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Insider guide to Guildford

Arty, foodie, cultural... and a haven for shoppers - Surrey's county town has a lot to offer whether you're local or visiting.

Guildford High Street. Photo courtesy Guilford Borough Council

THE LOWDOWN

Guildford is a bustling market town, and the biggest jewel in Surrey’s already sparkling crown. It’s achieves that tricky beast of offering the perfect mix of rural and city life – with plenty of arts and culture, restaurants and great shopping on offer, while being surrounded by beautiful countryside.

It’s on the radar of The Sunday Times’ list of best places to live in the south-east, noted for its brilliant high-street, over-achieving schools and quick commute to London.

Despite having both a university and a cathedral, Guildford is, in fact, not a city. But who needs to be a city eh? Guildford is Surrey’s county town, and the King of England’s use of Guildford Castle in the 1400s boosts its status as Surrey’s only royal town.

It is situated in a valley amid the North Downs on the banks of the River Wey, which wends its way through the town, and eventually links to the Basingstoke Canal.

Fun historical fact: Guildford is about halfway between England’s main naval port at Portsmouth and the admiralty in Greenwich, and was – until the steam train came along – the perfect stopping off point for people travelling via horse-drawn carriage between the two.

PARK UP

Parking is pretty easy in central Guildford. There’s short-term on-street parking on North Street, but for longer stays head to one of the multi-story carparks. Whenever I’m in Guildford, my car seems to head like a homing pigeon to the Leapale Road car park, which is an easy walk to the High Street. If I’m on the castle side of town, though, I park at Millbrook. You can pay using the RingGo app at any of these.

WHERE TO EAT

You’re spoiled for choice really – and it depends what your fancy is. For posh nosh with a view, head to The Ivy Castle View in Tunsgate Quarter. The Restaurant at The Mandolay is also worth a splashing out on bringing a touch of elegance and sophistication to proceedings. For top notch pub fare with a French twist, you can’t go past The March Hare, which overlooks Guildford Castle. It’s a chic urban pub that punches above its weight in the gastropub class.

If you’re looking to while away a few hours alfresco, the Weyside Inn is a good bet. Pull up a pew on the large terrace and watch the boats glide past on the River Wey with something cold in hand, and a burger from the burger shack, or something form the main pub menu. You can’t reserve tables on the terrace, and when the sun is shining it fills up quick – so get there early to grab the best spot.

For world cuisines, The Thai Terrace is a favourite with the locals, not just for the great food but also the brilliant views, as is Positano offering traditional Italian dishes from its historic Elizabethan building. La Casita offers up an authentic taste of the Med with its tapas menu. Plenty here for vegetarians too. Other goodies are Blue Sardinia, offering authentic and modern Sardinian food, and Raviz, which is hugely popular among locals for its Indian cuisine.

Seasons Café at Guildford Cathedral is a great spot for brunch or lunch, and if you’re after coffee and cake head to Coffee Culture tucked down the lovely little Angle Gate laneway. We’re also big fans of GAIL’s bakery in Tunsgate Quarter.

WHERE TO STAY

If it’s a luxury stay in a central spot, you’d have plump for either The Mandolay or the Guildford Harbour Hotel. The Mandolay is situated at the top of the High Street, less than 200m from G Live – so a good option if you’re taking in a show. The bar serves up a mean selection of cocktails with a promise of ‘quality over quantity’. I’m also told that afternoon tea at The Mandolay is not to be missed.

The Guildford Harbour Hotel would be my choice if you’re looking to include some pampering; the HarSPA has a state-of-the-art gym and offers a range of treatment and day spa packages.

Other good options include The Angel Posting House which is also right in the centre of town – on the High Street, in fact, or the Barnett Hill Hotel, if you’re looking for something just a little further out – it’s 10 mins drive from the centre of Guildford in Wonersh. Worplesdon Place is another excellent out-of-town option.

The River Wey, Guildford. Photo courtesy of Guildford Borough Council

TAKE A WALK

There are plenty of walks to be had along the River Wey. iFootpath suggests a 2 mile circular walk that starts at the Cornmarket Portico just outside the pedestrianised High Street and takes in the central part of the town as well as Guildford Castle and Shalford Water Meadows. The National Trust also offers up suggested walking routes along the Wey, including a trail from Dapdune Wharf to St Catherine’s Hill. At 5.5miles, this is a bit more strenuous but there are some spectacular views to be had.

