While Norfolk isn’t lacking in exceptional sights, including historic stately homes packed with extraordinary treasures, ancient medieval churches and fascinating museums, its chief charms lie outdoors. The region’s vast sandy beaches, tranquil nature reserves and the Broads National Park with its secret backwaters provide endless opportunities for leisurely picnicking. Seal-watching boat trips are a great way to get a new perspective on the coast and its wildlife and families on budgets are well catered for – bag a space on the quayside for the favourite Norfolk pastime of catching crabs, not only fun but completely free.
Fall in love with a chubby seal
The long spit of Blakeney Point is a bird sanctuary, and home to common and grey seals, which sprawl lazily by the water’s edge. Hour-long boat trips with Beans Boats depart from Morston Quay.
Insider tip: Common seals have their young between June and August, while grey seals give birth between November and January. Mothers suckle their offspring for around three weeks so plan your trip for these months for a chance of seeing these fast-growing pups.
Go on a royal ghost hunt
Once owned by the Boleyn family, the Jacobean hall at Blickling Estate is said to be haunted by Anne Boleyn despite being rebuilt in 1616, 80 years after her execution. Its long gallery and library are impressive, but the gardens and park are the big draw here – so it’s best to visit on a sunny day to appreciate the surroundings.
Insider tip: One of the best months to visit is April when the estate’s woodlands are carpeted with bluebells. A multi-use, four-mile trail takes in the park’s highlights and is suitable for pushchairs, adapted wheel chairs and bikes (available to hire).
Get up close to the grand masters
An 18th-century Palladian mansion on a 3,000-acre estate and deer park, Holkham Hall's highlights include the Statue Gallery, paintings by Rubens and van Dyck, and the Marble Hall, with trompe l’oeil ceilings. Its state rooms are open for viewing and there’s also an interactive “Holkham Stories Experience“ explaining the estate’s construction, history and farming projects. Also a large walled garden, wooden play area and café.
Insider tip: It’s a huge estate and there’s plenty to see, so allow at least half a day to visit. If legs get tired there’s a buggy transfer service to and from the walled garden, which operates regularly from the ticket office.
Catch a crab on the quayside
Blakeney is one of Norfolk’s prettiest coastal villages, with small flint cottages in the back lanes and a narrow, winding high street. Families cluster on the quayside dangling weighted lines in the water as the harbour is a prime spot for crabbing (or “gillying” as it’s called locally), a fun, absorbing and completely free Norfolk pastime whatever the state of the tide.
Insider tip: Bait your line with raw meat (strips of bacon works well) as this is a favourite with crabs and pull them up carefully. Don’t keep the crabs in your bucket for too long before tipping them back into the sea.
Stride around a stately home
Once home to Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, Houghton Hall has early 18th-century interiors sumptuously designed by William Kent. Other highlights include a superb five-acre walled garden and model-soldier collection. Don’t miss the compelling “Contemporary and Country” exhibition with artworks by East of England artists, located in the hall’s stables.
Insider tip: Children under 18 of age years are admitted free of charge and you don’t have to pay the full price if visiting the garden and stables only.
Take a journey back in time
Book a tour of the Hanseatic town of King’s Lynn, which sits on the banks of the River Great Ouse and has a rich maritime history dating back to the 12th century. The town’s guides will reveal fine merchants’ houses and the seventeenth-century Custom House, St Margaret’s Church, St Nicholas Chapel and the grand Tuesday Market Place.
Insider tip: Don’t miss the Trues Yard Fisherfolk Museum, which charts the arduous life of the local fishing community who lived in the North End of the town until the 1930s, and includes a visit to a small smokehouse discovered in 2009.
Steam through the countryside on the Poppy Line
Railway fans can hop aboard the vintage rolling stock of the North Norfolk Railway, which makes the eight-mile journey between the inland Georgian town of Holt and the seaside resort of Sheringham. The steam train is the most popular, but there are old-fashioned diesel engines too. There are plenty of special events throughout the summer months including fish-and-chip trains, teddy bears picnic days and murder mystery tours.
Insider tip: Check the online timetables before you go. Departure times for diesel and steam engine rides vary. Special events require advance booking and may also affect the timetables. Steam driver and signalling experience days are also available.
Be the king of the castle
Norwich Castle dates from William the Conqueror’s reign and is first mentioned in 1075. Galleries focus on Boudica and the Celts, the Roman occupation and Norman conquest, Egyptian culture, natural history and fine art. The keep with garderobes, chapel and 12th-century stone carving, as well as the cafe and shop, are currently closed for a £13.5m renovation project. The castle is offering lower admission prices while these areas are inaccessible.
Insider tip: Visitor numbers are limited each day, so it's essential you book online, at least a day in advance of your visit.
Explore the creeks and backwaters
Tailor-made trips on a traditional wooden fishing boat can be booked through the Coastal Exploration Company. Operating between Wells-next-the-Sea and Cley, guests can help skipper Henry Chamberlain navigate through little-known creeks, exploring parts of this coastline that are only accessible by water while spotting wildlife and learning to forage for food.
Insider tip: Take plenty of warm clothes and waterproofs. Even on a warm day, the temperature can drop significantly once out on the water. Henry can provide warming hot drinks and homemade cake, or more substantial meals if required.
Discover a priest’s hiding hole
Oxburgh Hall is an atmospheric, 15th-century red-brick house, built by the Bedingfeld family, who continue to live in private apartments here and encircled by a wide moat. Currently the upper floors of the hall and tea room are closed for maintenance and conservation, but within the 70-acre estate there’s a walled garden and French-inspired parterres plus leafy woodland.
Insider tip: Take the circular three-mile walk to Caldecote Farm from Oxburgh Hall along quiet lanes, or a slightly longer three-and-a-half-mile route to Gooderstone through scenic Breckland countryside. Details of these walks are available at the hall.
Spot a pink flamingo
There are over 50 resident flamingos in the Wetland Discovery Area at Pensthorpe Natural Park, just outside Fakenham, an area of 700 acres encompassing the Wensum river and a diverse landscape of farmland, heathland and woodland. Visiting birds include oystercatchers, avocets, kingfishers and marsh harriers. Interactive trails, pond dipping, bird feeding and wildlife spotting provides plenty of diversion for families with young children, and indoor and outdoor play areas, children’s events and a sculpture trail add to the fun.
Bask in the Broads
Created in 1989, the Broads National Park is an area of 117 square miles to the east of the region, originally dug out for peat in medieval times creating a network of navigable waterways and large broads, including Hickling, Barton and Oulton. Take a day trip on a river cruiser or hire a boat, kayak or paddle board from Wroxham or Potter Heighham to explore the quiet backwaters. Riverside paths are perfect for walking or cycling excursions and nature-lovers can find a huge variety of species including swallowtail butterflies, bitterns, cranes and marsh harriers.