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Lake District guide: Where to eat, drink, walk and stay on the ultimate trip

Everything you need to know to plan and book the perfect holiday to this idyllic national park, according to destination expert Helen Pickles

Wednesday 05 April 2023 17:13 BST
The Lakes are one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations - and for good reason
The Lakes are one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations - and for good reason (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The surprise of the Lake District is how quickly the surroundings can change. One moment you’re driving through a twisty-laned, whitewashed village, the next you’re gasping at the wide expanse of a mirror-calm lake. You might be panting at the top of a craggy fell in the morning and dining on Michelin-starred food come nightfall. And it packs this beautiful variety – lakes and fells, cruise rides and museums, Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth, giftshop-packed towns and lonely farms, gastropubs and cake-filled cafes – into an astonishingly modest 30 by 40 miles.

Best time to travel for price, weather and crowds

Whatever the weather, school holidays mean the main centres around Bowness, Ambleside, Keswick, Grasmere and Coniston will be busy, with slow-moving traffic, packed car parks and peak accommodation prices.

Having said that, these months are likely to have the warmest weather – Easter can be positively balmy – though always, always, pack to expect rain. Autumn rewards with fiery colours and fewer crowds while November to March, though usually the wettest and coldest months, can also give crisp blue skies, snow-covered fells and bargain offers. Snow can last until April and always needs to be respected if venturing onto the fells.

Where to stay

Read more on the best Lake District Hotels:

The Samling enjoys stellar views over Lake Windermere
The Samling enjoys stellar views over Lake Windermere (The Samling Hotel)

With show-stopping views over Windermere, understated, luxurious bedrooms, smart or casual dining, and a staggering wine cellar, The Samling is a place to lie back and luxuriate – possibly in the hot tub.

Family-friendly Swan Hotel, near the southern end of Lake Windermere, has smart, brightly coloured rooms, a swimming pool and children’s games room, plus a swish indoor-outdoor spa.

The Inn on the Square in the centre of jolly Keswick, a 10-minute walk from the lake, has well-designed rooms with a Scandi feel, plus a choice of bar food or steakhouse restaurant.

The Mortal Man’s simple rooms have all a weary walker needs – plenty of hot water, fell views – plus hearty pub food and a beer garden overlooking the Troutbeck valley. Doubles from £85, B&B.

Book now

Read more of our reviews of the best hotels in the Lake District

What to do

Lake cruise

Fall under the spell of a lake cruise: slow, serene and with a spell-binding 360-degree picture-show of fells, hidden coves and mysterious islands. Windermere Lake Cruises crisscross England’s longest lake while Victorian steam yacht Gondola offers a stately ride across Coniston Water.

Visit Dove Cottage

William Wordsworth, arguably, helped kick-start the area’s tourism industry with poetry inspired by its magic and grandeur. Grasmere’s Dove Cottage, where he lived with his wife and sister, recreates the atmosphere of his daily life while hand-written manuscripts are displayed in the adjacent interactive museum.

Lake Windermere is the largest lake in England
Lake Windermere is the largest lake in England (Getty/iStock)

Go Potter spotting

At Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s 17th-century home, furnished as she left it when she died in 1943, you can spot scenes illustrated in her books such as the grandfather clock from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, and the garden gate through which Jemima Puddle-Duck happily waddled.

Steam railway

You don’t have to be a child or a steam-train buff to fall for the cute charms of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway that puffs through fields and woodland from Ravenglass on the coast to quiet Eskdale valley. Hop on and off if you want to combine it with a walk.

Where to eat

Eating at L’Enclume is a big ticket event
Eating at L’Enclume is a big ticket event (L’Enclume)

If Simon Rogan’s three-Michelin-starred L’Enclume in pretty Cartmel is a tasting plate too far, head round the corner to his more relaxed joint, Rogan & Co (one star), which also sources much of its produce from Rogan’s nearby farm.

Close to the shores of Derwentwater, The Lingholm Kitchen‘s menus – from breakfast, through lunch to afternoon tea – showcase the freshly made bread, cakes and desserts from the bakery next door.

Putting a spicy spin on local produce, The Jumble Room’s dishes are as tasty and eclectic – think Lebanese lamb with date and rose couscous – as the decor is jewel-bright and fun.

Away from Ambleside’s main drag, the breezy family-run Copper Pot cafe serves up terrific coffees, wholesome breakfasts and delicious lunch choices – such as hot pastrami ciabatta – as well as home-made cakes, to a background of great tunes.

Where to drink

The Kirkstile Inn in Cumbria is set in breathtaking countryside
The Kirkstile Inn in Cumbria is set in breathtaking countryside (The Pub Guide)

Low beams, real fires and cosy snugs; the whitewashed Kirkstile Inn near quiet Loweswater has all the essentials of a great traditional pub together with real ales (including their own Loweswater Gold) plus robust food.

Come wind, rain or shine, you’ll find it hard to resist the terrace of the Masons Arms with its soothing views over the lovely Winster valley. There are cask ales from Stockport-based Robinson’s brewery plus regular guest beers.

Lake District pub crawl: Hunting for the best beers on the ultimate ale trail

With around 20 real and craft ales, plus ciders and perries, Tweedies Bar in the centre of Grasmere is a cheery, family-friendly place with a vast south-facing beer garden.

You might catch a live-music session at The Pocket, a lively, small cafe-bar in Keswick with European beers, local ales and Cumbrian gins, as well as stone-baked pizzas.

Where to walk and cycle

For an alternative to Scafell Pike, try Great Gable
For an alternative to Scafell Pike, try Great Gable (Getty/iStock)

Mountain bikers and cyclists can get their thrills on one of several routes in Grizedale Forest, from gentle woodland trails to high-adrenaline obstacle-strewn courses.

Lake District walks: Why winter is the best time to explore Cumbria

Although not the highest (that’s Scafell Pike at 978m), Great Gable is not far behind (899m) and offers a classic and rewarding day’s fell walk with tremendous views from its massive, craggy summit.

For a quick and easy-ish walk – less than 40 minutes to the top – with terrific 360-degree views, Gummer’s How, at the southern end of Lake Windermere, is hard to beat.

Read more on UK travel:

Not many fells can be done from a town centre; Wansfell Pike is an exception, with a track from Ambleside leading up through woodland to its 484m summit and views over Windermere to fells including the Langdale Pikes.

Where to shop

The spicy scent in the air will lead you to the tiny premises of Grasmere Gingerbread shop, which makes the crunchy-chewy, flapjack-like slices to a secret (obvs) Victorian recipe.

There are dozens of outdoor shops in the Lake District but one of the oldest, and still independent, is Keswick’s George Fisher, covering everything from camping to orienteering, ice-climbing to swimming.

Bath House skincare and fragrance products, made in Cumbria from 97 per cent natural ingredients, are refreshing, sustainable and vegan, and can be found in shops in Ambleside, Bowness and Kirkby Lonsdale.

How to get around

A car gives most flexibility, particularly for remoter valleys, but the downside (carbon emissions, aside) is the headache of parking. Alternatively, good bus services connect the main towns, including Keswick, Ambleside and Coniston, while cruise boats (Windermere, Ullswater, Derwentwater and Coniston Water) are useful – and scenic – options.

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