On a bend in the River Orwell, Ipswich is one of the oldest towns in the United Kingdom.
There was a settlement here in Roman times, but the origins of the modern town are Anglo-Saxon.
Just ten miles out of Ipswich is Sutton Hoo where a rich Saxon ship burial was excavated in the 1930s.
In Medieval times, Ipswich was a Kontor, a foreign trading post for the Hanseatic League, and later, in the 17th century the town was the embarkation point for emigrants to colonies in New England.
Ipswich’s docks have been regenerated in the last 20 years, and on its quays you can check out the yachts and dine al fresco in summer.
Christchurch Mansion is an exquisite Tudor house and museum in Ipswich’s main park, while the mesmerising Willis Building was one of Norman Foster’s first projects.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ipswich:
1. Christchurch Park
The stunning Christchurch Park opened just north of the town centre in 1895 and has 70 acres of landscaped lawns alongside two arboretums planted with exotic trees.
The park was the site Priory of the Holy Trinity until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, and the Tudor Christchurch Mansion took its place later in the 16th century.
Eagle-eyed visitors may spot the humble lion’s head fountain, the last remnant of the priory, while it is believed that the ponds were excavated to provide fish for the monks.
The Upper and Lower Arboretums are Ipswich’s horticultural highlight, and its paths wind past herbaceous borders, flowerbeds, a bandstand and croquet lawn.
At the start of July, Christchurch park hosts Ipswich Music Day, the largest free one-day music festival in the UK, while there’s a line-up of events in the park during the Ipswich Carnival in April.
2. Christchurch Mansion
The rich London merchant Edmund Withypoll tore down the Priory of the Holy Trinity and built himself this grand house in the late 1540s.
The Grade I-listed Christchurch Mansion is a breathtaking piece of heritage, with an authentic Tudor kitchen, Georgian saloon and splendid assortments of fine art and decorative art, as well as toys and games from the Victorian period.
Allow plenty of time to pore over Lady Drury’s Cabinet, a series of painted wooded panels from the early 17th century, previously on a bedroom closet at Hawstead House outside Bury St Edmunds.
There are also lavish displays of pottery and glass, and paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable.
The kitchen is unforgettable for its vast fireplace that opens in a Tudor arch.
3. Ipswich Museum
In a gabled brick building on the High Street, dating to 1881, the Ipswich Museum charts Ipswich and Suffolk’s heritage and natural history.
The gallery chronicling the town’s origins has Anglo-Saxon weapons, jewellery and other burial objects, as well as full replicas of the famous discoveries at Sutton Hoo (Anglo-Saxon) and Mildenhall (Roman). Like many English museums from the Victorian era, the Ipswich Museum owns a large zoological collection, and this is presented in elegant glass cabinets.
There’s a complete mounted giraffe, next to a historic diorama of African animals, an Indian rhinoceros and the first gorillas ever seen on British soil.
The Suffolk Geology Gallery is filled with fossils spanning 70 million years, comprising the teeth of a megalodon, a giant Eocene shark and the remains of other sea life uncovered in Suffolk’s red crag deposits.
4. Ipswich Waterfront
This kink in the River Orwell has been a place of trade since the 700s at the latest.
The expansive wet dock opened in 1842, and at that time was the largest enclosed dock in the country.
The imposing Old Custom House on Common Quay soon followed, and this Grade II-listed building now holds a conference centre on its ground floor.
Since the late 1990s, the quaysides on the waterfront, which had long been in decline, have been totally revitalised.
Old warehouses have become eateries and stylish homes, while sleek new apartment blocks have cropped up on once fallow ground.
The 250-berth Ipswich Haven Marina opened in 2000 and its yachts have brought a continental flair to the waterfront.
5. The Ancient House
On the Buttermarket, the Ancient House is a fine merchant’s residence constructed around the 14th century.
The facade was embellished with wood carvings and pargeting (ornamental plasterwork) in the 1660s, and bears the coat of arms given to Ipswich by Charles II. Flanking this are four bay windows, each decorated with a figure representing the four continents of the world that were known in the 17th century: Africa, America, Asia and America.
Australia/Oceania was still uncharted by Europeans at that time.
The house is owned by Ipswich Borough Council, which gave it a thorough restoration in the 1980s, and is occupied by a branch of the homeware brand, Lakeland.
6. Holywells Park
Another beautiful swathe of greenery, Holywells Park is 28 hectares of lawns, woodland and ponds not far from Ipswich Dock.
This space has always been clear, and was held by the Bishops of Norwich in Medieval times.
Excavations in Holywells Park have unearthed Stone Age tools, axes from the Bronze Age and Roman coins.
There’s a charming Victorian stable block and conservatory that are hired out for events, alongside a visitor centre and cafe that are open daily throughout the year.
Children are sure to love the galleon-themed playground, inspired by the Discovery, a British East India Company ship that landed in Virginia in 1607, founding Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
7. Willis Building
There’s a neat slice of 20th-century architectural heritage Friars Street, where you’ll be awed by one of the first buildings designed by the world-famous architect Norman Foster.
This dark glass building adapts to the irregular Medieval street pattern, and within 16 years had become a Grade I listed monument.
Ordered by the insurance company now known as Willis Towers Watson, the Willis Building was completed in 1975 and is an early example of environmentally conscious architecture, topped with an insulating grass roof.
