East Anglia may not be the best known tourist destination in England but there is enough to keep you occupied for many days, if not weeks! I visited twice last year and hope to go again… Now I’ve rounded up a list of the best places to visit in East Anglia to inspire your planning. But first, where is East Anglia, and why should you visit?
Where Is East Anglia?
The answer to this question seems to vary from one person to another. Historically, the Kingdom of East Anglia was the part of England occupied by the Angles from northern Germany. Geographically, it is the area contained within the “bump” on the map just north of London.
Everyone agrees that the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk are within East Anglia. However opinions differ as to whether the neighbouring counties of Cambridgeshire and Essex (not part of the historic kingdom) should also be included. For my purposes I have included parts of those counties that can be incorporated into your tour of the area.
Why Visit East Anglia?
“Norfolk skies are the best,” a woman said to me as I walked through a fenland village. I could see what she meant: the skies are big here, with a kind of luminescence that is peculiar to low-lying coastal lands.
It’s not just the landscape that is unique. The area is steeped in history: the Celts, the Saxons and the Romans were all here. There are medieval cities, historic market towns and a distinctive architecture. And each county has its own particular character.
Places To See In Norfolk
Norfolk is dominated by the Norfolk Broads national park, with its landscape of windmills and waterways. There is a characteristic local architecture, with flint-clad houses and circular church towers. And – testament to the area’s importance in medieval and Tudor times – several large country houses.
A visit to Norwich, the most complete medieval town in England, is a must. And look out for other historic towns and villages, such as Thetford, the one-time regional capital. You might also like to visit Sandringham Estate, the Queen’s country residence.
The Norfolk Broads
The Norfolk Broads are a series of artificial waterways created by a history of peat digging that goes back to the 12th century. Today they are a popular area for boating holidays. They are also an excellent place for birdwatching, wildlife spotting and stargazing.
The easiest way to explore the Broads is from the water. There are opportunities for walking or cycling, but you will have to search for them – have a look at these lists of possible walking or cycling routes. I particularly recommend the Burgh Castle walk, which takes in a Roman castle and a marshland boardwalk.
Coast And Footpaths
The north Norfolk coastline is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Here you will find coastal marshlands, sand dunes and a variety of animal and birdlife. However you need to be aware that there are also some very popular seaside resorts, such as Cromer and Great Yarmouth, which you may wish to avoid if you are visiting in high season.
A number of long distance footpaths pass through Norfolk. The Norfolk Coast Path follows the coast for 84 miles from Hunstanton to Hopton-on-Sea. The Peddars Way starts close to Thetford and follows an old Roman road to Holme-next-the-Sea. And the Angles Way goes from Great Yarmouth through the Broads and on to Suffolk.
Historic Religious Sites in Norfolk
There are a surprising number of historic religious sites in Norfolk. Perhaps because this was a very wealthy area in the middle ages it had over 1000 churches and several monasteries, apparently the highest concentration in the world!
The pilgrimage site of Walsingham continues to attract pilgrims today, and should be visited for its history and for its Tudor buildings. Elsewhere, Binham Priory is notable for its architecture. And there are some remarkable medieval wall paintings in St Mary’s Church at Houghton-on-the-Hill.
For more inspiration for your visit to Norfolk have a look at this post – The Ultimate Local’s Guide to Norfolk England.
Places To See In Suffolk
Suffolk is somewhat understated. Like Norfolk it has a beautiful coastline and countryside, and a wealth of historic towns and villages. And it has long been the haunt of writers and artists. Yet you won’t find hordes of tourists here.
Visit for the city of Bury St Edmunds, the historic capital of East Anglia, or Newmarket, the home of horse racing. Then there is the ancient port of Ipswich, with a modern cultural scene. Suffolk is also known as “the Foodie County”, for its local produce and award-winning cuisine.
The recent film “The Dig” has revived interest in the archaeological site of Sutton Hoo. This is where an Anglo-Saxon ship burial – complete with a fabulous hoard of treasure – was discovered in the 1930s.
The treasure is now in the British Museum in London, and none remains in Sutton Hoo itself. However, you can walk around the site and see the burial mounds. There is also an informative visitor centre. Entrance to the site (maintained by the National Trust) includes access to several walking trails.
The artist John Constable was born in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt in 1776. Many of his paintings depict the countryside of Suffolk and Essex, including the famous “Hay Wain”, “Flatford Mill” and “Dedham Vale”.
A visit to Flatford Mill will show you some of the landscapes that inspired the artist. You can stand in the spots where he painted his pictures (although you will note that he occasionally changed features of the landscape to suit his composition…) A walking trail through Constable country begins at Flatford Mill.
Wool Towns And Painted Churches
Back in the 15th century the Suffolk wool towns were some of the wealthiest places in England. Today they are a series of picturesque medieval villages, full of history, architecture and some seriously good places to eat.
Another legacy from the middle ages is the painted churches. These are churches where – unusually in England – you can still see medieval wall paintings. The most famous is at Lakenheath but there are several others.
Places To See In Cambridgeshire
There is much more to Cambridgeshire than the university town of Cambridge. It has market towns, great cathedrals, fenland scenery and more.
Visit Duxford for the largest aviation museum in Europe, or Peterborough for its magnificent Norman cathedral. Enjoy river walks or a boat trip in St Ives, or discover a medieval turf maze in Hilton.
The Cambridgeshire Fens
The Fens are an extensive area of very flat marshland, some of it reclaimed from the sea during the middle ages. The area is ideal for hiking, cycling and boating, as well as for wildlife spotting.
Explore fenland market towns like Wisbech, and the visitor centre at Wicken Fen. Or spend a day in Ely, once the largest island in the region.
Cambridge is home of one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1209. It is a beautiful city with numerous old buildings and a picturesque riverside setting. And enough pubs and restaurants to keep you going for a lifetime!
You could spend a whole day just walking around the city and admiring its architecture. Many of the colleges allow visitors into parts of their buildings and gardens. There are several museums, most notably the Fitzwilliam, with more than half a million artefacts and paintings.
Places To See In Essex
Essex has something for everyone. It may be true that the county sprawls towards the London suburbs, but elsewhere it has beaches and coastal scenery, historic sites and endless countryside.
Epping Forest is a former royal hunting ground with miles of hiking trails, birdwatching opportunities and picnic areas. The coastline includes salt marshes, oyster beds and historic forts. And Southend has the longest pier in the world.
Historic Places In Essex
Stop in just about any town or village in Essex and you are likely to find a wealth of old buildings. Some places, like Maldon (site of the Saxon battle of Maldon) are well known, but I was surprised to find medieval houses and alleyways in Braintree… Then there is Saffron Walden, a historic market town which just happens to be full of mazes, both ancient and modern.
Historic houses in Essex include Audley End, near Saffron Walden. Built on the site of a Benedictine monastery, this is a grand 17th century house and gardens (entrance free for English Heritage members). Elsewhere you will find forts, windmills and medieval barns.
Colchester, England’s Oldest Town
Colchester is the oldest town in England and once the capital of Roman Britain. You can still see substantial parts of Roman buildings and parts of the old city walls. Read more about Exploring Roman Colchester.
You will also find medieval buildings and Civil War history here. There are also museums, galleries and lots of places to eat and drink.
How To Visit East Anglia
East Anglia has an extensive rail network. This means that all the main towns, and many of the smaller ones, are easy to get to by train. They are also ideally placed for day trips from London.
Alternatively, you may wish to hire a car. If you are driving to large cities like Norwich and Cambridge it is often easier to park on the outskirts and take the park and ride bus into the centre.