This mysterious stone circle is considered to be one of the greatest prehistoric monuments on Earth. Stonehenge dates from between 3000 BC and 1600 BC it is aligned with the rising sun at midsummer solstice.
The monument consists of a ring of standing stones, each around 4m (13 ft) high, 2.1m (7 ft) wide and weighing around 25 tonnes. It is the largest and most famous of around 1,000 henges in the British Isles and it is the world’s only surviving lintelled stone circle.
The history of Stonehenge
Mesolithic postholes dating to around 8000 BC have been found on the site and archaeologists have found evidence of a circular ditch dating from around 3,100 BC and more than 50,000 cremated bone fragments, from 63 individual bodies, dating from around this period were found on the site.
Experts estimate that the monument was slowly built over a period of 1,500 years and its construction saw the transition from the Stone Age to the early Bronze Age.
The first stones are believed to have been brought to the site around 3000 BC. It is understood that these bluestones, of which 43 remain, came from the Preseli Hills 240km (150 miles) away in Wales. Stonehenge was expanded between 2600 BC and 2400 BC with the addition of 30 Oligocene-Miocene sarsen stones that are believed to have come from the Marlborough Downs, 40km (25 miles) north of Stonehenge.
What was the purpose of Stonehenge
Archaeologists are fairly confident that the site was used as an enclosed cremation cemetery and we know that the stones are aligned with the rising sun at the midsummer solstice, however, much else about Stonehenge remains a mystery. There are no written records about the culture that built it and we can only speculate about the construction techniques and the site’s primary purpose. However, there is no shortage of theories and Stonehenge features prominently in folklore and Arthurian legend with Geoffrey of Monmouth attributing its construction to the Wizard Merlin in the 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae.
Stonehenge has been a protected historic monument since 1882 when legislation to protect monuments was first passed and it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.
During its long history, many of the stones have fallen over and various restoration projects have taken place throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries to restore the site to its original layout. More recently, efforts have been made to protect the monument and enhance its prominence in the landscape. This has involved closing and grassing over the former A344 road that ran past the monument and building a new visitor centre and car park away from the stone circle.
What to see at Stonehenge
Stonehenge is a well-managed tourist attraction and there is plenty to see for visitors who take the time to see it properly.
Stonehenge visitor centre
The visitor centre is the starting point for all visits to the monument. In late 2013, the former visitor centre near the stone circle closed and was replaced by the new visitor centre 2.5km (1½ miles) from Stonehenge. The new visitor centre was designed by Melbourne-based architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall with the intention that it blends in with the surrounding countryside ensuring that Stonehenge remains the prominent feature on the landscape.
The visitor centre is split between two main buildings: one housing the cafe, shop and an education centre and the other housing a museum with an exhibition charting the monument’s history and theories behind its construction and purpose.
The exhibition at the visitor centre shows life on the Salisbury Plain 5,000 years ago at a time when the Stone Age was transitioning into the early Bronze Age. There are over 250 artefacts in the museum, which include objects from three burials on the site as well as exhibits about the people who lived in the area during the period when Stonehenge was being built.
The visitor centre also features an audio-visual presentation that depicts a 360º view from inside the stone circle.
There is a recreated Neolithic village just outside the visitor centre with five Neolithic houses complete with replica artefacts. You are able to go inside the Neolithic houses to see how people would have lived 4,500 years ago and there are often volunteers here who can answer questions and sometimes even demonstrate ancient domestic tasks such as making rope and flint knapping.
There is also a display here that shows how the stones were transported across the countryside on log rollers.
If you’re walking between the visitor centre and the stone circle (or if you get off the shuttle bus at the halfway point) you have the option of taking a small detour and walking via the Cursus Barrows.
The Cursus Barrows is the Neolithic and Bronze Age barrow cemetery that contains 18 round barrows. These are essentially a series of round earthen mounds, each surrounded by a ditch. There are information boards at the site that explain these in more detail.
The stone circle, the henge and the Aubrey holes
Stonehenge, itself relates to the stone circle, the henge (the ditch around the stone circle) and related sites such as the Aubrey holes and the places where wooden posts would have been erected.
The bluestones are the oldest stones at Stonehenge. These are generally the smaller stones on the site and are believed to have been brought here from the Preseli Hills in Wales.
