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How to Explore the Lake District (If You Don’t Have a Car)

A mention of England’s favourite National Park, the Lake District, should bring to mind rolling hills, sweeping valleys and remote countryside. There are almost 600,000 wild acres to explore within the borders of the Lake District, which are perfect for long rambling hikes and getting lost in the wilderness.

Of course, it’s an unfortunate fact that none of these things typically coincide with being public transport friendly. But the Lake District is more accessible than you might think.

While the most hidden corners and further afield locations may be out of the picture, you can still enjoy a full and satisfying itinerary in this National Park. With our guide to the best Lake District itinerary without a car, you will not only leave feeling like you have seen the best of the region, but like you could visit again and again and never feel that you have missed out.

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Discover one of the UK’s most beautiful regions without ever needing to get behind the wheel.

Begin Your Trip at Windermere 

Pub in Windermere

Where better to start than the Lake District’s most iconic lake? Windermere is both the largest and most famous lake in the eponymous Lake District. As a virtue of those traits, it is also the best connected.

Staying in Bowness-on-Windermere puts you in the centre of all the action, right on the edge of the lake in a busy town filled with shops and places to eat. It’s connected to most areas in the Lake District by bus or ferry, and works as a great base for car-free visitors hoping to explore the region.

You can easily reach Bowness-on-Windermere by bus after catching the train into Windermere station. Once there, it’s time to start exploring the Lake District’s busiest town. With thousands of tourists flooding through Bowness-on-Windermere every week, you get the immediate sense that the town caters to a transient, affluent crowd. This isn’t a bad thing for visitors at all, as unique shops are able to flourish with the extra income provided by tourism. 

There are gift shops, unsurprisingly, but you will also find independent clothing boutiques, a fudge pantry, galleries, pottery shops and the like in this town. Cafes, pubs and restaurants are also thriving – Graze is a favourite of mine – which is perfect for visitors. Hikes and boating are the obvious activities of choice, but there are some rainy day alternatives in Bowness: Blackwell – The Arts & Crafts house, the Old Laundry Theatre, and, most famously…

Journey Into The World of Beatrix Potter

World of Beatrix Potter - Peter Rabbit
World of Beatrix Potter – Peter Rabbit

Meet Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and more in the enchanting ‘World of Beatrix Potter’ attraction in Bowness-on-Windermere. 

Beatrix Potter spent much of her life living on Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a village not far from Windermere on the west side of the lake. She adored the Lake District, and made hugely important efforts to protect the landscape; you will often find real-life locations from the region appearing in her books. The Tower Bank Arms, a gorgeous little pub in Near Sawrey, is one such example – it is featured in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.

At The World of Beatrix Potter, you can see her beloved characters and illustrations come to life. Wander through the charming tales of Peter Rabbit and the UK’s other favourite childhood stories in a series of interactive exhibits. You will step into Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s kitchen, and smell the fresh laundry hanging there, explore Jemima Puddle-Duck’s woodland glade, and hide from Mr. McGregor in the Peter Rabbit Garden. It’s an adventure for all the family; kids and grown-ups alike. Besides the tales and characters, you also get a chance to learn a bit more about Beatrix Potter herself – there’s an exhibit detailing her life, with a particular focus on her affection for the Lake District.

World of Beatrix Potter
World of Beatrix Potter

The World of Beatrix Potter can be found in Bowness-on-Windermere, which means it can be easily reached by public transport, even if you’re not staying conveniently in the town. If you want to visit Hill Top, the farm where Beatrix Potter lived and set many of her stories, you can catch a bus from Bowness.

Embark On a Boat Trip On Windermere Lake

Boat Trip On Windermere
Boat Trip On Windermere

It’s just one of those unmissable experiences: when visiting the Lake District, you really need to see it from the water. Drifting away from the shore, cruising gently across a lake immersed in some of England’s most gorgeous scenery is a relaxing adventure that appeals to all ages. 

