A weekend in the riverside market town of Kingston upon Thames
When we tell you that Kingston upon Thames is fit for a king, you should take that phrase literally. In ancient times, Saxon monarchs were crowned right here in this riverside market town, perhaps just a few feet from where you’re sipping a latte. Fast-forward to the 16th century, and Henry VIII took up residence at the fabled Hampton Court Palace, just a stone’s skim along the Thames.
Luckily, these days, you don’t need blue blood or a king’s ransom to enjoy an unforgettable weekend in Kingston upon Thames. Shut out the capital’s hubbub at London Waterloo station, and with your cases safely stowed, sit back, reconnect and daydream as the view from the window shifts from urban same-old to idyllic getaway in less than half an hour. When you arrive, you’ll quickly realise that Kingston upon Thames was made to be ambled, so step this way for the best the town has to offer.
Take a riverside stroll
To take the pulse of Kingston upon Thames, start your weekend with the flagship feature. The river is life here, and a meander along the bank is practically the law. All the locals have their favourite spots, but as a stranger in town, start at the train station and make for Hampton Court Bridge: a manageable four-mile mini-hike that will lead you down unspoilt tracks and towpaths, past regal swans and tumbling willow trees, soundtracked by the chatter of blackbirds and the distant dip of oars in the twinkling waters. If you’d like a little more action, visit in July, when the historic Kingston Regatta sees the country’s finest rowers thrash it out in 300-plus races.
Grab a quirky coffee
After a full-pelt morning, you’ll want a pick-me-up, and if you’re serious about your brew, then you’re in the right town. Needless to say, Kingston upon Thames city centre serves up all the familiar big-name coffee chains, from Starbucks to Caffé Nero. But with time on your side, it pays to go off-grid and try something a little quirkier. Make your way to Thames Street for a stellar brunch at one of the best cafes in Kingston upon Thames, Local Hero, where avocado on sourdough toast is washed down with the smoothest latte around.
On the same stretch, you’ll find the acclaimed Department Of Coffee and Social Affairs, where a crack squad of passionate baristas grind some of the most intriguing single-origin beans in Britain.
Snap Britain’s most surreal sculpture
Kingston upon Thames city centre has just the right balance of bustle and breathing space. It’s easy to lose a few hours as you float blissfully between the distinctive black-and-white, timber-framed Tudor shop frontages, dropping into all your favourite chain shops and a few off-the-wall indies. But for a bit of colour and culture, make a point of visiting the iconic Out Of Order sculpture on Old London Road. Dreamt up by the acclaimed Scottish artist David Mach, this quirky installation is best described as the world’s biggest domino rally, with twelve red phoneboxes in various states of tumbledown. If there’s a more Instagrammable artwork out there, we haven’t seen it.
Eat like a king (or queen)
We’re not saying you have to go full Henry VIII, but a weekend getaway surely justifies a little belt-loosening. The best restaurants in Kingston upon Thames are an eclectic bunch and there’s always something cooking, wherever the little hand is pointing. By day, you might settle down for afternoon tea in the Downton-esque setting of Warren House, where your plate runneth over with finger sandwiches, pastries and scones smothered in clotted cream and homemade jams. By night, you could run the gauntlet of eateries at the Riverside Walk (with big names like Bill’s and Côte offering money-shot views of the water). Alternatively, you could break free of the chain brands and drop into Poor Boys (5 Griffin Centre), where New Orleans cuisine is saluted with stick-to-your-ribs Po Boy sandwiches and ice cream floats.
Reawaken your inner culture vulture
There’s a healthy sprinkling of museums across Kingston upon Thames, whether you browse the Roman artefacts and Iron Age treasures at the Ancient Origins Gallery in the museum, or thumb the local archives of the History Centre. As for art galleries in Kingston upon Thames, you could choose to broaden your mind at the Stanley Picker Gallery on Grange Road – whose temporary exhibitions include everything from bronze sculptures to a shark being fed bourbons – or add to your own collection with a piece from Whitewall Galleries in the Bentalls Shopping Centre. And with the renowned Rose Theatre offering music, drama and stand-up comedy, there’s no danger of being left at a loose end after dinner tonight.
