Many visitors to England never venture further than the outer limits of London, intrigued by the hustle and bustle of the capital. However, if you stray further, you will discover an entirely different side of the country – and there is certainly no shortage of things to do in Northern England.
You’ll be trading in the towering skyscrapers and concrete jungle for historic fortresses and wide-open fields, fens, moors and dramatic, romantic coastal scenes. Chic cocktail bars and neon lights are replaced with charming, dog-friendly country pubs, and post-industrial cities with unmistakable grit reminding us of the times when this part of the world produced the steel and the ships that allowed Britain to rule the waves.
Plus, while Northern England might not boast quite the same selection of museums as the city of London, the history is lived and always present. From its bronze age hill forts, ancient rock art, Roman walls and roads, and castles besieged during the tumultuous War of the Roses, Northern England may as well be an open-air museum. And one where you can get up close and personal to really feel the history.
In fact, with so much appeal and so many things to do in northern England, you may just find yourself wondering why it’s not a more well-trodden path. Its far-flung geography might have something to do with it – but that just means that you’ll have more time (and space) to enjoy it.
1. Hadrian’s Wall
Northern England offers many historic places, but few are as significant (or as well-known) as Hadrian’s Wall. The barrier was famously constructed by the Roman emperor Hadrian, beginning in 122 AD. It marked the northernmost point of the Roman Empire and Brittania at the time.
It is commonly believed that Hadrian’s Wall was built to separate Roman England from an independent Scotland to the north. Hadrian’s biographer declared the purpose of the wall was ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’ – however, this has not been conclusively proven.
Whatever the reason it was built, it is a tangible piece of the 400 year-long Roman rule of England. Parts of the wall are amazingly preserved, and there are Housesteads, museums and long sections of the wall to explore. It’s no wonder that it’s sat proudly on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1987.
2. Postcard Villages, Roman Towns
They say people are friendlier up north, and there’s nowhere better to experience the hospitality – and the history – of northern England than the villages and market towns. Not only is this postcard-perfect in looks, but they also offer treats like traditional tea houses and charming old pubs.
Within Northumberland, you’ll find many bustling villages with a jaw-dropping history. For example, there’s Corbridge, which was once the northernmost town in the Roman Empire. Nearby, you’ll find the bustling market town of Hexham, which features a historic Abbey first crafted in 674 out of stones from Hadrian’s Wall (although most of what you see today is more modern).
Yet another charming village in northern England is Allendale, nestled within the charming Pennines. A popular stop for walkers, anyone can enjoy its charming looks, its festivals, and old mining towers that – and perhaps its historic pubs as well!
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3. Walking and Cycling the Pennines
If you are looking for beautiful places in Northumberland, you can’t go past the Pennines. This is an area of hills and mountains that covers much of northern England and acts as a border between North West England, Yorkshire, and North East England.
Here, you’ll find some of the United Kingdom’s most jaw-dropping scenery, so it’s no surprise it’s been declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s certainly a must if you’re an outdoorsy person looking for things to do in northern England!
There’s a fabulous selection of trails that are ideal for hiking and cycling. This includes a large section of the famous coast-to-coast (C2C) trail, which is one of the best-loved in England. If you follow this trail, you’ll meander through gorgeous villages including Allenheads. Many cyclists stop at the famous Allenheads Inn for a traditional lunch (and perhaps a pint from the Allendale Brewery to fortify themselves for the long downhill run to Newcastle.)
If you’re looking for an even more adventurous way to explore the Pennines, you’re in luck. Adrenaline-raising options range from a gentle kayak to a death-defying abseil down the rock face. The options are almost endless in the Pennines (and suit everyone from the total novice to the expert adrenaline junkie.)
The bustling northern city of Newcastle is often looked over by those planning an itinerary in England – however, those who do visit are in for a treat. The city is one of rejuvenation, from its early days as a Roman city to its heyday as a hub of industry, to its current reinvention as a cultural and artistic hotspot.
The city gets its name from ‘the Castle’ – built when the son of William the Conqueror ordered ‘a new castle upon Tyne!’ From there, a large city grew up around it, becoming a hub of industry in the north of England.
In recent years, Newcastle has re-emerged as a post-industrial city. A high-ranked university has led to a healthy student population, while projects like the Angel of the North statue and trendy riverfront have seen its profile grow. Today, Newcastle is a city enjoying a cultural renaissance, yet still holding onto its gritty heart as well.
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5. Holy Island of Lindisfarne
Undoubtedly one of the best things to do in the north of England, yet many visitors come and go without ever hearing about the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. This makes the island, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, a hidden gem ripe for exploring.
Part of what makes this island so magical is its fascinating history. The island has long been a place of great spiritual significance, with the famous religious text, the Lindisfarne Gospels, written here in the 7th Century. Despite numerous Viking raids over the years, it remained one of the holiest places in England until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537.
Although it remains a popular place for pilgrims, visitors of all walks of life can enjoy the sites including the ruined Priory, castles, pubs and inns. Do note that the tide cuts off Lindisfarne Island twice per day. Therefore, it’s important to check the tide times, in case you get stuck on the island (or even worse, on the Causeway).
