The best things to do in the Lake District, from boat trips to Beatrix Potter's farmhouse

Helen Pickles
The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway steams upwards through fields and woodland on a former iron-ore route, and the views are fabulous - brian.sherwen@virgin.net

More insider guides for planning a trip to the Lake District

  1. 48 hours

    48 hours

  2. Attractions

    Attractions

  3. Restaurants

    Restaurants

  4. Pubs

    Pubs

  5. Walks

    Walks

  6. Hotels

    Hotels

The Lake District, undoubtedly, has some of Britain’s finest scenery and fell-walking. But it has much more – much (not surprisingly) as a consequence of its headline-grabbing views. Writers, poets and artists (such as Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth) were drawn here, leaving fascinating homes to explore. Wealthy folk built grand houses and gardens to capitalise on the landscapes. Quirky things to do include a distillery tour, slate mine and pencil museum – but honestly nothing beats a lake cruise for complete relaxation.

Windermere and around

Take a cruise along England's longest lake 

For many people, Windermere, which stretches for over 10 miles between Ambleside and Newby Bridge, is the heart of the Lake District. Inevitably, it attracts swarms of visitors, particularly at its Bowness pier, but a ride on one of its lake cruisers, gliding past its 18 islets, is an undeniably enjoyable way to take in the lovely scenery. There’s a choice of routes, and you can usually break the journey at one of the landing stages.

Insider tip: During the winter months, buy a 48-hour ticket and enjoy unlimited travel on any of the cruise routes. 

Contact: 01539 443360; windermere-lakecruises.co.uk
Opening times: Daily, check website for precise timings
Price: £-££

Lake Windermere's lake cruises are an undeniably enjoyable way to take in the lovely scenery Credit: George-Standen

• The best restaurants in the Lake District

Visit Beatrix Potter's perfectly preserved house 

The 17th-century farmhouse Hill Top is where children's author Beatrix Potter created some of her best-known stories. It's still furnished as she left it when she died in 1943: in the entrance hall are her straw hat and clogs, in the bedroom are the bed hangings that she embroidered. Most fun is to be had by spotting the scenes illustrated in her books: the grandfather clock from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, the chimney stack that Tom Kitten failed to escape from and Mr MacGregor’s cottage garden.

Insider tip: In summer, it heaves with visitors so visit early on a weekday if you can.

Contact: 01539 436269; nationaltrust.org.uk
Opening times: End of May-Aug, daily, 10am-5pm; mid-Feb to end of May and Sep-Oct, Sat-Thur (plus Fri in school holidays), 10am-4.30pm. Garden only also open Nov-Dec, daily, 10.30am-3.30pm 
Price: ££

Hill Top is the house where Beatrix Potter created some of her best-known stories

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Explore a grand Victorian-era holiday home 

Blackwell House is a gem of an Arts and Crafts house overlooking Windermere, which was designed in 1898 by leading architect M H Baillie Scott as a holiday home for a wealthy Manchester brewer. It’s a delight of original handmade details from William De Morgan tiled fireplaces to carved oak panelling, jewel-coloured stained glass windows and a sweeping peacock frieze. But it’s the space, the light, the attention to detail – window latches are individually carved – that staggers.    

Insider tip: Time your visit for later in the day so you can sit in the window of the White Drawing Room and watch the light fade over Windermere.

Contact: 01539 446139; blackwell.org.uk
Opening times: Mar-Oct, daily, 10.30am-5pm; Nov-Feb, daily, 10.30am-4pm
Price: ££

The modern-looking White Drawing Room is one of Blackwell House's highlights Credit: Steven Barber Photography Limited/Steven Barber

• An insider guide to the Lake District

Grasmere and Rydal Water

See inside William Wordsworth's whitewashed cottage

The atmospheric, whitewashed Dove Cottage is where William Wordsworth lived for eight years from 1799 and wrote his most famous works. The inside is kept as in his day and is full of memorabilia: the chair where he dictated to his sister Dorothy or wife, Mary (he composed when out walking), his skating boots (he boasted he could carve his initials on the ice of Grasmere) and friend Thomas de Quincey’s opium scales.

Insider tip: From behind the cottage, it's a lovely two-mile walk – despite its name, the Coffin Trail – with views of Grasmere, to the poet's last home, Rydal Mount, and its 'romantic-style’ gardens.

Contact: 01539 435544; wordsworth.org.uk
Opening times: Ring or see website to check
Price: £

Whitewashed Dove Cottage was Wordsworth's home for eight years and is full of memorabilia

• The best hotels in the Lake District

Keswick and the north

Stroll around a Lakeland market town

While many towns here feel like tourist attractions, Keswick retains the jaunty, working air of a Lakeland market town. On the shores of pretty Derwentwater, it offers something for everyone from lake cruises (hop on and off to combine with a lakeside stroll), the Cumberland Pencil Museum (see the world’s longest pencil), outdoors shops and arty shops, a Saturday market, Castlerigg Stone Circle and an excellent theatre.  

Insider tip: Take an early-morning walk to Friar’s Crag on the lakeshore for memorable views up the lake to 'the jaws of Borrowdale' – the local name for the entrance to the steep-sided valley.

