The city of Derby was a market town in the 18th century, but grew sharply in the Industrial Revolution through its cotton and silk spinning trade.
Derby was one of the first places in England where this great upsurge in production took hold, and the impressive 18th-century mills on the banks of the River Derwent make up a single UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Derby was also home to Joseph Wright, a painter credited with capturing the spirit of the early Industrial Revolution, and you can view many of his works at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
The cathedral quarter is the oldest part Derby, with streets named after former gates, half-timbered 16th and 17th-century pubs and terraces of flat-fronted Georgian townhouses.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Derby:
1. Derby Museum and Art Gallery
This multifaceted museum goes into Derby’s natural history, geology, military history and archaeology.
But what makes it unmissable is the art gallery and collection of paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby.
An Enlightenment figure, Wright is celebrated for his mastery of chiaroscuro and for crystallising the atmosphere of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766) and The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771) are two of the best.
There’s a lot more to get through, like the Hanson Log Boat, a Bronze Age vessel discovered in a gravel pit in Shardlow, and surrounded by cases with other artefacts from the site.
Another captivating find is the fragment from an 8th-century carved cross, believed to have been a memorial for Æthelbald of Mercia.
2. Pickford’s House Museum
The most graceful of all of Derby’s Georgian townhouses was built in 1770 by the architect Joseph Pickford, as both a family home and a showcase for his talents.
Since 1988 this Grade I listed house has been a museum, with rooms preserved from different periods over the last 250 years.
You can admire the finery of the Pickford family bedroom and dressing room as they’d have been in 1815, and contrast them with the plainness of the servants’ rooms on the floor above.
The kitchen, scullery and laundry have been frozen it time around 1830, while there’s a bathroom from the early 20th century and the basement has been kept as a World War II-era bomb shelter.
In keeping with the 18th-century theme there’s also a collection of antique model toy theatres to pore over.
3. Derby Cathedral
For most of its life Derby Cathedral has been known as All Saints Church, and only became a cathedral when the Diocese of Derby was formed in 1927. The building goes back to the 16th century, but its nave and chancel were reconfigured in the first decades of the 18th century.
The oldest part of the building is the Perpendicular Gothic tower, 65 metres high and raised between 1510 and 1532. This holds the world’s oldest ring of ten bells, many of which have been in place since 1678, while the largest, weighing 965 kilograms, is older than church itself, dating back five centuries and believed to have been moved here from the dissolved Dale Abbey.
Some outstanding fittings to admire are the wrought iron rood screen and the entrance gates, both produced in the 18th century by the feted ironsmith Robert Bakewell.
4. Markeaton Park
More than a million people a year come to Derby’s Markeaton Park, in 207 acres on the site of a former estate.
The 18th-century Georgian hall was demolished after the war, but the orangery remains and houses a cafe with a pretty view of the formal gardens.
What brings so many people to Markeaton Park is the huge range of activities and facilities on offer in summer.
These count crazy golf, donkey rides, a bouncy castle, a craft village, a high ropes course, pitch and putt, a paddling pool for toddlers, a boating lake and a children’s park.
Markeaton Park is free to enter, though there may be a charge for some of the activities.
5. Darley Park
Head up the Derwent from the centre of Derby and you’ll arrive at Darley Park, 80 acres of rolling fields and forest on both banks of the river.
The park is on the edge of Darley Abbey, an 18th-century mill village part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site and now a northern suburb of Derby.
Darley Park was opened to the public in 1921 on the very same day as Markeaton Park, and is renowned for its flower gardens.
These have the largest collection of hydrangeas in Britain (400 varieties), producing a spectacle of colour around May and June.
Also fabulous is the butterfly garden just next door.
6. Royal Crown Derby Visitor Centre
One of the two oldest surviving fine porcelain manufacturers in England, Royal Crown Derby was founded around 1750 by a Huguenot immigrant from Saxony.
Originally known simply as “Derby”, the brand was permitted to carry the royal crown backstamp in 1773 by George III and from then on gained the title “Crown Derby”. There’s a lot to get up to at the visitor centre in the heart of Derby.
You can peruse the museum, which has the largest single collection of Derby Porcelain in the world, covering the 218-year history of the brand.
When this post was written there was a special exhibition about Derby’s ties to London society in the 18th century, with early pieces like an intricate ornamental clock.
You can also go on a factory tour to watch fine bone china being crafted, and take afternoon tea, all served with Royal Crown Derby crockery.
7. Derwent River (plus mills)
When you’re down on the west bank of the Derwent in Derby, it can be hard to believe you’re still in a city.
Such is the abundance of parks and foliage on the river, and the lack of intrusive high-rise buildings.
There’s a two mile trail that you can walk, starting in the north at St Mary’s Bridge, looping around the Bass Recreation Ground in the east, and then heading north through the old centre of the city up Iron Gate.
One sight that will stop you in your tracks is the Derby Silk Mill, which was Britain’s first water-powered silk mill, established in 1717, although the architecture is mostly from a rebuild after a fire in 1910. This mill belongs to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, and houses the Derby Industrial Museum closed at the time of writing for a long-term refurbishment.
8. Calke Abbey
This country estate outside Ticknall gets its name from a former 12th-century Augustinian priory, which was on the site but dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
The Baroque house and its various outbuildings are from the start of the 18th century, and for nearly 300 years until 1985 Calke abbey would remain with the Harpur Family.
