The northern county of Northumberland borders Scotland to the north, Cumbria to the west and both County Durham and Tyne and Wear to South. This most northerly of England’s counties is a stunning mix of glorious and very often wild coastline, a magnificently little populated National Park and a quite stunning Dark Skies location for star spotting. The history here is awe-inspiring, brutal and the legends riveting. There are incredible castles – more than 70 of them – beautiful gardens and unrivalled scenery. We love Northumberland and we’ve pulled together – and boy was it tough – the top 10 things to do in Northumberland. We may have cheated slightly, there may be a few bonuses in there, but that’s simply because picking just 10 of the best things to do in Northumberland is really, really tough.
The Top Things to Do in Northumberland
How long you stay in Northumberland will really dictate how many of the great things there are to do here, and the fabulous foods to eat. And so for us, that’s the first bonus. Because the first thing you must do in Northumberland is to stay. Whether you pick a gorgeous Northumberland coastal cottage. a holiday hideaway in Northumberland’s National Park or a fabulously friendly Northumberland bed and breakfast you have lots of choices. Pick a central spot to what you want to see in Northumberland or the Northumberland attractions you want to visit. Or even make your visit to Northumberland a multi-centre stay. Here are some of the best places to stay in Northumberland.
Stay in Northumberland
Now we’re not counting staying in Northumberland as one of the best things to do in Northumberland so let’s get started with our countdown of the 10 best things to do in Northumberland.
Visit a Castle in Northumberland
Northumberland is at the border with Scotland, and boy have there been a lot of skirmishes and battles, and that means there are a LOT of castles in Northumberland. There are more than 70 castles in Northumberland. What you need to do is pick your castle. Or castles. We wrote about the 12 most magnificent castles in Northumberland here, but if you’re only going to visit ONE castle in Northumberland here’s our shortlist of 3 and why we picked each one.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland: It’s gorgeous, it’s stunning, the gardens are amazing and Harry Potter was filmed there. If you have kids, it’s most likely the best castle to visit in Northumberland.
Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland: It’s a ruin, you can only get there on foot but it’s a glorious walk. It’s atmospheric and moody and for me, it’s my favourite castle in Northumberland (despite breaking my wrist while visiting) and that is primarily because of its location, right on a rocky coastline. Dunstanburgh Castle is managed by English Heritage on National Trust land – members get in for free. (join now and save money here)
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland: It holds an amazingly beautiful position, right on the Northumberland coast, it has a HUGE amount of things to do there (you’ll need a LONG day to see it all) and it’s also located right next to the BEST BEACH IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. There’s more on what to do in Bamburgh here.
Visit Holy Island, Northumberland
Holy Island or Lindisfarne is one of the must-see places in Northumberland. The island of Lindisfarne is accessible only via a tidal causeway and remains cut off for most of the tide. Holy Island dates back to the 6th century and became an important centre for Christianity with Saint Aidan recognised as bringing Christianity to this part of England. The ruined Lindisfarne Priory is beautiful and contains a huge amount of history in the heritage centre here. The priory is managed by English Heritage and members get in for free (you can join English Heritage here). Lindisfarne Castle is also a must-visit on Holy Island – managed by the National Trust, there are stunning views from the castle walls and the garden design is quite incredible. As access to the island is only via the tidal causeway it’s absolutely essential to plan your visit here based on the tides. Our guide to Holy Island details everything that you need to know.
For a seriously local experience on Holy Island, you should stay overnight and see what the island is like after the day-trippers leave. There are a variety of places you can stay, from bed and breakfasts to hotels and holiday cottages.
Visit the Farne Islands in Northumberland for a Unique Wildlife Experience
The Farne Islands are a group of 15-20 islands off the coast of Northumberland. The number of islands depends on the state of the tide and the islands are located from 1 ½ miles to 4 ¾ miles from the shore. The Farne Islands are managed by the National Trust, but boat trips to them are run by private organisations, mainly local companies from Seahouses, Northumberland. (check out our guide to all there is to do in Seahouses here) The Farne Islands are home to a huge population of birdlife and sea life and a trip there is unique and glorious. We recommend taking the trip that allows landing on Longstone Island in order to visit the Longstone Lighthouse which was the home of Victorian Era heroine Grace Darling, who, along with her father led a rescue from the wreck of the steamship the Forfarshire to save 9 people from certain death.
The wildlife around the Farne Island is stunning and unique to this area of Northumberland. You’ll also want to make time to visit the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) museum in Bamburgh and understand more about the life of Grace Darling and what you can do to be safe in the waters off the coast of Northumberland.
