Although I’d grown up in the East of England and spent many a weekend as a teenager exploring Cambridge’s indie record and vintage clothes shops, until this recent trip I’d never visited its sister city of Ely. Keen to rectify this, I recently headed back up to Cambridgeshire, where I spent 48 hours in Ely, exploring the city’s history, teashops and attractions!
Ely is a perfect destination for a two-day UK break, with just the right amount of bars, eateries and attractions to entertain all type of travellers, from families to couples. Here’s our guide to the best of Ely – from things to do, to where to stay and where to eat.
Things to do in Ely
Ely is the second smallest city in the UK and it’s easy to see that the city grew out from the cathedral, which was founded over 1,300 years ago. A city in name but a town in size, Ely has a countryside feel to it, with the beautiful Great Ouse river winding through the city, lots of green, open spaces and the fenland just a small drive from its centre.
There are a variety of interesting things to do to if you base yourself in the city for a weekend or midweek break, from country walks and history through to museums and cute cafes.
Take the Eel Trail
A great way to get a feel for the city, the Eel Trail is a short self-guided heritage art trail that takes you through some of the oldest parts of the city, along the river and through some very picturesque parts of the old cathedral grounds. Pick up your free map at the tourist centre (found in Oliver Cromwell’s House) and get your cameras at the ready!
Then wander stroll through the city centre and visit the shops
Alongside the usual high street suspects and a large number of charity shops you’ll find a variety of pretty little independent stores selling everything from cards and artwork through to woollens, handmade toiletries and crafts.
Highlights include the Ely Gin shop and a quirky three-story antiques market down by the river where you can spend hours wandering through its corridors looking at antique silver, homeware, war memorials and even rare comics! Here I found a beautiful vintage diamond-set ring that I fell in love with, which Justin snuck off to buy me as my birthday present before we left!
Unsurprisingly the cathedral is a highlight of Ely and is the only UK building to be listed as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Medieval World’.
Not only is it enjoyable to simply wander around the cathedral on your own, but special tours give you a chance to learn a lot more about its history and explore areas you’d otherwise miss.
Visitors can take part in tours of both the Octagon Tower and the West Tower, which take place several times a day, but be prepared for a steep climb, as the towers have 165 and 288 steps respectively.
The Stained Glass Museum
Up a stone spiral staircase inside the cathedral you’ll find the entrance to the stained glass museum, which resides in the south triforium. The only museum of its kind in the UK, simply take your audio guide, grab one of the foldable chairs near the start of this small museum and slowly make your way down the displays learning about the history of stained glass making and its evolution – an interesting way to spend an hour.
Set in the city’s former gaol, this museum tells the history of Ely and the surrounding lands, with the chance to explore the original prison cells, handle fossils and study Roman remains.
Oliver Cromwell’s House
Oliver Cromwell lived in Ely for a large part of his life, and his old house has been turned into a fun museum with lots of hands-on exhibits that let you learn about life in the 17th Century and Cromwell’s own story.
Find out what they used to eat, try writing with a quill or playing childhood games from the time (I appear to rule at quoits by the way!) and even play dress up in clothes and armour from the era! This attraction was one of my personal favourites!
Cromwell’s old salon now also plays host to a unique ‘pop up’ escape room experience. At a decently priced £80 a session, 4-8 people can get ‘arrested by Parliament and try to escape execution by Cromwell’s men’ by solving the puzzles within 60 minutes or less. Big fun for history lovers!
Where to stay in Ely
There are several quaint B&Bs in and around Ely, but for an affordable luxury city break you can’t do better than Poet’s House.
Just across the road from Oliver Cromwell’s House and with a great view of the cathedral, this hotel is friendly, beautifully designed, luxurious and has the most amazing freestanding copper baths! Read our full review to find out more about our stay there.
Where to eat in Ely
Ely city centre has a plethora of restaurants to choose from, from chains like Prezzo through to a myriad of inviting old pubs and tearooms.
For lovers of tea and cake, a must-visit is Peacocks, a family run teahouse overlooking the river that has an amazing selection of teas and, if you take the time to read their menu through fully, a wicked sense of humour!
Peacocks says it is the only place that offers tea from every continent, and also has a huge selection of special blends, all with fun names like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Great service and good food.
Another good choice near the cathedral is the Almonry tea rooms and restaurant, with a café that’s home to the best millionaire’s shortbread I’ve ever tasted, and a gorgeous restaurant down in the vaulted undercroft. Definitely a great setting for a special meal.
Finally, as well as offering high quality evening meals at an affordable price, Poet’s House is renowned for its afternoon tea offering, and its bar is always packed with locals and visitors alike enjoying the sandwiches and scones.
We also visited The Anchor in Sutton Gault, a short drive out of town, where the food was amazing. However, be warned that service can be very slow, so only come if you plan to make a real night of it!
To find out more about Ely and all it has to offer, be sure to check out the Visit Ely Tourist Board.