Norfolk is known for endless skies and wide horizons stretching over sandy beaches and a web of waterways. The county is a magnet for fans of the great outdoors, particularly bird watchers and boating enthusiasts. But there are so many other reasons to visit Norfolk. There are superb medieval churches, fascinating museums and stately homes, as well as lively seaside resorts and bags of entertainment for kids. Ancient towns hold regular farmers’ markets and almost every picturesque village offers a snug corner and a real ale in a welcoming, cosy pub.
Read on to discover our 15 reasons to visit Norfolk. And for even more ideas about what to see and do in the region, check out our Rough Guides Staycations Norfolk and Suffolk.
Residents of north Norfolk can feel justifiably smug: Holkham Bay is one of the most spectacular beaches in the country and it’s right on their doorstep.
A vast, sweeping expanse of golden sand, backed by grassy dunes and pinewoods, and part of a nature reserve, there’s space for everyone, even during high season. Low tide reveals miles of empty beach, which is great for long walks and four-legged friends to stretch their legs, as well as the usual bucket and spade activities. You might also see people on horseback cantering along the shoreline. During the summer a delightful blanket of blooming purple lavender spreads across the salt marsh behind the dunes.
Not many people receive a country estate as a birthday present. But we have all benefited from Queen Victoria presenting Sandringham as a gift to the Prince of Wales (Edward VII to be) and his wife, Princess Alexandra, in 1862. Although the estate now serves as the Queen’s bolthole, ordinary Joes can visit the surrounding 600-acre country park for free. There are two main trails for walking or cycling, but there are many other woodland paths and open grassland for strolling or laying down a picnic blanket.
Sandringham House itself is open to the public. You probably won’t bump into any Royals in their pyjamas, but you can nosy at the decor and ornaments in the ground floor rooms, which haven’t changed a great deal since Edwardian times. You can also wander the glorious gardens and visit the museum. Home to royal memorabilia, it includes a fantastic collection of vintage vehicles and an assortment of gifts given to the Queen.
It’s also worth popping into the beautiful medieval Church of St Mary Magdalene, where the Royal Family worship during their visits to Sandringham.
Check out the maps listed below to discover the highlights and best places to visit while walking and driving in fabulous Norfolk locations. You'll find full descriptions of the routes, plus much more, in the Rough Guides Staycations Norfolk and Suffolk guidebook:
The system of waterways that form the Norfolk Broads are the county’s jewel – and we’ve got medieval peat diggers to thank. The pits left behind from extensive digging gradually flooded to become the network of wetlands and National Park we have today. One of the best ways to experience the Broads is from the water and there are no shortage of options – from cruising along on a motor boat, or kicking back with a cruise, to taking a wildlife trip, or skippering a sailing boat.
One of the simplest means is by rowing boat or canoe. What could be more relaxing than gliding along, listening to the sounds of bird calls, the rustling of reeds and the creak of the oars, and the gentle swoosh of water – especially if someone else is doing the rowing? It’s a great way to get up close with the wetland wildlife and, as Canadian canoes can carry up to three adults, it’s an ideal activity for the whole family.
You can hire canoes and kayaks from the Canoe Man in Wroxham and also book a guided trail, including ones overnight. For kayaks, hire from Hunstanton Kayaks, who also offer trips.
Sailing is also popular, and seasoned sailors can hire wooden sailing boats at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham, or sign up for a sailing course.
Norwich is a small city that thinks big and packs a lot in. Along its narrow alleys and streets are splendid medieval churches and historic houses – reminders of its prosperous past – a lively market, and an array of great independent shops, cafés and restaurants. There are museums, art galleries, even a castle. Plus, of course, there’s the city’s major landmark – the stunning Romanesque cathedral. The city has a pleasant laid-back vibe, probably partly due to its student population, and its compact nature means you can take in many of its sights in a day.
On your wander around the city be sure to climb the steep, cobbled Elm Hill to admire the wonderfully preserved 16th- 18th-century houses. Museums worth a visit include the Museum of Norwich, for a history of the city, and the Castle Museum and Art Gallery. As well as covering everything from the ancient Egyptians to the Vikings, it proudly holds the title of largest collection of ceramic teapots in the world. Who knew?
For art lovers, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is one of the best reasons to visit Norfolk. Standouts include works by Picasso, Henry Moore and Giacometti.
Where better to go seal spotting than at the sand and shingle spit of Blakeney Point, home to the largest seal colony in England? With more than 3,000 common and grey seals now born each year, this is the prime spot to see the adorable pups basking on the sands at low tide. From March until October seal-spotting ferry trips run from Morston quay, and when tides and conditions are right, stop at Blakeney Point Nature Reserve – so trip times can vary from an hour to two and half hours. Bring binoculars to see the animals up close, as well as for spotting the dozen or so species of seabirds, which settle there in summer.
