A specific name probably pops to mind when thinking of Nottingham: Robin Hood. But this vibrant city has much more to offer than a centuries-old legend. With a blooming University and a chic, elegant spirit, Nottingham blends history with modernism and is without a doubt one of the hidden gems of England.
A well-kept secret
It’s no surprise to see Nottingham’s stunning history. The city boasts a beautiful castle with charming gardens and a lovely view, as well as a solid claim to hosting the world’s oldest pub (two beer houses actually make that claim — more on that later). But that’s not the first thing that hits you, or at least it’s not the first thing that hit me. The shocker, to me, was just how young the city feels. Walking the romantic cobblestone streets, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; was it the careless university students having a coffee or partying all night? The tasteful, often innovative stores that riddle the city center? Or something completely different, that I’m missing entirely? Whatever the answer may be, I feel that this is Nottingham’s secret, and it’s a well kept one at that. How you can have such a historic city and make it feel so young is a mystery beyond me.
The (Robin) elephant in the room
Of course, the one thing you have to see in Nottingham is the castle. Despite popular belief, it’s not Robin’s castle. Robin Hood was actually from Loxley, near Sheffield (he’s often called Robin of Loxley), and he was an outlaw — of course, he couldn’t have afforded and wouldn’t have been allowed to stay in a castle. This is where the Sheriff of Nottingham, the nemesis of Robin, resided.
Truth be told, ‘Castle’ is a bit of a strong word, it’s more of a mansion than anything — but we’ll go with ‘castle’ because it just sounds cooler. As you go up the small hill where the castle is perched, you’ll start to see it. Defense walls there are indeed, but instead of luxurious towers and ornate walls, you’ll see a rather simple, though definitely beautiful building. The centuries haven’t been kind to it. History hasn’t stood still since the 12th century, when the first Robin Hood ballads emerged, and the place has changed, time and time again. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say there’s more than one fascinating story about the place. The visit is definitely worth it, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours (you can do it in an hour if you’re time-pressed). The gardens offer a fine view, though Nottingham isn’t the prettiest city, seen from above. The house itself has lots of stories, and I found myself absorbed by the sheets on the walls, reading them as a good novel. The house also hosts an eclectic collection of historical objects, rather random in nature, but certainly interesting.
You’ll have to pay to visit the grounds, and you can have a good beer and some snacks from the shop (the Robin Hood beer is a really good choice if you like ales). You can visit it by yourself or through a tour, and inside, you’ll find another one of Nottingham’s mysterious features: caves.
Around the hill
Nottingham has a series of man-made caves and caverns around the castle. Legend has it, one of them was dug by a king right to his mother’s chambers, to find her and a traitorous Lord doing… unroyally things. Whether that’s true or not, the caves are certainly an unusual attraction worth checking out. Even if you don’t visit them, you’ll catch a glimpse of some of the exists if you walk around the castle hill.
Speaking of, walking around the hill is something you really should be doing. Aside from getting a chance to peek at some of the cave entrances, you’ll certainly enjoy the historic inns and pubs around, as well as the quirky shops. Of course, take the traditional photo with Robin’s statue for which you’ll probably have to stay in line a few minutes.
Just a few minutes away, you’ll find Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Definitely, a pub you don’t want to miss in Nottingham, its rustic silhouette rising from a carved sandstone rock, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem claims to have been established in 1189 AD — almost a millennium ago! Its name is also explained by the year: 1189 is the year that Richard the Lionheart became king and Pope Gregory VIII called for a Third Crusade to the Holy Land, and on his way, he stopped (you’ve guessed it) at this pub, then an inn. The pub is directly attached to some of the caves we mentioned above, and could easily feature as a museum, with its rich history and authentic inside. The beers are excellent, the food is good and plenty, visitors and locals alike love this pub.
Quality food, quality drinks
But this definitely isn’t the only pub worth checking out in Nottingham. Ye Olde Salutation Inn is another pub laying a claim to ‘the oldest pub in England,’ dating from 1240 and contesting the authenticity of its rivals’ claims. To be honest, I’m not sure it makes much of a difference if a pub is 800 or 900 years old, it’s a wonder nonetheless. The Bell Inn is the third Nottingham pub to claim the title, and it actually has a bit of a more solid claim, as its original wooden beams have been authenticated through scientific research as dating from 1437. All these pubs are in close walking distance to each other, and all of them are amazing buildings. The drinks are fantastic, the food is good — I’ll be honest, it’s not something to blow you away, but it’s good.
If you do want a special culinary treat, The Peacock is a place I warmly recommend checking out. It functions as a vegetarian pub, but you’d never figure it out. For starters, it operates in a gorgeous Victorian building, decorated with antique objects and a proper fireplace. I actually had the table next to the fireplace one time, and it’s delightful. I recommend this place for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike because the food is plentiful and delicious — you’ll be surprised to see just how creative they can be. Popping in for just a pint, a tea, and some cake, or a lavish dinner with your friends or loved one, The Peacock is definitely one of Nottingham’s hidden gems.
But these are just the famous pubs, there’s a myriad of brilliant places in Nottingham, and I could write a full article just about them (and I probably will, actually). The Hand and Heart is another favorite of the city, with its cavernous restaurant area and eclectic decoration. The Barrel Drop is perfect for people who like good beer and good company. The Angel Microbrewery is more modern and Starbucks-like, but again, the beer is fantastic. The Organ Grinder is great. The Test Match is delightful. Langtry’s is charming. You get the point by now — Nottingham has a metric ton of awesome pubs, go check them out! Never opt for the big franchises, don’t go to McDonald’s for crying out loud! Check out the pubs.
For animal lovers
Nottingham also has another attraction you might want to check out: the Kitty Cafe. Walking around Nottingham’s central streets, it’s almost impossible to miss it. Kitty Cafe is both a cat rescue center and a café. You get to enjoy a delicious piece of cake, tea, coffee, or whatever — while in the company of about a gazillion cats walking, playing, or just napping around you. It’s a pretty awesome concept and it’s guaranteed to give you a unique experience.
Just be aware that you have to have to call them or drop by and book your arrival.
If you’d like a more outdoorsy experience with wild animals, don’t worry — Nottingham’s got you covered once again.
A walk in the park
While Robin’s famous forests are quite a way’s away from the city center, Nottingham can boast a delightful attraction for nature lovers. Wollaton Gardens and Deer Park is basically a large park with a charming lake, built around a spectacular Elizabethan country house from the 1580s. The Hall itself it free to visit and it’s definitely worth your time. You’ll get a chance to dive into another side of the rich history of the area, costume yourself as a lord or a princess, and then skip right through to the Industrial Museum for something a bit more different. But the main attraction is, without a doubt, the park itself.
In typical British fashion, the grass is neatly cut and a deep shade of green no matter when you choose to visit. Birds abound in and around the like during almost all times of the year, and yes — there are deer. They have an enclosure you can get relatively close to, though they can apparently jump over it quite easily. We met them while walking on a foresty path, they walked straight by us, not giving a damn.
Wollaton Hall is an excellent decision for a day out with the family, a picnic with a loved one, some nice walks outdoors, or just if you want to relax away from the maddening crowd.
So, to sum it up, Nottingham is not one of England’s “crown jewels,” but perhaps it deserves to be. It’s a historic city with plenty of delightful sites, but also a vibrant place, riddled with pubs and clubs for all tastes. Definitely one of the places on the rise in England, and one well worth enjoying. No matter what you like, the odds are you’ll find something in Nottingham.