When the property was taken over by the National Trust, many rooms had been abandoned and had not been redecorated since the 1880s.
While the decay has been halted, it hasn’t been reversed, and this offers a rare glimpse of a country house suspended in elegant decline.
There’s peeling wallpaper, unrestored paintings and random items sitting where they were left decades ago.
There’s a walled garden with formal kitchen garden, and a deer park that is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, while the Stables, Head Gardener’s House and the Abbey’s private chapel all need to be seen.
9. Kedleston Hall
A Palladian masterpiece, Kedleston Hall was designed in the 1760s by Robert Adam at the start of his illustrious career, and is the seat of the Curzon family.
The Curzons have Norman origins and have been based at Kedleston since the middle of the 17th century.
Not intended as a family home, the hall’s stupendous central block was constructed for Sir Nathaniel Curzon as a “temple for the arts”, somewhere to show off a rich art collection and host lavish entertainment.
Immediately upon entering, you’ll be met by the imposing Marble Hall with an inlaid marble floor 20-fluted alabaster Corinthian columns, while the Saloon is under the dome, rising more than 18 metres above the floor.
Outside is one of the best preserved 18th-century English landscape gardens.
This was Adam’s first project at Kedleston and he created the Fishing Pavilion, cascade, bridge and temple follies.
10. Derby Gaol
Once one of five gaols in Derby, the prison on Friargate, a few doors down from the Pickford House Museum, has been turned into a museum that opens on Saturdays.
Many people were hanged in this building in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the museum has contemporary accounts of these executions, replica gallows and preserved cells.
There are some fascinating details to discover, like notches carved onto the inside of debtor’s jail door to calculate debt.
Unsurprising for a place with such a creepy back-story, Derby Gaol is claimed to be one of the most haunted spots in the UK, and the owner organises an evening ghost walk around the city centre, starting and ending at the gaol.
11. East Midlands Aeropark
On the northwestern edge of the East Midlands Airport is an indoor and outdoor museum presenting a collection of vintage aircraft and engines.
Outside you can take a look at mostly post-war planes and helicopters by British manufacturers like Hawker, Vickers, Westland, De Havilland and Armstrong.
Up to 30 aircraft are on show at any one time, and one of the most remarkable is the Armstrong Whitworth AW.660 Argosy, with a distinctive tailplane on twin booms.
The hangar is a loaded with components, like Gyron Junion, Rolls-Royce Spey and Bristol Hercules engines, as well as a Link Simulator, photographs and models.
12. Market Hall
Derby’s Market Hall needs to be seen, even if you don’t plan to do any shopping.
Raised in the 1860s, the hall is a gigantic, vaulting metal and glass construction, with elegant galleries above its trading area.
The Market Hall is in business every day except Sunday and has stalls selling the usual groceries like fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, fresh baked bread, cheese and confectionery.
There are also handicrafts, jigsaw puzzles, jewellery and homewares to browse.
But if you come for one thing, it has to be pyclets.
A Derby tradition, these are flattened crumpets, similar to Russian blinis, and go well with sweet or savoury toppings.
13. Crich Tramway Village
Open seven days a week in summer, Crich Tramway Village lies just to the north of Derby and is a heritage park home to the National Tramway Museum.
You can ride vintage trams, which stop at five points around the village and local countryside, like Glory Mine, where there’s a supreme panorama of the Amber Valley.
The museum, in a capacious shed, covers the entire history of tram transport, from horse-pulled vehicles in the 19th century to electric trams just after the Second World War.
There’s archive footage, projected cleverly on to the side of trams, while the Stephenson Discovery Centre explains how this mode of transport was a product of the UK’s rapid urbanisation in the 1800s.
Outside there’s a kind of open-air museum, with historic structures like the facade of Derby’s Assembly Rooms relocated at the village.
14. Donington Grand Prix Collection
Close to East Midlands Airport is Donington Park, England’s first permanent park racing circuit, founded in 1931. It hosted the Donington Grand Prix before the Second World War, and then became a military vehicle depot before being revived as a circuit in the 1970s.
Since then it has hosted one single F1 race, the 1993 European Grand Prix, won by Ayrton Senna.
Fans of the sport have to make time for the Grand Prix Collection, in a building next to the track.
This has a phenomenal assortment of F1 vehicles, like a complete set of Vanwalls from the 50s and 60s, rare four-wheel drive F1 cars and a host of McLaren, Williams and BRM machines.
Not to be missed are the Lotus 18 in which Stirling Moss won the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, and the Ferrari F2000 in which Michael Schumacher came 1st at the 2000 Canadian Grand Prix.
15. Pride Park
The city’s football team, Derby County tends to flit between the country’s top two divisions.
The Rams, as they’re known, moved into Pride Park not far east of the train station, in 1997. With a capacity of 33,597 it’s among the 20 largest football stadiums in the country, and although crowds are strong Pride Park rarely sells out on match-days.
So if you happen to be in town during the football season you’ll have a good chance of getting a ticket without much notice.
If you’re a student of English football, you’ll be keen to see the statue of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor arm in arm on “Unity Plaza” in the northwest corner of the ground.
They were responsible for Derby’s first league trophy in 1972, and that period in the 1970s is a high watermark in the club’s history.