The Altar Stone also dates from around the same period as the bluestones and it is believed to have also been brought from Wales. This is a large sandstone that lies in the centre of the circle and it is difficult to see properly unless you are visiting on a Stone Circle Access visit.
The sarsen stones are the largest stones at Stonehenge and these are the ones that form the clearly defined circular pattern. Originally there were 30 large sarsen stones supporting 30 lintels forming the main outer circle plus a horseshoe-shaped inner circle containing the largest sarsens, however, only 17 upright sarsen stones remain with only six remaining lintels. The sarsen stones came much later than the bluestones, around 2500–2000 BC, and are thought to originate from the Marlborough Downs not too far north of here.
The station stones are much smaller sarsen stones set outside the main stone circle. Other stones outside the main circle include the Slaughter Stone and the Heel Stone. It is understood that the Heel Stone was at one time part of a pair that would have been used as a guide for viewing the midsummer sunrise.
Although it is undoubtedly a rewarding experience to wander around the site, it can be difficult to appreciate it fully without following the audio tour and first taking the time to look at the exhibits in the visitor centre. The audio tour is highly recommended as it explains Stonehenge in greater detail than you could possibly get from wandering around and reading the odd information board.
During normal visiting hours, access to the stones is prohibited and the area around the stone circle is roped off so the closest you can get to the stones is around 10m (33 ft). Stone Circle Access visits operate outside normal visiting hours that allow you to walk among the stones. However, these must be pre-booked well in advance and they are considerably more expensive than standard entry.
Stonehenge Avenue is an ancient avenue that is 3km (2 miles) long, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon. The first section of the Avenue (the section closest to Stonehenge) aligns with the summer solstice sunrise.
The Avenue was scheduled as a protected monument in 1882, at the same time as Stonehenge. However, it is not particularly well defined and for the most part, simply looks like a field.
Getting to Stonehenge
It is easiest to visit if you’re driving as you have more options regarding where you can base yourself with many motorists staying in nearby Amesbury. However, visitors relying on public transport need to base themselves in Salisbury as access by bus is not available from anywhere else.
The only public bus access is via the overpriced Stonehenge Tour, a hop-on-hop-off bus route that runs between Salisbury and Stonehenge with a stop en route at Old Sarum. The bus costs £16 (£10 for children aged 5–15) and runs at half-hourly intervals during summer and hourly in winter. There is an on-board commentary in 10 languages: Brazilian Portuguese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Russian and Spanish.
Stonehenge Tour combo tickets are available that include the return bus ride with admission to Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral.
Stonehenge is only 3km (2 miles) west of Amesbury but if you’re walking it is a further 3.5 km (2¼ miles) to the visitor centre where you need to enter the site. This means that it will take 1½ hours to walk to Stonehenge from Amesbury and much of that walk will be alongside a busy highway. In other words, despite being the closest town to the site, only stay in Amesbury if you’re driving otherwise stay in Salisbury and take the Stonehenge Tour bus from there. However, for a family or a group of people travelling together, it may be cheaper to rent a car for the day than to take the Stonehenge Tour bus.
If you’re driving, the Stonehenge visitor centre at Airman’s Corner (where you can find the car park and entry to the site) is accessible via the A360 from Salisbury. Coming from Amesbury, take the A303 west and then take the A360 north to the site. Car parking is included as part of your entry fee, however, during peak periods there is a £5 parking charge that is charged to people who have not pre-booked their admission ticket, although the parking charge is refunded off the ticket price.
The shuttle bus between the visitor centre and the stone circle
As the visitor centre is some distance from the henge, English Heritage operates a shuttle bus to the stone circle, although visitors also have the option of walking either halfway or the whole way. Walking to the site gives you an overall better experience as it lets you soak up the atmosphere as you get closer to the monument; however, the shuttle bus is a big timesaver for visitors who are pressed for time and it is essential for those who are unable, or unwilling, to make the relatively long walk.
A good compromise is to get off the bus at Fargo Plantation (the halfway point) and walk to Stonehenge from there. Approaching Stonehenge by foot is not only a better experience but it also allows you to see The Cursus, a rectangular ditch that predates Stonehenge.
The shuttle bus is included as part of your entry to Stonehenge.