There’s also a large colony of seals at Horsey, where you can see them bobbing about in the water, and you may even catch sight of them in Wells harbour.
Wells-next-the-sea is one of the best reasons to visit Norfolk: it offers the perfect combo of lovely beach and small, but lively resort town, which keeps the whole family happy. As at Holkham Bay, the beach is a broad sweep of sand fringed by pinewood dunes. In front of the pine trees stands a row of beach huts in colourful candy shades, reminiscent of those sweet sticks of rock, a feature of every British seaside shop. Low tide is a child’s playground, with seashells to gather and decorate sandcastles with, and shallow pools of seawater in which to splash about. If you’re having a snoozy sunbathe, though, watch out for the incoming tide: it creeps in quickly and many have had to hurriedly grab belongings and scramble for drier ground. There are lifeguards on duty from July to September, however, so rescue is at hand should you find yourself in hot water – or rather, cold – this is the North Sea, after all.
Kids will love the cute, narrow-gauge harbour railway, which runs from the beach into Wells town – although it’s easy enough to walk the mile from the beach to the centre. There’s a working harbour, shops, cafés and the usual seafood stalls, where you can refuel on that great British institution of fish and chips. For fancier fare, head for the Buttlands, a pretty Georgian square, where two former coaching inns offer fine dining. If you just want to quench your thirst, go aboard the Albatros, permanently moored at the port. A former Dutch North Sea clipper, it’s now a bar and hosts live music events at the weekends.
Cafes and restaurants in Britain’s seaside areas often fall short on the food stakes, failing to make good use of the fresh fish close at hand, or the shellfish that can be foraged on local shores. But you’ll find many of Norfolk’s coastal pubs and restaurants have raised their game. In fact, Norfolk, in general, has come on in leaps and bounds. You can put together a delicious picnic from high street delis and farmers’ markets, such as Swaffham and Creake Abbey, enjoy a modern spin on traditional dishes in gastropubs, and sample fine dining in hotel restaurants.
Many menus showcase local produce, such as Brancaster oysters, samphire from salt marshes, and the famous, deliciously sweet Cromer crab. And coastal town Stiffkey is renowned for its grey-blue cockles, or Stewkey Blues.
Morston Hall even has a Michelin-starred chef at the helm and features Blakeney lobster and Morston mussels on the menu. But for a simply-cooked fish supper and stunning views of sunsets over the marshland, head to the White Horse at Brancaster Staithe. For deli and farmshop produce, stop at the award-winning Picnic Fayre, in Cley-next-the-Sea.
Anyone with kids has probably spent many an hour standing in a crowded playground, watching their little ones wait their turn for the one and only slide, wondering when they can declare it’s home time. At BeWilderwood the experience couldn’t be more different. This magical woodland playground is a day out of fun for the whole family, with treehouses to clamber about in, swaying aerial ropewalks and awesome zip wires, set in 50 acres of forest and marshland. And there are no plastic slides or swings in sight – it’s all made from sustainable wood. Creator and owner Tom Blofeld has developed a wonderful fantasy adventure, with magical woodland folk, such as the Boggles, the BeWILDerbats and the Twiggles – all characters from his delightful book A Boggle at BeWILDerwood. And if children tire of the outdoor fun, there are also storytelling sessions and crafts activities.
Sitting rather imposingly within the extensive parkland of Holkham estate, which also includes the wonderful Holkham Beach and nature reserve, is 18th-century Holkham Hall. Behind the formal, Palladian exterior, is a grand entrance hall, complete with colonnade – a nod to ancient Rome – and statues of Greek and Roman Gods.
The house was built between 1734 and 1764 for Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester, and his taste is reflected in the opulent decor and artworks throughout the array of plush state rooms. There are sumptuous wall hangings, 17th-century tapestries and paintings by Old Masters, such as Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Rubens. It’s also worth a look inside the large kitchen to get an idea of what went on behind the scenes. At one time there were 60 servants keeping the house in order and tending to the Coke family.
The grounds include a deer park, rolling lawns and a walled garden, which is the site of an annual plant fair in September. You can hire a bike to explore the parkland or hop aboard a rowing boat and relax on the lake.
When it comes to bird life, Norfolk is king. The wetlands, woodlands, heathland and coast offer the ideal habitat year round for a variety of local and migratory birds. There are hundreds of nature reserves, often including first-rate visitor centres and observation hides, with details on guided walks and the latest sightings.
Enthusiastic bird spotters will delight in the Norfolk Broads. It’s a haven for birdlife, including grebes, herons and kingfishers, with Hickling Broad’s reedbeds and watermeadows home to bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers.
At coastal Cley-next-the-sea you can spot redshank, avocet, spoonbills and terns, among others. The reserve’s excellent visitor centre has a café with a glorious panoramic view over the coast and provides telescopes for customers – for those wishing to combine a relaxing cuppa with their bird spotting pursuits.
