When people picture domestic seaside holidays in the UK, the Victorian resort of Blackpool is still the first destination that comes to mind.
Never mind that the weather can be erratic and the Irish Sea a bit nippy, Blackpool pulls in millions of holidaymakers a year, seeking light entertainment, old-time amusements and the timeless fun of the seaside.
It has been this way since the 19th century when Blackpool was transformed from a minor coastal town to a booming resort with three piers, theatres, an iconic iron tower and a promenade threaded by one of the UK’s first electric tramways.
Every autumn since 1879 the Blackpool Illuminations have added a dazzling coda to the resort’s holiday season.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Blackpool:
1. Blackpool Pleasure Beach
One of the 20 most popular theme parks in the world, Blackpool Pleasure Beach has been run by the same family (The Thompsons) since its inception in 1896. The park has broken all kinds of UK, European and world records over the last century, and has more roller coasters (10) than any other theme park in the country.
We’ll talk about the Big One next, because it needs its own entry, but Infusion is the only roller coaster in the UK completely suspended over water, while Revolution was the first inverting roller coaster in Europe to be made from steel.
For people who prefer traditional rides, four of Pleasure Beach’s roller coasters are wooden, like the Big Dipper, which dates back to 1923. “Hot Ice” is an expertly choreographed ice dancing show, and Nickelodeon Land is a six-acre kids’ zone based on their favourite Nick TV shows.
2. The Big One
Such is the size of this iconic roller coaster that its colossal frame is now as much a fixture of Blackpool’s skyline as the Blackpool Tower.
When the Big One opened in 1994 it was the tallest roller coaster in the world, and nearly 25 years later it’s still the tallest in the UK. Back at the start it was also the world’s steepest at 65° and longest at 1,675 metres.
The Big One is so high that warning beacons had to be installed at the top of the first two drops as Blackpool airport is only a mile way.
The first drop, which feels like it takes an eternity to reach, is 62 metres high and on the way down you’ll reach speeds of 74 mph.
3. Blackpool Tower
If there’s one sight inextricably ties to Blackpool it’s this 158-metre iron tower.
The Blackpool Tower was unveiled in 1894 and still has the highest man-made observation point in the northwest UK. This giant was inspired by the Eiffel Tower and is made from more than 2,500 tons of iron and five million Accrington bricks.
The first thing you have to do is catch the lift to the top to gaze along Blackpool’s promenade and across the Irish Sea.
Come when the skies are clear and you can see Wales in the south and the Lake District up in Cumbria.
The circus in the complex below hasn’t missed a single season since the tower opened, and runs from late-March to November.
Also below is the resplendent Tower Ballroom, which like the circus was designed by Frank Matcham, who worked on Blackpool’s Grand Theatre.
4. Blackpool Tramway
A mainstay of the promenade since 1885, the Blackpool tramway is one of the oldest tram systems in the world and the last of the UK’s first generation of tramways.
The line is 11 miles long, beginning at Fleetwood Ferry in the north and ending at Starr Gate on the edge of the Ribble Estuary.
The trademark of the Blackpool Tramway is the rounded English Electric Balloon car, although these have mostly been removed in favour of the ultramodern Flexity 2 trams, first introduced in 2012. If you’d like to travel on one of the many elegant old trams, there are heritage services on weekends, bank holidays and certain weekdays, as well as during the Illuminations in autumn.
5. Blackpool Beach
In the late-20th century the beach at Blackpool wasn’t always known for its cleanliness, but is now pristine and has earned its first Blue Flag in the last few years.
The beach has all the telltale traits of the English seaside, from deckchairs and ice creams to donkey rides.
Little ones can play in the shallow sea and build sandcastles.
The beach is on a very light gradient, and at low tide the sea withdraws for hundreds of metres.
Blackpool’s three piers are all on hand for amusements, shows and rides.
Just down from the South Pier is the Great Promenade Show and outdoor exhibition with ten pieces each year by renowned and emerging artists.
6. Grand Theatre
The feted Victorian theatre designer Frank Matcham was the man behind the splendid Grand Theatre, built in the mid-1890s.
The neo-Baroque auditorium has four levels and abounds with exuberant gilded stuccowork, on the ceiling and the cantilevered balconies.
The Grand Theatre is such a majestic place to watch a performance that you don’t need to be too picky about what you see.
On the menu are musicals, classical music ensembles, ballets, operas, pantomimes and comedy acts.
7. Winter Gardens
An enormous entertainment centre, the Winter Gardens first opened in 1878 and houses the Opera House, one of the largest theatres in the UK, with a capacity of 3,000. This is just one of a multitude of auditoriums and halls at the Winter Gardens, including the barrel-vaulted Empress Ballroom, which is both a cavernous concert venue and formerly where the three main UK political parties would hold their annual conferences.
The largest venues at the Winter Gardens are all on the ground floor and served by an Art Deco corridor with a metal and glass roof.
Any day of the week, any time of the year there will be concerts, dance performances, comedy shows, musicals, exhibitions and trade shows at this spectacular Grade II listed complex.
