Car-free holidays in The Lake DistrictCumbria

The Lake District may not sound like an area that would be easy to explore by public transport, but in fact you can arrive on a speedy train (much faster than driving) and then get around on an excellent network of buses. Even better, the buses are often double decker and open-topped, giving you unbeatable views over the lakes and mountains.

  • County: Cumbria
  • Great for: beaches | birds | boat trips | castles | family | museums | nature reserve | walking |
  • Refreshments: lots of fabulous restaurants, pubs and cafes
  • Please note: researched/updated in April 2022. If anything’s changed or you have more tips to share, do get in touch: features@goodjourney.org.uk
  1. Windermere

    At the end of little a branch line from Oxenholme on the fast West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, the lakeside town of Windermere is in easy reach of Cumbria’s most famous attractions. Add PlusBus to your Windermere train ticket and you can travel as far as Grasmere, including on the open-top buses.

    • Wordsworth Grasmere is just half an hour’s beautiful ride away from Windermere station on bus 599 or bus 555. The buses here are often open-topped and have epic views across the lakes and mountains. To get there, follow Good Journey’s directions and get 20% off when you arrive by bus.
    • The poet William Wordsworth lived, with his family, in little whitewashed Dove Cottage from 1799 to 1808. Wordsworth Grasmere recently reopened after a £6.5 million makeover: Dove Cottage now recreates the sights, sounds and even smells of the Wordsworths’ life and writing here and lies at the heart of a cultural hub with museums, gardens and a cafe.
    • Back in Windermere, there are more great attractions to visit. Windermere Jetty Museum opened in March 2019 and houses a varied collection of Lakeland craft: Beatrix Potter’s sturdy rowing boat, elegant varnished teak steam launches and Miss Windermere IV hydroplane. To get to the museum follow Good Journey’s directions.
    • Take a boat from Bowness or Ambleside Pier and cruise around Windermere. For bespoke guided tours of the area, check out Hidden Lakeland.
    • For more suggestions of things to do in the area, see our car-free guide to Windermere.
    • Stay at YHA Ambleside, which is right by the water and has private rooms from £29/night. It’s five miles north of the station, an easy bus ride on the 599 or 555. Bus 505 stops nearby too. Get off at the stops called Pier or Waterhead Hotel. Alternatively, keep going one more stop to the bus station for the cheerful, comfortable Ambleside Inn, which recently had a transformational revamp. There are popular dinners in the restaurant and doubles from £94, B&B. For an even fancier option, Grasmere’s country-house-style Wordsworth Hotel has views of village or fells from the chandelier-hung bedrooms and of the garden from the jacuzzi (doubles from £130 B&B).
  1. Penrith

    The pretty market town of Penrith, just north of the National Park, makes a great hub for car-free visitors to the Lake District. Fast Avanti West Coast trains from London Euston and Glasgow take about half the time of driving. Book in advance for much cheaper tickets. Once you’ve got here, there are regular buses to Ullswater, Keswick and beyond.

    • Ullswater, the Lake District’s second largest lake, is just twenty minutes’ bus ride south of Penrith. Here, you can stroll through the woods where Wordsworth saw his dancing daffs or catch a boat to Aira Force waterfall. Ullswater Steamers leave from Pooley Bridge, at the Penrith end of the lake, several times a day even in winter.
    • For more information about this and other trips from Penrith, see our car-free guide.
    • Buses X4 and X5 set off hourly from Penrith (more in summer) for a scenic journey along the north edge of the Lake District to Keswick. Here you can visit Castlerigg Stone Circle or Keswick museum, take in a show at the Theatre by the Lake or a boat trip over tranquil Derwentwater.
    • There are all kinds of Wordsworth-related sights in this area too. Our blogger, Phoebe, followed in the poet’s footsteps for this Guardian feature.
    • From Keswick, you can take a bus to Whinlatter Forest, the only true mountain forest in England. Just follow Good Journey’s directions.
    • If you’re thinking of catching a few buses, you can buy good value day tickets: a Penrith and Ullswater day rider or an Explorer ticket for the whole of the North West. There are bus/boat combo tickets too. To hire bikes, book ahead at Arragon’s cycle hire, two minutes’ walk from Penrith bus station.
    • For a great base in Penrith with a popular restaurant and swimming pool, check out the North Lakes hotel and spa, just ten minutes’ walk from the station. Or if you’d rather be based in the fell-ringed towns further west, YHA Keswick is close to the bus stop for the X4/X5 from Penrith and was nicely refurbished after storms and floods in 2015.
  1. Ravenglass

    Surrounded by salt marsh where the wide River Esk meets the sea, Ravenglass is a totally different kind of Lake District base. Sixteen million visitors a year arrive in Cumbria’s crowded hotspots, but the long sandy coast is often overlooked and full of hidden gems. Ravenglass is part of the UNESCO-listed Lake District landscape and the national park and it’s also part of the World Heritage site that includes Hadrian’s Wall: Frontiers of the Roman Empire.

    • Change trains in Lancaster or Carlisle to take the slower coastal railway that meanders past green crags, foggy marshland, shining sands and looming fells.
    • Half a mile from Ravenglass station, there’s a ruined Roman bathhouse, once part of a second-century fort.
    • Muncaster Castle is a pleasant mile’s walk from Ravenglass. There are flowery gardens outside, carved wood and tapestries inside, a Hawk and Owl centre, and miles of spring-flowering rhododendrons.
    • The Ravenglass and Eskdale railway or “La’al Ratty” as the local narrow-gauge steam railway is nicknamed runs inland to the foot of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. From the far end of this little railway, you can hike over tarn-topped moorland or amble round the Dalegarth Falls, a series of ferny, fairy-tale cascades. Eskdale Mill is just a ten-minute stroll down country lanes from Boot station.
    • One stop north on the regular coastal railway, the thousand acres of dunes near Drigg are full of interesting plants and birds: white burnet roses, marram grass, stone chats and sand martins.
    • Six stops (half an hour) north on this train brings you to Whitehaven, a post-industrial town with Georgian architecture. From here you can access one of the new stretches of coast path. Or, in wet weather, head for the town’s interesting museums.
    • The Rum Story winds through a series of original cellars and warehouses to explore both grim and cheerful aspects of the “dark spirit of Whitehaven”. The waterside Beacon museum traces the area’s past through Vikings and Victorian trading ships (£6.50). You can follow Good Journey’s directions to get to the Rum Story or the Beacon.
    • The Pennington Hotel, just steps from the Esk estuary and three minutes’ from Ravenglass station makes a very comfortable base with double rooms from around £80.