Stonehenge audio tours
Signs and information boards at the visitor centre and throughout the site are excellent but the optional audio tour gives you a much deeper understanding of the monument and you will get more out of your visit if you take the audio tour.
It costs £3 to rent an audio guide for the day, however, English Heritage members get the audio guide for free. You can also download the audio guide for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
Admission and opening times
Stonehenge is managed by English Heritage and much of the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. This makes it one of a handful of sites in England where both English Heritage and National Trust members can gain free entry. However, you do not get free entry if you are a member of a National Trust affiliated organisation (such as National Trust Scotland).
More than one million people visit Stonehenge every year so it is highly recommended that you pre-book your ticket before visiting the site. Entrance is managed through a timed-ticket system and pre-booking your ticket before coming here is the only way to guarantee entry, otherwise, you run the risk of arriving only to find that no tickets are available.
Even people who are entitled to free admission (such as English Heritage and National Trust members) have to pre-book their free entry tickets in advance.
When is the best time to visit Stonehenge
Stonehenge is a popular destination for tour groups and it is best to avoid visiting when these tour buses arrive, which is usually in the late morning (between 10am and noon) and in the early afternoon (between 2pm and 4pm).
The best time is either just after the site has opened in the morning or in the late afternoon. Many people say that the best time is at the end of the day during winter when there are fewer visitors and the ground is frosty and you can watch the sunset behind the stones. However, the bus schedule during winter is less frequent than in summer and visiting at this time may mean that you miss the last bus back to Salisbury.
If you’re taking the Stonehenge Tour bus you should take the bus schedule into account so you can allow enough time for a stop at Old Sarum on the way back to Salisbury as this bus route only stops at Old Sarum on the return journey.
Visiting for summer and winter solstice
Entrance to Stonehenge is free of charge if you visit during the winter or summer solstice, however, it is extremely crowded at these times with up to 20,000 people staying up all night to watch the sunrise.
Opening hours are reduced on the day before and after the two solstices.
Stone Circle Access visits
People who visit Stonehenge during regular opening hours are restricted from going into the stone circle and have to stay behind a roped-off area. However, English Heritage operates Stone Circle Access visits outside normal opening hours that allow you to go right inside the stone circle.
Stone Circle Access visits operate very early in the morning and late in the evening on select days of the year and these visits last one hour. There is a maximum of 30 people allowed during each session, which means that you have access to the part of Stonehenge that over 99% of visitors can’t get to but it also means that you need to book well in advance to secure a spot on one of these visits. Normally you need to book around three or four months in advance by filling in a request form on the English Heritage website.
At £45 (£27 for children aged 5–17), these visits are also more expensive than the standard entry charge.
This is not a guided tour and you are free to wander around the inside of the stone circle but you are not permitted to touch the stones.
Because these visits operate outside normal operating hours, the Stonehenge Tour bus does not operate early or late enough to cater to people making a Stone Circle Access visit. This means that you have to rent a car if you do not already have one.
It also means that the visitor centre, gift shop and cafe will be closed. If you’re making a morning visit you will have access to these facilities if you wait around a while after your scheduled visit time has ended.
Visitor facilities at Stonehenge
The Stonehenge visitor centre has a cafe, a gift shop and toilets.
The cafe serves snacks and light meals such as sandwiches, sausage rolls and Cornish pasties and many people recommend the cafe’s rock cakes. Wherever possible, local and seasonal ingredients are used and the cafe is licensed so you can enjoy local wine and beer from the Stonehenge Brewery.
The gift shop has loads of unique gifts including many items that have been made specifically for the gift shop.
There are toilets and changing facilities at the visitor centre including wheelchair-accessible toilets. There are no toilet facilities at the stone circle so go here before walking or taking the shuttle bus to the stones.
How long should you spend at Stonehenge
You should allow at least two hours for your visit but you could easily spend half a day if you spend more time at the visitor centre and the Neolithic Village and walk from the visitor centre to the monument.
Stonehenge is a place to take your time. Visitors who take the time to look at the exhibits in the visitor centre and visit the Neolithic houses will gain a much greater understanding of the site and have a great experience, and for many, it will be a memory that lasts a lifetime but tourists who try to rush Stonehenge often leave the site disappointed.