6. Bamburgh Castle
If you are a history-lover looking for things to do in Northern England, then you can’t possibly pass over Bamburgh Castle. This stunning fortress by the sea is one of the most historic sites in England, and a must for anyone with any kind of curiosity about the past.
The earliest records of the castle suggest it was built on the site of an earlier Celtic Briton fort. This was likely built around the 6th Century as the capital of their then-Kingdom of Bernicia. However, it was later taken by the Anglo Saxons and then destroyed by the Vikings.
Most of what you can see today was built by the Normans in the 11th Century, with numerous additions in the centuries since. It was so strong that even the son of William the Conqueror was unable to besiege it around 1095. After a few more tumultuous centuries, it was taken during the War of the Roses in 1464.
Today, it is a popular tourist attraction, for good reason. As you can see, the story of Bamburgh Castle is a ‘who’s who’ of English history!
7. Alnwick Castle
There are lots of beautiful castles to visit in Northern England, but I’ve got to admit that Alnwick (pronounced “Annick”) Castle is pretty special. Not only is it absolutely gorgeous, but it was also THE location of Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. So, it’s hard not to be enchanted.
It’s not just its Harry Potter connection that makes Alnwick Castle a particularly unique and exciting fortress. It’s also the second-largest inhabited castle in the UK, second only to Windsor Castle – the home of the Royal Family. To this day, it is the home of the Duke of Northumberland.
Parts of the castle date back from the 11th Century, not long after the Norman Conquest of England. Therefore, whether you’re a history lover, Harry Potter superfan or just intrigued to know how a real-life Duke lives – Alnwick Castle is certainly worth a visit.
8. Dunstanburgh Castle
While not one of the best-preserved of the northern English castles, it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and romantic. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, crumbling out on a remote headland of Northumberland, is certainly an unmissable attraction in England’s north.
As you’d expect, the castle has a fascinating history. It was built by the Earl of Lancaster in the 14th century on the site of an earlier Iron Age fort. At that time, the Earl of Lancaster was in an argument with the then-King, and it’s believed he hoped the castle would be his refuge.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so, and he was executed, having only visited the castle once. It remained owned by the monarchy until the War of the Roses when it was besieged on several occasions. After this, the castle gradually fell to ruin, eventually reaching its current state of decay.
Somehow, it seems like the castle is even more beautiful as it slowly crumbles into the earth and sea. Don’t miss the chance to visit it and learn more about the conflict that engulfed it (and the north of England) many centuries ago. The best way to see it is to walk to it from the nearby village of Craster; the walk itself is spectacular.
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9. Northumberland Coastal Path
There is a good reason why England’s coasts have attracted intrepid adventurers for centuries. Boasting picturesque countryside falling to cragged cliffs and hidden-away beaches and coves, the scenery is relentlessly beautiful and dramatic. Nowhere is this more apparent than throughout the Northumberland Coastal Path.
Covering a total of about 62 miles, the Northumberland Coastal Path takes in some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. Cast your eyes toward the sea and be wowed by the beauty as waves crash against rocky headlands and sandy beaches.
Then, turn your attention inland and be charmed by sights including castles and iron-age archaeological areas. Or, just drop by a picturesque village to perhaps enjoy a hand-pulled pint in a historic pub, or a cream tea in a charming village tea shop. The locals of Northumberland are genuine, free-spirited and very friendly and you are sure to have interesting conversations in pubs up and down the coast at the end of a day of adventuring.
The Northumberland Coastal Path runs from the magnificent fortified town of Berwick-upon-Tweed to Cresswell. It takes in all the coastal areas mentioned above. It is a bit of a walk admittedly, so you are most welcome to only choose a smaller section instead!
10. Cheviot Hills
Part of the beauty of exploring northern England is the chance to discover amazing landscapes, steeped in history yet seemingly forgotten by the crowds! Nowhere is that more obvious than Cheviot Hills, right at the northernmost tip of the Northumberland National Park.
This natural wonder is a hub for hikers, history lovers, and adventure seekers, yet it still feels largely undiscovered. The unique area formed when a volcano exploded millions of years ago. Eventually, the lava cooled, forming the unique landscape of the Cheviot Hills.
Humans have settled in the area for thousands of years, with this most obvious at Yeavering Bell. Here, the remains of an ancient Iron Age fort are visible, marking out a popular landmark for hikers and history lovers alike.
Yet another drawcard is the possibility of getting the adrenaline racing with some adventurous activities. Experienced rock climbers’ eyes are sure to light up at the sight of the bouldering and climbing opportunities. Others just enjoy the fabulous hiking, while exploring the area on horseback is another great option.
Whichever way you decide to explore the English borderlands, be sure to keep your eyes out for the wildlife – especially the adorable otters that are often spotted in creeks and rivers. It’s impossible not to be charmed by this part of the world and to wonder why, when there are so many ruggedly beautiful and romantic views, walks, and cycles, that northern England is not more touristed.
Hurry, before the secret gets out!
You might also be interested in Things to Do in Romford England.
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About the Author
Monique Skidmore is an award-winning cultural anthropologist and a prize-winning writer. An Australian and a long-time expert on Myanmar, Monique blogs about the culture, history and scenic beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating and iconic destinations at Trip Anthropologist.