Big skies, sweeping beaches, windswept marshes, meandering inland waterways and pretty flint houses combine to great effect in Norfolk. They say the locals have 'one foot on the land, and one in the sea', and you’re never far from water here, whether it's beside the windmill-framed rivers of the tranquil Norfolk Broads or the wide, birdlife-rich sands of the shore. Inland, the bustling city of Norwich offers a fine castle and a cathedral, a lively market and some truly excellent places to sleep and eat.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Norfolk.
Both monarchists and those bemused by the English system will have plenty to mull over here, at the Queen's country estate. It's set in 25 hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens, and wandering around sumptuous reception rooms regularly used by the royals reveals a wealth of objets d'art and glinting gifts from European and Russian royal families. Sandringham is 6 miles northeast of King's Lynn off the A149. Bus 35 runs from King's Lynn (£2.50, 20 minutes, hourly).
Norwich's most impressive landmark is a magnificent Anglican cathedral. Its barbed spire soars higher than any in England except Salisbury's, while the size of its cloisters is second to none. Highlights include the mesmerising ceiling, the ornate roof bosses, and the striking modern features of the Hostry. The 50-minute guided tours (donation requested, hourly Monday to Saturday, 11am to 3pm) are an engaging way to find out more.
Crowning a hilltop overlooking central Norwich, this massive 12th-century castle is one of England’s best-preserved examples of Anglo-Norman military architecture. Its superb interactive museum crams in lively exhibits on Boudica, the Iceni, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. Perhaps the best bit though is the atmospheric keep itself with its graphic displays on the grisly punishments meted out in its days as a medieval prison. Guided tours (adult/child £3.70/3) around the battlements and creepy dungeons run at least twice daily.
Stay on your best behaviour: 14th-century Bridewell is a former house of correction, a 'prison for women, beggars and tramps'. Displays here explore Norwich’s prominence as England's second city in the Middle Ages and its 19th-century industrial heritage. You can also play games in a 1950s parlour, listen to shoe-workers’ memories, and watch films in a pocket-sized cinema.
Built for Britain's first de-facto prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in 1730, Palladian-style Houghton Hall is worth seeing for the ornate staterooms alone, where stunning interiors overflow with gilt, tapestries, velvets and period furniture. The surrounding grounds, home to 600 deer, and the 2-hectare walled garden are dotted with contemporary sculptures, making for grand but pleasant rambling. Houghton Hall is just off the A148, 13 miles east of King's Lynn.
The region's most important centre for the arts is housed in the first major public building by renowned architect Norman Foster. Its eclectic collections include works by Picasso, Moore, Degas and Bacon, which are displayed beside curios from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas. The gallery is in the University of East Anglia's grounds, 2 miles west of the city centre. To get there take bus 22, 25 or 26 (£2.20, 15 minutes).
One of England's premier birdwatching sites, Cley Marshes has more than 300 resident bird species, plentiful migrants and a network of walking trails and bird hides amid its golden reeds. Even if you're not into birdwatching, don't miss the (free) visitor centre and cafe where seats and telescopes line up beside vast picture windows with panoramic reserve views. This is birdwatching for softies; sip a latte while enjoying zoomed-in images of marsh harriers.
Learn about the traditional Broads' boats (called wherries), the marshmen who gathered reeds and sedge for thatching, and local history and lifestyles at this modest museum. Displays cover everything from early settlements to peat extraction and modern conservation. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 10.30am and 2.30pm, you can also book a trip on a sweet steam launch (adult/child £5/3). The museum is about 5 miles north of Potter Heigham off the A149.
There's something bordering on ecclesiastical about the beautifully embellished keep of this castle, built in 1138 and set in the middle of a massive earthwork – unsurprisingly it shares stonemasons with some of East Anglia's finest cathedrals. Castle Rising was also once the home of Queen Isabella, who (allegedly) arranged the gruesome murder of her husband, Edward II. It's 4 miles northeast of King's Lynn. Bus 34 runs here (£1.80, 15 minutes, hourly).