Windermere is the largest naturally formed lake in England, and stretches for 10.5 miles (or 18 kilometres). Exploring Windemere on the water can be done in a myriad of ways; there are ferry routes to Ambleside from Bowness-on-Windermere and vice-versa, but you can easily hire a boat and chart your own course. If you want to spend longer sailing around Windermere, choosing to hire a boat or embarking on a private tour are better options than the ferry.

If you want to try something a little more adventurous, you can canoe, kayak or paddleboard your way out into the lake. While jet skis and power boats are not outright banned, the speed limit of 10 nautical miles per hour – unfortunately, lakes have speed limits too – takes all the fun out of using them! 

Visit Hawkshead

Hawkshead is the poster village for the Lake District
Hawkshead is the poster village for the Lake District

Hawshead is one of the prettiest villages in the Lake District, and is visited by thousands of tourists every year. There are regular buses that can take you directly to the village.

Tall chimney stacks and medieval inns and the slate and stone cottages typical of this corner of Cumbria make for a village typically plastered on postcards. Hawkshead offers the kind of rural idyll you might have expected to find in the Lake District; country pubs, a 12th century church and miles upon miles of rolling green hills just outside its borders. 

The village is situated in beautiful countryside, and is an excellent starting point for a number of forays into the surrounding wilderness; Grizedale Forest and the 2 mile trail to Tarn Hows are particular highlights.

As for those who would prefer to stay within the borders of Hawkshead itself, there are a smattering of small independent shops to browse – which range from specialist food shops and delicatessens, to jewellers and boutiques; there’s even a chocolate factory! After walking around for a while, you can put your feet up in cute cafes like Ginny’s Teapot, or one of the fantastic pubs and restaurants in the village.

If you’re still hoping for more Beatrix Potter-related material after your experience in Bowness-on-Windermere, you’re in luck. The National Trust’s Beatrix Potter Gallery displays the original artwork of the author, displaying her famous character illustrations inside a 17th century house. Other things to do in Hawkshead include Hawkshead Grammar School Museum and a trip over to the Hawkshead Brewery.

Extend your Trip West of Windermere By Stopping in Coniston

Coniston is a charming village just under 4 miles west of Hawkshead, and can be reached from there by bus, bike or on foot. The villages are similar – as you might expect, being so close together – but the big difference is that Coniston sits on the banks of Coniston Water, and has an affinity for water sports as a result.

You can hire rowboats or kayaks and venture out into this small lake for an afternoon of adventure after spending a leisurely morning in Hawkshead. While the village is lovely, Coniston is really put on the tourist trail because of the landscape all around the village. You will find Coniston to be a hub of adventure and outdoor sports; hiking is the undeniable favourite, with the towering shadow of the Old Man of Coniston a popular conquest among hikers, while other trails, like Tarn Hows and the walk around Coniston Water itself, are also worth the trip.

Coniston isn’t essential viewing in the Lake District, but if you find yourself in Hawkshead looking for a little adventure, or fancy the challenge of the Old Man of Coniston, it is well-worth a visit. Ardent hikers may even want to skip Hawkshead altogether and focus on Coniston; it provides convenient access to some great trails – something not always easy to come by without a car.

Catch the Bus or Cycle to Wordsworth’s Grasmere

The famous Grasmere Gingerbread
The famous Grasmere Gingerbread

Grasmere is a beautiful little village in the Rydal and Ambleside Valley, best known for its connections to Romantic poet William Wordsworth. It is easily reached by bus from Bowness-on-Windermere.

Wordsworth would quite literally wax poetic about the joys of living in Grasmere and the Lake District, writing odes to the region’s beauty while deriding the dirty nature of the city. His opinion of the peace and serenity found in the Lake District is one shared by countless others, who flock to the area hoping to experience a glimpse of that same wonder. Grasmere is as perfect a representative for the ideal of the Lake District as you could possibly imagine – which is why it is also one of its most visited.

