With romantic peaks to ramble, idyllic villages to discover, and inspirational literary locations to explore, the Lake District in Cumbria, England, is as much a dream destination for culture vultures as it is for walkers, hikers and nature-lovers. It’s a top spot for family breaks too, especially given the region’s Beatrix Potter connections and exciting outdoor activities. Read on to discover our top 12 most beautiful places in the Lake District, with further inspiration (and practical information) available in our guidebook, The Rough Guide to the Lake District.
Ten and a half miles long, and a little over 200ft deep, Lake Windermere - England’s largest lake - is Cumbria’s crowning glory. With awe-inspiring 360 views (to the north, the central fells; to the south, a wooded shoreline), taking a boat trip is hands-down the best way to appreciate the lake’s beauty. And the good news is, there are several options to do just that - from cruises to cross-lake ferries.
If you’re near Windermere Jetty, be sure to explore the museum's matchless collection of Victorian and Edwardian steam launches and historic boats, among them Margaret, the world’s oldest yacht, and Arthur Ransome’s Coch-y-Bondhu, the real-life water craft behind one of his Swallows and Amazons boats.
As for where to stay, glamping doesn’t get better than Windermere’s Low Wray National Trust campsite, with cool accommodation options ranging from tree tents and camping pods, to spacious woodland safari tents. If camping (however glamourous) isn’t your style, you could always book a room in an elegant lake-view guesthouse, like the heavenly Angel Inn. Either way, if you choose to stay in the vicinity of Lake Windermere, you'll be blessed with some of Cumbria's most beautiful views.
Separating Coniston Water from Windermere, Grizedale Forest’s emerald expanse is a natural paradise for travellers of all ages and inclinations. Though this ancient forest was somewhat depleted by the eighteenth-century, impressive regeneration has restored oak, spruce, larch and pine woodland to its green glory. As a result, the forest offers rich habitats for badgers, squirrels, grouse, woodcock and woodpeckers, with red deer seen occasionally too.
Head to the Grizedale Visitor Centre to pick up a map of the ten walking trails, then watch out for forty fabulous woodland sculptures as you wander. The longest trail is the Silurian Way, which passes many of the sculptures as it climbs to Carron Crag, the forest’s highest point. In addition, the forest features nine cycling and mountain bike trails and a children’s play area. Little monkeys will also adore the Grizedale Go Ape experience, offering as it does all manner of aerial escapades, from the family-friendly Treetop Adventure course, to the dare-devil’s delight Zip Trekking Adventure, which featuress seven forest ziplines over 3km.
Chockful of the author’s most beloved possessions, Beatrix Potter’s seventeenth-century Hill Top farmhouse - a National Trust property - oozes English countryside charm. With the author's furnishings and personal effects exactly as they were when Beatrix lived here - a condition of her will - visitors will be touched by the sight of her boots and hat near a fireside chair, and by the clock ticking in her kitchen. Then there's the charismatic cottage garden, replete with a higgledy-piggledy blast of wild flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables. In need of refreshment? Head next door to the Tower Bank Arms, which was featured in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
If you’re travelling with little ones, The World of Beatrix Potter takes a more child-centred approach, with all 23 tales featured in sensory 3D form, plus an assortment of interactive attractions, and an adorable themed tea room. For a convenient way to enjoy all the region’s Beatrix Potter sites, this guided all-inclusive tour covers Hill Top, the Beatrix Potter Gallery, the Armitt museum, and Wray Castle.
Staying with the literature theme, walking the Gowbarrow trail to the Aira Force waterfall takes in the dazzling landscape of William Wordsworth’s “lonely as a cloud” daffodil wanderings. From the carpark, it’s only a thirty-minute walk to the fall via a soul-stirring walk through pine-carpeted, lushly-ferned woodland glades, all framed by towering conifers.
Whether viewed from the bottom of its 70ft drop, or from stone bridges that span the top, the cascading, thundering Aira Force fall is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the Lake District. Though there are some steep sections to navigate along the way to the waterfall, for a more challenging route in this area, take the adjacent Gowbarrow Fell trail - climbable in an hour from Aira Force car park.
