny day in August.
Once you get to the site, you can walk entirely around it (weather permitting). This takes about an hour when following the audio guide. I am so glad we had the audio guide because it kept my son interested, which helped slow down his normal fast pace through sites like this! I now see on the website that there is a family audio tour available, and a kid’s activity pack. I wish I had known about those when we visited. I should have done more research in advance.
Since 1970, barriers have kept visitors from getting too close to the stones. I am surprised those weren’t put in place earlier, and that more damage wasn’t done to the stones before that!
I had friends ask me if it felt magical or mystical there. I wish I could say that I stood in awe and wonder, staring at the 4,500-year-old stones. I tried, but it was almost too surreal. It was hard for me to look at the stone formation and fathom that it was by far the oldest thing I’d ever seen.
This is not the first time I’ve experienced this feeling at some of the older, iconic sites we’ve visited. I felt the same way in some of the German beer halls and Alps villages we’ve seen. Having spent time in places like the Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Virginia, U.S.A., I was used to seeing fake versions of these European locations. After inflating them in my mind, and having seen fictionalized versions so often, it’s hard to comprehend when I am looking at the real thing. Add to that the swarms of other tourists there, picnicking and changing diapers and vying for the best spot to take a photograph with their selfie sticks flying about, it takes away from the experience.
I know someone who scoffs at tourist destinations like Stonehenge. He considers it something that people feel like they have to see just because it is famous, that usually ends up being disappointing because it is overrun with tourists and tchotchkes for sale. In some ways, he is right. I wasn’t disappointed in Stonehenge, but I would have enjoyed it under other circumstances better. Like maybe at sunrise or sunset or nighttime (check out this new piece of science just written this week), and definitely with fewer people around. Like, no one around.
But that’s a thing about this world and the wonderful things in it. We have to share them with each other. In fairness, I can’t be a tourist and resent tourists. I’ve noticed that some travelers like to make a distinction between travelers and tourists, implying superiority of the former over the later. I have been guilty of that feeling myself at times. When we travel I like to see what “real life” is like in the places we visit. I like to experience the local culture and customs and food when we can, the stuff you don’t find in guidebooks. But I also like to see the iconic things (tourist attractions) that make a place famous. So, for me, spending time trying to distinguish between traveler and tourist isn’t really fair, no matter how much I get annoyed by swarms of tourists around me when I am doing the same thing. We’re all just trying to see things in our world and that should be commended.
So, if you have an opportunity, go see Stonehenge! It is truly an impressive structure that has stood the test of time. My son has since see references to it in books and cartoons and it has been fun to see his reaction to that – “Hey, I’ve been there!” Even though I found it hard to wrap my head around it and fully appreciate it while I was there, I am glad we have it in our memories, and that we can cross it off our travel list!