One of the most spectacular sights in winter is the flock of thousands of waders and wildfowl on the mudflats and lagoons at Snettisham Nature Reserve.
There’s no doubt that Norwich Cathedral is impressive. For a start, there’s more than 900-years of history to discover. Then there’s that soaring spire, the tallest in Britain after Salisbury, and those elegant arched cloisters – including the wonderfully preserved monastic cloister, the largest in England. Adding to the splendour is the magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling with its intricate and decorative roof bosses, depicting stories from the Bible. Other highlights of this fine Romanesque cathedral include elaborate wooden carvings behind the organ screen, showing medieval scenes of strife, evil and sins. There’s also a fine medieval painted panel, Despenser Retable, in St Luke’s chapel, created around 1380.
A rather more unusual highlight, however, is the pair of peregrines which nest each year on the spire. There are telescopes at the Peregrine Watch Point from April to June, where you might catch sight of the birds and their fledglings.
With no hills to speak of, cycling in Norfolk is a breeze. And a great way to take in the gorgeous countryside and coastline, with all those historic towns and pretty little country villages dotted along the way. Whether you want to just leisurely pootle on two wheels for the day, or get serious with a multi-day excursion, there are traffic-free cycle paths, off road trails and quiet lanes to explore.
The Marriott's Way is a 26-mile green walking and cycling route which follows a disused railway line from Norwich to Aylsham. With its wide paths it's great for kids to get pedalling too. The flat terrain of the ancient Peddars Way is perfect for really stretching your legs. It runs from Thetford to Hunstanton, passing through woodland, farmland and villages, such as Castle Acre, a great stopping-off point. If you really want to clock up the miles, The Norfolk Coastal Cycleway, part of the Sustrans National Cycle Network, runs from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth passing through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are also picturesque trails in Thetford Forest and around the Broads.
Cycle Breaks offers self-guided cycling holidays. They give you the freedom to enjoy the ride unencumbered by luggage – as it's waiting for you at each accommodation stop. All you have to do is follow the map – and not get lost.
It’s easy to get away from it all in Britain’s largest pine forest. In an area known as the Brecks, it straddles the border of north Suffolk and south Norfolk and is made up of mostly heathland and pine trees, with an abundance of walking, cycling and horseriding trails to explore. If you don’t have your own bike, you can hire one at Bike Art. Cycle trails range from the family friendly to those for seasoned cyclists, such as the Black Trail.
For a different kind of fun on two wheels, you can hire a Segway at Go Ape. These can handle all terrain, which means you can have fun tackling the bumpiest woodland tracks. But it’s the thrills and tree-top action involving zip wires, rope ladders and swings that Go Ape is best known for. As well as courses suitable for young kids, there are high-wire, adrenaline-inducing adventures for more confident apes.
Norfolk has more than its fair share of picture-postcard villages. Charming rose-clad cottages, historic buildings and pretty market squares, in stunning coastal or countryside settings, are the norm.
There are several contenders for star of the show. Castle Acre, near Swaffham, has an assortment of flint and brick cottages, as well as the remains of a Norman castle and priory – one of the best preserved monastic sites in the country. While the nature reserve of Cley-next-the-Sea is on every bird watchers’ radar, the village itself is also a top attraction. Along with the requisite quaintness, it boasts lovely little shops, the 18th-century Cley Windmill, now an attractive guesthouse, and the medieval Church of St Margaret, which has pride of place in the village.
Then there’s Burnham Market, with its wide green and elegant Georgian houses, along with wonderful shops and delis, pubs and galleries. And you can’t forget coastal Blakeney: delightful flint-cobbled cottages overlook a tiny harbour and small sailing boats, to the mudflats and saltmarshes beyond.
Everyone from tots to grandparents will enjoy stepping back in time with a ride on a Norfolk steam train. The Poppy Line’s beautiful heritage train chuffs along one of the most picturesque stretches of coast, between the Georgian town of Holt and the Victorian seaside resort of Sheringham, which even has a 1950s ticket office. If you book ahead you can have lunch on board while admiring the view, or indulge in a cream tea. Or, take the narrow gauge Bure Valley Railway, which runs from the market town of Aylsham and Wroxham, central hub of the Norfolk Broads. The journey takes 45 minutes, which is enough time to relax and enjoy the scenery of the Bure Valley meadows. Why not make a day of it and go afloat at Wroxham? You can hire all manner of boats and book guided trips on the water.
If our Norfolk travel guide has inspired you to plan a staycation in Norfolk and you want to find out more about the region, buy our Rough Guides Staycations Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s packed with exciting ideas on things to do in Norfolk, along with practical tips and recommendations on where to stay. What’s more, if you purchase the guide, you can download a free ebook.
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Header image: Thurne Windmill on the Norfolk Broads @ yackers1/Shutterstock