The clue to the region’s allure is in the name. A dozen or more lakes – sinuous, pretty, forbidding – vie for attention. Throw in craggy fells, tumbling waterfalls, timeless villages of whitewashed cottages, and the pull is irresistible. Even when it’s damp – and it frequently is – the scenery merely acquires a layer of misty romanticism. Its compact size (around 30 by 40 miles), together with its easy access (20 minutes from the M6), makes it one of the best places in Britain to enjoy the great outdoors whether ticking off the fells (including England’s highest), strolling a lakeshore or taking to the water.
It’s not all high-energy stuff though. Writers were drawn and inspired by its beauty, so you can nose around the homes of children’s author Beatrix Potter or poet William Wordsworth. There are quirky museums (from steamboats to pencils), absurdly pretty villages (including Cartmel and Hawkshead) with Instagrammable views plus – the ultimate relaxation – lake cruises. Base yourself in a lakeside town if you want variety, or a valley village for the big outdoors.
For further Lake District inspiration, see our guides to the area’s best hotels (including the best luxury hotels), restaurants, pubs, things to do and walks.
The perfect weekend break in the Lake District
Boat trips, Wordsworth and Michelin stars
Unless you’re planning a weekend of fell-walking, base yourself in the central Lakes. Ambleside has all-round appeal with a range of shops, accommodation choices (try Ambleside Townhouse, from £79, or Rothay Manor, from £200), eating options and more breathing space than equally central Bowness.
Lake Windermere is a 15-minute stroll for leisurely lake cruises including the option to hop off at the Windermere Jetty Museum to wander its collection of vintage steam launches, speed-boats and rowing-boats. Homeground, in Windermere town, makes a good brunch choice. In the afternoon, either take the ferry from Bowness across the lake to Near Sawrey to explore Beatrix Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse, Hill Top, kept as she left it when she died in 1943. Alternatively, head a mile south of Bowness to Blackwell a stunning Arts and Crafts house with enviable views across the lake (nice café, too). For dinner, keep it local and fun at Lucy’s on a Plate in the centre of Ambleside. Find more of the best things to do in the Lake District in our guide.
Next morning head three miles north to Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where poet William Wordsworth wrote most of his major works. Afterwards, take the Coffin Trail (more scenic than it sounds) from behind the cottage to Rydal Mount Wordsworth’s final home, two miles away and with its romantic garden. Find more of the best walks in the Lake District in our guide. Back in Grasmere, Mathilde’s Cafe is a good lunch option and part of the Heaton Cooper Gallery (heatoncooper.co.uk) where you can pick up quality landscape prints for a very reasonable price. The village is a useful spot for gifts – including Grasmere Gingerbread – but if you still have energy, drive over Kirkstone Pass to Ullswater and the scenic walk up to Aira Force waterfall.
For dinner, there’s fine dining at Grasmere’s Michelin-starred Forest Side or punchy flavours at the eclectic Jumble Room, both in Grasmere. Find more of the best restaurant in the Lake District in our guide.
The perfect one-week holiday in the Lake District
Mountain tops, picturesque valleys and charming pubs
After a couple of days exploring around Ambleside (see above), head north to Keswick, a jolly town on the shores of Derwentwater. To stay right in the centre, consider the Royal Oak (from £117) or, for a quieter valley location, plus a spa, try the Lodore Falls Hotel and Spa (from £189).
Take to the water: either literally on paddleboards or a choice of craft at Derwent Water Marina, or more leisurely on a traditional wooden launch. Combine the latter with a walk up Cat Bells, a popular ‘starter fell’ for families, by hopping off at Hawse End. Alternatively, follow the lakeside walk back to Keswick, calling in at The Lingholm Kitchen for lunch or afternoon tea.
After a browse around Keswick, with its twice-weekly market, Pencil Museum, theatre plus huge range of outdoor clothing shops, head north up the quiet east side of Bassenthwaite Lake for a ‘wee dram’. The Lakes Distillery produces gin and vodka as well as whisky, and a behind-the-scenes-tour lets you not only watch, but taste a tot of all three.