The World War Two codebreaker, Alan Turing grew up in Guildford, and there are Alan Turing guided walks during the summer that explore his life and time in the town. They’re free, but booking is essential.

Have a drink at The Ivy Castle View. Photo courtesy of The Ivy

HAVE A DRINK

If the sun is shining, I’d head straight to the outdoor terrace at The Ivy Castle View where you can sip a Salted Caramel Espresso Martini while taking in the views of the Guildford Castle. If you’re heading to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Komo, across the road is a good option for a pre or post theatre tipple. The Cosy Club in Tunsgate Quarter is also a very cool option, where you can also grab a bit to ear. Or grab a swivel stool at the sweeping 120ft marble Long Bar at Guildford Harbour Hotel – apparently the longest bar outside of London – and check out the gin menu.

Angel Gate, Guildford.

LET’S GO SHOPPING

Guildford is known for its shopping – it was dubbed a ‘shopaholics nirvana’ by The Sunday Times. At Tunsgate Quarter shopping centre you’ll find whole host of luxury brands including Oka, The White Company, Loaf, Bobbi Brown and Design Vintage. And the long established Friary is still at the bottom of North Street with more than 50 stores including most of the big brands you’d want to spend with.

But it’s the independent retailers that make Guildford really great – from cafes and clothes shops to wine shops and jewellers.

A Drapers award-winner, Courtyard is in Guildford, saying it was owner Julia Jaconelli’s eye for unique products and her knowledge of her customers that has led to more than 20 years of success. Tucked away down the charming cobbled Angel Gate, between North Street and the High Street, you’ll find an eclectic mix of designer brands.

Muddy Award winner for Best Women’s Boutique and a Drapers nominee The Gate is another must visit, with a brilliant range of brands, and friendly staff who give great style advice. Another Muddy fave is Simon Pure for gorgeously stunning jewellery designs on Swan Lane. If you need a knob, pop into The Knob Connection on Tunsgate, and if you love cheese, head to Partisan on Chapel Street. There’s also Debenhams and House of Fraser here.

Of course, we mustn’t forget the bustling markets that take place – the North Street market every Friday and Saturday, and the monthly farmers’ market in the High Street on the first Tuesday of every month.

Guildford Castle and Gardens. Photo courtesy Guildford Borough Council

TOURIST SPOTS

It may not have the lure of Bath or York, but there’s plenty for a mini-breaker to see in Guildford. The Castle is in the centre of town, and surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens. Head to the top of the Great Tower for 360 degree panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Guildford Cathedral, on Stag Hill, is one of England’s youngest cathedrals – built in only 1936. As well as daily worship services, regular events, art exhibitions and workshops are held at the cathedral. While you’re there pop into Seasons Café for a bite to eat.

Also worth a look is the Guildhall, a 16th century building easily recognisable by the magnificent bracket clock; and the Medieval Undercroft. They’re both on the High Street. And there’s also Guildford Museum, which charts the story of Guildford dating back to pre-history.

WHAT’S FOR KIDS

Quite possibly the best indoor leisure in the south-east is the Spectrum Leisure Complex, which has four indoor heated swimming pools (as well as diving boards and water slides), an Olympic sized ice rink and a 10-pin bowling alley amongst other things. I’ve known people travel from as far as Somerset to spend a day here.

In the summer months, Guildford Lido is a good cooling-off spot – and if you time it right you might be lucky enough to catch a film alfresco during the open air cinema season.

Guildford Lido. Photo courtesy Guildford Borough Council

A SPOT OF CULTURE?

Guildford is a hotbed for the arts with theatres and and live music venues galore, the annual Guildford Book Festival each October, the month-long Guildford Fringe Festival in July and the Investec International Music Festival for classical music lovers which will this year (2021) be held in September. There’s also an annual Guildford Beer Festival in July.

