The city of Hereford is one of the best undiscovered places in England.
It’s a small but beautiful cathedral city between the West Midlands and the border with Wales. The Cotswolds are an hour’s drive away to the south. Our guide to the best things to do in Hereford tells you everything you need to know about the city. We also cover the best things to do in Herefordshire, its mainly rural county.
This is off the beaten path England at its most unspoilt. Hereford and Herefordshire have hardly changed since I first started visiting in the early 1990s. Part of Herefordshire is within the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and just beyond its eastern boundary in Worcestershire are the lovely Malvern Hills.
It’s most widely known for Herefordshire cattle, but there’s so much more to it. Much of Herefordshire is gently undulating green English countryside, dotted with apple orchards and lovely villages full of medieval black and white houses. It’s also close to the Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye and the Black Mountains range of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
You could cover all the main Hereford attractions within a day, but it deserves a longer stay than that to see more of the surrounding area. Herefordshire is one of the best hidden gems in England. I was lucky to dip in and out of it many times, growing up just across the border in Wales.
Best Things to Do in Hereford
1. Visit Hereford Cathedral
Hereford Cathedral is the outstanding attraction in Hereford.
It’s home to the incredible Mappa Mundi, a map of the world dating from the late 13th or early 14th century. The site became important after the burial of St Ethelbert, a Saxon king beheaded on the order of Offa, King of Mercia, in 794 AD. After miracles were reported at the site, a church and later a cathedral were built there. The latter fell victim to ransacking and plundering by Welsh forces in 1056.
The Cathedral was begun again in 1079, with construction continuing on and off over the following centuries. Much of what you see today is in the Gothic style, with considerable 19th century restoration.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi is housed in the Library Building in the adjacent Cathedral Close, along with the famous Chained Library of ancient books and manuscripts.
The Mappa Mundi is a fascinating document, and helpfully for non-Latin speakers, there is a copy in English. It shows Jerusalem at the centre, with Europe, Africa and part of Asia. It is illustrated with pictures of Biblical events, animals and plants. Over 400 places are depicted with drawings of cathedrals, castles and towers to represent them.
2. Black and White House Museum
At the opposite end of the city centre is a remarkably well-preserved black-and-white house.
It dates from the early 1600s, which is also known as the Jacobean period (within the reign of King James I). It was previously known as the Old House Museum. It’s an enchanting little museum devoted to the Jacobean period, with many furnishings from the era. There is also a fine collection of wall paintings. It’s brought to life for kids with a selection of 17th century costumes they can try on.
3. Hereford Cider Museum
Unless you’re a teetotaller, you can’t visit Hereford without a tipple of the local cider.
Herefordshire cider is among the best English cider. It’s also made to the south in Somerset and in Kent and East Anglia.
The Cider Museum is housed in a former cider factory, and you can tour the atmospheric cider champagne cellars and cooper’s workshop where the wooden barrels were made.Two major commercial cider makers, Bulmers Cider and Weston’s, contributed to the Museum.
4. Violette Szabo Museum
One of the lesser-known Hereford tourist attractions is the Violette Szabo Museum.
It tells the story of a World War II heroine who undertook spying missions in France. She was eventually captured by the Nazis, tortured and sent to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was executed. After the war, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, in recognition of her great heroism.
The Museum is only open on Wednesdays between April and September. It is in the house which she used to visit as a child. Her aunt later moved into the house and set about turning it into a museum. Violette Szabo was the subject of the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride, which starred Virginia McKenna. If you ever happen to watch this film, look out for a very young Michael Caine in a bit-part role.
The Museum is in the village of Wormelow, 7 km from Hereford city centre.
5. Wye Valley AONB
Hereford is just outside the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It’s one of the most beautiful British landscapes, reaching south to the Welsh town of Chepstow, near which it flows into the sea. After Hereford, it slowly, gently meanders through the green Herefordshire countryside before reaching hillier country close to the Welsh border. The most famous Wye Valley viewpoint on the English side of the border is at Symonds Yat, a few miles south of Ross-on-Wye. Yat Rock has an outstanding view over a wide bend of the river, and there’s a convenient car park next to it off the B4229.
The final stretch along the Welsh border is also glorious, especially between Llandogo and Chepstow. The river passes the magnificent medieval ruin of Tintern Abbey on its way to the sea, as well as a vast meander below the Eagles Nest viewpoint. This area is especially beautiful in the fall season, and our feature on Wales in autumn describes it in more detail.
The River Wye was the birthplace of tourism in Britain in the late 18th century when its picturesque qualities were recognised. Boat trips from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow would last up to two days, with the scenery the main attraction. Visitors would sketch and paint scenes from around river level, with limestone cliffs or the ruin of Tintern Abbey in the background.
Hereford is on the 136 mile (219 km) Wye Valley Walk which takes you from the slopes of the remote Plynlimon mountain in Mid Wales to the estuary to Chepstow. The Walk is fairly easy in either direction, whether you’re heading south to Ross or west to Hay. Some of the most memorable River Wye walks are in Hereford itself, especially with the views of the Cathedral.
Another way to enjoy the river Wye is to appreciate it at water level like the very first British tourists. The difference is that you have to propel yourself. River Wye canoeing and kayaking is very popular, and several operators run courses and trips along the river. Wye Canoes are one of the closest to Hereford, based in Symonds Yat West.
6. Malvern Hills
Hereford is only twenty miles (32 km) from another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Malvern Hills.