Every angle and vista of the village offers a postcard-worthy view; Grasmere’s quaint cottages and winding streets are endlessly charming, and Grasmere lake is small, but beautiful. While in Grasmere, besides from simply taking it all in, you can explore its many cafes and boutiques, enter a 13th century church, and wander over an ancient stone bridge. An unmissable stop is the iconic Grasmere Gingerbread shop, where you will find a unique type of gingerbread – invented in 1854 – that can only be bought in England.

Try Grasmere Brewery
Try Grasmere Brewery

When in Wordsworth’s beloved Grasmere, you have to visit Dove Cottage, where he and his family once lived. The home has since been converted into a museum and tearoom, where you can learn more about the poet’s life and works, while experiencing the same setting that Wordsworth found so inspiring. The cottage is tucked away in the winding pathways of the village, but is only a few minutes from the gorgeous views of natural landscapes that were Wordsworth’s muse. Walks from Grasmere will treat you to sweeping views of Grasmere lake and the surrounding mountains.

Amble on to Ambleside

Lake views by Ambleside
Lake views by Ambleside

Ambleside sits at the top of Windermere, and historically marked the head of the lake. It is one of the most popular towns in the Lake District – its easy to reach location combined with its obvious charm guarantee it a place on many people’s Lake District bucket lists.

There’s a certain sense of whimsy to Ambleside, which has marks of a pervasive, lighthearted eccentricity dotted around the town. The one most familiar to visitors, and the most delightfully ridiculous, is the Bridge House. A minute stone bridge crosses over Stock Beck, and in the 17th century, Georgian architects, in all their finite wisdom, saw this as the perfect place to build a house. It may be an odd location for a home, but it has worked well as a tourist attraction; the precariously balanced cottage draws in thousands of bemused visitors and eager photographers every year.

Side streets of Ambleside
Side streets of Ambleside

Ambleside has plenty of other attractions, both in and outside of the town. You can potter around the shops, cafes, museums and galleries in Ambleside, or head out into the countryside. Wray Castle, a Victorian neo-Gothic mansion now belonging to the National Trust, is a 10 minute drive, or an hour long walk from Ambleside.

As you will often find in towns and villages in the Lake District, natural beauty is never too far away. Ignoring the lovely views over Windermere, Ambleside has wonderful walks leading into woodland, up mountains and alongside the banks of a river; Stock Ghyll Waterfall is only a 10 minute walk away from the town.

If after all that, you still have some time in the day to spare, you can enjoy another trip on to the lake. Boat hires and ferries are almost as plentiful in Ambleside as they are in Bowness-on-Windermere!

Wander Around Keswick

Derwent Water from Keswick, Lake District National Park

Keswick is the largest town in the Lake District, but shares the same charm and quaint atmosphere as the smallest villages. There are streets of sweet little chocolate shops and independent boutiques that fit seamlessly into the character of the town.

Many of the shops and cafes in Keswick are family businesses that have been in the town for decades; they add to an overall atmosphere of rural authenticity that keeps Keswick from falling prey to the cloning of high streets so common in mid-size UK towns. You could easily whittle away a few hours shopping in Keswick, and you won’t struggle for places to eat or things to do either. 

Some of the Lake District’s more eccentric attractions are located in Keswick. The Cars of the Stars museum may no longer be there, but Keswick still holds its own with unique things to do; you can head to the Derwent Pencil Museum to learn all about the history of the pencil, or experience optical illusions and mind-boggling artwork in Puzzling Place. You can journey back 5000 years at the Castlerigg Stone Circle: this atmospheric stone monument is believed to have been built in roughly 3000BC, making it even older than Stonehenge.

Keswick also gives you another chance to see the water. It’s not called the Lake District for nothing! The beautiful Derwentwater is surrounded by fells and woodland, and offers visitors the chance to hire a rowboat and slowly drift out into the lake, or take a dip – you can swim, but it’s not for the faint hearted; lakes in this part of the country are notoriously cold!