Visit Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland
Hadrian’s Wall stretches from Wallsend on the East Coast of England to Bowness in Cumbria and was built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 to protect the areas of England that the Romans controlled from those who might attack it (primarily at this time the Picts). One of the great ways to see Hadrian’s Wall is to walk the 73 miles (135 kilometres) from coast to coast, but if you don’t have enough time for that, then there are a variety of other ways to see this Northumberland UNESCO World Heritage Site. Corbridge Roman is an English Heritage managed site that enables you to walk through a Roman town ruins. The museum explains how life was here in Roman times and you can also explore weapons and armour of Roman soldiers. There are more details here. Interpretive guides and walks let you walk around the ruins of the Roman town and understand how life was here.
Vindolando was also an important border fort and is a unique location where you can watch live excavations. Some of the unique findings are displayed in the museum here.
Take a Walk in Northumberland
Whether you like to walk for a short time or take multi-day hikes, Northumberland has it all. The Hadrian’s Wall Walk stretches 73 miles and goes from the coast in Wallsend through Northumberland and into Cumbria to end on the west coast. It’s a truly glorious and often wild hike that takes several days. The Northumberland Coastal Path is truly one of the most gorgeous coastal walks in Europe. The coastal path in Northumberland stretches along the coast of Northumberland for 62 miles (100 kilometres) from Berwick upon Tweed (check our awesome guide of what to do in Berwick here) in the north down to Cresswell in the south. There are beaches, rocky headlands, cosy villages and stunning castles. We love the stretch that runs between Bamburgh and Amble. There are hundreds and hundreds of miles of public footpaths throughout Northumberland and into the National Park – the best way is to navigate them is with an Ordnance Survey Map – although we prefer the digital version – you can download offline maps with the OS Map from £2.99 a month > try it for free for a week here.
The path to Holy Island has been a pilgrimage route since 635AD – the road to Holy Island wasn’t constructed until 1954 and the tall vertical poles were the only markers to the island. Following the Northumberland Pilgrim’s Way from the mainland to Holy Island is a unique walk in Northumberland. You MUST take great care when taking this route – and be especially mindful of the tide times – always walk on a FALLING tide and let others know when you are leaving and what your expected arrival time in.
Spend time in Northumberland National Park
Northumberland National Park is one of the least visited in England, there are low levels of population and a huge amount of wildness. The park is excellent for hiking with more than 1100 kilometres of public footpaths through the park. Water sports feature heavily too, with Kielder Reservoir providing for water skiing, sailing and canoeing.
Perhaps because of its remoteness, the National Park is superb for plant and star spotting. Northumberland National Park is an official Dark Skies site – where you can both star spot independently and attend organized guided events.
It is easiest to explore Northumberland National Park by car and it’s easy to access, the A696 from the A1 near Newcastle will take you straight to the park. Bus services operate during the summer months only with the AD122 bus linking the major attractions in Northumberland National Park. Northumberland National Park makes an appearance in the openings of a novel by Sharon Bolton – its one of our must read books set in Northumberland – and there are more here.
Take in World Class Gardens in Northumberland
Four of the UK’s most stunning gardens are to be found in Northumberland – they’re a great combination of art and nature. Some are formal, some are more natural, they’re all beautiful outdoor spaces in Northumberland that you should explore at some time in your trip. Here’s our pick of Northumberland’s best gardens
- The Gertrude Jekyll Garden at Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island was created in 1911 when the castle was overhauled by architect Lutyens to turn it into a private residence. Managed now by the National Trust, the walled garden combines annuals, heritage vegetables and colourful perennials in a year-round oasis.
- Belsay Hall Gardens: located within the grounds of Belsay Hall and Castle, these gardens are recognised as a Grade I listed property. They’re a glorious mix of formal and natural and it’s well worth visiting in different seasons because they constantly change. There’s a designated walking route through the gardens with explanatory notes about what you’re seeing. Our favourite is the Quarry Garden, which feels like you’re entering a secret world. The gardens at Belsay are managed by English Heritage and entrance for members is free – join here now to save.
- The 12 acres of magnificent gardens at Alnwick Castle are a fabulous outdoor location for all the family to enjoy. The world’s largest Tai Haku Cherry Orchard combines with waterfalls, a treehouse restaurant and the poison garden for a unique day out. The Alnwick Garden also comprises a rose garden and a number of seasonal activities throughout the year.
