In Cumbria’s Eden Valley, Penrith is a little way from the northeastern edge of the Lake District.
The location gives you the raw upland beauty of the National Park, but also the noble estates and castles in the lower-lying rural landscape to the west.
Ullswater, arguably the prettiest natural sight in England, is minutes away in the car, and promises fell walks, cruises in historic steamers, and also Aira Force, the waterfall that inspired Wordsworth to write his most famous poem, Daffodils.
Penrith was on the hotly disputed border with Scotland in Medieval times, and has two Medieval castles with royal connections.
On days out you can investigate splendid Palladian country houses and one of the largest Neolithic stone circles in the country.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Penrith:
1. Brougham Castle
In a very romantic spot on meadows by the River Eamont are the well-preserved ruins of Brougham Castle.
The castle was abandoned some 300 years ago, and became a picturesque ruin, explored by a young Wordsworth and sketched by J. M.W. Turner.
With striking buildings like the Tower of League, the keep and the double gatehouse surviving, Brougham Castle is still great fun to investigate for its tangle of passages and spiral stairways.
You’ll be treading the same ground as Edward I, since the castle was a key military base for Robert de Clifford, the 1st Lord Warden of the Marches during the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Edward stayed here in 1300, while the castle was taken and sacked by the Scots in 1388.
2. Penrith Castle
On the west side of the town, Penrith’s Grade I-listed castle suffered a similar fate to many Medieval strongholds in England when it was pulled down in the 17th century after the Civil War.
The castle went up in the 14th century to protect this region from Scottish attacks, and later became a grand fortified house.
Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, (the future Richard III) lived here for a time before he became king.
The ruins are in a public park, with extensive walls that still reach their original height, accessed via a footbridge across the moat.
What’s usual is that you can make out a few window openings, as well as the corbelling along the eastern front.
A glacial ribbon lake, Ullswater is seen by many as the most beautiful lake in England.
This has a lot to do with its elongated zigzagging shape, and the dominating landforms on its shores, like Place Fell and Hallin Fell.
Ullswater’s mesmerising natural beauty has attracted sightseers since the 18th century, and the lake was a go-to for aristocratic holidaymakers well into the 20th century.
Travelling from Penrith your first stop will be Pooley Bridge, and there you can hop on one of the steamers that navigate the lake all year round.
Boat trips have been offered at Ullswater since 1855 and the oldest boat in this fleet, the Lady of the Lake, was launched in 1877. The steamers are the best way to see Ullswater, and call in at Glenridding, Howtown and Aira Force.
Ten minutes on foot from Pooley Bridge, Waterfoot Park offers a choice of water activities on Ullswater, like canoeing, paddleboarding and sailing.
4. Aira Force
The most prized of the Lake District’s waterfalls, the 21-metre Aira Force is in a National Trust park on the west side of Ullswater.
Wordsworth referenced Aira Force in several poems, and it is thought that he was inspired to write Daffodils after a visit in 1802. The environment at Aira Beck isn’t wholly natural as it was landscaped by the Howard family in the 19th century.
They planted an arboretum in the gorge, with 200 cedars, spruces, pines and firs, among which is a majestic Sitka spruce now standing more than 35 metres high.
The result is almost magical, and you can appreciate the power of the Aira Force from two stone bridges, one at the top and one at the foot.
5. Hallin Fell
On Ullswater’s opposite shore you can’t miss the commanding mass of the 388-metre Hallin Fell, which is surrounded by the lake on three sides.
You don’t have to be a mountaineer to tackle this peak, as the path to the top is deceptively light, and can be done in about half an hour.
You can park up at the parish church of St Peter near the southern foot, and on the way you’ll be able to look back at the spectacular Martindale fells.
At the summit the views take in a massive swathe of the eastern Lake District, encompassing the High Street, Blencathra, Helvellyn peaks, and of course Ullswater.
Penrith has been designated Cumbria’s first cycling hub, and this is partly because the town is right on the Sea to Sea Cycle Route (C2C). Combining sections of shorter courses, this route extends 140 miles across the Lake District and North Pennines, between Workington or Whitehaven in Cumbria, and Sunderland or Tynemouth on the North Sea Coast.
Almost half of the trail is on off-road tracks along disused railways and traffic-free cycle paths.
There are cycle storage lockers outside the tourist information centre, as well as a few companies locally, like Inspiring Cycle, hiring out mountain, road and e-bikes.
The Eden Valley tourist board also has a leaflet for five “do-in-a-day” circular rides, between 15 and 31 miles.
7. Lowther Castle & Gardens
The Lowther family lived at this mansion for centuries until they had to leave for financial reasons after the Second World War.
At that time the roof was removed, the gardens became overgrown and the Gothic Revival property began to disintegrate until a conservation plan was put in place at the start of the 2000s.
The castle is now a visitor attraction, and you can come to view the Gothic arches, ornamental crenellations, towers, vaulted galleries and pinnacles.
These were designed by architect Robert Smirke, then aged just 25, at the start of the 19th century, and Lowther Castle was his first major commission.
The grounds have stately avenues, terraces and stone urns, as well as a new playground: The Lost Castle is the largest wooden playground in the country, made up of 11 miles of sustainably sourced timber.
