Visit Carlisle – the historic ‘City of the Lakes’ that’s well worth stopping off for
If your only experience of Carlisle is passing it on the M6 as you head off to Scotland or the Lake District, then it’s time to think again.
Cumbria’s county town, and the biggest population centre for miles around, Carlisle is a vibrant but compact city, with a rich, and occasionally gruesome, history that reflects its position at the crossroads of England and Scotland.
These days, there are still hints of the old rivalry – such as where the retail thoroughfare of English Street morphs into Scotch Street – but those who visit Carlisle now tend to be of more peaceful intent than the old marauders.
To understand the history of this border city, a good place to start is the impressive Carlisle Castle, conveniently situated on the edge of the city centre, and these days in the care of English Heritage.
The first fortress was built there in 1092, and the castle, throughout numerous modifications, has remained continually occupied since. Having fended off besieging Scots, attempted to keep the border ‘reivers’ at bay, and famously held Mary, Queen of Scots, prisoner during 1567, Carlisle Castle retains a military role as home to the Cumbria Army Cadet Force and the excellent Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life.
English Heritage members get free entry to the museum as well as to the castle itself, and you can easily spend a good couple of hours exploring all the castle’s nooks and crannies and taking in the museum’s interactive displays. If you’re visiting during the winter, as we did, be sure to check the English Heritage website for the latest opening times – the castle has restricted opening hours outside the peak season.
If you’re already at the castle, don’t miss the nearby Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, which is just a short hop under the road. As well as exploring numerous permanent and temporary display spaces, you can also visit the courtyard-style garden before enjoying a warming coffee or lunch in the Garden Restaurant.
Where to eat
On the subject of food, one of our favourite places to eat in Carlisle is the cosy and appealing Circle Cafe Bar, a dog-friendly independent bar and restaurant with a chilled continental vibe.
Tucked away in an 18th-century glass-roofed arcade, you do have to know that the Circle’s there – just keep your eyes open for the ‘Lowther Arcade’ sign, across the road from B&M in English Street. We recommend the tasty halloumi burger, served with a hefty portion of shoestring fries, but it’s a place that’s just as good for a quiet beer or a delicious cocktail as it is for a hearty lunch or dinner.
We like Cafe Zest in Carlisle’s House of Fraser, too – it’s fairly typical department store fayre, but the seats by the window are a great spot to look out and people watch as all the shoppers in English Street bustle past with their Primark bags (Carlisle’s Primark only opened in October, so it’s still a bit of a novelty).
If shopping is your thing, Carlisle has plenty to offer beyond House of Fraser and Primark. Many of the big names are in English Street and Scotch Street, while The Lanes is Carlisle’s covered shopping centre, featuring Debenhams, H&M and Next, among others.
If you’re after a more distinctive retail experience, head towards the city’s historic quarter – centred around Fisher Street, between the cathedral and the Market Hall – where you’ll find plenty of great independent shops and cafes. Highlights include the sprawling antiquarian and secondhand bookshop Bookcase, with thirty rooms to explore, and the quirky gift shop Ashbridge & Brown – just keep an eye open for its pink door! If you’re still not sufficiently fed and watered by now, there are also several independent cafe and restaurant options in the attractive Carlyle’s Court, just off Fisher Street.
One of the joys of Carlisle is how easy it is to get to. We’ve already mentioned the motorway links, but Carlisle’s position on the West Coast line makes it just as straightforward to reach by train.
The same connections make Carlisle a handy centre if you’re looking to explore the wider area. The attractions of Hadrian’s Wall Country and the northern Lake District are both within reasonable driving distance for a day trip, or the Scottish Borders can be easily reached via the winding but scenic A7 road.
Alternatively, hop on the train for a trip further afield. Georgian Whitehaven, with its picturesque marina and coastal paths, is just over an hour away by train on the Cumbria Coast Line, and is a pleasing place to spend an afternoon. Take afternoon tea in the rooftop cafe of Dixons department store, and experience “Whitehaven’s first escalator” – genuinely a ‘thing’ when it opened in 2014!
You can also take the famous Settle-Carlisle Railway through some of northern England’s most beautiful countryside – the Carlisle end of the line remains closed until spring 2017 following a landslip during Storm Desmond, but coaches from the front of Carlisle station connect with the services on the open section of the line at Armathwaite.
For more ideas on what to see and do in Carlisle, and details of accommodation options, just head over to the city’s official tourism site at discovercarlisle.co.uk.
If you’re looking for a relaxing break in a country retreat, our friends at Sykes Cottages have over 70 options in the Carlisle area, including everything from two-bed cottages to imposing houses that can accommodate ten or more.
If you prefer to stay in Carlisle itself, the city has no fewer than four Premier Inns, including a reasonably central one just over a mile from the railway station.
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