Last updated September 2020
I know ‘cool’ is subjective, but shh. I’ve lived in Norwich for years and years and years now, and it still amuses me that when people come here for the first time, they often expect it to be a bit rubbish. Norwich isn’t a place you pass through on the way to other destinations – it sticks out on the East Anglian elbow of the UK, gleefully surrounded by forests, broads and beaches, but often overlooked.
When people think of Norwich, they might think of Alan Partridge. Or they think of the wider Norfolk area, rural and picturesque, but quiet. Seeing people’s amazement at the amount of fun things there are to do in Norwich, and at the cute, historic feel of the city centre, is very pleasing to people who have already come to realise that Norwich is pretty great.
If you’re looking for a few things to do on a trip to Norwich, or if you’re just wondering why anyone would come here, then you’re in the right place. Split by nighttime, daytime and even bad weather (don’t say I don’t spoil you) here are some of my top picks of the many things to do in Norwich.
Things to do in Norwich on a sunny day
The sun is shining, the weather is sweet – here are a few things to do when there are blue skies and sunshine, without ever leaving the city of Norwich itself.
1. Pub & Paddle
Ideal for those days where part of you wants to go and be active outdoors in the sunshine, and the other part of you really just wants to go to the pub. Norwich’s Pub & Paddle company offer a number of choices for those who’d like to feel a sense of achievement while also feeling a sense of booze-infused relaxation, starting from two-hour afternoon and evening trips to all-day seven-hour adventures.
Hire a picnic boat, if you don’t want to worry about securing a table at one of your many pub stops, or stick to canoeing on either a one-way or a round trip past Norwich’s riverside drinking holes. Prices start from £12.50 per person.
2. Visit the castle battlements
Obviously you’re supposed to look at the inside of the castle as well, where you’ll find dubious taxidermy and have the opportunity to dress up in Medieval attire (if that’s your bag). But the highlight of Norwich castle for a lot of people is the view from the battlements.
Guided tours of the castle dungeons and battlements can be booked on arrival at the castle museum, and if you’re planning on travelling with wee ones then bear in mind that there are some gruesome historical tales to be told – meaning the tours aren’t suitable for under 8s.
If you can survive hearing about the grim fates of Norwich castle’s many Medieval prisoners, you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of the city that are just about impossible to beat. Add a bit of sunshine to that and you’ve got yourself a fine way to spend an afternoon. More information on ticket prices here.
3. Explore the Lanes
Suggesting that shopping is a location-specific activity felt a bit disingenuous, so I’ve gone with ‘exploring’. And besides, I spend far more time eating and drinking in the Norwich Lanes than I think I really do shopping in them.
Not content with Brighton having a name for its wiggly, windy independent shopping streets, a few years ago someone in Norwich decided that we were going to call ours the Lanes as well. Packed full of cool indie boutiques and unique food finds, meandering around the streets that comprise the Norwich Lanes is an absolute must – even if you’re only planning on window shopping.
Peruse homewares in Elm, hoover up a massive falafel pitta from Moorish and buy yourself some cool new threads from Drug Store… before you while away a few more hours on everything from vintage fashion to hand-thrown pottery.
4. Picnic in the Plantation Garden
Also known as the Secret Garden, even though it’s only a secret if you’re Not From ‘Round ‘Ere, the Plantation Garden is hands down the best place for a picnic in the sunshine in Norwich, standing a head and shoulders above the many, many parks and green spaces that Norwich has to offer.
It is a Great British Thing To Do, to take a bundle of food and drinks to the nearest green spot as soon as the sun is shining. With that in mind, you might as well opt for a Grade 2 listed secret garden that’s been wowing people since the 1800s. Much of the garden is accessible to wheelchair users, ensuring that this is a spot everyone can enjoy.
The Plantation Garden is conveniently situated on Earlham Road, only a short walk away from the city centre, and most days of the year operates an honesty box where you can donate £2 for entry that helps pay for upkeep.
5. Take an open-top bus tour
Sometimes, doing the touristy stuff is really good fun. And while Norwich may not be a huge place, it’s easy to find yourself strolling for hours in search of all the best hidden gems that there are. If you’d like to save yourself a little effort, take a spin on the hop-on hop-off buses that buzz around the city between 10.30am and 3.30pm from April to October.
Aside from getting classic tour bus audio commentary that tells you about Norwich as you’re going around (don’t say I didn’t warn you that ‘cool’ is subjective), the sightseeing bus has a stop on Britannia Road – which drops you at a cafe staffed by the local prison, which has great vegan options and another incredible view.
Yes, a cafe staffed by prisoners that sells vegan things. (And non-vegan things.) It’s great. The rest of the tour is interesting too, but I’m a very food-motivated person. Hush.
