The word ‘travel’ may stir up images of planes, far-off destinations and tropical climates but, sometimes, you don’t need to go very far for a rewarding adventure. In my case, a weekend in Derby turned out to be one of the best trips of last year.
A few weeks ago, we left London on a train bound for Derbyshire. I had done my research before leaving for Derby, but nothing could have prepared me for what I found: a city full of culture, friendly people, history and a surprisingly excellent food scene.
If you love exploring the UK as much as I do, I hope my ultimate guide to a weekend in Derby will make you want to add this vibrant city to your upcoming travels. From learning about the city’s long history to the best place for brunch, these are my must-dos when spending a weekend in Derby.
Getting to Derby
There are a few ways to get to Derby and we travelled there via my transport mode of choice: train. You can get to Derby from London on the East Midlands train leaving from St Pancras International Station; the journey time is under two hours. Derby is well connected by rail from most parts of the country.
For those travelling by air, East Midlands Airport is a half-hour drive from Derby. And, if you have your own set of wheels, Derby is a two-and-a-half-hour road trip from central London. Plus, for the latter type of visitors, Derby happens to be the perfect base from which to explore the many sights of Derbyshire.
Things to do during a weekend in Derby
If you’re also planning to spend a weekend in Derby, this is a collection of my favourite things to do, see and eat in the city. This is a rather long post, but that just proves how much you can fit into a Derby weekend trip!
Marvel at a key site of the Industrial Revolution
Derby has a long history, with its origins stretching back to when the Romans first set up a camp here. Thereafter, the town was settled by the likes of Vikings and Anglo Saxons, but, later, it also played a key role in the Industrial Revolution. On the banks of the Derwent River (and not far from Derby Cathedral), you can find Derby’s Silk Mill, claimed by many to be one of the birthplaces of the revolution, which saw a move away from making objects by hand to factory-led mass production.
The Silk Mill, which had its beginnings as Lombe’s Mill, was founded in 1717. Like with any good story, there’s a scandal attached to what was possibly the first large-scale factory in the world. John Lombe had visited Piedmont in Italy to study a technique called ‘silk throwing’. He came back to Derby and recreated the process on a larger scale, so that a lot of silk could be produced quickly. This presented strong competition in the silk trading world and, rumour has it, John Lombe was eventually assassinated by someone sent by his Italian competitors in 1722.
The mill has been modified many times, and it’s currently undergoing development to become the Museum of Making in 2020. It’s still worth a visit, however, especially to see the historic photos featured on boards outside the mill, which once hired up to 300 people. For those particularly interested in this period of history, Derby’s Silk Mill is part of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site, which links up a number of historical mills along the river.
Spoil yourself with an indulgent dinner at Bistrot Pierre
We arrived into Derby quite late on a Friday evening, and, while a lot of the restaurants we passed by were quiet at that hour, Bistrot Pierre was the exception. And it seems to be one of those perpetually busy eateries, so, if you’re planning to visit (and you should), then it’ll be worth booking ahead.
Bistrot Pierre is located on one of Derby’s busiest streets, Friar Gate, and our dinner there was the ideal way to ease ourselves into a weekend in the city. You can find branches of Bistrot Pierre elsewhere in the UK, but it’s popular with locals in Derby and was one of the first to be opened by founders Robert Beacham and John Whitehead.
The food, which, as the restaurant’s name suggests, celebrates all things French cuisine, was utterly delicious. We went for a three-course meal and couldn’t resist scraping every last morsel off our plates – even when we were full! I still daydream about the ricotta and truffle ravioli I had there, as well as my cod with beurre blanc sauce. Chris was likewise enamoured with his duck main and his classic French dessert of crepes.
All of our dishes were of the highest quality and, refreshingly, were affordable too. If you time it right, you can also get a bargain by booking Bistrot Pierre’s lunchtime and early dinner sittings.
Uncover 250 years of history at Pickford’s House
Also located on Friar Gate, Pickford’s House may look rather unassuming among the many buildings lining this street. But this property dates all the way back to 1770, and, inside, you’ll find a physical time capsule containing 250 years of Derby life.
