Best national parks in the UK: 11 beauty spots with wow factor
Looking for inspiration but don’t know where to start? You’ll never go wrong if you focus on the UK’s national parks. Our nation has 15 huge areas of designated protected landscapes, from the top of Scotland down to the south coast of England. It’s been a tough job, but we’ve picked our favourites; each one is home to a wealth of natural beauties, scenic market towns and wild coastlines.
1. Lake District National Park
Best for: Mixing culture with world-class mountain landscapes
While the Lake District is rightfully a beacon for hikers, climbers and outdoor enthusiasts, its wild landscapes have also inspired writers and artists across the centuries. Find the wildlife that Beatrix Potter wrote about or the rugged hilltops and daffodil-strewn fields that moved Wordsworth.
Where to eat and drink: Climbing mountains is always better with cake, and the huge slabs served at the Apple Pie Cafe in Ambleside are a treat for hungry hikers.
Where to stay: Keswick Bridge Blencathra 9 is a romantic little log cabin with a large balcony, treetop views and great location near Derwentwater and Keswick.
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2. Yorkshire Dales National Park
Best for: Waterfalls, caves and great food
With not one, but two national parks on our list, it’s easy to see why Yorkshire is called God’s Own Country. The Yorkshire Dales spotlights nature at its finest, with waterfalls like Aysgarth Force and Janet’s Foss tumbling dramatically down limestone caverns, and rolling hills carved up by picturesque dry-stone walls. The iconic patterns of remote barns and walls make this corner of Yorkshire super distinctive and a landscape worth seeing.
Where to eat and drink: Wensleydale Creamery is a must-visit on a trip to the Yorkshire Dales, offering daily demonstrations and cheese tastings.
Where to stay: Take the dog along to the rustic Grade II-listed Monks Cottage, a wooden-beamed beauty with walks and a traditional pub on the doorstep.
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3. Peak District National Park
Best for: Lovely atmospheric villages
The Peak District is commonly thought of as the UK’s very first national park, when the ‘Mass Trespass’ in 1932 sparked off our journey towards countryside access for all. And what a wonderful place to start. There are over 35-miles of easy traffic-free trails in the park (including the start of the Pennine Way), making exploring with children a doddle. Cyclists will also be in their element as the park includes some iconic passes for lycra-lovers.
Where to eat and drink: Lambton Larder cafe-deli in Bakewell proudly stocks the finest locally sourced foods around, from hearty pies to healthy salads.
Where to stay: Get away from it all at Charlotte’s Cottage, a remote bolthole with uninterrupted peaks views, just a short drive from bustling Hathersage.
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4. South Downs National Park
Location: East Sussex/West Sussex/Hampshire
Best for: Exploring the south coast
Covering over 100 miles across three counties, the South Downs is hugely diverse, covering ancient woodlands, the chalk-cliffs of Seven Sisters and a grassy wave of idyllic pastures that make up ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’. As the most thickly-wooded national park in the UK it’s easy to get lost in nature here, but there are also plenty of historic and cultural sites to visit, such as Arundel Castle.
Where to eat and drink: The South Downs is home to the UK’s growing wine scene. Visit the Kinsbrook Winery, farmshop and eatery for outstanding local fare.
Where to stay: Bell Meadow is an ideal pick for families, with a private outdoor swimming pool, ping pong, a huge garden and a grill on the terrace.
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5. Cairngorms National Park
Location: Scottish Highlands
Best for: Hiking some of the UK’s highest peaks
You can’t move for superlatives in the Cairngorms – this is the UK’s biggest and most northerly national park, as well as being home to many of the highest peaks in the country and Britain’s only free-ranging reindeer herd. Spend your time here wild swimming in chilly lochs, tramping through forest, exploring wild nature and high mountain passes; whatever you do, just make sure you’re outside.
Where to eat and drink: The candlelit restaurant at the Old Bridge Inn gastropub welcomes both hiking boots and stilettos to dine on superb local food.
Where to stay: Five miles away from Aviemore and surrounded by highland scenery, seven-sleeper Clach Mhor is an ideal base for active families.