A funny irony is that while the Willis Building was designed to move with the times, and even came with raised floors to hold wiring for computer work stations, its listed status means it now can’t be updated.
8. St Mary le Tower
Ipswich’s civic church on Tower Street came to the fore during the reign of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor in the 11th century.
And it was in the churchyard that Ipswich’s town charter was drawn up under King John in the year 1200. The current building is the fourth to stand on this spot and dates almost completely from the middle of the 19th century.
Go in to see the pulpit, which was carved in 1700, while the organ has been adapted from an instrument installed by 17th-century master organ-maker Renatus Harris.
For a dash of culture, the church has two programmes of lunchtime classical concerts a year, from May to October, and then in the build-up to Christmas.
9. New Wolsey Theatre
A producing house, the highly regarded New Wolsey Theatre was founded in 1979 and can seat an audience of 400. After reopening in 2001 the venue operates on a not-for-profit basis and has gained widespread acclaim for attracting diverse audiences, for the breadth of its productions and for promoting talent from ethnic minorities.
At the start of June the theatre hosts the Pulse Festival for contemporary theatre by emerging and established artists and companies.
In the same month you can also come for singing, drumming and jazz ensemble workshops during the Ipswich Jazz Festival.
10. Ipswich Transport Museum
This warehouse, a former trolleybus depot in the southeast of the town, is a trove of more than 100 vehicles belonging to local transport operators like the Eastern Counties Omnibus and Ipswich Corporation Transport.
It’s an Aladdin’s cave of transport, running the gamut from wheelchairs, prams and bicycles to fire engines, mobile cranes, beautiful vintage buses, trolleybuses and trams.
The Bedford, AEC and Bristol buses from the 40s, 50s and 60s are a delight, as is the Ipswich Corporation Trolleybus, dating to 1933. These big-hitting exhibits are accompanied by vintage signs, posters, timetables and models.
The museum is open on Sundays from April to November, and weekday afternoons during the school holidays.
11. Regent Theatre
Seating 1,551, the Regent Theatre is the largest performing arts venue in East Anglia.
This capacious venue was established in 1929 as a “cine-variety-hall”, screening movies and hosting revues.
Fans of classic pop and rock music may be excited to learn that the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Walker Brothers, Elvis Costello and Siouxsie and the Banshees all played this venue during its heyday as a concert hall in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
The Regent Theatre was rescued by Ipswich Borough Council in the early-90s and has a programme that will appeal to all tastes, booking famous comedians, touring musicals, classic pop musicians and classical concerts by the likes of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
12. Boat Trips
When the sun is out you could spend a restful and informative hour or two cruising on the River Orwell from Ipswich’s waterfront.
One boat, the Orwell Lady sets sail from Orwell Quay between Easter and October and has a bar selling snacks and soft drinks.
The hour-long cruise takes you out for four miles to the Freston Folly, a tower built in the 17th century, before returning to the quay.
On the trip you’ll pass below the Orwell Bridge, where you may catch a glimpse of peregrine falcons, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot seals during the trip.
Longer cruises are available, like a 3.5-hour round trip to the port of Harwich, the departure point of the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower in the early-17th century.
13. Ipswich Town F.C.
Ipswich is home to Suffolk’s only professional football club, currently playing in the Championship, the second tier of English football.
Ipswich Town’s ground is Portman Road, continuously occupied by the club since 1884, and entertaining opponents every ten days or so from August to May.
You can show up at the ticket office on match days, as Ipswich games rarely sell out.
Given Ipswich’s rural setting, Ipswich Town has the affectionate nickname the Tractor Boys.
The club’s glory days came under Bobby Robson in the early 1980s, when they lifted the UEFA Cup in 1981 and almost won old English First Division in 80-80 and 81-82. Ipswich Town’s major rival is Norwich City, and the pair contest the spiky East Anglian Derby when they’re in the same division.
Despite the quaint and humorous name, Old Farm Derby, it’s a fierce rivalry almost 120 years old.
14. The Giles Statue
On Giles Circus, at the corner of the Buttermarket and Queen Street there’s a quirky monument to one of Ipswich’s most treasured 20th-century residents.
The newspaper cartoonist Carl Giles worked in an office here at Clydesdale House, and a bronze statue of one of his most famous creations, “Grandma”, gazes up from the street to his former window.
“Grandma” was the matriarch of a family that appeared in Giles’ cartoons for more than five decades, and rests on a marble plinth with circular seating under a row of young plane trees.
15. Sutton Hoo
A ten-mile drive to the east, Sutton Hoo is the site of two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries from the 500s and 600s.
In 1939 one of these yielded England’s greatest Anglo-Saxon find, in the form of a ship burial, the chamber of which held silver from Byzantium, dress fittings in gold and gems, a sword, shield and, most iconic of all, a helmet with a face mask.
That helmet is on display at the British Museum, while at the National Trust site you can tour the rolling landscape of mounds and get the inside story at the visitor centre.
The exhibition here holds the contents of mound 17, including a bone comb, weapons and pieces from a gold harness.
There are insights about the excavation in the 1930s and Anglo-Saxon burial rites, while kids can try writing runes and dressing up as Anglo-Saxons.