Without a city to speak of, the County of Suffolk is scattered with rural towns, and many of these are as divine as any you’ll see in England.
In the south the idyllic countryside of water meadows and mills by the River Stour was immortalised by the 19th-century painter John Constable.
Further west are the Wool Towns, medieval communities that time forgot and whose half-timbered houses have set the scene for movies like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
And last but not least is the coast, with towns that are authentic and low-key like the rest of the county, all the more appealing for it.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Suffolk:
1. Bury St Edmunds
Proud host of the only cathedral in Suffolk, Bury St Edmunds may well be the most beautiful town in the county.
There’s history from all sorts of different periods, and many buildings in the town are even older than they look because the old timber-framing was bricked over in the 1700s, as was the Georgian fashion.
St Edmundsbury Cathedral should be on your agenda, as should the ruined Bury St Edmunds Abbey, standing in serene gardens that you enter via a stunning Norman gateway.
More recent but no less fabulous is the Theatre Royal, the only surviving regency theatre in England, newly restored to its pre-Victorian glory.
The Greene King brewery is also in Bury St Edmunds, brewing ale for more than 200 years and welcoming you for tours.
On the Orwell Estuary, Ipswich is a town that vies for the title of the oldest in England.
Its history goes back to the 600s when a Saxon settlement took shape around the docks.
All the way through the middle ages, Ipswich was a key port for trade with Europe.
This legacy is recognised during the Ipswich Maritime Festival in August when there are street markets, historical re-enactments and old sailboats visit the town.
As it was in the past, the waterside area is the most engaging part of Ipswich, where old warehouses are now apartments, restaurants and galleries, and the University of Suffolk injects some youthful energy.
In the Buttermarket area, see the Ancient House, a fine 14th-century merchant’s house embellished with the “pargeting”, decorative plasterwork, that East Anglia is known for.
Suffolk has a speciality in charming, understated seaside towns, and Southwold is one of the best.
Take the pier for instance, which instead of tacky amusements has a restaurant, cute little cafes and vintage-style coin-operated machines that have helped win it “Pier of Year”. Further down the coast, the oldest part of Southwold is a knot of painted old houses and maritime inns, all commanded by the Southwold Lighthouse, commissioned in 1890 and still working today, guiding vessels into the harbour and sending a warning signal 24 miles out to sea.
Call in for a look around and to climb the 92 steps to the platform at the top.
In the far west of the county, the name of this fabled market town is practically a byword of horseracing.
Newmarket is the birthplace of the sport, with races recorded as far back as the 12th century.
It is also the centre for horse-breeding and training in England, and the Jockey Club is headquartered right in the town.
To illustrate its status, nine of Britain’s 32 prestigious Group 1 races are run at the Newmarket Racecourse, which also has the National Horseracing Museum, indispensable for anyone interested in the sport.
The Suffolk Wool Towns are considered among the best-preserved medieval settlements in England.
These got rich from the wool trade in the middle ages, when nearly all of their landmarks were built.
Lavenham, now a village, was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and now has some 340 listed buildings.
One of these is the Church of St Peter and St Paul, completed in 1525 and seen as a masterwork of Late Perpendicular Gothic design, crammed with wondrous decoration, like the 14th-century painted rood screen.
There’s loads more to see, like the 16th-century timber Guildhall, which recounts Lavenham’s history perfectly as it was a hub for business in the 1500s, but by Victorian times was a workhouse once the wool trade had died off.
Lavenham’s architecture appeared in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I and II.
6. Long Melford
A fine complement to Lavenham, Long Melford is also a Wool Town and has lots of sumptuous architecture from the time when it was booming.
Kentwell Hall is the grandest of all, with a facade in the gothic style from the mid-1500s, but interiors that go back to the 11th century.
You can have a good look around inside, but there are also wondrous gardens and a rare breeds farm for kids.
The Holy Trinity Church was financed by wool merchants, which explains its extravagance and scale, and its often rated among the most beautiful in the country.
The nave is the longest of any parish church in England and nearly all of the traceried windows contain their original medieval glass.
There are two sides to Felixstowe, and the difference between them is night and day.
In the south is the largest container port in the UK, receiving 3,000 gigantic cargo ships a year on a headland guarding the Stour Estuary.
It’s an eye-opener to see such the port and its traffic in action.
Landguard Fort on the headland is run by English Heritage and was in use from the 16th century all the way up to the Second World War.
And then as you travel north, the docks give way to pebble beaches and an Edwardian coastal town.
Felixstowe Pier has the requisite amusement arcade and the foreshore is a sequence of pretty gardens landscaped at the turn of the 20th century.
8. East Bergholt
The south of Suffolk, around the Dedham Vale Area of Natural Beauty is marketed as Constable Country.
