Kent’s historic trading centre had a handy position on the navigable River Medway, which joins the Thames Estuary not far north at Chatham.
Even now, Maidstone is in a great location to see the best of Kent, known as the Garden of England.
Resting in this verdant landscape are monuments like Leeds Castle, which floats on two lake islands, and Stoneacre, a half-timbered 15th-century farmhouse.
Maidstone has one of the best town museums anywhere, set in a Tudor mansion and rich with ceramics, tapestries, Japanese finery and Anglo-Saxon artefacts.
Mote Park is a generous sweep of greenery bang in the middle of Maidstone, while Kent Life is an open-air introduction to the county’s old-time trades like hop farming.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Maidstone:
1. Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery
An exciting jumble with a first-rate setting, the Maidstone Museum is in the former Chillington Manor, an Elizabethan house completed in 1577. There’s older and newer architecture here, from earlier in the Tudor period and a large western extension from the start of the 18th century.
The house belonged to one Thomas Charles, kick-started the museum when he donated his art and antiquities in the 19th century.
The Maidstone Museum has the strongest mixed collections in Kent, winning acclaim for its ethnography, decorative art, Anglo-Saxon artefacts and Japanese art.
There are 750 Edo-period woodblock prints by the likes of Hokusai, sculptures by John Thomas (famed for his work at the Palace of Westminster), a chair that belonged to Napoleon, a 2,700-year-old Egyptian Mummy and nationally important palaeontology collections.
2. Leeds Castle
Stranded on two islands, Leeds Castle is like something from a fantasy movie.
As we see it today, the building is a stately home with a Romantic Tudor Revival style from 1823, incorporating older elements like a Medieval keep and great hall.
In the 16th century Henry VIII reconstructed the castle as a home for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
She is one of six queens to have lived at Leeds Castle, while Elizabeth I was imprisoned here for a time before her coronation.
In the 17th century it was passed to the Fairfax Family, descended from Thomas Fairfax, the Parliamentary commander-in-chief in the English Civil War.
You can see the doublet worn by Fairfax at the Battle of Maidstone in 1648, as well as cuirassier armour from the conflict.
The castle has 500 acres of grounds, including a vineyard first recorded in the 11th-century Domesday Book and a maze concealing a secret grotto.
3. Mote Park
Up there with England’s most prized urban parks, the Green Flag-winning Mote Park is 440 acres of woodland and lawns around a lake, right next-door to the town centre.
From Medieval times this space was a manor with a deer park, and the lakeside mansion, Mote House, is now used as a retirement home.
For visitors there’s acres of woodland and meadows to walk in, while the lake has a watersports centre, renting out dinghies, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards in summer.
For activities on land there’s pitch and putt, a miniature railway, a leisure centre, an open-air gym, while you can bring a picnic and watch Mote Cricket Club playing in summer.
A National Trust property just on the other side of Mote Park, Stoneacre is a fairytale 15th-century yeoman farmer’s house.
This half-timbered building is a private home, but you can go in on Saturdays during spring and summer.
Most of the original house is still standing and you’ll get to admire the hall and parlour, heading up to the solar on the first floor.
Stoneacre is replete with 17th-century decorative metalwork, glass, soft furnishing and furniture.
In the 1920s it was home to Aymer Vallance who was involved in the Arts and Crafts movement and designed the stained glass that adorns most rooms.
5. Cobtree Manor Park
This 50-acre park is the site of the old Maidstone Zoo, which was once Kent’s top visitor attraction and shut down in 1959. The visitor centre tells the story of the zoo and its owner, the twelve-time Mayor of Maidstone Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake.
As a nod to the former occupant the fantastic children’s play area is designed like a zoo, and you can amble along the sculpture trail, stop for a meal or light refreshment at the cafe or take a picnic in the park’s verdant meadows.
Right alongside the park is the public pay & play golf course of the same name, with 18 holes, while if you’re a hiker you can get onto the North Downs Way National Trail from the park.
6. Kent Life
Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake bequeathed Cobtree Manor Park to the town when he passed away in the 1960s, and included in the estate was Sandling Farm, just to the south.
In the 1980s the farm became an open-air museum showcasing Kentish rural life and its hop, fruit and livestock agriculture.
A variety of threatened building have been relocated to the farm, like a village hall, a chapel, blacksmith’s forge, weatherboard farmhouse and hopper huts.
One of the original farm buildings has a traditional Kentish oast, a rotating contraption in roofs for drying hops.
Kent Life is also a working farm and has goats, horses, sheep, cows and many more animals for children to see, while the historic buildings house exhibitions on periods from Kentish life like Victorian times, the Second World War and the 1950s.
