But if you really want to get a feel for the culture of a destination, you might want to try to do it via events. From sporting events to festivals, these kinds of things often showcase a lot of local tradition, and also invite the local people to act in the most natural (and fun-loving) way.
Naturally, if you’re looking to get to know the UK, you won’t be able to hit all of these events in one go. But if the idea of event-centric cultural exploration appeals, it’s certainly worth planning around one or two of them.
Really you could pick from three major horse racing events in the UK here: The Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National, and the Royal Ascot. But the Grand National may pack the best combination of good weather and festivity. Held every April near Liverpool, it’s a multi-day event at which spectators dress up (in traditionally gaudy-but-stylish horse racing attire), have a few drinks, and often place a few bets before enjoying the races. There’s just something quintessentially British about the whole affair.
A flower show might not sound like much, but the Chelsea area of London makes quite a big deal out of it. This year, for instance, 10 show gardens and 16 smaller gardens are on the menu. This is not a loud event or an over-the-top festival or anything like that, but it’s a nice chance to spend time out and about in London with a crowd of people enjoying the simple beauty of well-arranged garden. Sometimes, the queen even attends!
The Summer Solstice is effectively just the longest day (and shortest night) of the year, and is celebrated by different people in different ways all over the world. The UK has a particularly interesting Summer Solstice celebration, however, taking place at the famous monument of Stonehenge. Basically, there are certain places where you can stand at Stonehenge and see a particularly spectacular sunrise through the stones themselves, and over time this has led to the area becoming something of a pilgrimage destination for the northern solstice. The atmosphere is almost like that of a concert, with crowds of people hanging out, sipping beverages, lounging on picnic blankets, etc. - but there’s a spiritual element to it all.
The UK, as you might imagine, is home to dozens of different music and arts festivals, which are really the pinnacle of what we’d consider “cultural events.” But none can beat the Glastonbury Festival in Somerset. It’s a five-day series of performances, revolving largely around music but also including theatre, comedy, dance, and even circus shows. It’s one of those events that seems to get bigger and better every year, and it draws a huge crowd of locals and tourists alike.
Wimbledon is the oldest and most prestigious tennis event in the world, according to one guide looking ahead to this summer’s tournament. This means that it effectively transcends its sport, such that while it’s primarily a tennis tournament, it has over time become a great deal more. This is for many one of the most undeniably delightful London experiences - an event full to bursting with tradition and history, where everyone is friendly, excited, and consciously thrilled to be there.
Many people forget to include Northern Ireland when talking about UK events, which is a shame because there’s a lot going on, particularly in Belfast. This particular festival is more or less just what it sounds like, featuring performing and visual art, dance, music, and more. It’s less of a giant get together than, say, Glastonbury, but it’s a very authentic occasion that will expose you to the passion that a place like Belfast has for the arts in general.
If you study your historical upstarts or you’re a fan of the film V For Vendetta, you probably know about Guy Fawkes, who famously tried to blow up the House of Lords in London in 1605. Bonfire Night essentially celebrates this semi-mythologized occasion with general revelry, often surrounding bonfires, torches, and/or fireworks displays. There are a lot of Bonfire Night celebrations around the UK, so this isn’t a single centralized event, but attending any one of them gives you a chance to partake in a specifically British holiday of sorts.