While we’re on the subject of Wordsworth, head to Wordsworth House in the village of Cockermouth to see where the great man was born. The riverside gardens are gorgeous, while the house is presented it was during the poet’s childhood. With an attractive riverside setting and tree-lined streets of stunning Georgian houses, Cockermouth itself has plenty going for it too. While here, you’d do well to enjoy a pint produced by Jennings Brewery - they're been brewing beer here since 1828.
The picturesque south lakeland village of Cartmel is a must-visit for foodies and gift-hunters, particularly if you’re into one-of-a-kind antiques and unique hand-crafted talking points. Cartmel’s cobbled streets and winding lanes are speckled with quality artisan food stores (don’t miss the to-die-for sticky toffee pudding sold in Cartmel Village Shop).
With an ethos of harnessing “the powerful connect between food and nature," the village’s celebrated Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Enclume, draw gourmands from far and wide. If you’re feeling flush you could stay in one L’Enclume’s elegant sixteen rooms dotted around the village.
While in the area, don’t miss the town's 12th-century Cartmel Priory, or grand Holker Hall. A few miles west of the village, this is one of Cumbria’s finest stately homes. Still in use by the Cavendish family, who’ve owned it since the late seventeenth-century, it boasts beautiful 25-acre gardens with a sunken garden, grotto, stone labyrinth, huge sundial, and sweeping views. Antique-lovers should head a few miles northeast to Low Newton’s Yew Tree Barn, a fabulous architectural salvage and antique reclamation yard and gallery. All in all, welcoming Cartmel offers rewarding cultural pursuits in a marvellously quaint milieu.
If you’re wondering what to do in the Lake District when you have kids in tow, taking a trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway comes highly recommended. Known as “La’al Ratty”, this narrow-gauge steam train transports passengers from the Esk estuary to the foot of the western fells on a seven-mile, forty-minute ride up two of the Lake District’s prettiest valleys - first along Miterdale under Muncaster Fell and then into the valley of the River Esk - before terminating at Dalegarth station. The ticket allows you to get off and walk from one of the half-dozen stations along the way.
Another fantastic family day out can be enjoyed at Muncaster Castle. Home to the Pennington family since the thirteenth-century (family members still live here today), the castle was built around a medieval tower. With expansive gardens to delight all ages, children - especially - love the owl and hawk displays and castle's ghost stories. For an atmospheric overnight experience, you could stay in the self-catering Coachman’s Quarters.
To enjoy the best rugged walking in the central fells, head for the peerless Langdale Valley. Flanked by some of the Lake District’s most famous peaks - Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Langdale Pikes - Great Langdale sits in an awe-inspiring valley. It’s also one of the oldest occupied parts of the region, with archaeological evidence dating back to the Stone Age.
The walk to Pavey Ark, a formidable cliff-face rising to 2297ft, can be climbed relatively easily if you approach it up the grassy path to its rear. More daring walkers with a head for heights will want to make the more dramatic climb up the Jack’s Rake cleft - the most difficult commonly used route in the Lake District (in parts, it’s pretty much full-on rock-climbing).
Striking powerful poses above Keswick, the dramatically sited standing stones at Castlerigg are the most prominent reminder of the Lake District’s ancient inhabitants, and the area’s most mysterious landmark. Sitting atop a sweeping plateau, and dwarfed by the encroaching fells, the site comprises thirty-eight slabs of Borrowdale volcanic stone (the largest of which is almost 8ft tall) arranged into a circle.
Thought to have been constructed around 3000 BC with an astronomical or timekeeping function, this is one of Britain’s earliest stone circles. It also boasts the unusual feature of having a rectangle of stone blocks within the circle. And, since the site has yet to be extensively excavated, more mysteries might yet be unveiled - and understood.
To explore Castlerigg Stone Circle alongside more of the most beautiful places in the Lake District, this full-day, ten-lake tour has you covered. And, while in the Keswick area, you can also rent mountain bikes, or book outdoor activities like canoeing, ghyll-scrambling, raft-building, crag-climbing and abseiling.
