The Milton Keynes Rose, Campbell Park
The largest settlement in Bucks, Milton Keynes is now officially a city in all its modernist, eccentric glory. Designed in a haze of 1960s optimism, it’s ordered and spacious like an American city — and so often the butt of cynical British humour. But if you know where to look (and we do!), Milton Keynes has indies, foodies, and cool culture galore…
Too long maligned as merely a hub for chain restaurants, the independent food scene in Milton Keynes has thrived over the last few years. We love the dreamy Insta interiors and creative crepes at French Affaire, a French-inspired bistro in Stony Stratford that also does a killer brunch. A favourite for Italian has to be Nonna’s in Woburn Sands (pictured), which does perfect classic pasta and pizza dishes, as well as a more adventurous brunch menu, and feels classy enough for date night.
If it’s tapas you’re after, head to Olé Tapas Bar in Wolverton for San Sebastián’s finest. Or, opt for sensational sushi at Akasaka, an authentic Japanese kitchen in the city centre, right next to Centre: MK. Don’t miss the nasu dengaku (miso aubergine).
Steak lover? Kobe Steakhouse in Xscape is a dead cert, one of only 10 registered restaurants certified to sell Japanese Wagyu beef in the UK (and the only one outside of London, to boot).
For unapologetic glamour, Fourteen is the place to go: a 360 bar and restaurant set atop La Tour hotel, with all the sweeping views you could want and classic, elevated food. Keeping fancy, there’s also the three-AA-Rosette-rated Paris House in Woburn, serving Modern British cuisine with Asian twists in a mock-Tudor manor surrounded by deer parkland.
Insider tip: The Brasserie, right by Bletchley station, is a restaurant for training chefs — meaning you can get high quality food at low prices, since they’re technically still training. Think roasted cod with samphire for £10.95, and a Thursday night tasting menu for £25 a head.
Street food in Milton Keynes is also a real point of pride — check out EAT Street MK‘s monthly events for a tantalising selection of vendors and a buzzy atmosphere. The Queen’s Court market at Centre:MK is another dead cert.
Somewhere to lay your head? The big ticket choice is Hotel La Tour, a brand new 4*, 261 bedroom hotel boasting 360-degree panoramic views over Campbell Park and the Buckinghamshire countryside. Talk about a room with a view!
If you want something with a little more historic grandeur, try Horwood House: a Grade II listed manor hotel with knockout gardens and mid-century decor. It’s just outside of MK, near Little Horwood, but the drive’s an easy distance and the reward is gorgeous country style (plus a phenomenal spa!).
If you’re not after the big hotel experience, then try the Swan Revived — also just outside the city, in the village of Newport Pagnell — a 15th century coaching inn with a bright, spacious style and 40 bedrooms. There’s also The Cock Hotel in Stony Stratford, another simple, cosy pub with rooms.
Did you know that there are over 6,000 acres of parkland in Milton Keynes? Architect Richard Llewelyn-Davies’s designed it to be 40% green, and today two-fifths of Milton Keynes is open space. What’s especially cool about MK is that its parks all roughly link up — so you can wander from one to another. Check routes and see a map here.
Campbell Park, of course, is the big ticket option. Grade II listed despite its short history, it boasts public art, water features, the Grand Union Canal, a cricket pitch, an open-air auditorium, and stunning wildflowers. For ancient woodland (yes, even in MK!) and beautiful spring bluebells, head to Howe Park Wood near Westcroft and Tattenhoe. For a great riverside walk, try the route through Ouse Valley Park, Old Wolverton, and New Bradwell.
Right: time for a cocktail. Your best bet is to head to The Hub area, near Milton Keynes Central station. The Blossom Room (pictured) is a dead cert: a very fun, Insta-worthy night out thanks to a ceiling covered in pink blossom and live DJs.
More of a pub kind of girl? Head to The Black Horse in Great Linford for a lovely canal-side location; it’s great for suntrap riverside drinks in good weather, but also has a cosy firelit inside. Another great choice is The Birch in Woburn Sands, just ten minutes from the centre of Milton Keynes, which offers the best of both worlds thanks to its old-school dark bar and bright conservatory, plus a buzzy atmosphere.
And now coffee, please! Arguably the best of the bunch is Bogota Coffee in The Hub, which was the first independent speciality coffee bar in the city. The coffee beans are imported from Colombia and the space has a cool, urban feel to it: think stripped-back furniture and retro neon lights.
Other great picks include Bar Bar Black Sheep in Wolverton, a social enterprise café with cool botanical decor and fantastic coffee — a coffee here means supporting the local community, a big Muddy tick. The Green Elephant Café (The Hub) is big on sustainable creds and vegan options, while Out of Office Coffee is a great all-rounder choice, with branches in Stony Stratford, Olney, Newport Pagnell, and Witan Gate.
Head to central Milton Keynes for all the hits: there are two large malls chock with familiar brands. Centre:MK is the big one, boasting a John Lewis, M&S, Next, Oliver Bonas, and more.
Want something a little more old-world? The Woburn market has been going since 1242, now in the form of a charming monthly farmer’s market. Perfect place to pick up some fresh ingredients, or grab something from a food vendor.