Of course, you could also go to one of Norwich’s many wonderful pub beer gardens and drink the day away…
Things to do in Norwich when it rains
This is the UK we’re talking about, so it would be unfair to only give you options for sunny days. Thankfully there are plenty of things to do in Norwich even when it’s raining, so to continue the list, here are a few.
6. Hidden History Tours
At The Shoebox venue on Castle Meadow, run by a social enterprise, you can find intriguing underground tours for those interested in Norwich’s hidden history.
Journey two flights of stairs below ground level, and you’ll be taken on a guided tour of the 15th century shops that over time, have ended up buried deep beneath the modern-day Castle Meadow. Wrap up warm, because it’s chilly down there – and prepare to hear some fantastical story telling.
Hidden History tours sell out well in advance, in part because so few people can venture down at any given time, so be sure to book ahead through the website.
7. The Bowling House
A rainy day activity so timeless, I almost forgot to put it on the list. Diabolical. The Bowling House is not just any old bowling alley, however – it’s an independent venue that puts as much thought into its cocktail list and food menu as it does the actual bowling.
Unlike chain bowling alleys – meccas to stinky shoes, bad carpets and overpriced crap drinks –The Bowling House on Dereham road is seriously stylish. Think less ‘children’s birthday parties’ and more ‘casual retro glam’.
I won’t pretend I’ve never gone to a regular bowling alley and asked for vodka in a blue slushie in lieu of a proper drink, but if it’s chucking it down outside, you’re better off heading to The Bowling House for a daiquiri or bellini instead. Plus, they also offer karaoke if you’re that way inclined.
8. A Bullard’s Gin Distillery Tour
Now here’s one I can’t believe I didn’t think of sooner. Bullard’s Gin is distilled in Norwich – at the Ten Bells on St Benedicts Street at the time of writing, though they’ll be moving to Crystal House sometime over the summer in 2019. And like the fine people they are, they’ve come up with a brilliant way to get out of any bad weather with a prime excuse for a few drinks: gin distillery tours and tastings.
I took my other half for a Saturday afternoon of gin and japes (though you can also go on a Thursday evening) and my goodness, who knew there was so much more to gin than just drinking it?! I am now a fountain of gin knowledge, thanks to our two wonderful hosts who enlightened us with all manner of fascinating facts about the making and history of gin.
The £25-a-head distillery tour takes around 45 minutes, before you spend over an hour sampling gins with a variety of embellishments (though fellow vegans – note that the Old Tom has honey in it so you might want to ask for a little extra of one of the others instead). If you’re anything like us, you’ll still be at the venue’s bar five hours later with a bunch of new gin-infused friends.
9. The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell
With so many museums to pick from in Norwich and the surrounding areas, you could accuse me of bias for only featuring this one and the castle. But the Bridewell Museum is a less than £6 a ticket regardless of your age, and has neat interactive features as well as the historic artefacts you’d expect. It’s also very Norwich-y, and therefore prime for my list of many many things to do in Norwich. Oh, and it’s now fully accessible thanks to a bit of a refurbishment, so wheelchair users won’t get stuck at the door.
Wanna play board games in a 1950s living room? Watch a film in a mini cinema? Who wouldn’t. Did I mention this place was a Medieval prison? No? Oh. Well it was. So you can learn about how you might have been corrected for your misbehaviours in times gone by, too. When you’re done, step into Mustard cafe next door for some top notch coffee and cake.
10. Browse the market
If it’s good enough for Alan Partridge, it’s good enough for me. This could equally have been included in the sunny days list of things to do in Norwich, but on account of the relatively new covers-between-the-covers on Norwich market, I’m filing it into rainy days. (When I say relatively new, I mean that the market is nearly 1,000 years old but the roof is about 15 years old. Relative.)
There are almost 200 stalls on Norwich market, making it one of the biggest markets, as well as one of the oldest, in the UK. I think it might actually be the biggest and the oldest, but for fear of someone telling me that’s a giant lie, let’s stick with “one of”.
Spaces between each fixed stall now have flip-up clear roof panels so that they can be lifted in the summer to let the heat out, and closed in bad weather, enabling us all to shop without getting wet.
The amount of great food stands on Norwich market is getting ridiculous, but alongside them there are places like Soaps at 29 – a sustainable and ethical store for everything from toiletries to candles – and vintage clothing stalls like Taxi. If you see clouds gathering, this colourful bazaar is a fine place to take shelter.
11. Retro Replay gaming arcade
If you’re into video games from the 80s and 90s (aka the best video games) you’ll probably love Retro Replay. For £10 you can get all-day access to come and go as you please, with freeplay arcade games spread over two floors.
On the upper level you’ll find everything from Time Crisis to Pacman, Street Fighter and Tekken, while downstairs a vast row of CRT monitors awaits with Nintendos, Segas and other consoles plugged in and ready to play. Did I spend way too long playing Bomberman last time I went? Yes. Have I any regrets? No.