7. All Saints Church
Begun at the end of the 14th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury William Courtenay, All Saints Church is Maidstone’s parish church and is regarded as the best piece of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in the county.
Courtenay died early in the construction and his successor Thomas Arundel oversaw the remainder of the work.
Take a look around to admire the bays and clerestory in the nave, and the east and west windows.
The choir stalls have Medieval misericords (fold-down seats) with typically bizarre carvings, while you should also be sure to see the 17th-century font and the 15th-century memorial in the chapel on the south side of the nave.
8. Teston Bridge Country Park
You can escape to the pastoral Kent countryside, heading west to this 32-acre country park next to the Medway.
The park is named for the fine 14th-century Teston Bridge, made from Kentish ragstone and is set not far from Teston Lock, dating back to the 1740s and last rebuilt in 1911. People come to fish at Teston Bridge, as this part of the river has big stocks of bream, pike, roach, barbel, perch, roach and chubb.
The environment is mostly riverside meadow, which is grazed by cattle and brilliant with wildflowers in June.
9. Whatman Park
Half an hour from the town centre, Whatman Park is on the west bank of the River Medway and was landscaped and planted with more than 1,500 trees some 20 years ago as part of the broader Millennium River Park.
Over 18 acres you can saunter through woodland and wildflower meadows and climb the tree-top walk, while younger family members can make the most of the skate park and adventure play area.
Whatman Park has a wharf, and the Kentish Lady, which we’ll talk about below, makes stops by request.
The Rivertstage Arena is used for outdoor events like the Proms in the Park, a day of concerts at the end of May.
10. Go Ape at Leeds Castle
The parkland around Leeds Castle has a high ropes adventure course suspended above the forest floor.
For families with children up to the age of 10 there’s “Tree Top Junior”, which has a log bridge, stepping stones and two 60-metre zip wires.
Older kids and grownups can take on the main “Tree Top Adventure” course, which is lifted to a maximum 13 metres and has a Tibetan bridge, jungle crossing, Tarzan swing and an epic 250-metre zip-line.
That course has awe-inspiring views of the castle and will require up to three hours to complete.
11. Kent Owl Academy
A new arrival at Kent Life, the Kent Owl Academy offers owl experience days for people of all ages.
You’ll get to handle, touch and feed these wonderful birds of prey, and pick up all sorts of interesting information about their individual personalities, hunting habits and diet from the attraction’s keepers.
The barn owl here will fly from your hand, and you’ll also get to meet and feed the academy’s tawny frogmouth and family or meerkats.
The academy caters to children and people with learning difficulties.
12. Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats
Operated by the UK’s only goat charity, Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats looks after more than 100 goats of all breeds and sizes.
The sanctuary takes in goats from across Greater London and the Home Counties, and many are brought by the RSPCA or even the police.
Here they are given proper enclosures and shelter and a healthy diet, in a beautiful setting in ancient parkland.
The sanctuary opens every Sunday, and you can buy animal feed to befriend these creatures.
On Saturdays you can take part in a “Walking with Goats” experience while the sanctuary also provides “Goat Keeper for the Morning”, when you’ll get a crash course in animal husbandry.
13. Water Activities
In warm weather the River Medway, navigable and fitted with historic locks, is primed for some adventure on the water.
Companies like Elvey’s Canoes and River Medway Canoes hire out canoes, kayaks and safety gear for self-guided journeys along this waterway, between Penshurst near Tonbridge and Allington, on the northwestern outskirts of Maidstone.
River Medway Canoes also organised one-day trips between Tonbridge Castle and Yalding, and from Yalding to Allington, in the company of a British Canoe Union instructor as you navigate some of the prettiest countryside in Kent.
14. River Trips (Kentish Lady)
A more relaxing way to appreciate the scenery is on the Kentish Lady, Maidstone’s own tour boat which departs for round-trips to Allington Lock on summer weekends.
On the hour-long tour there’s guided commentary, filling you in on the story or riverside sights like Allington Castle, where Henry VIII would meet with Anne Boleyn, the oldest pub in Maidstone (1636) and the 15th-century Corpus Christi Hall.
The company also provides three-hour trips on summer weekdays, heading upriver into rural Kent, sighting birds like kingfishers and herons, and providing lunch on board.
15. Kent Garden Show
Taking place immediately after the Chelsea Flower Show, at the end of May, the Kent Garden Show is a major event, with more than 300 exhibitors.
Here at the Kent County Showground you’ll get to see some of the medal winners from the Chelsea Flower Show at the floral marquees, and to go with this are rides for kids, a craft pavilion, food hall and brass band.
The trade exhibition is enormous with over 60 nurseries in attendance and dozens of companies displaying and selling gardening-related products like tools, sheds, ornaments, water features and sculptures.