Rescued by local entrepreneurs in 1996 and now in full operation as a sustainable enterprise, Honister is home to England’s last working slate mine, with slate having been quarried from the area since Elizabethan times. To get a feel for life as a miner through the centuries, take a mine tour - it’s a fascinating journey through narrow tunnels into illuminated echoing caverns. Though not your typical Lake District beauty-spot of lakes, mountains and woodland, it's attractive in its own way, while the centre's excellent canyoning activities take in the majesty of the surrounding mountains.
The mine’s major attraction is the Via Ferrata (“Iron Way”) climbing experience that employs a system pioneered in the Italian Dolomites. Using a permanently fixed cableway and clip-on harness, daredevils follow the miners’ old routes up the mountain face, clambering iron rungs, ladders and supports to reach the top of Fleetwith Pike. For an even more intense experience, Via Ferrata Xtreme throws in further vertical climbs, cliff-face ladders, an Indiana Jones-style “Infinity Bridge” across a gaping 2000ft chasm, plus a giant scramble net. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Three miles from Keswick, and the northernmost of the Lake District’s major expanses of water, Bassenthwaite Lake’s shoreline habitat is the best preserved of the region’s National Park. Home to over seventy species of bird and wildfowl, it’s most known for its wild ospreys. After recolonising the area in 2001, they've returned every year since to nest and breed on the lakeshore. Usually arriving in early April, their eggs hatch in June, before adults and young head to Africa in August or September.
These majestic birds are protected here by the Lake District Osprey Project, a partnership between the Forestry Commission, Lake District National Park, and the RSPB. To view them plunging to catch fish from the lake, take the quarter-mile path from the Old Sawmill Tearooms to the lower viewpoint, with an upper viewpoint another thirty-minute climb ahead. Seeing these magnificent raptors up close and in action is a breath-taking experience, as is their Bassenthwaite Lake location.
Wordsworth was on the mark whan he declared Ullswater, "the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur, which any of the Lakes affords.” Surrounded by epic mountain scenery to the south, and gentle hills to the north, Ullswater Lake is the second largest lake in England, and walking the 20-mile Ullswater Way around the lake is a wonderful way to appreciate its beauty.
Alternately, you could combine walking with cruising - five vintage Ullswater Steamers operate a year-round service, one of which, Lady of the Lake, might just be the oldest working passenger vessel in the world (it was launched in 1877). Services run from Glenridding to Howtown, and on to Pooley Bridge, plus there’s also a route between Glenridding and the National Trust Aira Force Pier. The small village of Glenridding is also a popular starting point for walkers heading up Helvellyn mountain.
Known as Mediobogdum to the Romans, the remains of Hardknott Roman Fort are a striking testament to how serious the Romans were about defending their conquests. Commanding a strategic panoramic position below Hardknott Pass, this mighty fortification was built during Hadrian’s reign and originally boasted 12ft thick walls, a double-towered gateway, and multiple granaries and bathhouses, while its commandant enjoyed pretty plush living quarters.
Today most of the lower part of the defensive wall is the handiwork of the original Romans, while the foundations of the granaries and various other buildings have been re-erected. The surrounding heather and bracken provide a beautiful backdrop to this impressive historic site, while the views down into Eskdale and up to the Scafells are out-of-this-world.
If this guide to the most beautiful places in the Lake District has piqued your interest in visiting the region, take a look at the practical and inspirational The Rough Guide to the Lake District, written by Jules Brown, with the eighth edition updated by Norm Longley (acknowledgments to them for their contributions to this article). As a bonus, purchase of the print guidebook comes with access to a free eBook - very handy if you're out and about and don't want to lug it around, but do want all that vital info to hand.
At Rough Guides we’ve always taken pride in telling it like it is - whether we’re updating details in our guide books, or researching emerging destinations. With that in mind, we want you to know that when you click on links that lead to our affiliate partners’ sites, we can earn a small commission (at no cost to you). This is one of the ways we’re able to keep doing what we do best - provide you with travel advice and inspiration you can trust. Speaking of which, you can trust what we link to - our travel writer experts are exactly that (experts) and have highlighted them to share ideas that might make your trips all the more satisfying.
Header image: crystalline waters and epic mountains in the Lake District, Cumbria, England © Shutterstock
Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her