All through Medieval times and the Early Modern Age, Norwich was the second largest city in England after London.
All through that time this city on the River Wensum prospered through the wool trade and a lucrative weaving industry, bolstered by immigrants from the Low Countries.
Then, because of its isolation in East Anglia, Norwich was mostly bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, allowing the city to keep its Tudor centre and multitude of Medieval churches.
Norwich is also the only English city set in a national park, the Norfolk Broads, and has two sublime Norman monuments, at Norwich Cathedral and Norwich Castle.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Norwich:
1. Norwich Cathedral
At 131 metres long and 54 metres wide, Norwich Cathedral was the largest building in East Anglia when it was first completed in 1145. One of many startling facts about this monument is that it was built with limestone shipped over from the Norman city of Caen.
The famous tower above the transept is from that initial Romanesque building, apart from the spire, which dates to the 15th century after the original was hit by lightning.
Outside, take time to look over the flying buttresses along the chancel, while there are all sorts of thrilling details to be found inside.
There are 61 carved misericords on the choir stalls, mainly from the 15th and 16th centuries, and a beautiful 14th-century retable in St Luke’s Chapel.
The cathedral has the second-largest cloisters in England, with vaults adorned with more than 1,000 whimsical bosses.
2. Norwich Castle Museum
The cube-like stone keep at Norwich Castle was built at the turn of the 12th century and has kept its Norman Romanesque blind arches.
One reason the building has made it to the 21st century in such good condition is that for most of the last 900 years it has been a gaol, a role it filled from 1220 until 1887. In 1894 the Norwich Museum was relocated here, where it remains.
You can pore over models of the building and city from different periods, find out about the castle using multimedia exhibits and take tours up to the battlements and down into the dungeons.
There are first-rate exhibitions of applied and fine art, and artefacts like pieces from the Iron Age Snettisham Hoard, the Anglo-Saxon Harford Farm Brooch, English watercolours, Egyptian antiquities, a collection of paintings by Flemish Baroque artist Peter Tillemans.
3. Elm Hill
Wending its way down from St Pete Hungate Church to Wensum Street, the serpentine Elm Hill is the prettiest and most famous street in Norwich.
For the uniform style of its cantilevered houses we can thank a fire that razed the whole of Elm Hill and a total of 700 buildings in Norwich in 1507. The Tudor merchant’s houses here now were built directly after, and feature galleries, cafes and shops selling antiques, collectibles and arts and crafts.
In fact, the only building standing after that fire was the Britons Arms, formerly an inn that has been a coffee house run by the same family since the 1950s.
Keep your camera at hand as there are small courtyards darting off the street, like Wrights Court, home to the Tea House and Wrights Court Coffee Shop.
4. Norwich Market
Trading from Monday to Saturday on the Gentleman’s Walk under the Art Deco City Hall, Norwich Market is up there with the UK’s biggest and oldest outdoor markets.
It was first set up at the end of the 11th century and has been trading in the same location ever since.
There are up to 200 stalls, and the diversity is amazing.
You can shop here for flowers, household items, fabrics, handicrafts and a lot more.
Food is of course the main attraction, if you need fresh produce there are stalls selling cheese, organic vegetables, herbs and spices, fish or Norfolk meat.
You may also be seduced by the scents coming from the street food stalls.
On the spot you can get traditional pies, fish and chips, churros, Indian cuisine, a hog roast, paninis, falafel, noodles and satay chicken.
5. The Forum
Indispensible to Norwich, the Forum is a modern community centre built in 2001 and open seven days a week.
It took the place of Norwich Library, which burnt down in 1944. On any given day there’s a lot happening inside the Forum or out front, whether it’s music and dance performances, art exhibitions, outdoor opera and theatre productions.
Inside is England’s most popular library, as well as a cafe, restaurant, Norwich’s tourist information centre and the East Anglian HQ for the BBC. Norwich’s citizens and tourists can come for courses in painting, handicrafts, bring children for activities in the summer holidays, browse food and handicraft markets, watch film screenings and visit the ice rink in winter.
6. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
An early project for the husband and wife team of Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman, the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts is a High-Tech museum and art gallery from 1978. The building is on the University of East Anglia campus and looks more like an air hangar than a traditional museum, with an immense hall, measuring 122m x 31m.
It’s all a venue for the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, donated to the university in 1973 and containing pieces by Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti.
There are also ethnographic objects from Asia, Oceania, Africa and North and South America, along with Greek and Roman antiquities and art from Medieval Europe.
Be sure to take a walk around the university campus, which has more sculptures by Henry Moore.
7. Plantation Garden
Walking distance from Norwich city centre is a fabulous Victorian garden set in the hollow of an old chalk quarry.
In just three acres there are formal flowerbeds, lawns, a splendid Italianate terrace, woodland paths and a Medieval-style wall.
The garden has lots of little flourishes that were in style in the middle of the 19th century, like a neo-Gothic fountain and faux ruins with gargoyles and a traceried Gothic window.
The garden had fallen into disrepair after the Second World War but was revived in 1980 and charges £2 for entry.
