A youthful city with two universities, Nottingham is known around the world for the Robin Hood legend.
In 2015 it was named a City of Literature, and giants of the English language, Lord Byron and D. H. Lawrence lived or grew up in the city in the 19th century.
The big-hitting monument in the city is Wollaton Hall, a stupendous 16th-century Elizabethan house, while Nottingham Castle, the source of the Robin Hood tales, is atop a sandstone ridge burrowed with caves.
For centuries Nottingham was associated with its lace-making and bicycle trades, and you can uncover this past at the Industrial Museum, also at Wollaton Hall.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Nottingham:
1. Wollaton Hall
This marvellous Tudor house created a big stir when it was built in the 1580s.
Commissioned by Sir Francis Willoughby, Wollaton Hall was a “prodigy house” in a bold Elizabethan/Jacobean style, influencing English architecture for the decades that followed.
The house is composed of Ancaster stone, limestone quarried in Lincolnshire, and its exterior carved with exuberant strapwork and ornamentation.
The house is on a natural rise not far west of Nottingham and is wrapped in 500 acres of parkland, roamed by deer and with an Industrial Museum in the stables and outbuildings.
The house’s interior has been updated a few times since the 16th century, but the three-storey hall has beautiful mouldings preserved in their Elizabethan style.
Inside you can peruse the Nottingham Natural History Museum, first opened in 1926.
2. The Arboretum
Close to the Nottingham Trent University campus, The Arboretum is the oldest park in the city, opened in 1852. The eminent Victorian botanist Samuel Curtis oversaw the Arboretum’s design , and some of the 800 trees growing here now go back to the year the park was established.
The Arboretum has Grade II status, while the bandstand and Circular Aviary are also listed monuments.
In summer you can breeze around the flowerbeds and pause for a moment next to the ornamental lake.
The Arboretum is also the scene of Nottinghamshire Pride, which brings stalls and entertainment to the park at the end of July.
3. National Justice Museum
Newly refurbished and rebranded, the National Justice Museum is set in a former courthouse dating back to the 14th century.
Down the years the courtroom and gaol were enlarged, and the most recent changes were made in the 1870s following a fire.
Nottingham Civil and Criminal Court was located here until the 1980s, while there was a police station that closed at the same time.
The museum is a sharply presented interactive attraction, with characters like judges and jailers dressed up in period costume and telling you about their jobs.
You can visit the underground jail and old gallows, get locked into the stocks and pick up snippets about crime and justice in Nottingham.
One exhibit to look out for is the dock from London’s Bow Street Magistrates Court, which closed in 2004.
4. Nottingham Castle
Once spoken of in the same terms as the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, Nottingham Castle looks over the city from its high sandstone crag known as Castle Rock.
As with many strongholds in England the castle was torn down in the wake of the English Civil War to prevent it being re-used.
Afterwards Henry Cavendish, the 2nd Duke of Newcastle, built the Baroque Ducal Mansion on the remains and in 1878 the Nottingham Castle Museum opened in this building.
In the collection are pieces of Wedgwood jasperware pottery, watercolours by Paul Sandby and Richard Bonnington and Nottingham alabaster carvings going back to the 15th century.
In the Long Gallery there’s an exhibition of 19th and 20th-century fine art British by the likes of Henry Dawson, Rochard Bonnington, Tristram Hillier and Stanley Spencer.
5. Old Market Square
Nottingham has the largest remaining market square in the UK, almost 5.5 acres in size and still a congregating point for the city.
Given its integral role the square is at the very centre of Nottingham, and has one of the city’s main landmarks on its eastern boundary.
The neo-Baroque Council House dates to 1929 and has a striking 61-metre dome above its portico.
In the Middle Ages, the Old Market Square was the midway point between the Norman settlement of Nottingham, and the older Anglo-Saxon town around the Lace Market area where you’ll find St Mary’s Church, which we’ll talk about below.
The square is where everybody gathers on New Years’ Eve, and has a German-style “Weihnachtsmarkt” and fair in December.
6. City of Caves
Nottingham is built on a soft sandstone ridge that has been hollowed out with caves for hundreds of years.
Before the city was founded, the Celtic name for Nottingham translated to “Place of Caves”, and at the top level of the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre you can embark on an underground journey through more than a thousand years of history.
You’ll step into England’s only known underground tannery, first cut in the 13th century and then used for tanning from the start of the 16th century.
The Drury Hill slums are also down here, dating back to Victorian times and once one of the most deprived quarters in the UK. Later, the system was used as an air raid shelter during the Nottingham Blitz in May 1941, and you’ll hear accounts of the attack.
7. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem
Built into the castle’s sandstone crag, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is a pub believed to have been founded in 1189. This would make it the oldest public house in England, but unfortunately there’s no documentation to back up the claim.
What can’t be denied is that the pub is exceptionally old and has a character all of its own for its passages and caves cut from the sandstone.
Hidden in these cellars is a pit used for cockfighting, along with cells that are claimed to have belonged to the castle gaol.
The pub’s unusual name comes from the notion that Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) and his men stopped here on their way to Third Crusade.
8. Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery
In 2009, the city opened one of Britain’s largest contemporary art centres.
