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Cars & travel.

Updated: 12 Nov 2021

Revealed: the best AONBs and scenic areas in the UK

From Cornwall to the Cotswolds, and Loch Lomond to Llyn, which destinations did Which? readers rate most highly?
Lauren Bell

Whether it’s dense forests and lush valleys or rugged coastline and lofty peaks, Covid restrictions on travelling abroad have made us appreciate what’s on our doorstep.

The UK really delivers when it comes to natural beauty, especially in the 34 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in the 40 National Scenic Areas (NSAs) in Scotland.

5,813 Which? Connect members rated their experience of these destinations for their scenery, walks, wildlife, peace and quiet and more - and we’ve collated them to give an overall score.

Cornwall and Dorset scored highly, but it was Northern Ireland that wowed visitors with its AONBs, landing four spots in the top 10. However, while still scoring well, the Cotswolds found itself in the lower half of the results table.

In our NSA survey, well-known destination Loch Lomond was rated below lesser-known destinations such as South Uist Machair in Scotland. Read on to discover which areas received the best ratings nationwide.

AONBs rated by Which? readers

AONBSceneryWalksWildlifePeace & quietVisitor facilitiesFood & drinkTourist attractionsAccommodationArea score
Isles of Scilly (E)
91%
Northumberland Coast (E)
88%
Causeway Coast (NI)
84%
Strangford Lough (NI)
-84%
Cornwall (E)
83%
Dorset (E)
83%
Antrim Coast and Glens (NI)
83%

Star ratings from one to five. The results are based on a survey in July 2021 of 5,813 Which? Connect panel members who told us about 13,846 experiences in AONBs. Dash (-) means too few responses to give a rating in that category. We had too few responses overall to include Binevenagh, Lagan Valley, Ring of Gullion, and Sperrin in the table. Area score is a combination of overall satisfaction and how likely people are to say an AONB is worth visiting.

NSASceneryWalksWildlifePeace & quietVisitor FacilitiesFood & drinkTourist attractionsAccommodationArea score
Assynt-Coigach
92%
Kintail
--
----90%
South Lewis, Harris and North Uist
89%
Wester Ross
89%
Shetland
88%
South Uist Machair
-87%
Caingorm Mountains
86%

The results are based on an online survey of the Which? Connect panel who told us about 3,627 experiences in Scotland Scenic Areas. The survey was conducted in July 2021 Dash (-) means too few responses to give a rating in that category. 

Top-rated AONBs in England

Isles of Scilly

Isles of Scilly

Rated the best overall in our results table, this archipelago of low-lying islands off the tip of Cornwall isn’t the easiest to reach. It’s well worth the trouble, though, according to our readers, who awarded it four or five stars in every category apart from tourist attractions. 

While it’s the smallest designated AONB, it offers big rewards including opportunities to spot wildlife - from puffins to grey Atlantic seals. 

It’s a serene destination where waves lap sandy beaches, and cars are rarely seen. Well-managed boats take you to the various islands and convivial harbourside pubs, ancient ruins, daffodil fields and tropical gardens. 

Northumberland Coast

Northumberland Coast

The mind-clearing beaches of Northumberland scored five stars for scenery, wildlife and tourist attractions. One respondent wrote: ‘It has everything - castles, beaches, rocky coves and islands.’

The castles of Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh each provide an epic backdrop to walks along seemingly endless beaches. The sea may be too nippy for a dip, but there is the tidal island of Lindisfarne with its castle to explore, and boat trips to the Farne Islands to spot seabirds. 

The small towns of Seahouses and Alnmouth can get busy at weekends, but it’s easy to escape the crowds.

Top-rated AONBs in Wales

Gower

seaside in Gower

The entire Gower Peninsula is an AONB and it’s easy to see why. Rhossili Bay is a world-famous sweep of beach that’s popular with surfers, dog walkers and anyone who likes a good stretch of firm sand (when the tide is out). It’s the main attraction and pulls most visitors down the narrow lanes (crowded and tricky to drive along in summer). 

Venture further from Rhossili Bay, though, and you’ll be rewarded with more sandy bays, wildlife-rich saltmarsh and mudflats, and fields peppered with ancient sites.

Wye Valley

Tintern Abbey in Wye Valley

Wooded and winding, the Wye Valley follows the river as it courses along the border of England and Wales between Hereford and Chepstow. Along its way it passes the steep cliffs at Symonds Yat, the ruined and picturesque Tintern Abbey and medieval Goodrich Castle - three of the reasons why it earned four stars in four categories.

There are also fine riverside walks with spectacular views, as well as activities such as canoeing.


Off on a walk in one of the best-rated AONBs or NSAs? You might need a decent waterproof jacket, pair of walking trousers or sturdy walking boots for you trip


Best AONB in Northern Ireland

Causeway Coast

Unsurprisingly, the extraordinary polygonal basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway are the main attraction on this stretch of the North Antrim coast. Managed by the National Trust, the site can get busy at peak times, which accounts for its two-star rating for peace and quiet.

Almost rivalling Giant’s Causeway in popularity, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge - which spans a chasm 30 metres deep and 20 metres wide and is known to sway in the wind - isn’t one for the faint-hearted. Also worth visiting are the romantic ruins of Dunluce Castle, perched on the rocky foreshore, and Bushmills, home of the whiskey distillery.

Strangford Lough

Strangford Lough

The largest sea lough in the UK is peppered with islands (at least 100) and has a rich and varied seabed and shoreline. Here you’ll find an abundance of marine creatures, seals and seabirds (in our survey it scored five stars for wildlife spotting).

It’s possible to drive around the lough, hopping on a ferry to cross the small opening at Portaferry, and stopping off at friendly cafes and restaurants (also scoring five stars) along the way. Mount Stewart, a National Trust house and garden, overlooks the lough and is a good place to start your journey.

Best national scenic areas in Scotland

Assynt-Coigach

The wild and remote areas of Coigach and Assynt have been united to form a designated NSA. Both have mountains with peaks that rise sharply from a sweep of moorland, punctuated with freshwater lakes.

The coastline is equally raw and rugged, with cliffs, sea stacks and sandy beaches to explore. Unsurprisingly, this west-coast region scored five stars for scenery. This is nature at its most unspoilt, which is why you’ll find few conventional ‘attractions’ or facilities.

Kintail

The pointed summits of the Five Sisters of Kintail dominate the landscape of this NSA in the Northwest Highlands. Three of these mountains are popular with walkers seeking panoramic views of the glens below and the possibility of seeing golden eagles flying overhead.

You don’t have to climb peaks to spot the native fauna, though. As one respondent put it: ‘In the evenings, the wildlife came to us in our holiday cottage.’ Otters and osprey have found a home in lochs Affric and Beinn a’Mheadhain, and red squirrels scamper in the pine forests. 

If you are keen to visit Scotland, why not also take a look at our best Scottish islands survey results?