Steeped in history, the city of Lancaster has royal ties stretching back to the House of Lancaster in Medieval times.
Under the title of Duke of Lancaster, Queen Elizabeth II still has large holdings in this picturesque patch of Northwest England.
Lancaster has a sophisticated character that comes partly from the local pale sandstone used for almost every monument, from the imperious castle to the Custom House on the city’s former docks.
The city was once a busy port on the River Lune, and as a holdover from that period, Lancaster has a high reputation for its coffee.
Almost 180 years old, the coffee roaster, J. Atkinson & Co supplies many of the restaurants and cafes in the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lancaster:
1. Lancaster Castle
This rise overlooking Lancaster and the River Lune has been fortified since the Romans, and today’s castle sprang from the Norman Conquest.
A lot of the surviving architecture, including the formidable gatehouse, is from a 15th-century reinforcement.
The reason so much of Lancaster Castle has made it to the 21st century is that this was Europe’s longest functioning prison until it closed in 2011. The courtrooms, still in use, have been the scene of some infamous trials.
The Pendle Witches, nine women and two men, were tried here in 1612, and all but one were sentenced to death by hanging.
This is just one of many stories waiting to be uncovered, while you can view a display of heraldry in the Shire Hall, learn about deportations to Australia in the 19th century and step inside an 18th-century prison cell.
2. Williamson Park
The industrialist and MP Lord Ashton gifted this park to the city at the turn of the 20th century.
Williamson Park was extended into the neighbouring Fenham Carr in 1999 and today totals almost 54 acres.
Towering over the lawns and woodland is the Ashton Memorial, which we’ll talk about next.
Kids will have a fine time visiting the Mini Zoo, which has meerkats and marmosets, and the Butterfly House in the humid environment of the elegant Edwardian palm house.
There you can watch butterflies emerging from their chrysalides, and check out the house’s koi carp, tortoises, chameleon and quail.
The graceful Edwardian pavilion houses the park’s cafe, which sources its coffee from Atkinsons of Lancaster.
3. Ashton Memorial
This spectacular neo-Baroque folly in Williamson Park can be seen for miles and deserves an extra entry.
In the 1900s Lord Ashton had this 50-metre high monument constructed in memory of his second wife, Jessy.
The Ashton Memorial was designed by John Belcher, who contributed an array of Historicist buildings to London’s cityscape in his career.
Made from white Portland limestone, the folly is topped with a copper-clad dome resembling the works of Sir Christopher Wren.
Leading up to this structure is a balustraded double stairway made from hard-wearing granite.
The Ashton Memorial hosts temporary exhibitions on its upper floor, and is hired out for concerts and weddings.
4. Lancaster Priory Church
As we see it now, this stunning Perpendicular Gothic church dates to the 14th and 15th century, when it belonged to a Benedictine priory that had been founded in 1094. Keen antiquarians won’t want to miss the choir, which has England’s third-oldest stalls, fashioned around 1340. These are made from oak and have folding seats (misericords), many of which have peculiar carvings of mythological creatures, human busts and everyday scenes.
There’s a glorious pulpit, produced in 1619 and with a canopy capped with crown on a bible, while the three brass chandeliers have been hanging since 1717.
5. Lancaster City Museum
The City Museum has been housed in the former Town Hall on Market Square since 1923. This regal sandstone ashlar building, fronted by a pediment and Tuscan portico, went up in the early 1780s.
The museum will give you a crash course in Lancaster’s history, with the help of some sensational artefacts.
One is the Lancaster Roman Tombstone, carved around 100 AD and unearthed during a routine excavation in 2005. This shows a Roman soldier on horseback over a decapitated enemy.
The building also houses the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum, tracing the regiment back to its foundation in 1680 and documenting the battles in fought in, with regalia, photos and weapons.
6. Lancaster Maritime Museum
Some way from Morecambe Bay, Lancaster may not seem like an appropriate place for a maritime museum, but the city actually has a long history of shipping.
St George’s Quay was among the busiest ports in the country in the 19th century, until the River Lune started to silt up.
Flanked by old warehouses, the museum is in the striking Neoclassical Custom House, dating from 1764 and in use until 1882. The museum has models of ships and small traditional fishing vessels, and delves into the history of the regional ports of Morecambe, Sunderland Point, Heysham and Glasson.
You can learn about the traditional ways of life on the vast Morecambe Bay and confront a grim chapter of Lancaster’s history when it was a hub for the slave trade.
7. Lancaster Cathedral
A ceremonious Gothic Revival monument from the middle of the 19th century, this church was upgraded to cathedral status in 1925. Lancaster Cathedral is built from the same light sandstone as the rest of the city and improvements continued over the next 60 years.
In 1909 the prolific restorer Giles Gilbert Scott re-floored the nave, added black and white tiles in the chancel, replaced the altar and installed the current oak pews.