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6. Snowdonia National Park
Best for: Welsh heritage and historic landscapes
Of course, Mount Snowdon is the big draw to this Welsh national park, but while you might come for the hike (or the train journey, if that’s more your style), you should stay for the bleak and wonderful historic landscapes here. This part of Wales once ‘roofed the world’ with its huge slate mining operation, and you can take a fascinating mine visit at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Or even whiz down the fastest zip wire in the world over the quarry at Penrhyn.
Where to eat and drink: Amser Da is a cafe, wine shop and deli specialising in top notch Welsh fare. Grab a coffee and a Welsh rarebit and leave with goodies to prepare in your holiday cottage.
Where to stay: Meifod, Penrhyddion Pella is a delightful 18th-century barn conversion with a wood-burner and easy access to the surrounding mountains.
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7. Northumberland National Park
Best for: Discovering Roman heritage at Hadrian’s Wall
Northumberland is the least populated of all of the UK’s national parks, comprising a dark sky reserve, Roman history at Hadrian’s Wall UNESCO Heritage Site, and lots of pre-historic sites to explore. Visit The Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre to delve deeper into these barren and blustery landscapes and walk to nearby Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall. This is the scene of the famous tree that has a starring role in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.
Where to eat and drink: William de Percy Inn & Creperie is an eclectic pub that promises home-cooked food like pulled ham hock, served in a crepe.
Where to stay: Stay slap bang in the dark sky reserve and watch the stars from the comfort of your private hot tub, at this cosy Cottage in Northumberland.
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8. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Best for: Coastal hikes and watersports
Paddle-boarding, surfing, coasteering or seal spotting; get the wetsuit ready for a trip to Pembrokeshire. This is the UK’s only purely coastal national park, where the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path leads keen hikers across this stunning and varied seaside scenery. Visit colourful Tenby, discover the UK’s smallest city at St. Davids and, of course, spend many days building sandcastles and eating fish and chips on the beach.
Where to eat and drink: Close to golden sands at Saundersfoot Beach, the award-winning Stone Crab is a casual joint serving up superb fresh seafood.
Where to stay: The beautiful and stylish Barn in West Wales sleeps six people, and has loads of outdoor garden space as well as being close to sandy beaches.
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9. North York Moors National Park
Best for: Great diversity of market towns and fishing villages
The North York Moors National Park has fantastic variety, being home to popular seaside resorts like Whitby and Scarborough, as well as traditional market towns like Pickering. This makes for a really fun, diverse holiday – one day could be spent discovering Victorian steam trains or Gothic ruins, while the next you take a boat trip to spot seals or win your weight in 2 pence coins at the seaside arcades.
Where to eat and drink: Treat yourself to Michelin-starred dishes at the Black Swan at Oldstead, where ingredients are homegrown at their very own farm.
Where to stay: Make your holiday really special with a stay at The Old Windmill, a converted windmill with a fab location in the market town of Kirkbymoorside.
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10. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
Best for: Wild swimming
Lowlands and Highlands meet here at Scotland’s first national park, where you might spot a red squirrel in the forest, deer wandering the thistle-strewn landscape or the head of an otter poking out of a loch. If you’re feeling active, there are lots of Munros to bag in the area. Alternatively, take a stroll around the mighty Loch Lomond and take a wild dip.
Where to eat and drink: Overlooking Loch Lomond, the award-winning Oak Tree Inn gastropub is the perfect place to rest and enjoy a dram of whisky.
Where to stay: Walk from the front door to the private beach at Loch Lomond Lodge – Holiday Home, this six-sleeper on the banks of the Loch itself.
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11. Brecon Beacons National Park
Best for: Dark skies and craggy mountains
The Brecon Beacons are often overlooked in favour of Snowdonia’s draw, but we love this Welsh park that embodies the sweeping grandeur of Great British scenery. Waterfalls, caves and leafy forests all come together in a network of wildlife habitats interspersed with small Welsh communities. Climb the park’s highest peak, Pen-Y-Fan, for outstanding views, and spend evenings watching the stars in the Dark Sky Reserve.
Where to eat and drink: Set yourself up for the day with breakfast at the family-run Honey Cafe, a mecca for cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts..
Where to stay: Take the whole family plus dog to the four-bed Nant Moel Isaf Farm, which comes complete with enclosed gardens, wood-burner and hot tub.
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