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 things to do in Norfolk. There are superb medieval churches, fascinating museums and stately homes, as well as lively seaside resorts and bags of entertainment for kids.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Norfolk & Suffolk, your essential guide for visiting Norfolk.
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 makes visiting the bay one of the best things to do in Norfolk for long walks and for four-legged friends to stretch their legs. 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.
If a beach holiday is what you're looking for, explore our guide to the top beaches in Britain.
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 King'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 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.
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 things to do in Norfolk is to row a boat or canoe in Broads. 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.
Norwich is a small city that packs a lot of things to do in Norfolk. 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.
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. 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.
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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.
When tides and conditions are right, stop at Blakeney Point Nature Reserve – so trip times can vary from an hour to two and a 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.
A visit to Wells-next-the-sea is one of the best things to do in 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.
This tailor-made walking holiday on the Jurassic Coast is one of the many ways to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the coasts of England. Walks range from easy to challenging. 6 days walking are included in this itinerary, as is an extensive pre-program in London and a last night back in the capital.
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. Or enjoy a modern spin on traditional dishes in gastropubs, and sample fine dining in hotel restaurants.
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 farm shop 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. This includes 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.
If you need more convincing, BeWILDerwood is one of our magical places to visit with children before they grow up.
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.
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. It also provides telescopes for customers – for those wishing to combine a relaxing cuppa with their bird spotting pursuits.
There’s no doubt that Norwich Cathedral is impressive. For a start, there are 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.
With no hills to speak of, cycling is one of the best things to do in Norfolk. 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.
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.
If you like strolling through small, picturesque streets, explore our guide to the prettiest Cotswolds villages to visit.
Outside of London, England is known for its' countryside full of history, picturesque villages, patchwork hills, and winding country roads. Explore the countryside with its castles, parks, and historical cities on this tailor-made refreshing English countryside break.
Never a big player, the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway served much of Norfolk and Lincolnshire from its establishment in 1893 through to nationalization in the 1940s. Though most of its routes were closed not long afterwards. One of the company’s branch lines ran southwest from Sheringham to Holt, and this five miles of track was adopted by the volunteer enthusiasts of the North Norfolk Railway (NNR) in 1965.
The first vintage steam trains were chugging down the “Poppy Line” two years later. The NNR is now a firm fixture of the Norfolk tourist scene. Its steam and vintage diesel trains rumble through the countryside and stop at several stations, including Sheringham, Weybourne and Holt. If you book ahead you can have lunch on board while admiring the view, or indulge in a cream tea.
The market town of Aylsham is not really part of the Broads, but it is the terminal for the Bure Valley Railway from Wroxham. It’s a pleasant enough place, and like most Norfolk towns, life revolves around the marketplace, home to a twice-weekly market and overlooked by the Black Boys Hotel.
Five minutes’ walk south from the market place, Aylsham’s Station is home to the Bure Valley Railway. An old-fashioned mini (15in gauge) train line that runs from Aylsham down to Wroxham in the heart of the Broads, taking in Brampton, Buxton and Coltishall along the way.
Engines are either steam- or diesel-powered, and the nine-mile trip to Wroxham takes 45 minutes. If you don’t want to take the train you can walk or cycle the Bure Valley Path, which shadows the rail line – and the river – all the way.
Despite not being rugged or wild, Norfolk and Suffolk have become a popular walking destination due to their gentle, rolling landscapes, long coastline, diverse birdlife, and vast skies. The region's tourist offices offer details of local rambles, which are easily accomplished in a day and require little physical demand as the footpaths are clearly marked.
This guide provides general details of local walks, as well as access to one of England's busiest National Trails, the Peddars Way/Norfolk Coast Path, which separates into two clearly defined sections. The second section, the Norfolk Coast Path, covers 83 miles and follows the coast from Holme-next-the-Sea to Hopton-on-Sea, via Cromer, with the 45-mile stretch from Holme to Cromer being the most popular.
