Cumbria’s only city, Carlisle is rooted in the 2nd century as a Roman settlement tied to Hadrian’s Wall, the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire.
That enormous defence is the largest Roman artefact in the world, and there are forts and long portions of the wall in touching distance of Carlisle.
This city was on the English-Scottish borders and in Medieval times changed hands repeatedly.
At Carlisle Castle and the Tullie House Museum you can immerse yourself in this tempestuous past, and get acquainted with historical figures like Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pretender to the British throne who took the city in 1745.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Carlisle:
1. Carlisle Castle
There may not be a castle in England that has lived through as much carnage as Carlisle Castle.
It was established by the Normans on top of a Roman fort during the reign of William II at the end of the 11th century.
For the next 650 years there was near-constant conflict.
The last and possibly most memorable fight was in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite uprising against King George II in 1745. His forces took the castle, but were soon overpowered and either executed or captured.
The castle has exhibitions on Bonnie Prince Charlie, William II and Mary Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned here in 1567. You can tour passageways, spiral stairways and dungeons, and decipher beautifully detailed carvings by prisoners.
There’s grisly history in the “Licking Stones”, damp masonry that provided moisture to keep parched Jacobite soldiers alive only for them to be executed soon after.
2. Carlisle Cathedral
Consecrated as an Augustinian Priory in the 12th century, Carlisle Cathedral is the second-smallest cathedral in England after Oxford.
One reason for this is that a big piece of the nave was torn down in the English Civil War to bolster Carlisle Castle.
The architecture is Gothic, mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries.
The first thing you have to see is the East Window, the largest in the Flowing Decorated Gothic style in the country, with mesmerising workmanship in its tracery, and most of its original Medieval glass in place.
The set of 46 black oak choir stalls is also special.
These have misericords (folding seats) carved in the 15th century with strange hybrid creatures, the Twelve Apostles, an image of a woman beating a man and scenes from the legends of St Anthony, St Augustine and St Cuthbert.
3. Hadrian’s Wall
Carlisle is on the northern edge of the Roman Empire, beyond which were the lands of the Picts and other northern Ancient British tribes.
In the 2nd century AD, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian, an epic border defence 73 miles long was constructed across the neck of Northern England.
There were forts every five miles, “milecastles” (every mile) and two turrets in between those.
Remnants of the wall and its forts litter the countryside, and you can embark on the adventure of a lifetime, walking the full stretch.
But for day-trips from Carlisle you can pick from the ruins at Banks Turrets, Willowford Bridge, Pike Hill Signal Tower, Milecastle 48 in Gisland and the Birdoswald Fort, which follows below.
4. Birdoswald Roman Fort
Maybe the best place to jump onto Hadrian’s Wall is Birdoswald, on a site that neatly encapsulates how this vast defence was configured.
This is the only place where see the ruins of a fort, as well as the longest continuous stretch of the wall, a milecastle and a turret, all intact.
The location is pretty special too, on a spur over the River Irthing Gorge.
You can explore the excavated ruins of the fort, while kids can hunt for clues and pick up titbits about Roman engineering and border life 2,000 years ago.
5. Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
This top-notch museum is centred on a Grade I-listed Jacobean mansion from the start of the 17th century.
The museum opened inside in the 1890s, and modern extensions were made in the 90s and early 2000s.
The Tullie House Museum has enthralling artefacts from the Roman forts in Carlisle, including Petriana, which was the largest on Hadrian’s Wall.
In the Roman Frontier gallery you’ll learn the wall’s finer details and see building fragments, reliefs, stelae, a Roman mask, jewellery, a preserved boot, oil lamps and a trove of day-to-day items.
In Old Tullie House you can view a superb collection of Pre-Raphaelite house, while other exhibitions explore the centuries-long history of conflict on the Anglo-Scottish border and Carlisle’s social history.
The Tullie House Lookout rotunda was unveiled in 2011, and has a marvellous panorama of the castle and cathedral.
6. Settle-Carlisle Railway
Carlisle is the northern terminus of the most spectacular stretch of mainline railway on England’s network.
The Carlisle-Settle railway runs 70 miles down to Settle in North Yorkshire, through epic upland scenery.
The route traverses the North Pennines, grazes the Lake District and passes along the Eden Valley before entering the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
The railway opened in 1876, and was no small undertaking, requiring six years to complete and employing an army of workers who had to live in shanty towns.
There are 14 tunnels on the line, and views that will leave you speechless from 21 viaducts (from 380 bridges). From the window, look out for the old workers’ houses, and some 100 line-side huts, in various states of disrepair.
Check the calendar for special steam excursions in summer.
7. Lanercost Priory
While you’re out on the hunt for Hadrian’s Wall you can make a stop at the 12th-century Lanercost Priory, managed by English Heritage.
Being on the border made the priory a target for raids, including one by Robert the Bruce.
An infirm Edward I stayed at Lanercost for several months at the start of the 14th century, not long before his death.
The priory church was reworked at the end of the 13th century and came through the Dissolution of the Monasteries when its nave was turned into a parish church.
