On the edge of the low-lying Fens, Peterborough is a city commanded by a superlative cathedral.
This is one of the few complete examples of 12th-century Romanesque architecture, with a Gothic facade that looks like nothing else in the UK or Europe.
Peterborough emerged as an industrial city in the mid 19th century when a railway junction was built just west of the centre.
You can take a nostalgic trip along a stretch of a preserved 19th-century line on the Nene Valley Railway, which will also carry you into Ferry Meadows Country Park for active family days out in summer.
Within a brief drive there’s no end of interesting things around Peterborough, from Elizabethan Prodigy Houses to the site of a mysterious Bronze Age causeway at Flag Fen.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Peterborough:
1. Peterborough Cathedral
The indispensible sight in Peterborough is its jaw-dropping cathedral, which was mostly completed before 1237. It is one of a clutch of cathedrals in the country to have kept hold of its 12th-century Norman architecture, which is conspicuous on the long line of semi-circular arches, traced with zigzag patterns along the nave.
The western facade is an extraordinary Early English Gothic construction, with three massive arches that resemble nothing that came before or since.
Peterborough Cathedral sprang from a much earlier Anglo-Saxon church, founded around the 7th century, and the beguiling Hedda Stone from that building has been put on display.
At the east end of the church the “New Building” has Perpendicular fan vaulting by John Wastell, architect of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and you can also seek out the tomb of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII.
2. Peterborough Museum
In a solemn stone townhouse from 1816, Peterborough Museum has more than 220,000 objects recounting the human and natural history of the city and region.
In the middle of the 18th century this mansion had been Peterborough’s first hospital, and upstairs you can find out what a Victorian era operating theatre would have looked like.
You can view art from the17th-century to the present, and a collection of original manuscripts by the poet John Clare, who was born not far away in Helpston.
There’s also Roman pottery, Jurassic fossils and a host of intriguing artefacts from Norman Cross.
This was a camp set up outside Peterborough for French and Dutch soldiers captured during the Napoleonic Wars.
It was the world’s first purpose-built prisoner of war camp, and the museum has arts and crafts like model ships and dolls houses handmade by the prisoners more than 200 years ago.
3. Nene Valley Railway
Peterborough Nene Valley Station in the centre of the is the eastern terminus of a preserved railway that runs along the Nene Valley for 7.5 miles to the village of Yarwell.
This is a fragment of a line that once extended from Peterborough to Blisworth, 45 miles to the southwest in Northamptonshire.
Opened in 1847, the line closed in 1966 and a stretch was purchased in the 70s to become a visitor attraction.
In 2008 it was extended a little further to Yarwell.
The line runs on weekends year-round, but also weekdays during school holidays.
Generally you’ll be able to ride on a train pulled by a BR Strandard Class 5 steam locomotive, but diesel locomotives fill in during maintenance.
4. Longthorpe Tower
In Peterborough’s western suburb of Longthorpe is a stunning three-storey tower from a 14th-century manor house.
Longthorpe Tower is Grade I listed and maintained by English Heritage.
The tower is a must for its incredible murals, painted around 1330 and covering almost all of the first floor.
These were covered up with whitewash during the Reformation, and were only found once more in the 1940s.
The paintings are almost unique in the UK, and have religious, moral and secular themes.
Pondering these works you’ll see musicians, saints, animals, kings and a strange mythological beast shooting flaming excrement from its backside.
The exhibition at the tower recounts the story of the building and the family that constructed it.
5. John Clare Cottage
The beloved Romantic poet John Clare was born at this humble thatched cottage in the village of Helpston in 1793. The cottage was purchased by a trust for the poet in 2005 and has been turned into a visitor attraction over the last decade.
A few of the rooms have been reverted to their rustic appearance at the turn of the 19th century, and there are examples of John Clare’s work and information about his life, which was beset by bouts of poor mental health.
The idyllic garden is maintained by volunteers and there’s a cafe serving home-baked cakes.
You can also browse the bookshop at the cottage, well-stocked with Clare’s works.
Follow up a visit with a trip to Helpston’s parish church to locate Clare’s grave.
6. Nene Park
In the centre of Peterborough is a colossal public par that continues west for 3.5 miles along the banks of the River Nene.
The park encompasses more than 2,500 acres and within that are chain of lakes encircled by walking and cycling paths that beckon you through meadows and into woodland.
You can get there by walking along the large, rectangular rowing and canoeing course and will enter via Orton Mere, which is also a stop on the Nene Valley Railway.
Nene Park also includes the Ferry Meadows Country Park, which follows below and is packed with attractions and facilities.
7. Ferry Meadows Country Park
About a quarter of Nene Pak is taken up by Ferry Meadows Country Park, which has tons for families to get up to in summer.
At Gunwade Lake you can rent pedal boats, rowboats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards.
There are also bird hides overlooking Ham Mere, one with a bird-feeder in sight so you stand a great chance of seeing something interesting.
Go carefully on the paths to the hides and you may be able to spot a kingfisher.
In Ferry Meadows’ visitor centre you can watch footage from a nest cam in the park’s sand martin box.
The country park also has a miniature steam railway, three children’s play areas, horse-riding stables, two 18-hole golf courses, a pub, garden centre and plant nursery.