This is set in the Lave Market area, and there’s a small homage to Nottingham’s lace-making heritage in the traditional lace pattern on the facade.
The gallery is free to enter and puts on up to five contemporary art exhibitions each year.
When this post was written there was a retrospective for the British photomontage and graphic artist Linder Sterling, and over the past decade there have been shows for established or upcoming talent like Lara Favaretto, Marguerite Humeau, David Hockney and Frances Stark.
Every weekend the gallery puts on free family workshops, and also organises film screenings, “spot talks” by gallery attendants, discussion groups and courses in skills like printmaking.
9. Highfields Park
Just south of the campus for the University of Nottingham, Highfields Park is a 121-acre green space that has just been spruced up in 2018. Up to 1920 this all belonged to the Highfields Estate, but was bought for the university in 1920 by the founder of the famous English high street chain, Boots.
The loveliest part of the Highfields is the esplanade beside the boating lake, with a balustrade and view across to the university’s Trent Building.
Just here are two stone lions that were presented to the university by city of Ninbo, China.
Just behind is a flower garden, covered with pergolas and planted with azaleas.
The lake itself has an island that you can reach along stepping stones.
The park is also in the Tottle Brook valley, at the foot of a sandstone outcrop riddled with little caves.
10. D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum
Nottinghamshire and its turn-of-the-century mining communities will forever be associated with the writer D. H. Lawrence.
You can see the house where he was born in 1885, in the former mining town of Eastwood.
This humble dwelling has been returned to how it looked in the 1880s, and has contemporary furniture along with a few possessions belonging to the Lawrence family.
The house also paints a picture of family life in a mining community as you tour the kitchen, communal yard, parents’ bedroom, children’s bedroom, washhouse, kitchen, and attic.
Younger visitors will be kept entertained with a children’s trail and Victorian-style toys.
11. Green’s Windmill
The father of George Green, one of 19th-century England’s most noted mathematical physicists, built this windmill in Nottingham’s Sneinton suburb in 1807. After the elder Green passed away, George Green was in charge of the mill until he died in 1841. The mill was almost lost to a fire in 1947 but was restored to working condition by Nottingham City Council in the 1980s and from some distance around Nottingham you can see its huge white sails turning.
Families come down Wednesday to Sunday to check out the functioning grinding mechanism and hoists, and to visit the hands-on science centre in honour of George Green, shining a light on magnetism, electricity and the visible spectrum.
12. St Mary’s Church
There has been a church at this plot in the Lace Market area since Saxon times.
Today’s Grade I listed building was constructed across the 14th and 15th centuries and is the largest medieval monument in Nottingham.
In the Perpendicular Gothic style, the oldest section of the church is the south wall of the nave, going back to 1370. From around this time is the oldest door in Nottingham, leading to the former chantry room (now a toilet for wheelchair users). The door has its original 14th-century locking mechanism and has survived for so long because the room has rarely been used.
The stained glass windows were produced by some of Victorian England’s leading glassmakers, while the imposing bronze doors on the south porch are from 1904 and depict the Life of Our Lord in the tympanum and on the doors’ 20 panels.
13. Nottingham Industrial Museum
On weekends you can catch up on Nottingham’s long industrial history at this museum in the stables at Wollaton Hall.
There are pieces from the local textile trade, which has been around since the invention of the stocking frame, producing stocking hoses from the end of the 16th century.
You can view a handful of these machines, as well as a bobbinet, knitting machine from 1910, and Leavers and Barmen lace-making machines from Nottingham’s once thriving lace industry.
Nottingham is also synonymous with Raleigh bicycles and there’s a range of models, as well as the personal bicycle owned by Thomas Humber, the inventor of the early alternative to high wheel bikes, the “safety bicycle”. The Steam Gallery has series of pumps and ploughing engines from the 19th century, while there’s a large wooden horse gin from a colliery in Pinxton outside.
14. Stonebridge City Farm
Close to the centre of the city in Nottingham’s St Anns area is a place where youngsters can come into contact with domestic animals like rare breed pigs, cows, sheep, goats, ducks, donkeys and Shetland ponies.
This space was a former slum, cleared in the middle of the 20th century to make way for school that was never built.
The attraction has animal handling sessions when children can pet and handle smaller creatures like guinea pigs and rabbits, while you can also buy animal feed from the shop for the larger animals.
The farm’s cafe has home-baked cakes, while the Trading Post sells produce like fruit, herbs and eggs fresh from the farm.
15. Newstead Abbey
If you need some inspiration for a day out, the ancestral home of the poet Lord Byron is 10 miles north of Nottingham.
The 12th-century Augustinian abbey was dissolved during the Reformation in the 16th century and turned into a country house right after.
The estate was inherited by Lord Byron at the end of the 18th century and he would live here on and off before selling it on in 1818. The Gothic facade of the abbey church is adjoined to the Tudor-style house which has been preserved as it was in the 19th century, showing off the poet’s private apartments and a variety of memorabilia.
Outside there are 300 acres, with Gothic Revival follies, lakes, waterfalls, peacocks, rhododendrons and exotic trees like maples.