While only a minority of walkers undertake the entire trail, most opt for short hikes, especially along the Norfolk Coast Path, where the Coasthopper and Coastliner buses offer convenient public transport, making round trips relatively easy and practical.
Dramatically poised on a high bluff, visiting Cromer resort should be on your list of things to do on Norfolk’s coast. Cromer has a lovely sandy beach, but it can get crowded. If you’re seeking a little more solitude, you may prefer the Runtons, just to the west of Cromer, before you reach Sheringham.
First up along the main coastal road, the A149, is East Runton, where narrow Beach Road cuts an unpromising route through a herd of static caravans before reaching a wide and sandy beach. In neighbouring West Runton, Water Lane serves a similar function. Forking off the A149 bound for another slab of sandy beach, but it’s a rather more pleasant route. There’s a smashing campsite here, too.
Great Yarmouth’s seafront stretches for about a mile north to south along Marine Parade and is a fairly predictable mix of B&Bs, amusement arcades and cheap restaurants, anchored by the Britannia Pier to the north and the Wellington Pier to the south.
Britain’s only surviving purpose-built circus building, the Hippodrome sits behind the seafront arcades, more than a century of spectacular summer shows behind it and still going strong. Owned for the past four decades by former pop musician and local boy Peter Jay, it hosts a variety of events, including the Great Yarmouth Summer Spectacular, whose high-class performers are worth coming to see even if you don’t like circuses.
The interior too is a gem, and there’s a small museum stocked with old props, posters and technical equipment that you can visit after attending any event.
The north Norfolk coast pretty much ends (or begins) at Hunstanton, a bustling seaside resort positioned just where the coastline turns south to run alongside the wide and stumpy Wash. The (now-defunct) railway reached here in 1862 and thereafter Hunstanton grew by leaps and bounds, sprouting scores of good-looking Victorian houses that are still a feature of the town.
At Heacham, just south of Hunstanton, a semi-suburban tangle of narrow streets lies just inland from the army of static caravans that line up along the Wash.
The main reason to visit Heacham today is Norfolk Lavender, a popular tourist attraction. The big pull is the lavender gardens and the lavender plant sales. Though there are also a couple of gift shops, a mini-zoo, a farm shop and a large, indoor play area for kids with slides, climbing frames, a maze and so forth.
Norfolk’s most popular nature reserve, Pensthorpe occupies a large slab of land and lagoon about two miles east of the centre of Fakenham. A network of footpaths negotiates most of the reserve, where waterfowl gather by the hundred and Norfolk’s birdlife is supplemented by (clipped-wing) imports from around the world.
One part of the reserve is dedicated to declining species – there is a red squirrel hutch and a corncrake breeding programme – and there are also several themed gardens. If you like things a little wilder, there are bird hides on the edge of Pensthorpe where you can observe waterfowl in a less constrained environment.
If you are looking for more destinations in England with stunning nature this tailor-made trip to Northern Cornwall is what you need. Northern Cornwall is a hiker's paradise and this itinerary includes the most scenic parts. You will start your journey in London with some unique activities to get to know the city, before setting off on a 5-day walk across Cornwall.
About three miles north of Dereham is the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, one of only three Victorian workhouses currently open to the public. Though essentially a museum of rural life in Victorian England, its best displays focus on its time as a workhouse.
You can see the claustrophobic dungeon, where inmates were sent if they transgressed the rules, plus other rooms and artefacts. For example, the laundry, with its original steam-powered machines and drying racks; and the men’s exercise courtyard, complete with the inmates’ graffiti.
Outside you can visit the chapel and schoolroom, and mock-ups of village businesses – the post office, general store, blacksmith and suchlike. There’s also a really good adventure playground, and a working farm run on traditional lines by volunteers, with rare breeds, a barn full of old farm implements and the chance to jump on Gressenhall’s own tractor pulled trailer.
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Ready for a trip to Norfolk? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to Norfolk & Suffolk or The Rough Guide to England.
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Header image: Thurne Windmill on the Norfolk Broads @ yackers1/Shutterstock