8. Strangers’ Hall
When Norwich was booming in the 14th century, this handsome half-timbered house was a residence for mayors and powerful merchants.
Strangers’ Hall is a Grade I listed building and a museum recording domestic life in different phases in Norwich’s past.
The house is great fun to explore for its labyrinth of passageways, and has a Medieval vaulted undercroft, bedchambers from the 17th century, an 18th-century Georgian dining room and a glorious little formal garden designed with lavender and topiaries.
Standouts are the lavish Great Hall, where residents would entertain guests and the 17th-century Walnut Room, clad with rich imported walnut panels and boasting two case clocks from the 1600s and 1700s.
9. Wensum River Walk
A super way to get to know Norwich is to take this walking route, which begins just outside the main train station.
One of the things that surprises newcomers is just how green and tranquil the banks of the Wensum are, even though you’re at the heart of the city.
The route takes in open green spaces, where you can look across cricket fields to Norwich’s magnificent cathedral.
There are also absorbing pieces of heritage on the way like Cow Tower, a 14th-century artillery defence, 15 metres high and right on a bend in the river.
The path later cuts in towards the cathedral, leading to Tombland, the site of Norwich’s Anglo-Saxon market, and then the delightful St Ethelbert’s gate, raised in the late-13th century as penance for a riot between citizens and monks in 1274.
10. Pulls Ferry
On your trip along the Wensum, the most picturesque scene you’ll witness is this 15th-century watergate on the opposite bank of the river.
A Medieval canal, built by monks, once passed under Pulls Ferry’s Tudor arch.
This was how the building material was transported for Norwich Cathedral, and it travelled all the way from Caen in Normandy.
The structure is named after the 19th-century ferryman John Pull, while the house attached to the gate dates to 1647.
11. Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell
At a 14th-century merchant’s house in the middle of the Norwich Lanes, this museum tells the story of business and industry in the city over hundreds of years.
You’ll dip into the Medieval wool trade, which created a boom in the 13th century, and see some other Norwich signatures like shoes, chocolate and mustard.
The galleries are all loaded with authentic artefacts and kids will be able to participate, dressing up and playing with interactive screens.
There are exhibitions charting Norwich in the World Wars, Norwich’s largest vaulted undercroft below street level and a working 19th-century Jacquard loom, the last of the thousands that used to whirr day and night in the city.
12. Blickling Estate
A day out not to be missed, Blickling Estate is centred on a Jacobean mansion built over the house where Anne Boleyn was born in 1507. The current Blickling Hall is from the beginning of the 17th century and shines for its gables, elegant towers, mullioned windows and turreted chimneypots.
The estate spreads out over 4,777 acres, 450 of which are parkland.
The formal gardens were plotted by the feted 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton, although partly remodelled later.
There are topiaries, exotic trees, Grade II listed Victorian ornaments, 18th-century yew hedges and a kitchen garden.
The hall is replete with paintings, tapestries, plasterwork, antique furniture and carved wooden panels.
But best of all, it has a library with one of England’s most important collections of manuscripts and books.
The 10th-century Blickling Homilies for instance is one of Medieval England’s oldest surviving collections of sermons.
13. City of Norwich Aviation Museum
At the northern end of Norwich International Airport is a museum mainly for jet propelled fighters and bombers from the second half of the 20th century.
Most of the planes are British made, and include a Hawker Siddeley Harrier, a SEPECAT Jaguar, an enormous Avro Vulcan B.2, an English Electric Lightning, two Gloster Meteors and two Hawker Hunters.
There’s also a French Dassault Mystère IV, a Westland Whirlwind helicopter and a Dutch Fokker F27 Friendship.
In summer the museum is open every day of the week except Mondays and is run completely by volunteers.
Interior exhibitions hark back to the Second World War when the American Eight Air Force was based at RAF Horsham St Faith, which later became Norwich Airport.
14. Norfolk Broads
Norwich is inside the boundaries of the Broads National Park, a landscape of more than 200 kilometres of lakes and rivers like nowhere else in the UK. The “Broads”, navigable lakes, were long thought to be naturally formed, until it was discovered in the 1960s that these bodies of water were man-made.
They’re the remnants of low-lying Medieval pits, excavated for peat, which was sold as fuel.
These were later flooded when sea levels rose to form lakes and water channels.
From Norwich you could drive eight miles to Wroxham, which has a few boat hire companies renting out small craft by the hour.
And from there you’re free to journey through this world of meandering waterways, gazing at the open skies, passing old mills and calling in at friendly rural pubs for a meal or pint.
Active fun for families with younger kids, Bewilderwood is a treetop adventure park themed on the series of children’s books by Tom Blofeld.
The park has a sky maze, zip lines and rope bridges, while on ground level you can take walks and a boat trip on the Bure Marshes.
Bewilderwood is open spring, summer and autumn, and enthralling for children under five, with zones like “Toddlewood Vallley” and “Toddlewood-on-the-Hill” and friendly creatures like Boggles and Twiggles.
Little ones can wear fancy dress, take part in craft activities, build dens with sticks and have fun in the playground where the swings and slides are wide enough to take three children at once.