A special way to get to Ferry Meadows is by getting off at “Overton for Ferry Meadows on the Nene Valley Railway”.
8. Flag Fen Archaeology Park
On Peterborough’s eastern outskirts is an enigmatic Bronze Age site that came together around 3,500 years ago.
This feat of prehistoric engineering is made up of 60,000 vertical and 250,000 horizontal timbers, configured in five long rows to form a causeway.
Since the 14th century landscape has been drained for farming by dykes, but in that period it was much wetter and hard to navigate on foot.
Part way along the causeway is an island that is believed to have held spiritual significance.
Flag Fen has a visitor centre examining the meaning of the site and displaying the many artefacts recovered from the site like weapons and jewellery, believed to have been placed in the water as votive offerings.
In the wet room, you can see a row of the timbers in place.
Outside there are reconstructions of Bronze Age and Iron Age roundhouses, and a Bronze-Iron Age droveway.
9. Railworld Wildlife Haven
Open on select days from February to October, Railworld is a combined railway museum and nature park next to the Peterborough Nene Valley Railway Station.
Kids and model railway enthusiasts will be impressed by the vast and detailed OO Model Railway, which adds new buildings and landforms by the year.
Over the last 20 years the outdoor space around the museum has been turned into a wildlife park, attracting more than 250 native species.
Beehives, bird boxes and hedgehog “hotels” have been set up, a pond has been dug and more than 250 trees have been planted in that time.
10. Elton Hall and Gardens
Eight miles southwest of Peterborough, Elton Hall is a baronial hall that has been in the same family, the Corbys, since 1660. The River Nene flows through the estate, and the house has a medley of architecture going back to the 1400s.
The oldest elements can be seen on the pointed Gothic windows of the south facade.
The house is open from May to August, on select days, which tend to fluctuate.
You have to go to view art by Renaissance masters, as well as Gainsborough and Constable, and set foot in one of the UK’s richest libraries in private hands.
Among its treasures is the Henry VIII’s personal prayer book.
The formal gardens with boxwood and yew topiaries have been restored since the 1980s and contain a charming Gothic-style orangery, built to celebrate the new millennium.
A little way west, Sacrewell is a heritage farm attraction that will enchant younger members of the clan.
In 50 acres, the farm was mentioned in the Norman Domesday Survey of 1086 and opened as a family day out in 1964. For kids the joy will be meeting the animals, and the farm has donkeys, Shetland ponies, pygmy goats, punch horses, alpacas, Boer goats, New Hampshire red chickens, Landrace pigs and a variety of sheep breeds.
There’s also a mini-maze, an indoor “Playbarn”, a cafe with free WiFi and a farm shop selling produce and gifts made on site.
One of the most arresting sights is the watermill, built in 1755 newly restored to working order with the help of National Lottery funds.
12. Crowland Abbey
Over the county line in Lincolnshire, Crowland Abbey is a comfortable 13 miles from the centre of Peterborough.
A Benedictine monastery up to 1539, this Grade I listed building is a functioning parish church and rather unusual because it continues to be used for worship after most of the abbey was demolished.
The monastic buildings, chancel, crossing and transepts were partially torn down right away, but the nave kept its roof and has housed the church for the last five centuries.
With ruins of pointed bays and window arches clinging to the intact portion of the church, Crowland Abbey is supremely picturesque and was the subject of a sonnet by John Clare, published in 1828. The church has a skull of the 9th-century abbot Theodore, slain at the altar by the Vikings.
13. Burghley House
A good 15 miles from Peterborough on the way to Stamford, Burghley House is a trip worth making if you have an eye for English aristocratic architecture.
Burghley House is the archetype of the Elizabethan Prodigy House, constructed in the last decades of the 16th century by Lord High Treasurer William Cecil.
In the 18th-century the gardens and regal avenues were laid out by Capability Brown, the leading landscaper of the day.
The house is open to visitors in spring and summer, free-flow, or with an expert guide.
Burghley House’s art collection runs to several hundred pieces and includes works by Veronese (chapel altarpiece), Luca Giordano, female Renaissance trailblazer Artemisia Gentileschi and the German Baroque artist Johann Carl Loth.
See Verrio’s ceiling fresco from 1697 above the Hell Staircase, and the later wall paintings by Thomas Stothard.
As the largest city for some distance, Peterborough is a regional shopping hub, a fact underlined by the Queensgate shopping centre, which was opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1982. The centre was modernised at the start of the 2010s, and when this post was written plans had been announced for a further £30 million enhancement, including a multi-screen cinema.
The centre has all of the midmarket brands you’d hope to find on a well-to-do British high street, like Office, Paperchase, John Lewis, H&M, John Lewis, Lush, River Island, Superdry and M&S, to name a few.
For dining options, familiar names like Greggs, Pret, Costa, as well as a few fast food chains are all on hand.
15. Key Theatre
On the Nene’s north bank since 1973, the glass-clad Key Theatre is Peterborough’s main destination for live culture.
The venue books touring musicals, bands and dance shows, and also stages local community productions.
The highpoint of the programme comes towards the end of the year when the Key Theatre puts on its family-friendly pantomimes, which have been an institution for more than 40 years.
The Key Studio is a more intimate 112-seat for drama and live comedy.
In the day, the theatre’s highly-rated Riverside Restaurant benefits from a lovely view of the river.