Explore Ullswater

River Brathay passing from Elterwater
River Brathay passing from Elterwater

Ullswater is one of the easiest locations in the Lake District to reach without a car. Penrith station is connected to national rail networks, has transportation links to London via train or coach, and is connected to the rest of the Lake District by bus.

Ullswater is the second largest lake in the national park, and has a more rugged, remote feel than Windermere. Stunning mountainous scenery, dramatic waterfalls, jutting rockfaces and dense woodland make Ullswater a hiker’s paradise. Aira Force waterfall is one of the most impressive in Cumbria, walks among the fells are breathtaking, and a loop of the lake itself is an epic 20 mile hike. It’s not quaint villages that make Ullswater so appealing, it’s unquestionably the scenery: some of the finest views and landscapes in all of the Lake District can be found here, making it a worthwhile stop for anyone that loves to spend time out in the great outdoors.

Want to Avoid the Hassle? Join a Tour Instead.

If you want a car-free trip without the stress of finding your own way, you can join one of several tours available that explore the Lake District.

Tours range from single-day excursions to multi-day adventures; some have meeting points within the park, like this Ten Lakes Full-Day Tour, others will begin from a separate location altogether, like the 3-Day Small Group Tour from Manchester. These tours will take you to the majority of the Lake District’s most unmissable sights, and save you the stress of finding your own way there.

While you lose some freedom in choosing your own itinerary, joining a tour around the Lake District is a convenient way to get around without a car. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for those that want an entirely stress-free holiday that requires next to no planning, joining a tour will help you avoid the hassle.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Go to the Lake District Without a Car?

Not everyone in the UK can drive, and even less own a car. It can seem that the countryside is off limits to people who use public transport. While the Lake District is undeniably more difficult to reach without a car, it is far from impossible.

As this article details, most of the Lake District can be reached by bus – and there are train links into the park for those travelling from further afield. Once in the park trains quickly disappear, but buses are reliable, and ferries offer alternative travel options. If you’re physically fit, cycling is another fantastic way to move around the Lake District.

How Do You Get Around the Lake District Without a Car?

You can catch the train into Oxenholme Lake District, then venture into the national park from there by bus. Certain areas, like Ambleside and Bowness-on-Windermere, have ferries running between them.

While coaches and trains are the way into the Lake District, once you are inside, you will mostly be relying on the bus network. Buses connect all the major places and attractions in the park, and are usually reliable and inexpensive.

As long as you’re physically fit – and somewhat enjoy cycling – you could also hire bikes to explore the local scenery; there are hundreds of great cycle routes running throughout the national park. 

Where to Stay in the Lake District Without a Car?

It is hard to argue against Bowness-on-Windermere as the best place to stay in the Lake District without a car. It’s the unofficial centre of the Lake District, as it’s the most popular place on the banks of Windermere. By staying in Bowness, you will be perfectly located to explore the rest of the region. It has excellent public transport links, with a train station close by and frequent buses to all the major tourist spots in the Lake District. It’s also a great town for restaurants, places to stay and things to do – being the most popular town has a few perks!

Though Bowness-on-Windermere is fantastic for public transport, it can be very busy, which some people may find offputting. If you want a quieter escape, any of the towns or villages mentioned throughout this article will work. Staying somewhere like Hawkshead would make accessing the rest of the Lake District slightly more tedious, but would give the peaceful countryside escape many are looking for.

The Lake District Without a Car

Exploring the Lake District without a car is far easier than you may have thought. If you base yourself in Ambleside or Bowness-on-Windermere, the rest of the park is virtually at your fingertips. Buses or cycling are the best methods of getting around, and you will find very few places are off limits to you.

You can enjoy the breathtaking scenery, quaint and quirky towns and villages, and the generally calming escape of the Lake District without a car. As this itinerary hopefully highlights, you can experience an expansive, varied holiday in Cumbria while only using public transport, and find enough to explore for return visits.

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Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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