A little way in from Windermere’s northernmost bay, Ambleside is a tourist haven in the heart of the Lake District.
England’s largest lake is effortlessly close, for cruises and water activities, while on land you can hike in scenery that sparked the imaginations of people like William Wordsworth.
The poet’s home at Rydal Mount has been kept as a museum and is moments from the town.
The National Trust has a big presence in Ambleside, conserving parks, historic monuments and natural beauty spots.
The children’s author, Beatrix Potter was fond of the National Trust, leaving 14,000 acres in the Lake District when she passed away.
There’s a museum and gallery for her art at Hawkshead, as well as a display of her books and watercolours at Ambleside’s Armitt Museum and Gallery.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ambleside:
1. Windermere (Lake)
England’s largest natural lake is at your fingertips in Ambleside.
Windermere is a ribbon lake, filling a glacial trough that was created during the Last Ice Age.
Top to toe, Windermere is over 11 miles long, but never more than a mile across.
In the mid-20th century several water speed records were set on Windermere, including one by Sir Henry Segrave in 1930 (98.76 mph) that would cost him his life.
Today there’s a speed limit for motorboats, but Windermere remains a watersports destination, with important rowing and sailing clubs on its shores.
Head down to the watersports centre at Low Wood Bay, which provides boat hire, sailing lessons, flyboarding, waterskiing, wakeboarding, canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding.
2. Ambleside Waterhead
It may come as a surprise, but Ambleside the town isn’t actually on Windermere, and is set back a mile into the Rothay Valley.
Ambleside’s foothold on the lake is the village of Waterhead, a charming tourist area with waterside parks, cafes, hotels, twee gift shops and paths snaking off into the mature woodland on the shore, much of which is in the care of the National Trust.
To the north is the bold outline of Loughrigg Fell, which can be climbed.
The main anchor at Waterhead is the Ambleside Pier for steamer and launch trips around Windermere.
3. Loughrigg Fell
For dedicated walkers the Lake District is one big invitation to lace up those hiking boots and climb England’s tallest hills.
Ambleside is overlooked by its own fell, rising to 335 metres.
This may be small compared to the Lake District’s giants like Scafell Pike, but Loughrigg Fell stands almost alone thanks to the surrounding Red Bank depression, so gives you unforgettable panoramas, including a view right along Windermere.
You can take the trail from Ambleside, heading northwest to the fell’s summit, then along the picturesque Loughrigg Terrace and ending at Rydal Cave, a former slate quarry above the southern shore of Rydal Water.
On the way, look west to the Langdale Pikes, a group of jagged peaks capped with snow in winter.
The final leg back to Ambleside is on an unfrequented rural road, for a round trip of just under three hours.
4. Steamer Trips
One of those obligatory experiences in the Lake District is a good old-fashioned cruise on a steamer or smaller launch.
These boats grant you unbroken views of Windermere’s fells, Belle Isle and lakeside houses, without having to move a muscle.
Naturally there’s a busier timetable of cruises departing Ambleside Pier in Waterhead in summer.
But Windermere Lake Cruises’ Red Cruise runs all year round for a return trip to Bowness, stopping at Brockhole and providing insightful and entertaining running commentary.
If you want to visit the National Trust’s Wray Castle, the Green Cruise will take you there in summer, while the Freedom of the Lake pass lets you travel further, down to Lakeside and Fell Foot on the southern shore.
5. Stock Ghyll Force
You don’t even need to leave Ambleside to start the walk to this local beauty spot.
The circular trail begins behind the Salutation Hotel, and within a few minutes you’ll be gazing in awe at this 20-metre waterfall, which tumbles between moss-coated rocks.
The best time to visit is just after a downpour when there’s a real torrent, while the flow can thin out to just a trickle after an extended dry spell in summer.
In all the circular walk will take around half an hour, and on returning you may be surprised to find just how close you were to the town the whole time.
6. Rydal Mount
Five minutes in the car and you’ll be at the tiny village of Rydal on the eastern shore of the lake of the same name.
Rydal Mount was the home of William Wordsworth, one of the English language’s most celebrated poets, from 1813 until he passed away in 1850. The property is still owned by the Wordsworth family and has inspiring views of both Windermere and Rydal Water, as well as the neighbouring fells.
The house, built on a 16th-century core, was enlarged by Wordsworth and has a collection of family portraits and possessions.
The rambling, five-acre garden hasn’t changed much since Wordsworth worked on it, and has a Prehistoric mound, rockpools and a terraces on the fellside.
7. Rydal Water
After visiting Rydal Mount, there’s a few reasons to spend some time around the lake below.
One is for Wordsworth’s Seat, a perch at the top of steps by the west end of the lake, believed to be the poet’s favourite vantage point.