Keswick has managed to retain the jaunty, working air of a Lakeland market town Credit: Chris Hepburn/ChrisHepburn

• The loveliest walks in the Lake District

Tour a distillery and taste some Lake District whisky

Craft beers are well-known in the Lake District, but whisky was an entirely new proposition when the Lakes Distillery opened in 2014. But why not? Crystal-clear river water filtered by the fells is key to the taste. On the site of a Victorian model farm, beside Bassenthwaite Lake, the distillery’s behind-the-scenes tour – and tasting – lets you discover how the whisky, gin and vodka are produced.

Insider tip: Children needn't be bored; they can take an alpaca for a walk from the on-site herd.

Contact: 01768 776916, lakesdistillery.com
Opening times: Daily, 10am-6pm; last tour 5pm (6pm Thur and Fri)
Price: ££

The Lakes Distillery produces whisky, gin and vodka and offers behind-the-scenes tours (and tastings)

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Take a trip down England's last working slate mine

Drop deep inside a mine or scale the steep and rocky Fleetwith Pike (no experience needed for either) at Honister Slate Mine, England’s last working slate mine. At the top of the 1-in-4 Honister Pass, this slate mine has been worked commercially since the 18th century. Take a guided mine tour or get high on adrenaline on one of two Via Ferratas (routes with fixed cables and ladders) that let you scale vertical rock faces in safety, despite dizzying drops beneath.

Insider tip: Whatever the weather, make sure you come in waterproofs, gloves and strong footwear.

Contact: 01768 777230; honister.com
Opening times: Daily, 9am-5pm
Price: ££-£££

Drop deep inside the still-working Honister Slate Mine for a guided tour

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Southern Lakeland

Amble through a picturesque village

There's more than sticky toffee pudding to ludicrously pretty Cartmel – though you should still make sure to pop in to the Village Shop to buy some. Elsewhere you’ll find artisan cheeses and breads, craft beer, funky homewares and a clutch of antique shops. Or just enjoy wandering its crooked lanes and calling in at its fine 12th-century priory church – and work up the appetite to eat at the two-Michelin-starred L’Enclume

Insider tip: Time your visit for one of the races at Cartmel Racecourse, surely Britain's prettiest?

Ludicrously pretty Cartmel is the birthplace of sticky toffee pudding Credit: Kevin Eaves/Khrizmo

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Enjoy a brisk walk up to a knoll with staggering views

If you want to tick off a (minor) hill but don’t fancy one of the big-hitters then Gummer's How, a little knoll at the southern end of Windermere, fits the bill. Around 30 to 40 minutes gets you to the summit from where you’ll be rewarded with staggering views: on a clear day south to Morecambe Bay, east to the Pennines, north to the Lakeland fells, while below is shimmering Windermere.

Insider tip: Two miles along the road (away from the lake) from the start/finish of the walk is the Masons Arms with its good range of beers and terrace overlooking the Winster valley.

A walk up to Gummer's How is rewarded with splendid views over shimmering Windermere Credit: Jimmy Clarke

Coniston and Langdale

Discover a sizeable art collection in an historic house

The home of the formidable Victorian art critic, philosopher and artist John Ruskin, Brantwood has a peerless position overlooking Coniston Water. There's as much to see outside as inside (look out for his collection of Turners as well as his own fine watercolours), as Ruskin was a pioneering environmentalist, creating separate 'garden rooms' in his steep-sided garden.

Insider tip: The finest way to arrive is by water in the, appropriately Victorian, Steam Yacht Gondola (mid Mar-Oct) with its rich upholstery and stately pace. The boat ticket includes a discount to Brantwood.

Contact: 01539 441396; brantwood.org.uk
Opening times: Mid-Mar to mid-Nov, daily, 10.30am-5pm; mid-Nov to mid-Mar, Wed-Sun, 10.30am-5pm 
Price: £

The art-filled Brantwood has a peerless position overlooking Coniston Water

Ullswater and around

Hike up to a beautiful waterfall

It's an uphill walk, but not too steep and not too far (around 20 minutes from the car park), and undeniably romantic as you zig-zag up woodland paths to this beautiful waterfall, Aira Force. Like a mane of Rapunzel's hair, it plunges 70 feet into magical pools, and is most spectacular after heavy rainfall – which, let's face it, isn’t too hard to achieve in the Lakes.

Insider tip: Just to the east of here, on the shores of Ullswater around Glencoyne Bay, is where William Wordsworth saw a 'host of golden daffodils' and was inspired to write his famous poem.

Contact:nationaltrust.org.uk
Price: Free

It's a 20-minute uphill walk through pretty woodland paths to reach the beautiful Aira Force Credit: hardyuno/hardyuno

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Ravenglass

Journey through fields on board a mini steam train

Despite your best efforts to appear cool, you’ll still get ridiculously excited as you board the Thomas-the-Tank-Engine style Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, which steams upwards through fields and woodland on the former iron-ore route from Ravenglass up Eskdale. It's cute as kittens with its gleaming brass, wooden floors, and choo-chooing engine.

Insider tip: You can hop off at any station and walk to any of the others to board again. There's also a quiet circular walk from the final station, Dalegarth, through Boot to Doctor Bridge and back along the pretty River Esk via St Catherine's Church.

Contact: 01229 717171; ravenglass-railway.co.uk
Opening times: Mid-Mar to Oct, daily (plus half-terms and some weekends outside these months), 9.25am-5.40pm; shorter operating hours at other times
Price: £-££

A journey on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway takes you upwards through the countryside Credit: Mark Fielding