When you’re in Lancaster it’s a good idea to consult the cathedral’s website to see if there are any concerts.
These can range from piano and organ recitals to contemporary and early choral music.
8. Judges’ Lodgings
This solemn townhouse is the oldest residence in the city, even if it has an 18th-century Georgian facade.
Behind this the building has material dating back to Tudor times, like the fireplace in the entrance hall, which was installed in the 1550s.
For roughly 150 years until 1975 the house was in the hands of the County Magistrates, and used as accommodation for visiting judges.
The house is has period interiors, decorated with 18th and 19th-century furniture by the eminent Gillows of Lancaster and London.
One of the finest pieces is a Regency-period billiards table.
You can also peruse a collection of antique toys and dolls and art by the Lancastrian George Romney and Armand Guillaumin, a close friend of van Gogh.
9. Forest of Bowland
While the Lake District is world-famous for its natural beauty, there’s another less heralded scenic region on Lancaster’s east shoulder.
The Forest of Bowland, despite the name, is mostly treeless peat moorland, with dominant gritstone fells reaching heights of more than 500 metres.
The Forest of Bowland is at its most romantic in the Trough of Bowland, which lies within Lancaster’s city limits.
This is a valley and high pass, laced with fast-flowing streams, all adored by walkers and cyclists, but also with winding drives if you prefer the comfort of your car.
The Trough is very sparsely populated, and settlements are limited to isolated villages where you can stop for tea or pub lunches.
10. Lancaster Canal
This waterway was begun in 1892 and built over the first decades of the 19th century.
It was intended to serve a big swathe of Northwest England, from Westhoughton near Bolton to Kendal, 70 miles north.
The canal was never finished, and was superseded in the mid-19th century by railways.
The longest section still navigable links Preston with Carnforth, seven miles north of Lancaster.
A walk on the towpath to Carnforth will bring you past abiding pieces of industrial history, like the impressive Lune Aqueduct, completed in 1797. The walk is mostly flat, through meadows, woods and farmland.
Carnforth is only 10 minutes on the train from Lancaster, so the return journey is a cinch.
11. Dukes Theatre
The only producing theatre in Lancaster, the Dukes opened in 1971, staging six productions a year at this charming venue in the former Parish Church of St Anne.
The building dates from 1796 and has three auditoriums, the largest seating more than 300, along with a studio theatre “The Round” and “DT3”, a performance space for young people.
As well as its own plays, the Dukes also screens movies in its main auditorium.
These tend to be contemporary independent films and classics, from Miyazaki to Kubrick.
12. The Storey
This grand Jacobean Revival building down the slope from the castle was built by the local philanthropist Thomas Storey in 1898. His vision was to help the people of the city further themselves with vocational education.
Nowadays the Storey houses creative businesses, but is also a cultural centre, hosting exhibitions and putting on talks, workshops, theatre performances, live music and movies.
Lancaster’s visitor information centre is also at the Storey, and the Printroom is a casual eatery, brewing coffee with beans from Lancaster’s Atkinsons Coffee Roasters.
13. Lancaster Brewery
Beer connoisseurs won’t want to miss this award-winning brewery in the southeast of the city.
The Lancaster Brewery has a brewhouse and tap, open in the afternoon, pouring five of its beers and with outdoor seating in its garden.
For a deeper insight you can join a guided tour of the brewery and get a step-by-step introduction to beer-making, from mashing to boiling, maturation, cellaration and bottling.
There are samples at the bar to finish up, while if you join a Red or Blonde tour you’ll also get a hot pie hand-made locally.
14. Cottage Museum
A stone’s throw from Lancaster Castle and the Judges’ Lodgings is a cosy 18th-century cottage that has been opened up as a museum.
The building dates to 1739, and in 1820 was divided into smaller units and overhauled as an artisan’s dwelling.
Although you wouldn’t know from the outside, the cottage has five storeys, and looks exactly as it would have done in the early Victorian period on the mid-19th century, with humble furniture, washbasins, humble furniture, chamberpots and household implements like clothes wringers.
You can meet and chat with the Victorian housekeeper and view a display of historic documents like indentures (contract between a master and apprentice).
15. Way of the Roses
Lancaster is intersected by this 170-mile signposted cycling route, weaving across the North of England from Morecambe Bay to the North Sea.
The name comes from the 15th-century War of the Roses, between the Houses of York and Lancaster, rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet vying for the English crown.
The trail is suitable for younger and infrequent riders as it uses specially laid paths, former railway lines and quiet country lanes.
If you want to make a day of it you could ride through the rambling moorland to Clapham on the northeastern cusp of the Forest of Bowland.
This will take around three hours each way, requiring a climb on the way there and a light descent on the way back.