On the northern shore is Nab Cottage, owned by the essayist Thomas de Quincey, who wrote “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”, as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s son Hartley.
Climb Nab Scar for an almost vertical view of the lake, or try taking a dip.
Around July the water is warm enough for a wild swim, and there’s a small beach area a short way from the car park on the east end.
8. Beatrix Potter Gallery and Hawkshead
A short five miles from Ambleside is a gallery devoted to Beatrix Potter, in a building with special ties to the children’s author and artist.
On Main Street in Hawkshead, this 17th-century house was the office for William Heelis, Potter’s husband who worked as a solicitor.
The gallery has an exhibition of Potter’s personal possessions, sketches and watercolours, updated each year according to a new theme.
In 2018, to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, “The Right Sort of Woman” outlines Beatrix Potter’s contribution to Cumbria as a strong voice for conservation and champion for the value of women in rural communities.
9. Jenkin Crag
The car park in Waterhead can be the starting point for a picturesque two-hour walk in the ancient woodland above Ambleside, cresting at Jenkin Crag, a great vantage point above Windermere.
Nearly all of the path is in thick woodland, and there are steps to make the going lighter on wet days.
One of the loveliest sections guides you along the Ambleside Champion Tree Trail, which has England’s tallest grand fir.
Make the walk in spring and there’s a sea of bluebells on the forest floor and the fragrance of wild garlic lingers on the air.
At the highest point you can scramble up the rocks on Jenkin Crag to see Windermere in all its glory, before taking the winding path back.
10. Bridge House
Sitting above Stock Beck next to Rydal Road, Bridge House may be the whole region’s most photographed landmark.
Like all of Ambleside this adorable, narrow dwelling is constructed from local slate and has been owned by the National Trust for nearly a century after it was bought and donated by a group of local residents.
The Bridge House dates from the 17th century, when it was used as an orchard storehouse, and has since been a mill counting house, chair-maker’s workshop, cobbler’s shop, tearoom and a family home packed with as many as eight people.
Go in to see the homey and simple interior and stove, and step back to see the rustic “wrestler” pattern of the roof slates.
11. Armitt Museum and Library
The writer and philanthropist Mary Louisa Armitt founded this independent museum and library in 1909 as a way of honouring and safeguarding the town’s intellectual streak.
The institution grew from the Ambleside Book Society, established in 1828. The museum has exhibits for Beatrix Potter, who donated personal copies of her books, paintings and her natural history watercolours, some of which reveal enlightening details about her life story.
There are also works by the 20th-century German artist Kurt Schwitters, who spent the last years of his life in Ambleside.
12. Stagshaw Garden
The former regional agent for the National Trust, Cubby Acland, landscaped this picture perfect eight-acre garden by the lakefront on Waterhead’s south side.
The lower part of the Jenkin Crag walk will lead you into this space.
Half of the garden is cultivated, with magnolias, camellias, azaleas, embothriums, shrubs and rhododendrons, which do well in the Lake District’s acidic soils.
The planted areas blend with deep woodland climbing the steep slope, which is cleaved with valleys, one of which has a delightful beck with little waterfalls.
If there’s a best time to come it’s between April and June when the rhododendrons and camellias are in flower.
13. Ambleside Roman Fort
Metres from Windermere’s northern shore is an archaeological site for the Roman fort of Galava, founded towards the end of the 1st century.
This stronghold defended the intersection of three Roman roads, heading off to Ravenglass and Carlisle on Hadrian’s Wall to the north, and Papcastle to the west.
The remains date from the 2nd or 3rd century, when it appears that the fort was demolished and reconstructed.
A Roman stele discovered in Ambleside has the inscription “killed within the fort by the enemy”, which points to Galava’s violent past.
The site is managed by the National Trust and equipped with interpretation boards, labelling the granaries, praetorium, which housed the central office, and the two-storey-commander’s house.
14. St Mary’s Church
Rare for being one of the few churches in the Lake District with a spire, St Mary’s was conceived by Sir George Gilbert Scott, who restored religious buildings all across Victorian Britain.
This sandstone building is from the 1850s and catered to the influx of tourists when the railway arrived in Ambleside.
Take a good look at the skilfully carved oak choir stalls, while near the opening to the Wordsworth Chapel is a baptismal font dating from the 15th or 16th century.
The prominent 20th-century sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos was fascinated by Wordsworth, and you can find a commemorative relief she carved, depicting the poet.
15. Borrans Park
If you need a picnic spot, or just somewhere to relax in front of Windermere, Borrans Park is a public green space at the lake’s northernmost tip just west of Waterhead.
The park merges with the greenery around the Roman fort, and there are benches facing the water so you watch the steamers coming and going, and take in natural splendour the lakeshore.
Behind you to the north and northeast are the brooding high fells of the Central Lakeland.