How to spend a weekend in North Norfolk, UK

Home to seals, rare birdlife and some of Britain’s best seafood restaurants, this part of East Anglia offers a peaceful break, with a coastal landscape of sand dunes and salt marshes.

Moored rowing boats on broads is a classic sight to see in the Norfolk Broads.
Photograph by Steve Docwra, Getty Images
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller UK.

Drawing visitors since the 1700s, North Norfolk has long been a place of escapism. You arrive ready to fill your lungs with sea air and let your gaze drift to the horizon. The natural beauty here is not the kind that smacks you in the face and overwhelms with superlatives. The expansive beaches, endless skies, fenland and watery network of the Broads are a more subtle tonic for the soul — you don’t have to work too hard to forget life beyond this somewhat overlooked patch of East Anglia.

It’s also a place to get closer to wildlife. Many of the salt marshes in Norfolk offer some of Britain’s best birdwatching, while seals love to sunbathe on the shingle spits at Blakeney Point. Plus, there’s bluebell and snowbell carpets in spring, dragonflies buzzing over lavender fields in summer and woodland ablaze in ochre, yellow and red in autumn.

Beyond the pull of its natural attractions, North Norfolk is dotted with stately homes, sliced through by heritage railways and framed by historic towns. Add it all together and you have a region that promises the kind of serenity many search far and wide for, yet few expect to find so close to home. 

Day one: beaches & bikes

Morning: Head for the region’s most famous stately home, Holkham Hall. Its 25,000-acre estate is best explored on two wheels. Hire a bicycle or e-bike and follow one of the multiple signposted trails. The six-mile red route takes you past the Church of St Withburga, along the Walled Garden and up the hill to the Temple, a neo-classical folly hidden by woodland. It ends at the hall itself. Inside, guides share stories of the 18th-century home’s tapestries, paintings and furniture, as well as residents past and present. Afterwards, grab a table at The Victoria, owned by the Holkham Estate. The menu showcases local ingredients, with veg from the Walled Garden, meat from local farms, and fish, shellfish and samphire from the coast. 

Afternoon: An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the town of Wells-next-the-Sea and its beach are a must-visit in any season. With soft sands and colourful higgledy-piggledy huts lining the shore, it has a serious claim as one of Britain’s best beaches. Plop yourself in the sand for the afternoon, if the weather allows, or stroll along the shore to the dunes covered in beach grass and gorse. Keep an eye out for rare breeding birds, such as pied avocets and marsh harriers, which wade through the marshes between the forest and the dunes. Trace your way back by following the path inland, filling your lungs with the scent of pine. As you head into town, nab a seat at one of the picnic tables at the Beach Café for coffee and cake. 

Evening: Watch the sun set at Sheringham Park, a landscaped thousand-acre National Trust site with over 80 species of rhododendrons and azaleas. The Repton route leads to a gazebo; it takes some effort to climb the steps to the viewing platform but it’s worth it for the views that unfurl in front you: a green mosaic of pastures and farmland to the west, a wall of thick woodland to the south and the blue expanse of the North Sea sparkling ahead. Wrap up the day with a meal at The Gunton Arms, stopping to observe the deer that roam freely in the surrounding park, and then head to bed in one of its elegant guest rooms, filled with William Morris prints and antique furnishings.  

Day two: seals & stars

Morning: Blakeney Point is home to the largest colony of grey seals in England, with around 4,000 pups bobbing in the water or basking on the shingle banks year-round. Join Beans Boats for an hour-long seal trip departing from Blakeney Harbour at Morston. Heading out from Morston Creek, the boat passes Blakeney Freshes and salt marshes, where you’ll notice plenty of samphire — a Norfolk delicacy. Once out in the harbour, have your camera ready as the seals often come up to take a closer look at the visitors. There are migrating sea birds to keep an eye out for, too, and insightful commentary about the history of the area, its wildlife and the seals is offered throughout. 

Afternoon: Cromer, on a cliff facing the often unforgiving winds of the North Sea,  is a quintessential English seaside town. Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill and King Edward VII all holidayed here, and the Pavilion Theatre on the pier hosts Europe’s last surviving ‘end of the pier’ show. Stroll the seafront, looking out for the Bagot goats on the cliffs west of town. Brought in as grazing animals by the council in 2016 in a bid to manage the habitat naturally, the goats have become a much-loved sight here. Next, try your hand at catching Cromer crab from the pier; there’s a gift shop at the entrance that sells crabbing essentials. You have to release any you catch, but there are plenty of crab shacks and restaurants in town that serve them. 

Evening: North Norfolk is prime stargazing territory. Occasionally, when the conditions are right, it’s even possible to spot the Aurora Borealis, rarely observed this far south. Two destinations — Kelling Heath Holiday Park and Wiveton Downs Site of Special Scientific Interest — are recognised among the UK’s Dark Sky Discovery Sites. On clear nights here, you won’t have any trouble spotting the seven stars of the Orion constellation and the Milky Way with the naked eye. Alternatively, join hundreds of amateur astronomers at one of the stargazing parties organised at Kelling Heath, or pick up their ‘starchart guide’ to navigate your own way through the dazzling night sky. 

Three outdoor destinations to visit in North Norfolk

Norfolk Coast Path
Walking the 84-mile path can take between five and seven days, but you can sample a bit of it in Sea Palling, where a six-mile circular walk takes in the golden sands of one of Norfolk’s most beautiful beaches. En route, notice the small bays created by offshore reefs and look out for seals in the water.Alternatively, head to Blakeney for a 7.5-mile circular walk around North Norfolk’s salt marshes — the route skirts around Morston Salt Marshes and Cley Marshes Nature Reserve. You won’t have much but those giant skies and birdsong for company. Twitchers might also enjoy a shorter stroll through Blakeney village and around Blakeney Freshes, in a bid to spot golden plovers and marsh harriers.

Deep History Coast
From the oldest human footprints found outside Africa to a mammoth skeleton, multiple prehistoric treasures have been unearthed along the Deep History Coast. While notable findings have been removed or washed away, it’s still worth exploring; tackle a section of the 22-mile route from Weybourne to Cart Gap in a bid to find new treasures. Along the route, a 1.7-mile stroll east from Sheringham will take you to the Blue Flag beach at West Runton, an area rich with prehistoric relics, and the safest in which to go fossil-hunting, with gentle tides and lifeguards on duty. At low tide, a maze of rock pools is exposed, resembling the rocky surface of a far-away planet. 

Norfolk Broads
The Broads, which have been a boating destination since the 19th century, are a man-made landscape. The wildlife-rich wetlands were created in the 14th century, when peat extraction pits began to fill with water until they were flooded and abandoned. Cutting through marshes, towns and farmland, the river network offers all manner of water-based activities. Broads Tours offers trips from Wroxham aboard double-decker boats. It’s a great way to learn about the Broads’ history and spot water birds. To navigate the rivers yourself, hire The Canoe Man SUP boards at one of its seven venues or jump into canoes or kayaks at Salhouse Broad.   

(Meet the maker: the farmer growing saffron in Norfolk.)

Three heritage railways in North Norfolk

1. North Norfolk Railway
Steam engines on the 5.5-mile-long Poppy Line puff along the coast between Sheringham and Holt, offering sweeping sea views. The trains host a number of events throughout the year, too, including Victorian Sundays and gin and ale tastings, as well as dining services. 

2. Whitwell and Reepham Railway Station
Whitwell is Norfolk’s most recently opened heritage railway, and it’s especially appealing for families. You can see restored steam and diesel engines, visit the Station Museum, have a slice of cake in the cafe or keep younger ones entertained in the play area. Admission to the station is free; rides on the trains cost from £5.

3. Wells & Walsingham Light Railway
This quaint vintage train, runs along a four-mile branch of the Great Eastern Railway, which is the longest 10¼ narrow gauge steam railway in the world. Running between Wells and Walsingham, it chugs through the countryside, over bridges and past a hill-fort. 

Top five places to eat in North Norfolk

1. The Gunton Arms
Locally sourced venison, Aberdeen Angus sirloin steaks and thick pork chops are cooked on the open fire in the Elk Room here, under the fossilised antlers of a 10,000-year-old deer. Goose-fat roast potatoes and seasonal sides accompany the meats.

2. The Morston Anchor
A traditional village pub within striking distance of the quay in Morston, the recently refurbished Anchor is perfectly placed for line-caught fish and chips when you’re back from a seal trip. 

3. Wells Crab House
Award-winning Wells Crab House is located on the way from Wells beach into town. The best of what the sea has to offer, from oysters and crab to lobster and crayfish, finds its way on to the menu here. It’s an intimate restaurant with just 11 tables — book in advance. 

4. Crab Pot Café
For a taste of Cromer’s famous crab, this casual spot is hard to beat. Freshly caught crustaceans are brought straight from the boats in the morning and served dressed, on a platter or in sandwiches.

5. Meadowsweet
Good for a special occasion, Holt’s Michelin-starred Meadowsweet is a reflection of its surroundings. Natural materials and soft greens and greys dominate the interior while local produce is showcased in dishes such as chicken liver with smoked eel and red cabbage. 

Published in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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