South of Keswick is Borrowdale, possibly the Lake District’s most picturesque valley. Grange is a pretty spot for a walk across fields to the lake or a stroll along the wooded riverside path. Then hold on to your seat, as you navigate the one-in-four Honister Pass at the head of the valley to Honister Slate Mine, a still-working 18th-century mine. Apart from its shop, options include a mine tour or, if you’ve a head for heights, a thrilling ‘via ferrata’ climb. Honister is also a starting point for climbing Great Gable, if you want to tick off one of the iconic fells.
Come the evening, there’s Michelin-star dining at The Cottage in The Wood, or pizzas and live music at The Pocket. For a drink afterwards, find more of the best pubs in the Lake District in our guide.
Round off the week in the softer southern Lakes perhaps staying at the Masons Arms near Cartmel Fell (from £117) or the family-friendly Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge (from £140). Let the kids burn off energy in Grizedale Forest with its cycling, mountain-biking and tree-top assault-course options. For the walkers, Gummer’s How is a short, occasionally sharp, climb with disproportionately good views for the easy 40-minute ascent. Find more of the best walks in our guide.
To the west of Grizedale, overlooking Coniston Water, is Brantwood, home of the Victorian art critic, philosopher and artist, John Ruskin. The gardens are worth exploring, too; the finest way to arrive is by the Victorian steam yacht, Gondola, from Coniston village. The Black Bull in the latter, is a fine spot for a pint from its microbrewery. Further south is picture-box pretty Cartmel, with twisting lanes, 12th-century Priory, racecourse, and browsable foodie and gift shops. It’s also home to two of chef-restaurateur Simon Rogan’s Michelin-starred restaurants; book ahead!
Where to stay
Best for dog-friendly rooms
Dogs have their own, very posh, washroom, as well as treats, when staying at Rothay Manor (from £200), while there’s plenty of good walks from the doorstep at The Queens Head, Troutbeck (from £145) plus useful outside tap and terrace.
Find more of the best dog-friendly hotels in the Lake District in our guide.
Best for families
Children will be nicely exhausted with all the activities, including paddleboarding, archery and Kids Zone, at Another Place (from £210), as they will with the indoor and outdoor play areas, plus pool, at The Swan (from £140).
Best spa hotels
For views of fells and lake from the indoor/outdoor spa, it’s hard to beat the Lodore Falls Hotel and Spa (from £189) while the Langdale Hotel and Spa (from £171), and also with an indoor/outdoor zone, includes a private ‘mini-spa’ for two.
Find more of the best spa hotels in the Lake District in our guide.
When to go
Rain and the Lakes go together, well, like crumpets and butter, so always be prepared. While the wettest and coldest months are November to January, heavy showers can strike at any time and snow can remain on the fells until late spring; it’s essential to check the weather if you’re planning to go fell-walking. Snow can occasionally make more rural roads and mountain passes impassable.
The warmest months are June to August but these are also the busiest when prices rocket, car parks are packed and traffic jams can be frequent. Equally busy are Easter and school half-terms. If you can, opt for the shoulder months: in April and May the weather is more settled and warming up; in September and October the woodlands blaze with autumnal colour.
What to bring home
Honister slate – beautifully smooth and distinctively dark greeny-grey, you can find homewares, from door knobs to cheese boards, plus garden benches and ornaments, or order a custom-made house-name or number.
There are dozens of Lakeland artists – some good, many bad – but the Heaton Cooper family (now in the third generation) has produced some of the finest iconic and arresting images with landscape prints starting from around £10. Purchase from Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere.
Tourist Information: There are tourist offices in the main towns including Windermere, Ambleside, Keswick and Coniston. You can also find lots of information on the tourism board’s website visitlakedistrict.com. Or try visitengland.com.
Emergency Services: Ambulance/Police/Fire/Mountain Rescue 999.
Visitor Passes: National Trust membership is very useful here, as it permits you free entry to all NT properties and also allows you to park in NT car parks.
Helen Pickles is Telegraph Travel’s Lake District expert. An upbringing of wet caravanning holidays to climb its fells and shriek at the coldness of lake-paddling started a curious love affair. She can still be left breathless by its beauty – and not just the uphill slogs.