East Bergholt was the birthplace of John Constable, one of England’s most-celebrated artists who painted the local pastoral landscapes in his romantic style in the early-1800s.
Close by is Flatford Mill, an 18th-century watermill which was owned by Constable’s father and was the subject of many of his paintings, most famously Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River), which is hanging at the Tate Britain in London.
The mill and its thatched cottage are now managed by the National Trust, and hold an exhibition about the artist.
The UK’s easternmost settlement is a seaside town that makes for a fun day trip in summer, especially if you have children.
There are more than enough high-quality attractions to entertain littler holidaymakers for a day or two: Africa Alive! is a conservation-oriented zoo with giraffes, zebras, water buffalo and lemurs.
While the amusement park, Pleasurewood Hills, despite being on the small side, is always adding new attractions and rides.
The beach to the south of Claremont Pier is a perennial Blue Flag winner, with immaculate sands and long promenade behind.
For entertainment and culture there’s the Victorian Marina Theatre, where the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has a residency, or the Lowestoft Maritime Museum, which dips into the town’s seafaring past and former fishing industry.
East of the Dedham Vale, Sudbury is a historic market town on the River Stour.
Sudbury was the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, England’s pre-eminent portrait painter of the mid-18th century.
Gainsborough’s beautiful house is preserved as a museum for the artist, with a number of his works and information about his early years in the town.
In the countryside the Stour is implausibly pretty, nourishing water meadows that you can reach along the Valley Walk, which is both a footpath and cycle route.
Boat trips on the Stour are a tranquil way to pass a sunny afternoon, taking you past banks with grazing cattle and the tower of Sudbury’s All Saints Church in the background.
In 1939 at Sutton Hoo, archaeologists discovered the most important Saxon site in England.
It consisted of a 30-metre burial ship, most likely for the 7th-century King Rædwald, and treasures that changed people’s conceptions of Saxon workmanship.
The exhibition hall at Sutton Hoo has reconstructed the burial chamber and gives you fresh insights about the Saxons in East Anglia.
Of course there’s more to the lovely town of Woodbridge, which has been a maritime centre for hundreds of years and has a traditional harbour on the River Deben.
Here, clad with white weatherboarding, is the Woodbridge Tide Mill, which is 800 years old and continues to grind flour.
This market town often polls as one of the most liveable places in the county, but it also has huge historical importance: Framlingham Castle was constructed in the 1100s and was the seat of some of England’s most powerful families.
All kinds of political intrigue and plots have been hatched at this spot.
One momentous event was Mary Tudor retreating here in 1553 after the death of Henry VIII and summoning an army to march on London and take the throne.
The castle is in fantastic condition and you can walk along the battlements for inspiring views.
Spare some time for the Church of St Michael, recognised for its Thamar Organ, one of just a handful in England to survive the Civil War in the 17th century.
On the River Alde, which weaves through a coastal wetland region on the way to the north sea, Orford is a small town with a maritime character and a whiff of brine.
Orford Ness is protected as a nature reserve and adored by boaters, especially on clear days when the whole landscape glistens in the sun.
There’s a quaint old quay by the water, the sort of place that has a pub called “The Jolly Sailor”. You can catch a ferry across the river to the wetlands or go for crisp walks on the beach.
Orford Castle gazes out over the Ness and was ordered by Henry II in the 12th century to firm up the royal power base in the area.
The keep is in excellent condition and has a very unusual appearance, possibly inspired by medieval Byzantine architecture.
A coastal town with a blue flag pebble beach, Aldeburgh is oriented towards visitors, but it would be wrong to call this unspoiled place a seaside resort.
Aldeburgh has little in common with classic English seaside destinations, and is instead more of a historic village by the sea.
In Tudor times Aldeburgh was a busy port and there are quite a few structures from this period.
See the 16th-century Moot Hall, a kind of town meeting hall which now houses Aldeburgh’s museum.
The Red House is another delightful period property, where the 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten lived.
Finally, Aldeburgh has a reputation for its fish and chips, claiming two of the best shops in the country.
Like the best of Suffolk’s Wool Towns, Clare is just a small settlement now, but its high status in former times lends it tons of personality.
Indeed, there are 133 listed buildings in the town, a large amount of which are from the 1500s or older.
Very evocative is the castle, which was constructed directly after the Norman Conquest and once belonged to Elizabeth de Clare, who wielded serious power in the 14th-century England.
Now it’s a picturesque ruin atop its earthen motte at the heart of a park.
Clare also has a large wool church, held as one of East Anglia’s finest and filled with interesting fittings, like the 17th-century choir stalls and a brass lectern dating to the 1400s.