Cultural Experience | United Kingdom

The Benefits of Small Town Travel

Out of the city and into the town: How a study break turned into a travel experience

When one imagines traveling during studying abroad one may picture big cities, bright lights and iconic monuments. And that’s good! Go see those things, take pictures, and enjoy them. I know I did when I studied abroad in Leeds, England last year. Looking back on it, however, I realize that some of my favorite trips weren’t ones that I had to ride an airplane to or book a hostel for, but the local towns right in my own area.

When I was studying at the University of Leeds in Northern England, I found that the final exam period was much longer than the lone week I was given at my American university. In Leeds, my three exams were stretched over the period of a month, and while that left me with ample time for revising, one cannot study every day without going a bit insane. So when I gave myself days off, I decided to get away and took advantage of the bus system to explore surrounding towns and villages.

Leeds is the third largest city in the United Kingdom, so I was pretty used to tall buildings, speeding cars, and sidewalks crowded with people. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Leeds, but I knew it would be a waste if I didn’t explore the beautiful countryside that Northern England had to offer. So after a bit of research, I hopped on a bus to the smaller Yorkshire towns.

Otley countryside image

Countryside view in Otley

While there may not be monuments or must-see tourist destinations in an ordinary English town, I found that it was just as important to research and see what it has to offer as I would a large city. Going into a big city without a plan can be overwhelming- there’s so many things to see and do, where to start? Inversely, arriving at a small town can be a bit underwhelming– all I see is a pub, some houses, and a river, what is there to do? It may not seem obvious, but there’s a lot you can do! When I planning on visiting Ilkley, a small town south of Leeds, a bit of research on the internet showed me that I could visit one of their better known tea shops, or hike the Ilkley Moor. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t walk around in hiking clothes every day, so when I picked a nice sunny day to go to Ikley I was  appropriately attired, had a good supply of water and sunscreen, and was prepared to hike the day away.

Ilkley Moor image

A path along the Ilkley Moor

It inspired me to take more trips to towns outside of Leeds such as Skipton, where I visited a small medieval castle, and Otley, which has a nice hiking trail with a great view of the surrounding countryside and farmland. I wouldn’t have guessed beforehand, but visiting these towns, where I was likely one of the only foreign tourists, was a fantastic way for me to see parts of England an average visitor might not be able to. Hiking the Ilkley Moor and eating in small local teashops provided me with very real local English culture apart from big touristy cities. Walking around, visiting family owned shops and conversing with the locals gave a real eye into English culture. What started as a break from exam revision turned into one of the most fulfilling parts of my study abroad experience.

Skipton Image

Streets of Skipton

Some suggestions:

Use the internet to see what places surround the city you’re living in. A lot of times, there are town websites which will highlight specific places within the town visitors can visit. Also, don’t be afraid to ask people! On my way to Skipton, I met an old man on the bus who told me all the interesting places I could go while I was there, as well as fun things to do, such as visiting the castle. You might be surprised at how much people love talking about their towns.


While it’s great to have a plan, it’s also great to walk around and let yourself get a little lost. Most of the time, these towns are small enough that you’ll be able to learn the layout of the roads in no time. And you might discover things you might not have otherwise. In Ilkley, I stumbled upon a candy store and bought myself a bag of homemade chocolates to reward myself with when I was done with my hike on the Moor.


Small shopping area in Skipton

Talk to people!

Since I traveled to these towns alone, it gave me a great opportunity to meet other people, such as locals who might not be used to tourists. Like I said, they loved talking about their towns, and you never know what stories they might share with you. The man I met on my way to Skipton told me all about being a soldier in the 50s, and was fascinated with my travels. You could also bring a buddy with you- it’s always fun to explore with a friend!

Eat the food!

Lots of towns have really great local pubs, restaurants, and bakeries. I definitely took advantage of these on my little day trips, and some of the best food I ate was bought at small sandwich stands or homemade candy shops.

Whether you’re in a big city in England like I was, or a small village in any other country, I would definitely  recommend exploring your surrounding towns, because you never know what there is to find off the beaten track. Of course, always exercise caution and make sure where you’re going is safe, but don’t be afraid to explore! My experiences exploring small towns helped me see England in ways I never could have if I only stuck to my own city and the tourist sites. Most importantly, have fun! And if you ever find yourself in Yorkshire, I would definitely recommend taking the time to see the beautiful countryside.

Ilkley moor image

Ilkley Moor

Stephanie DiCarlo

University of Massachusetts Amherst | 9 stories

My name is Steph and I'm a recent grad of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I traveled to Leeds, England to study abroad during the spring semester of my junior year of college! I love to travel, love to photograph, love to eat, and love to write!

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