The conventual buildings are composed partly of spolia (recycled stone) from Hadrian’s Wall, and you can identify a few Roman inscriptions in the stonework.
Lanercost is the best-preserved of all of Cumbria’s Medieval monasteries, and the remnants of the chancel survives to its full height almost 500 years after it was abandoned.
8. Solway Aviation Museum
This privately-run aircraft museum can be found at Carlisle Lake District Airport, which was an RAF training centre during the Second World War.
Along with an impressive aircraft collection, the museum goes into detail on the development of the Blue Streak medium-range ballistic missile and Martin Baker ejection seats.
Outside, you can get up close to aircraft like an Avro Vulcan B.2, which served in the Falklands War, an English Electric Canberra, a Hawker Hunter, a Sikorsky Whirlwind helicopter, to give you an idea of what’s here.
9. Talkin Tarn Country Park
A nine-mile drive to the northwestern edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Talking Tarn is a 65-acre glacial lake couched mature woodland and farmland.
Come in warm weather for water activities like canoeing, sailing or windsurfing, while the rowing club was founded back in 1859. This makes it the second-oldest rowing club in the north of England, and it puts on a regatta every July.
The cosy boathouse tearooms are non-profit, and reinvests its income into the upkeep of the lake and its park.
You can walk the 1.3-mile path around the tarn or hire a mountain bike from the shop and pedal out into the Cumbria countryside.
10. Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life
Carlisle Castle is the HQ for the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, which is descended from a line of four other regiments based in Carlisle since 1702. The regimental museum opened within the castle’s bailey in 2014, and recounts more than 300 years of army history in Cumbria, examining the careers of soldiers past and present.
You can peruse a massive collection of medals, weapons, uniforms, silver, paintings and pieces of equipment, from 1702 to present times.
There are also immersive audiovisual displays and an exhibition that gives you a feel for life in a First World War trench.
11. Guildhall Museum
Carlisle’s Guildhall is in a cantilevered half-timbered building from the 14th century, and one of the four oldest structures in the city.
Sections of its walls are made with Medieval wattle and daub, while a great deal of the original timberwork survives.
The ground floor, where the arcades have been filled in, is a restaurant, which is a separate business, while the upper floors hold a museum maintained by Tullie House Museum.
You can visit on Thursdays between May and August to browse the rooms for the butchers’ and shoemakers’ guilds and get a handle on aspects of Carlisle’s history.
There’s a silver collection, a display of Victorian civic regalia and an exhibition for the Carlisle Bells, the oldest prize in horseracing, dating back to 1599.
12. Walby Farm Park
A short way out of Carlisle, the Walby Farm Park is an award-winning family attraction with both outdoor and indoor activities.
The best part for kids will be getting to meet the animals, and there’s a packed timetable, involving pony grooming, feeding lambs, sheep racing, goat racing, ferret shows and meeting rabbits and guinea pigs.
And on the side, kids can join in a wealth of activities.
This might be electric mini-quads, pedal go-karts, miniature tractors, an agility trail, a nature trail and a JCB-themed “dig & play” area.
And if the weather caves, there’s an indoor play barn with a ball pool, climbing nets and slides.
The Curly Tails Cafe serves healthy meals and home-baked cakes.
13. Hammond’s Pond
If you’re in Carlisle with kids in tow, Hammond’s Pond in the southern Upperby suburb comes into its own in summer.
The pond and its surrounding park are on a hill, and has ducks and swans, as well as an aviary and dovecote.
You can rent rowboats on the east end of the pond in summer, and the park has a miniature railway that operates in the summer holidays, along with two separate play areas, one for toddlers and the other for bigger kids.
The cafe next to the pond is open every weekend and during weekdays on school holidays.
14. St Cuthbert’s Church
When Oliver Cromwell closed the cathedral during the Interregnum in the 17th century, St Cuthbert’s Church was the only place of worship in Carlisle.
The building standing today is the fourth in a line of churches that goes back to the 7th century.
The current version is Georgian, from the 1770s, although a stained glass window from the 1300s has been preserved.
A feature that you won’t see anywhere else is the outsized pulpit, built high to allow the vicar to address the galleries, and set on rails to allow it to be moved.
The church’s graveyard has soldiers who were executed during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rising.
The lovely tithe barn beside the church is from the turn of the 16th century and is newly restored as a function hall.
15. Watchtree Nature Reserve
Under nine miles west of Carlisle is Europe’s largest man-made nature reserve.
In 200 acres, the reserve came together at the start of the 2000s when a disused airfield was re-landscaped after being used as a burial ground for more than 500,000 animals after the foot and mouth epidemic that gripped Britain’s farming industry in 2001 (foot and mouth dies with its victim, so there’s no danger). Some 80,000 trees were planted, lakes were excavated, and trails were set out, guiding you around reedbeds and past birdhides.
Within a few years, 23 endangered species had made a habitat in the reserve, and swans, hares, roe deer and a diversity of birds can be sighted on the trails.
Watchtree is on a rise, and has vistas south to the Lake District and Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain.