A land of mighty lakes, dales and fells, Cumbria has the only true mountain range in England. Nearly all of this is contained by the Lake District National Park, synonymous with stirring natural splendour and outdoor escapades on land or water. The largest lakes and the highest mountain in the country are yours to traverse or just soak up from the comfort of one of the famous steam boats.
Folded into these landscapes are welcoming stone-built villages that were once home to cultural icons like William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and John Ruskin. Hadrian’s Wall, the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, cuts across the county and can spark the imagination like few man-made structures in the World.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Cumbria:
1. Lake District
England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike is in the west of the Lake District and there are scores of hills, known as ‘fells’ for hardy walkers to test their mettle.
The lakes themselves are magnificent finger-like sheets of reflective waters.
The largest of them, Windermere and Ullswater, are crossed by pleasure boats and ferries, and most are watersports heaven.
In the evenings you can crash in adorable villages and towns like Keswick, Ambleside and Grasmere, which have catered to the whims of tourists for hundreds of years.
There aren’t many regions in the world as intrinsically linked with a person as the Lake District is with the poet William Wordsworth.
He lived here all his life and has fixed the lakes and fells in the imagination of his readers for 200 years now.
If you’re weary after a day of hiking in the fells you couldn’t hope for a better spot to crash than the historic market town of Keswick.
There’s a large roll-call of pubs and restaurants for warming meals in the evenings, and charming streets with cute shops to welcome you back to civilisation.
The town is a sort of base camp for rugged outdoors types, close to the head of Derwent water and in the shadow of Cat Bells, one of the Lake District’s most treasured walking spots.
Honister Slate Mine has been producing slate for almost 300 years, and you can go to look around the nave-like tunnels and cross a via ferrata.
At the northern shore of the mighty Windermere, Ambleside is a Lake District town to fall in love with at first sight.
Many of the Victorian stone-built houses are hotels and bed & breakfasts for outbound hikers, or people out to recharge their batteries floating on Windermere by steamer or under their own power.
If you’re a hiker you’ve come to the right place, because you can conquer the stunning Loughrigg Fell on a circular trail right from the edge Ambleside.
A raft of historic figures have lived or worked in this town, and the Armitt Museum has exhibits about Ambleside’s ties to William Wordsworth and children’s author Beatrix Potter.
The only city in the county is a few miles shy of the Scottish border and has a good helping of history and culture.
Tullie House Museum is vital for its pre-Raphaelite art, Roman finds and natural history exhibits, all in a stunning old mansion.
The city’s cathedral is the second smallest in the country, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time.
It was actually adapted from a monastic church and has a breathtaking Gothic east window and choir stalls carved in the 1400s.
Carlisle was originally the largest settlement on Hadrian’s Wall, so you can pick up the course of this great frontier here.
If you’re ready to hit the fells, Coniston is a fantastic choice.
The bulky Old Man of Coniston looms over the little town and conducts you to the summit 400 metres up via easy-to-follow trails.
Coniston Water is sublime of course, and has adventure sport companies waiting to take you out on canoe and sailing trips.
One of Victorian Britain’s most influential thinkers, John Ruskin, spent the last few years of his life in Coniston.
His handsome manor house, Brantwood, is a visitor attraction gazing out over Coniston Water and there’s a compact but enlightening museum in his honour in the town.
Make time for Tarn Hows, a magical little lake at the foot of steep wooded hills.
Always flirting with the Scottish border, Penrith’s location lent it massive strategic importance for almost 2,000 years.
The Roman fort of Voreda is minutes north of the town, while Penrith Castle dates to the turn of the 15th century and was built to defend against Scottish raids.
But there is also history of a less belligerent kind at the romantic towers of Lowther Castle and the cultivated Dalemain Estate, which has an award-winning garden.
You can journey to the Bronze Age at Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle started 5,000 years ago.
Or come to experience nature in all its majesty at the Aira Force waterfall, which plunges 20 metres and was adored by Wordsworth.
A southern springboard for the Lake District, Kendal is also a tidy little destination of its own.
On the streets you’ll notice that nearly everything is made from grey limestone, which is quarried locally and lends Kendal an air of gravitas.
If you’re up for some sightseeing and visits to historic landmarks, this town obliges with the sensational Sizergh Castle, Levens Hall and the tortured ruins of Kendal Castle high above the River Kent on the east bank.
Kendal Museum will flesh out the story of Kendal Castle and how it came to be destroyed, while on the road to Windermere is the Hawkshead Brewery, a cosy craft operation brewing real ale and providing tours.
For a pocket-sized village in the middle of the National Park Hawkshead has a serious amount going for it.
Between Windermere and Coniston Water is their little cousin, Esthwaite Water, just south of Hawkshead and a prime setting for trout and pike fishing in the autumn.
Beatrix Potter lived on the eastern shore of the lake, and her enchanting house, Hill Top is managed by the National Trust and unmissable for fans or those with children.
Also great for kids is Grizedale Forest, almost 25 square kilometres of mostly coniferous woodland.
Here there’s a Go Ape centre with Tarzan swings, zip lines and rope bridges.
Carlisle may have piqued your interest for Hadrian’s Wall, so there are some superb remnants of the ancient barrier minutes from the little town of Brampton.
Birdoswald Fort is unique for being the only stronghold on the wall that was occupied into the Dark Ages.
And Willowford Wall is a length of the defence that once incorporated a fortified bridge of the River Irthing and has some of the most complete sections of the wall to be found.
In the town you have to seek out St Martin’s Church, which was designed by the early Arts and Crafts architect Philip Webb and decorated with astonishing stained glass windows.
Keep the ruins of Lanercost Priory in mind, and while away a summer’s day with a line at New Mills Trout Fishing Park.
We’ve mentioned William Wordsworth a few times, and at Cockermouth you can come and see where he was born.
The poet’s childhood home is a fine Georgian townhouse that will transport you back to the 1770s.
Kids aren’t left out, and can play with 18th-century style toys and dress up in replica costumes while outside there’s an exquisite kitchen garden that looks much as it did when William was honing his craft.
You can also go behind the scenes at the Jennings Brewery in Lorton, which has been supplying ale to the Lake District for two centuries, while Banks Ironmongers is a hardware shop open since 1836 and loads of period curiosities.
When you contemplate the vistas of Morecambe Bay from the sweet old resort of Grange-over-Sands it’s no mystery why textile magnates chose this location for their grand summer houses in the 19th century.
The resort has the timelessness of a Lake District village and a hit of fresh sea air.
There are old-fashioned local shops to browse, and the stately Holker Hall also imbues the town with some nobility.
On the promenade you can wonder at the big skies over the Irish Sea, or you could head next-door to the village of Cartmel, home to a 12th-century priory.
In the southeast of the county, the smart town of Sedbergh is in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Main Street will win your heart, where antiques shops, pubs and a variety of speciality stores press in from both sides of this narrow cobbled lane.
Peeking between the breaks in the terraced streets are the epic Howgills Fells, which may persuade you to lace up those walking shoes again if you’re not exhausted yet.
Farfield Mill is an engaging little attraction that pairs Victorian textile heritage with arts and crafts workshops.
You can also dip into Sedbergh’s Quaker history at the Bridflatts Meeting House, which is from 1675 and the second oldest Quaker Friends House in Britain.
At the coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness industry and medieval history sit side-by-side.
This is a shipbuilding town that has launched vessels for hundreds of years.
Right now it’s in the business of assembling Britain’s high-tech Dreadnought-class submarines.
For the lowdown on that decorated shipbuilding history the Dock Museum is your go-to attraction, and is built right on top of a Victorian graving dock.
Furness Abbey is up there with Britain’s most romantic monastery ruins, with walls and columns of red sandstone in the hollow of a beautiful green valley.
About as central as you can get in the Lake District, Grasmere is a tourist-friendly village that places you in striking distance of all of the heavenly lakes and fells.
And it goes without saying that Grasmere takes its name from its own divine lake.
Lake Grasmere is as lovely as any in the national park, and the easy path on its perimeter is just right if you’re daunted by the region’s high fells.
A few steps from the shore is Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived for the first few years of the 19th century.
And then directly after he married he moved to the grander Allan Bank, which commands inspirational views of the waters.
If you’re a more ambitious walker, the spellbinding glacial lake, Easdale Tarn is a stiff walk west of the village.
A well-presented stop on your way in to the Lake District from the south, Ulverston was the birthplace of the legendary comedian Stan Laurel, from the duo Laurel and Hardy.
The town has the only museum in the world about the double act, founded by a keen collector who hoarded piles of photos, furniture, props, letters and other memorabilia.
Elsewhere, a rare fragment of Cumbria’s Victorian industry has been safeguarded at the Stott Park Bobbin Mill, which has a horizontal steam engine and gears that still work.
At one time there were dozens of these facilities strewn across the Lake District, making bobbins for the vast textile mills in Yorkshire and Lancashire.