Get your history on
Kingston upon Thames is rightly proud of its royal heritage, and you’re never more than a short hop from an era-defining historical site. Don’t mistake the High Street’s Coronation Stone for a run-of-the-mill boulder: this ancient sarsen stone block is said to be the site of coronations for seven Saxon kings (you’ll find their names inscribed around the base). Next to the ancient Market Place, meanwhile, All Saints Church has an even bolder claim: with King Athelstan crowned within these walls as the nation’s first monarch in 925AD; there’s an argument that England as we know it was born right here. If you’d like to know more about Kingston upon Thames history, join a guided walk any given Sunday over summer – and if the kids are grumbling, get them moving with a Treasure Trail.
Amble through Canbury Gardens
When it comes to the best parks in Kingston upon Thames, Canbury Gardens is the one. Located within easy reach of the town centre, this rolling 14-acre space gives you the best of both worlds, with lush, green, picnic-ready grass on one side and that now-familiar river on the other. Over summer, Canbury Gardens is one of the best things to do in Kingston upon Thames with kids in tow – especially if you lay down your picnic rug near the bandstand and enjoy the regular free concerts that include everything from soul to jazz. And just in case you’re at risk of becoming too relaxed, there’s the annual Dragon Boat Challenge in July, when Canbury Gardens becomes a colourful kingdom of market stalls and fairground rides – and up to sixty teams battle for victory on the water.
Take a boat to Hampton Court Palace
There’s no shortage of things to do in Kingston upon Thames. But Hampton Court Palace is so close that you can almost smell the history, and with local boat hire firms like Turks and Parr on hand, it’s a short and scenic splash to Henry VIII’s iconic crib. With its Great Hall, Haunted Gallery, evocative Tudor kitchens and fairytale sculpted gardens, Hampton Court Palace is an unmissable attraction, whichever season you choose to visit it. But if you’re of the green-fingered persuasion, try to time your trip for early July, when the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show blooms into life. Every bit as magical as the Chelsea Flower Show – but considerably easier to get tickets – this is the English summer in excelsis.
Where to stay in Kingston upon Thames
Warren House (Warren Road)
Stunning country house setting within four acres of landscaped gardens. The 46 rooms are available at three budgets, and the onsite restaurant is highly rated.
The White Hart Hotel (High Street)
Technically over the bridge and into Hampton Wick, this is a welcoming pub with comfortable accommodation that includes family rooms – and a town centre location that’s ideal when little legs get tired during a busy weekend.
Grab some presents for friends
If you haven’t given your credit card a workout yet, now’s the time. There might be over 500 stores here, but because everything is within easy walking distance, shopping in Kingston upon Thames is a breeze – no matter how many bags you’re holding. You’re bound to end up at local legend Bentalls: the heavyweight champion of Kingston upon Thames shopping, where 75-plus stores including Apple, Calvin Klein and Ted Baker are all found under one roof. But make time, too, for the indier end of the retail spectrum, whether that’s the one-off boutiques and Antique Centre of Old London Road, or the ancient Market Place where street food sizzles, pop-up jewellers sell blink-and-you’ll-miss-out bargains and festivals sporadically spring to life.
Have one last riverside drink
There’s no excuse for being thirsty in Kingston upon Thames. We’ll assume you’ve already loaded your suitcases with the craft ales from the 7,000 Jars Of Beer bottle shop on Crown Passage. But with the clock ticking on your weekend away, use your last few hours wisely, sitting back and reflecting on the high points over a pint from some of Britain’s best riverside pubs. It’s hard to beat a sunset sip on The Boaters’ balcony, but The Ram’s widescreen river views run it close, while Stein’s Bavarian biergarten vibe feels like a different mini-break entirely. Tough choice, but the best news is that because you’re taking the train, you can stop in at all three – then cruise back to London Waterloo, brimming with stories from a brilliant weekend.