During refurbishment in the last few years, original plasterwork by the film set designer Andrew Mazzei has been uncovered and restored at the cafe.
8. Stanley Park
A respite from Blackpool’s glossy entertainment and arcades, the resort’s largest park is in 260 acres, a mile east of the promenade.
The man behind the park’s design in the 1920s was the landscape architect Thomas Mawson, and he was responsible for a couple of the buildings.
The most striking is the cafe, in an Art Deco style and overlooking the Italian Garden, adorned with statues (see the two Medici lions) and a beautiful marble fountain.
The boating lake close by is lovely, and on its southwest shore is a Neoclassical bandstand, also designed by Mawson and surrounded by amphitheatre seating.
Kids can come to Stanley Park to ride the bumper boats, play crazy golf, hit the trampolines, catch the miniature train and zoom around on the electric cars.
9. Blackpool Zoo
The resort’s zoo is in 32 acres of English parkland, just a couple of miles in from Blackpool Tower.
Blackpool Zoo opened in 1972 and rolls out new exhibits every few years.
The latest, Project Elephant, is also the largest investment in the zoo’s 45-year history, featuring the largest indoor elephant hall in the UK. Also special is the Orangutan Outlook, housing five Bornean orangutans and with floor-to-ceiling viewing areas.
At Amazonia you’ll walk through a rainforest environment among squirrel monkeys and a vibrant array of tropical birds like conures, ringed teals and parakeets.
The zoo also has every child’s favourites like giraffes, African lions, penguins, western lowland gorillas, as well as a children’s farm with pygmy goats, donkeys, alpacas and Ouessant sheep.
10. Sandcastle Waterpark
Between the Pleasure Beach and the South Pier is the UK’s largest indoor waterpark.
Out of the elements, Sandcastle Waterpark has a tropical climate with a steady temperature of 84°C. There are 18 slides for kids to try out, including two recent newcomers, Montazooma and Aztec Falls.
The former is a mat-slide with 360° twists, while Aztec Falls is a high-speed descent into a dark chasm, ending with a corkscrew.
Smaller children can play in safety at the Shimmerin Shallows, and parents can escape the mayhem at the Sea Breeze Spa, which has a steam room, sauna, heated foot spas and an aromatherapy room.
11. North Pier
The oldest and longest of Blackpool’s three piers, the North Pier is from 1863 and juts out for half a kilometre.
It is the only pier of the three to have English Heritage listed status, and like its neighbours to the south the North Pier has survived storms, fires and crashes with boats over the last 160 years.
The pier was intended to have a genteel ambience, charging visitors for entry until the 2000s and boasting some beautiful Victorian details like a wrought iron canopy in the Carousel bar at the pier-head.
After a fire in 1938 the pier’s Indian Pavilion was replaced by an Art Deco theatre, which has booked all the top British light entertainers, from Morecambe and Wise to Bruce Forsyth.
There’s an arcade that goes back to the 1960s, a beautiful two-tier carousel, all sorts of food stands, a Victorian tea room and a spacious beer garden at the Carousel bar.
12. Central Pier
Projecting out into the Irish Sea for 339 metres, the Central Pier was built in 1868 as a response to the success of the North Pier.
From the start, this pier was more about fun (mainly dancing) than its more sedate neighbour to the north.
As tastes changed in the 20th century, the dancing was replaced with roller-skating, a theatre, amusements and eventually video arcades.
The biggest recent change came in 1990 when the 33-metre Ferris wheel was added, a half-sized replica of a Victorian wheel that once soared over the Winter Gardens.
There are free shows at the Pirate’s Bay “Family bar” at the end of the pier, where you can catch a science show, dancing competitions, ventriloquists, illusions and juggling.
The Showbar at the front of the pier has tribute acts to famous artists like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and George Michael.
13. Madame Tussauds
The Blackpool branch of the well-known Madame Tussauds has a cavalcade of mostly British stars rendered as surprisingly lifelike waxworks.
You’ll get to have an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, meet the Olympic star Mo Farah and the famously grumpy talent show judge Simon Cowell.
There are stars from music, British TV, international film and sport, all in immersive displays that allow you to pose with the figures for your own selfies.
One of the favourite areas is a reproduction of the Rovers Return Inn from the long-running English soap opera, Coronation Street, where you can pose with Ken and Deidre Barlow, Jack and Vera Duckworth and Bet Lynch.
14. Blackpool Illuminations
Touted as the “best free light show on earth” the Blackpool Illuminations is a lights festival that takes place every year for 66 days from around the end of August to the start of November.
The tradition began in 1879 as a way of extending the resort’s tourist season into the autumn, and almost everything on the promenade, from the heritage trams to the Blackpool Tower, is festooned with a million bulbs.
There are old-fashioned animated tableaux, the hotels along the promenade are floodlit in sequential colours, and in recent years 3D light shows have been projected onto the side of the Tower.
Since 1934 there’s been a “Switch On” ceremony when a celebrity pulls the switch to turn on 10 kilometres of lights.
This is accompanied by a concert, and in 2018 the performer will be Britney Spears.