They are just across the county boundary in Worcestershire. This small range of steep hills rises abruptly from the flat plain around the town of Great Malvern. Malvern is a former spa town which grew rapidly in the 19th century, and many of its fine Victorian buildings remain. One of the best things to do in Malvern is to visit Great Malvern Priory, a fine medieval church the size of many cathedrals.
However, the main attraction is the Malvern Hills walks, many of which start from the town. The Hills are essentially one long ridge, with flat floodplains either side. It’s a short, steep ascent from Great Malvern, with undulating tracks along the tops of the Hills. As well as walks, the Hills are ideal for parascending, especially on the western side.
The Malverns are also known as the home of Edward Elgar, one of the most famous English composers. He is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, one of which had words added to it, becoming Land of Hope and Glory.
7. Herefordshire Black and White Villages
Herefordshire’s Black and White Village Trail takes you around some wonderful picturesque villages to the north and west of Hereford. They contain many black and white buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. The timber frames are painted black and the rest of the walls white. This architectural style is quite common in the Welsh Borders area, with many examples on both sides.
They’re nowhere near as well known as the Cotswolds villages, but some of these Herefordshire villages are among the most beautiful villages in England.
The most beautiful that we have visited are Eardisland (pictured), Eardisley, Pembridge and Weobley. They all deserve a few hours of your time, and are some of the best places to visit in Herefordshire.
8. Herefordshire Churches
You could also spend some of your days out in Herefordshire exploring the county’s churches.
Herefordshire has some of the most remarkable churches in England, indeed the UK.The church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck dates from the 12th century. It’s only two miles inside the English border, off the main A465 road. Its exterior is adorned by some extraordinary exuberant carved figures, including a well-known example of a sheela na gig.
There are also two amazing churches on the River Wye between Hereford and Ross. Hoarwithy has a beautiful Italianate church from the 19th century which wouldn’t look out of place in Bologna or Ravenna. A short distance upstream, All Saints Church in Brockhampton is more recent, a remarkable building by Arts and Crafts architect William Lethaby.
One of the most popular things to do near Hereford is to visit Hay-on-Wye, just across the order in Wales. Hay-on-Wye bookshops are famous worldwide as Hay has long been considered the second-hand bookshop capital of the world. It’s one of the most intriguing places to visit in Wales. There were once well over fifty such bookshops in this tiny town, and they have now dwindled to around twenty.
However, this hasn’t diminished its stature at all. It has hosted the Hay Literary Festival for over thirty years, drawing prominent writers, thinkers and even world leaders from around the globe. This completely takes over the town and surrounding area for ten days in late May and early June each year.
There are plenty of other things to do in Hay-on-Wye besides browsing bookshops. The popularity of the bookshops has spawned many Hay-on-Wye restaurants, including The Swan at Hay and St John’s Place. Several other specialist shops have also opened up in the last few years, selling everything from specialist maps to boutique fashions to outdoor gear.
10. The Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons
The long, elevated line of mountains you see from anywhere in western Herefordshire is Hatterall Ridge, part of the Black Mountains.
These are a series of ridges and steep valleys which occupy the eastern part of the Brecon Beacons National Park. The most popular short walk is up to the summit of Hay Bluff, which looks over the town and Mid Wales countryside. This is on another long distance trail – the Offa’s Dyke Path, which runs 177 miles along the Wales-England border. It follows the earthwork border between Mercia and the lands of the Welsh in the 8th century AD. This is indeed the same Offa who had Ethelbert beheaded.
Below Hay Bluff is the serene, remote Llanthony Valley, one of the most beautiful places in Wales. Around eight miles down from Hay Bluff, you come to the evocative ruin of Llanthony Priory, a 12th and 13th century abbey church exposed to the elements for almost 500 years.
Back on the English side of Hatterall Ridge, the Golden Valley Herefordshire is another bucolic, unexplored corner of the country, way off the beaten track.
There’s a good choice of hotels in Hereford, with a good range of B&Bs as well.
The Castle House Hotel, two minutes from the Cathedral, is the pick of Hereford hotels. It’s spread over two grand townhouses, with the emphasis on elegant, spacious chic rooms and suites. The restaurant, the Ballingham Bar & Bistro, is also one of the best restaurants in Hereford, with produce sourced from the hotel’s own farm nearby.
Aylestone Court Hotel is a small hotel in a restored Georgian house five minutes’ walk from Hereford railway station. It’s around a ten-minute walk from there to the Cathderal and city centre. I had a very late check-in for a one- night stay, but the understanding and service really stood out for me.
The Three Counties Hotel is a popular Hereford hotel, and a good option if you’re driving. It’s a mile and a half (2.5km) from the city centre, on the A465 road to South Wales. Rooms are generously sized, and it has a quiet setting in landscaped gardens.
Ponte Vecchio is a lovely family-run trattoria on Bridge Street, halfway between the Cathedral and River Wye. I first ate there not long after it opened 11 years ago, and it’s one of the better Italian places I’ve eaten in around the UK.
Madam & Adam is a new restaurant further down Bridge Street, closer to the river. They serve small plate dishes, larger than a tapa and a bit smaller than a ración, the full meal option you can order in Spain. It’s run by a couple, it’s their first restaurant and within 18 months of opening they were already in the Good Food Guide. That is impressive. They also serve chicken breast with Bombay spiced potatoes and a coconut and bison grass vodka gel. That is seriously inventive.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.