8. Long Meg and Her Daughters
An easy excursion across the Eden Valley, this Neolithic stone circle is the second largest in the UK, measuring more than 100 metres across.
There are 59 stones here, 27 of which are upright, and the largest of these is the sandstone monolith Long Meg.
This is etched with megalithic art in the form of rings, spirals and ovoids.
The site is believed to be at least 4,000 years old, and as well as being a burial place, may have been used for ritualistic gatherings and for trade.
The name comes from a local legend that claims the circle is a coven of witches turned to stone.
The stately homes keep coming in Penrith, and the Gothic Revival Hutton-in-the-Forest is another to keep on your radar.
This house evolved from a Medieval pele tower and each subsequent generation added something to the building.
Hutton-in-the-Forest has been the seat of the Fletcher-Vane family since 1605 and opens for visits on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays in spring and summer.
You’ll take a journey through the centuries, admiring the sublime gallery from the 1630s and the hall, built in 1680 and centred on the exquisite Cupid Staircase.
Lady Darlington’s Room is a joy, dating to the turn of the century and decorated in the Arts and Crafts style.
On your way you’ll be dazzled by tapestries, portraits, furniture and fine ceramics.
The gardens are open throughout the season, apart from Saturdays, and have 17th-century terraces and a walled garden from the 1730s.
10. St Andrew’s Church
An unusual mix of Georgian and Gothic styles, Penrith’s parish church is a Grade I-listed monument.
The oldest part is the tower, built from sandstone rubble, possibly for defensive reasons in the 1100s and 1200s.
The nave is composed of a smoother ashlar (dressed) sandstone, dating from the 1720s.
The interior is Classical, with carved oak pews and galleries supported by painted Tuscan columns.
At the east end, in the chancel, see the stained glass window, installed in 1870 and framed by murals by the Penrith landscape painter Jacob Thompson.
In the graveyard is the mysterious Giant’s Thumb, a Norse cross carved in 920 as a monument to the King of Cumbria.
11. Acorn Bank Garden and Watermill
By Temple Sowerby, not far from Penrith, there’s a glorious National Trust garden with a working watermill.
The mill was first mentioned in the 1323 when it belonged to the Knights Hospitaller, but the current structure is from the 1800s.
As well as producing flour, the mill was also used to power gypsum mines on these grounds, and after decades of dereliction was restored and opened to the public in 1995. The highlight though has to be the herb garden, surrounded by 17th-century walls and growing the National Trust’s largest collection of medicinal and culinary herbs.
There are more than 300 varieties here, as well as over 100 regional apple trees, and an apiary with four beehives.
12. Dalemain Mansion and Historic Garden
Among the loveliest stately homes in the Northwest, Dalemain has a bold Palladian facade from 1744. But this conceals a much older building, with parts from the 14th and 16th centuries linked by quirky stairways and little passages.
The house is open Sunday to Thursday between March and October and has stayed largely the same since the 18th century.
There are collections of fine ceramics, furniture, antique toys, dolls’ houses and family portraits, while the hand-painted 18th-century wallpaper in the Chinese Room is amazing.
The formal gardens are also stunning, and have a Greek fir gifted in 1840 by the famed botanist Joseph Banks.
The big event on Dalemain’s calendar is the international Marmalade Awards and Festival in March, combined with the Penrith Goes Orange festivities taking place in Penrith on the same weekend.
13. Penrith and Eden Museum
In the 17th-century Robinson’s School building there’s a worthwhile museum documenting Penrith and the Eden Valley’s human and natural history.
There are some really interesting pieces to discover here, like Penrith’s medieval town seal and official measures and a hoard of 600 late-Roman bronze coins found a few miles away in Newby.
There are also little mementoes relating to interesting local figures, like the monocle of Percy Toplis, a notorious imposter who was killed in Penrith in 1920 while on the run for murder and buried in an unmarked grave at Beacon Edge Cemetery.
There’s also a good collection fine art, made up of Dutch and Flemish landscapes and works by the Penrith-born 19th-century landscape painter Jacob Thompson.
14. Beacon Hill
Rising over Penrith from the northeast side is the 286-metre Beacon Hill, which you can climb for arresting vistas over Penrith and the Eden Valley.
You’ll find the trail just off the Beacon Edge Road for a round trip that will take about an hour.
From the summit many of the major Lake District peaks are lined up to the southwest and, turning north, you can see across the Solway Firth into Scotland.
Beacon Hill is named for a signal beacon, lit during war and other emergencies.
This was first built in the 16th-century reign of Henry VIII, while the current pyramidal sandstone monument is from 1719.
15. Lakeland Bird of Prey Centre
In a beautiful walled garden by the entrance to Lowther Castle, the Lakeland Bird of Prey Centre has more than 150 native and exotic hawks, owls, vultures, eagles, falcons and buzzards.
These can be viewed in thoughtfully designed aviaries or on a special flight demonstration that takes place for two hours in the mid afternoon.
During this session you’ll get to see the differences between a variety of birds, and you’ll be encouraged to try handling a bird, with help from an experienced keeper.
The centre is open daily from April to November.