The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre is one of the country’s leading regional theatres hosting many touring shows as well producing shows in house including ballet, opera, theatre, comedy and the incredibly popular annual Christmas panto. It sits on the banks of the River Wey, and as well as hosting performances in the main theatre and the more intimate Mill Theatre, the garden is also used as a venue – particularly since the arrival of Covid.

G Live opened in 2011, replacing Guilford Civic Hall, and plays host to top names from around the world, The Boileroom is a live music hub, and the Electric Theatre is a community arts centre that plays host to everything from comedy to film.

Guildford House Gallery shows a varied programme of art exhibitions in the 17th century townhouse on the High Street.  And just a few miles out of Guildford, in Compton, is Watts Gallery – the Artists’ Village, which offers a unique insight into the life and work of George Frederick Watts and his wife Mary. In addition to exhibitions, you’ll find workshops on offer and tours of Limnerslease, the Watts’ home and studios.

AND FOR HIPSTERS

Hipsters should undoubtedly head a few miles out of Guilford to the Silent Pool Gin Distillery where you can take the 90 minute distillery tour (and sample the goodies as you go!!). And since you’re in the area – you might as well pop along to the Albury Wine Estate, which is right next door.

FAMOUS FACES

Lewis Carroll, wrote “Through The Looking Glass” whilst living in Guildford. He bought a house for his six unmarried sisters, and was a regular visitor throughout his life. He lived the last year of his life in Guildford and is now buried on The Mount Cemetery.

The World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing lived in Guilford – his parents lived at 8 (now renumbered as 22) Ennismore Avenue, Guildford following his father’s retirement in 1927.

Calendar Girls and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel actress Celia Imrie, was born in Guildford and went to Guildford High School.

PG Wodehouse lived in Guilford in his early years, and was baptised in St Nicholas’ Church. Jodie Kidd, the model, actress and race car driver, was born in Guildford, as was Lily Collins, the actor daughter of musician Phil. Sandi Toksvig, the broadcaster, was educated at Tormead School in Guildford. And Piers Morgan the journalist and broadcaster was born in Guildford.

The Stranglers started life as the Guildford Stranglers, arriving on the punk rock scene in the 1970s. AndThe Inbetweeners actor Simon Bird was born and raised in Guildford.

Found this Insider Guide useful? Check out our Insider Guides to …

ISLE OF WIGHT • THE COTSWOLDS • ST IVES • EXETER • BATH • BRIGHTON • WINDSOR • BURY ST EDUNDS • ST ALBANS • SALISBURY • NORTHAMPTON • OXFORD • CANTERBURY

4 comments on “Insider guide to Guildford”

  • Elisabetta August 10, 2021

    A very lovely write-up for Guildford! Sadly Cafe Caracoli closed in 2019, it was above the Steamer Trading Cookshop on the High Street, which also closed. Both enterprises are SO greatly missed!! You could find just about anything for the kitchen in the cookshop & a great selection of glassware & china. At Caracoli you would get the BEST coffee, really delicious, imaginative food & gorgeous cakes. A lovely place to meet up with friends or for coffee during the day. Lovely, welcoming staff. Caracoli was a huge success story for ages. We need someone like Caracoli back in Guildford ~ no more chain bakeries or eateries with everything prepared in a central kitchen & delivered to their outlets. Here’s to the authentic independent enterprise!

    Reply
  • ben June 2, 2020

    Love it! Thank you so much Amber for taking the time to give us the lowdown on all the amazing elements and attractions our city has to offer 🙂 I too love walking along and around the River Way I find it so peaceful and the landscaping really is beautiful. Thanks again and I will defiantly be sharing this to my friends who are wandering whether Guildford is the right place for them!

    Reply
  • Stephen Aldous March 11, 2020

    Great read. I wouldn’t know a lot of Guilford now. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s living up at high view road, between farnham road and the bypass. In 1960 I moved to shamley green and left in 1968 to move to London. My memories of Guilford are the Roman baths, boxers cafe in tunsgate, the lido, the kings head pub, there were 3 cinemas, the odean, another just off north street and lastly there was one near the friary brewery. Guilford was a fabulous place to be and grow up in. Thanks for the article.

    Reply
    • amberevans March 11, 2020

      Hi Stephen, thanks so much for your comments. You should pop back to Guildford for a visit – there’s lots to see! Ax

      Reply

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