Roughly 1 million people journey to Stonehenge each year to view the prehistoric stone circle ruin that has mystified the world for centuries as a man-made riddle, sitting on the vast Salisbury Plain in England's bucolic Wiltshire County.
Stonehenge originally was much larger than the ruin now visible, and tourists can walk through the site, getting up close to the 50 remaining sarsen stones, which are sandstone boulders presumably taken from the chalk downs of England, and the 45 bluestones, thought to be spotted dolerite, a blue-gray rock with white spots that archeologists believe were transported from Wales when Stonehenge was built some 3000 years ago. The stone circle's purpose remains unknown but is widely believed to have been a burial ground aligned with the movements of the sun.
Tourists looking to access the site must enter through the Stonehenge Visitor Center, which also offers tours of on-site neolithic houses recreated based on the remains of ancient buildings discovered nearby. Also nearby is Avebury, another celebrated prehistoric stone circle that, together with Stonehenge, comprises a World Heritage Site. Stonehenge is owned by the National Trust and operated by English Heritage. The nearest town to Stonehenge is Salisbury, which offers easy access to the site and is a historic destination in its own right.
From Historic Salisbury, Stonehenge Is a Hop, Skip And A Jump
On a weekend visit to historic Salisbury, travelers can easily include a tour of Stonehenge on one day and explore the town of Salisbury on the second day. Stonehenge is situated about nine miles from Salisbury's city center and is accessible by car. Visitors without a vehicle have the option of taking a tour bus to the historic circle.
Costing about $15, the daily Stonehenge tour bus operates hourly from the Salisbury Rail Station and makes a stop at the Salisbury Bus Station. The hop-on, hop-off service enables riders to spend as much time as they like at the site, and the motorcoach service includes pickups and drop-offs at nearby Old Sarum, an Iron Age hill fort that dates back to around 400 BC and located just over a mile from the Salisbury city center.
Old Sarum is the location of Salisbury's original cathedral, estimated to have been built in the 11th century. Going farther back, Old Sarum includes ruins from first-century Roman times. Visitors also can enjoy sweeping views of the Wiltshire countryside from the elevated Old Sarum site.
In addition to the neolithic huts that are open for tours, visitors to the Stonehenge Visitor Center can view exhibits that include hundreds of prehistoric relics found at the stone circle, including animal bones and early weapons such as axes.
As a jumping-off point for Stonehenge, Salisbury offers several accommodations choices and has a wide variety of dining options in its city center.
Among the hotel choices are the Red Lion Hotel Salisbury, itself a historical site dating back some 800 years. Now a Best Western property, it is considered Europe's oldest purpose-built hotel and offers 60 rooms with rates starting at about $145 per night. Other lodging options in the city center or close to the Salisbury Rail Station include the White Hart Salisbury, with rates from about $155, and the Milford Hall Hotel and Spa, offering rates from about $120.
Stunning Cathedral, Other Notable Sites Add To Salisbury's Charm
With the scenic River Avon running through it, Salisbury is best known for its 13th-century Salisbury Cathedral, which is home to one of only four original copies of the Magna Carta, the royal charter of rights, and the foundation of the British constitution that dates to 1215.
Designed in the Early English Gothic style, the cathedral houses tombs from the time of its construction, stain-glass windows from later centuries, and a 14th-century clock. Early English Gothic style is known to have emphasized height and light, a distinction from the typically bulky buildings that were the norm in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The cathedral also sports Britain's tallest spire, at 404 feet, and its largest cathedral close. Visitors can climb the spire's 332 steps for panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
Inside the cathedral close, visitors will find preserved Georgian and Elizabethan homes, which formerly housed the cathedral's ecclesiastical staff as far back as the 14th century. Also, in the close, tourists can see a manor home that houses the Rifles Berkshire & Wiltshire Museum and the Salisbury Museum.
After the historical sites have been seen, visitors can stroll through Salisbury's quaint old city center, which offers myriad shopping opportunities and a look at architectural styles from medieval times to the present.
Don't-miss sites include the parish church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, a 15th-century building, and the spacious market center and its medieval marketplace called Poultry Cross, a gothic-style stone market building from the 14th century. A walk through the old city center also provides scenic views of the River Avon.