It’s also worth knowing that the nearby market town of Olney, a max 20 min drive away, has an indie-loving high street (and beautiful Georgian architecture) full of quirky, one-of-a-kind items. Vintage shops and antique stores are in abundance (My Little Vintage, The Antiques Centre, Leo Antiques & Interiors, Afterglow) while Boo Gallery is home to gorgeous handmade jewellery and Love Lana stocks an incredible range of men’s, women’s and home fragrances.
Though not traditionally a tourist destination, Milton Keynes isn’t without feathers in its hat. The pyramid at the top of Campbell Park is iconic, and makes for a great pilgrimage even just for the knockout views of North East Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire. Actually a beacon, it’s lit to commemorate special local and national events, including the Queen’s Diamond and Platinum Jubilees.
As for historic claim to fame, Bletchley Park is MK’s real trump card. The centre of Allied codebreaking during the Second World War, this country house saw figures like Alan Turing crack the German Enigma code, shortening the war by up to four years and helping to secure victory. Today a fascinating and genuinely engaging museum, it’s a definite must for tourists. Oh, and it also boasts The National Museum of Computing, since Bletchley saw the invention of the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. No biggie.
Milton Keynes has got to be one of the nation’s best spots for entertaining families – you can’t throw a stone for hitting an attraction. Marlborough Gate alone has a real-snow indoor ski slope (Snozone), an indoor skydiving centre (iFly), a Gravity Entertainment Centre (bouncing, climbing, etc), and an escape room (Escape Hunt). Just opposite is Mr Mulligans crazy golf and another escape room, Locked In A Room. Bored kids? Drive them here and take your pick!
Elsewhere, there are also two Big Rock Climbing locations, one in Bletchley and one in Kingston, where you let the rotters literally climb the walls (though note that under-18s must be supervised — you can’t jet off to do shopping). Kids got a need for speed? They can do indoor go-karting at Formula Fast on Bond Avenue or outdoor go-karting at Daytona, next to Lodge Lake. There’s also Ninja Warrior UK, just off Bletcham Way, an obstacle experience inspired by the ITV show.
For something novelty and thrilling (music to a child’s ears) there’s Gulliver’s Land, a theme park with tonnes of rides, shows and attractions, just next to Willen Lake. You’ll be pleased to know it has free parking.
Of course, Willen Lake is a major attraction in itself: made up of 100 acres of water and 80 acres of landscaped grounds, it offers a huge variety of activities, whether that’s relaxing with an ice cream, getting stuck into some serious sport, Treetop Extreme, or bumping around the Aqua Parcs.
Fancy something wilder? Don’t miss Woburn Safari Park, a proper drive-through experience where you can see lions, bears, tigers, and other carnivorous friends close up, plus more to see on foot afterwards.
The cows in 1985
There’s plenty quirky about this city, designed by a heady 1960s mix of pragmatists and hippies. As well as a grand total of 130 roundabouts, Milton Keynes is home to 220 works of public art, particularly the iconic (and wacky) 1978 sculpture by Canadian artist Liz Leyh of six slightly mis-formed black and white cows. Love ’em, hate ’em… either way, if you’re a resident, you’ll be used to driving past them on the A422.
And did you know that Milton Keynes, like Stonehenge, is aligned with the summer solstice sunrise? If you can face the pre-dawn wakeup, walk down Midsummer Boulevard at sunrise on 21 June and see the sun sitting perfectly atop the pyramid in Campbell Park. Who’d have thought druids would have a shared interest with this modern, car-designed city?
Milton Keynes is also the home of delivery robots — launched in 2018 and hurtled into the everyday by 2020’s lockdown, MK has more than 200 dinky little robots making deliveries. The tech has spread around the world, but is still at its prime in this decidedly quirky city.
Culture vultures should flock to the MK Gallery, an iconic art gallery overlooking Campbell Park that hosts a changing range of cool, contemporary and 20th century exhibitions. Shaped as a glinting silver cube, it’s itself a landmark on the city skyline, and with five large gallery spaces and a changing roster of events, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see something good here.
Les Misérables at the MK Theatre
For a show, the Milton Keynes Theatre should be on your hitlist, with an evolving schedule of big-ticket touring shows, often straight from the West End. Dance, drama, musicals, opera, comedy — you name it. Outside but pretty close to the city, The Arches Theatre near Olney is a very cool open air theatre for the summer. Shows take place under disused railway arches (hence the name), and there’s generally a great Shakespeare or two to be seen, so worth the 25 minute drive.
Music fan? Stadium MK gets some huge acts, recently hosting Imagine Dragons’ only UK date in their world tour. On a smaller scale, The Stables in Wavendon puts on a lot of great classical, acoustic, folk and jazz concerts.
IF: Milton Keynes 2021’s seven metre 3D model of the Earth. Image: Jim Huntsman
The Stables is also behind Milton Keynes’ biennial International Festival, a rip-roaring culture-fest of provocative artists, singers and comedians, with lots on for free. The 2021 iteration was a blast, so eyes peeled for IF: Milton Keynes 2023!
If you’re feeling trendy, Throwback Vintage is a too-cool-for-school brand specialising in Eighties, Nineties and Y2K fashion (ask your trendy teen). You can browse in person at the shop’s warehouse on Stonebridge Roundabout, or buy online.
Or why not try a secret supper club? Alice’s Through the Looking Glass, based a twenty minute drive into the countryside between MK and Buckingham, uses primarily homegrown, seasonal produce, and has guests eating in a dreamy, bright room with views of rolling fields. Any foodie trend is a trend for us…