- There are few locations more stunning than Cragside. This was the first private house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity and the gardens were then and are not equally innovative. Start by exploring the formal gardens, visit one of the largest rock gardens in the world and step into the Pinetum and see the conifers that were planted more than 140 years ago towering above you. This combination of gardens is truly magical and has been managed by the National Trust since 1977.
Spot Unique Wildlife in Northumberland
In a county that has low population density, there’s little wonder that this is a fabulous place for wildlife to thrive. And there are ample opportunities to see some of England’s more unique species in their natural habitat. Make a plan to find some of Northumberland’s favourite residents.
The Native Red Squirrel – constantly under threat from the bigger and more aggressive grey squirrels, England’s native red squirrels have found a home in Kielder Water and Forest Park. You can join professional naturalists in Kielder on a Red Squirrel Safari (check times and details here) or simply explore yourself and be sure to report any sightings. Explore all there is to do in Kielder in our guide here.
Chillingham Wild Cattle – this herd of around 90 cattle are the sole survivors of herds that once roamed the ancient forests of Britain. They’re said to be rarer than Giant Pandas. You can see them at Chillingham Castle.
Grey Seals and Birdlife – take a trip from Seahouses out to the Farne Islands and you’ll see a huge amount of both birdlife and grey seals who make their homes on this group of islands. Boat owners from Seahouses are great at pointing out specific species and varieties for an educational and fun trip.
Eat Northumberland Specialities
You can’t come to Northumberland and not eat some of the regional specialities. There are lots of great restaurants and cafes in which to try some of Northumberland’s best food. Here’s a shortlist of what you should eat in Northumberland.
Ham and Pease Pudding Stotties: You can buy the ingredients for this from any supermarket in Northumberland (and much of the North East of England). A stotty is a large round flatbread that’s usually cooked in the bottom of the oven. It’s dense and has a dent in the middle. Cut your stotty in half, spread with butter and pease pudding (a smooth paste made from boiling split peas) and layer on chunks of cooked ham. It’s filling, fabulous and usually a love or hate relationship.
Smoked Kippers from Craster Northumberland: Kippers are smoked in the curing sheds and using secret century-old recipes in both the Swallowfish and L Robson & Sons smokehouses. Smoked kippers are traditionally a breakfast dish in Northumberland, eaten with chunks of homemade butter brown bread. You can buy them from the Robsons restaurants and takeaway in Craster, or the Swallowfish delicatessen in Seahouses.
Lindisfarne Mead: Mead from Lindisfarne is a fortified honey wine combined with local spring water, fermented grape juice, hers and spirits. Legend has it that the monks who lived on Holy Island made it. You can taste before buying at St Aidan’s Winery on Holy Island and then buy bottles of various flavours and types to take home with you.
Have a cup of Earl Grey Tea in Northumberland: Prime Minister, the Earl Charles Grey not only passed the 1832 Great Reform Bill, which introduced major changes to the electoral system in England and Wales, but he also was responsible for the creation of Earl Grey Tea. The tea was blended specifically with bergamot oil to offset the strong taste of lime in the water at his seat, Howick Hall and Gardens.
There’s a whole lot more to eat and drink in Northumberland – check out our guide to the counties best dishes here.
Pick at least one of Northumberland’s Magnificent Beaches to visit
There are more than 30 miles of beaches in Northumberland. Some are in seaside towns like Seahouses and are easy to get to. Others like those on Longsands Island on the Farne Islands are visitable only by boat and specific permission. There are beaches within Nature Reserves, like those at Budle Bay and rock and crab pools all along the coast. Dog walkers are welcome on many beaches in Northumberland, horse riders too. You’ll find miles and miles of hard-packed sands hidden behind dunes. What’s perfect about beaches in Northumberland is that you’ll always be able to find a place for yourself.
Our favourite beach in the entire world is in Northumberland and its very easy to get to. The beach at Bamburgh is vast, wild and gloriously wild for most of the year. Come along some time and experience it. On a fine sunny calm day, the beach is stunning, but we love it too when the wind is howling and the sea is wild, there’s definitely never anyone else around then…
Final Words on the Top 10 things to do in Northumberland
It is difficult to reduce the top things to do in Northumberland to just 10 things and we’ve probably cheated a little bit here. As one of England’s most northerly counties, Northumberland has an amazing combination of coastline, mountains, a superb National Park and the friendliest of people. There are castles galore her e- more than 70 of them – stately homes, hiking trails wildlife and a stunning location in which to view the stars in a recognised Dark Skies location. There’s history, great food and, we think, one of the world’s best beaches. Come on up, Northumberland is glorious and is waiting for you!ASocialNomad is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.ca. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates..