Where exactly is it? In the tourist heart of the Lake District, at the northern tip of Windermere herself. Ambleside is the centre of all things Cumbrian, from mountain hikes to overpriced cottages and eye-watering tasting menus.
So how do you get there? We drove: a steep 5 hours from London, although an overnight stop in Sedbergh in the Yorkshire Dales broke the journey. Alternately take the train from Euston (around 3-4 hours) to Windermere, cab it down to Bowness Pier and hop on a paddle steamer, about half an hour, to Ambleside Pier at Waterhead.
So what goes on there? Walks, and lots of them, plus hearty scran, craft beer and a surprising dose of culture. Just allow plenty of time to gawp at the lake at morning, noon and sunset (tip: in the summer months, it’s gorgeous at around 6pm if it’s rained, main pic). But yes, there are independent cinemas, vegetarian restaurants and a very spendy top triumvirate of tasting-menu options, the Old Stamp House, Kysty and Lake House Road (from £45 at lunch to around £120), all booked up forever. We couldn’t get near any of those, despite adding ourselves to waiting lists and even popping in to inquire about last minute no-shows. So if you’re a foodie visitor, book well upfront.
That’s annoying. I’m hungry now. Where should I eat? Our best meal in the centre of town was at Lucy’s On A Plate: run by the eponymous Lucy, a real tour-de-force, it’s a fun experience in its series of quirky rooms. Menus are at different prices, with various supplements: the only available slot for us was 5pm on a Monday, when the menu was £20 for two courses: we tucked into juicy king prawns and smooth duck liver pate to start, with juicily medium-rare rib eye and chips to follow.
Anywhere else? We also managed to get a booking at famous hilltop gastropub the Drunken Duck, an hour’s gently sloping amble from Ambleside. Within its chic dining room the star of the show was a venison suet pudding with caramelised onion gravy and sticky red cabbage, while stone bass yielded pleasingly zesty notes of ginger and lime. Tasty sesame gyoza to start, too. It’s our second visit there in the last few years – and neither disappointed.
What about more casual dining? There’s lots of that, from hidden-away Andalucian-style tapas bar Bar Es to the riotous Tap Yard, right over by the old Bridge House, which does excellent sourdough pizzas and craft beer. Again, just to stress that you do need to book: almost every seat is taken everywhere at peak dining hours. For coffee and sushi-to-go hit Wabisabi (100% recommended), or Rattle Gyll deli. We didn’t try the Great North Pie Company, but would definitely visit next time as it looked fantastic.
So let’s walk it off. Don’t miss an easy half-hour hike to the Stockgyll Force waterfall – try an evening walk or first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. Hill walkers will want to carry on up the slope to the windy summit of Wansfell, a 1600-foot peak with fairly steep craggy last section, and panoramic views over Windermere and the town. It takes about an hour to climb, but is not quite a beginner’s stroll: despite its evident challenges, we were surprised by the amount of people of all ages streaming up and down.
How about a pub crawl? That’s easy: Tap Yard is tops for local craft beer, while two minutes uphill in a backstreet, the Golden Rule is justifiably rammed. Our ‘local’ to the cottage was the Royal Oak, pictured above, with a cute outdoor corner terrace, well covered and heated; great for people watching. For a lakeside spot, try the Wateredge (below), fifteen minutes’ walk away, with a huge lawn and lots of outdoor seating, or the cheaper YHA right on the water itself.
Day trip? If you have a car, the Lakes are your oyster, from nearby Grasmere to Ullswater, Keswick and foodie Cartmel (home to Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume). If car-free, there are buses and, of course, the steamers to take you to Bowness, itself well worth a visit (don’t miss the Crafty Baa pub near the station at the top of the hill).
Where can I stay? Expensive hotels and spas line the Waterhead section of the lake, while the town is full of cheaper hotels, backpacking accommodation, Airbnb and of course the kind of cottage rentals that haven’t had a refurb since the 1970s. Like ours on Church Street, in fact: with functional decor and a not-quite-bargainous price tag, it was nonetheless located in the most convenient part of town for restaurants, cafes and pubs. Which is why, like everywhere else in this wildly popular resort, it’s booked solid.
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Main image: Lake Windermere after the storm. Photo: Stephen Emms