Find Retro Replay in Castle Quarter shopping centre, open 6pm-10pm on weeksdays and 11am-10pm on weekends.
12. Admire the cathedral architecture
ARCHITECTURE CAN BE COOL, GUYS. Even the religious stuff. When the heavens have opened, what better place to run to than a cathedral?
Norwich actually has two cathedrals, because we’re show-offs, but arguably the prettiest one is the Church of England cathedral just off of historic, wonky Tombland. The green space between the cloisters is a nice space to hang out if the sun is shining, but the cloisters themselves are a good spot to watch rainstorms from, if you’re that way inclined.
Described as “one of the finest examples of Romaneqsue architecture in all of Europe”, Norwich cathedral is damn good-looking and in a fashion I’m sure any deity would approve of, has a gift shop and cafe to peruse while you’re waiting for rain clouds to pass.
13. Cryptic Escape Rooms
Escape rooms have been popping up all over the country the last few years, and Norwich is no exception. Cryptic Escape on Tombland is my favourite of the two venues currently on offer, and within, you can choose between ghostly, pirate-themed or mad scientist-centred rooms to riddle your way out of.
Just like the game shows you might have watched as a kid, at Cryptic Escape you’ll need to find clues, complete puzzles and solve riddles in order to find keys and codes that will help you escape your room – or rooms, as the case may be.
The gamesmasters will be watching and can offer extra clues if you get really stuck, with the aim being to escape before your hour is up.You can work in teams as small as two or as large as six, with prices starting at £45 per group.
(If pirates, ghosts and mad scientists don’t do it for you, check out History Mystery instead, where you can escape from Norwich’s former Guildhall prison instead.)
14. BOOM: Battle Bar
Ideal for a socially-distant adventure, BOOM Battle Bar offers a range of activities for small groups of friends, including axe-throwing, shuffleboard, electric darts and ‘crazier golf’ as well as beer pong and skee ball.
This is a strictly over-18s venue after 7pm, and the on-site bar might seem like a risky addition to an axe-throwing establishment: but it makes for a great night out.
The Battle Bar is currently open from 2pm until midnight Monday – Wednesday, 1pm until midnight on Thursdays, midday until midnight on Fridays and 11am until midnight at weekends.
Things to do in Norwich at night time
We’ve made it this far, people, and by dog we’re going to finish. While Norwich council seem to be hell-bent on murdering the local nightlife scene as brutally and swiftly as possible, thankfully they haven’t succeeded yet. As well as having plenty to do by day, there are all manner of things to do in Norwich at night time whether you’re hoping for a bit more history or you just want a decent drink.
15. Ghost Walks
No Medieval city is complete without a good ghost walk, and my goodness the Norwich ghost walks are good. In fact, they’re great – I very much recommend them.
After being around for so long we were forced to wonder if he was a ghost himself, The Man in Black recently passed on the ghost host baton to The Shadowcaster, who has been leading the Norwich ghost walks since early 2018.The walks set off on Tuesdays and Thursdays from The Adam & Eve pub, taking you either around the Elm Hill area or past Norwich Castle.
Expect excellent spooky tales and plenty of real, creepy history – and if you’re lucky, some legitimately ethereal experiences.Norwich ghost walks run from April to December and while you’ll be warmer walking around at night in the summer time, you get a fantastic eerie vibe doing these on a cold, dark winter’s night. No need to book, just show up at 7.30pm and pay £8 for the pleasure.
16. Craft beer and cocktails
A lot of the variety in Norwich nightlife has been crushed by the local authorities, but the good news is that there are still some very, very cool venues to peruse.
One definite highlight is Voodoo Daddy’s Showroom, a rock&roll city centre bar over two levels that boasts excellent pizza and the chance to have a Guitar Hero battle if the mood takes you.
For more killer cocktails, make your way to Gyre & Gimble, or the inimitable Bar Hawthorn on the corner of St Gregory’s Alley. Or if you like board games and mezze with your booze, get cosy at Frank’s Bar and pair up your espresso martini with a game of bananagrams.
17. Live music & theatre
Coronavirus might have stopped the shows, but it’s still worth noting this for future reference, while we wait for things to go back to ‘normal’.
If you’re looking to things to do in Norwich by night then be sure to find out what’s on at places like the Arts Centre, the Maddermarket Theatre and the Playhouse during your perusals.
The Norwich Theatre Royal is the biggest and best known of the theatre venues in the city, just as the UEA LCR is only topped by the football stadium when it comes to big-name musical events. But Norwich Arts Centre and Norwich Playhouse are where the trendy kids hang out, and they offer a steady stream of world-class entertainment spanning stand-up comedy, musical theatre, burlesque, spoken word and in the case of the arts centre, live music in just about any genre you can think of.
If in doubt, scan the listings in Outline Online to see just how many things there are to do on any given day.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but at more than 2,000 words of waffling I think it’s probably a good start.