Joseph Pickford was a leading architect in the Georgian period, and he designed the house at 41 Friar Gate as both his residence but also to act as a show home to bring in new clients. Even though some of the main properties he built during his lifetime were later demolished, Pickford’s House, a showcase of his skill as an architect, remains for us to enjoy.
The property was added to over time, but, when opened as a museum in 1988, much effort was made to show how the house would’ve looked during different periods. As we walked through the rooms of the ground floor, we caught a glimpse of Georgian society, with decadent era-appropriate decor setting the scene for Joseph Pickford’s professional life in Derby. The kitchen area is set to look like it would have in the 1830s, and, on the more unusual side, there are two bathrooms (in working order), one representing the Edwardian period, while the other dates from the 1930s. In the basement, you can find a replica of a World War II air raid shelter.
Ever since I first moved to the UK, I’ve made a habit of visiting historical homes, and we loved discovering the different areas of Pickford’s House. But the history isn’t only contained within its walls – there’s a small Georgian garden at the back of the house too.
If you love visiting historical homes too, add Pickford’s House to your Derby itinerary. It’s an architectural gem (don’t miss the house’s built-to-impress grand entrance with its intricate ceiling) worthy of an hour or two of your Derby trip.
Time your visit with one of Derby’s festivals
Derby plays host to many festivals throughout the year. From celebrating performance arts and all things circus related at the annual Derby Feste to the Derby Film Festival to the CAMRA Winter Beer Festival, you’re bound to find a festival that suits your interests.
We arrived right in the middle of the Derby Folk Festival, and the city felt all the more vibrant due to the musical takeover of the city’s central sights. While we were out and about sightseeing, we frequently saw people in colourful outfits or chanced upon a performance going on in one of the side streets. We also got to attend some of the scheduled performances. Some of our highlights included seeing Robyn Johnson silence a rowdy crowd at the Old Bell Hotel, hearing traditional folk songs from Kim Lowings and The Greenwood, and watching the Rheingans Sisters perform to a packed ballroom.
There is plenty to see and do in Derby, but, if you do manage to time your trip there with one of the festivals, I guarantee that your weekend will be all the more special. We loved getting caught up in the Derby Folk Festival’s many activities.
Take a break for lunch at Oliver’s
If you tend to champion independent cafes, then look no further than Oliver’s for one of your lunch stops. Oliver’s, located on Friar Gate, is divided in two: one doorway leads to the counter for takeaway orders, while the other is for diners who’d prefer to eat in.
We had some time on our hands (plus eating on the go requires good physical coordination, which I do not possess), so we took a seat in Oliver’s dining section. With its opportunities for people watching, cute decor and drool-worthy display of cakes and sweet treats, I knew that we had found a great spot for lunch.
The menu has comforting breakfast dishes like pancakes and Full English Breakfast, but their signature lunch dish is the mezzaluna, a toasted flatbread that can be customised with three fillings. Chris immediately opted for this but, since I have a mild obsession (read: problem) with quiche, I ordered the quiche of the day, which was asparagus, spinach and feta.
The food was tasty – I loved the addition of garlic potatoes on my plate – and I would definitely visit Oliver’s the next time I’m in Derby. Especially on a Sunday, when their brunch menu includes hard shakes like the Breakfast Espresso Martini.
Explore Derby Cathedral
We had our first sighting of Derby Cathedral when we walked into the Cathedral Quarter. Standing at the end of a street decorated with colourful banners, the cathedral went on to become our guiding landmark when navigating the city.
But the cathedral has played an important role in the city for centuries. The first religious building was built in this spot in 943 AD and, although this site took on many different forms throughout the years, the 18th-Century parish church eventually went on to take official cathedral status in 1927.
Even if you’re not normally a fan of visiting cathedrals, I feel like Derby Cathedral has the right mix of history and, well, the quirky to keep everyone interested. Did you know, for example, that Derby Cathedral is home to the oldest ring of ten bells in the world, with the oldest bell being over 500 years old? Or that the cathedral is home to two Peregrine Falcons, who have a nest on the walls – and that there’s a webcam so that you can see their new chicks every year? These are only two facts you’ll discover on a visit to Derby Cathedral, but there’s so much more. Don’t miss the monument to Bess of Hardwick, for example. Elizabeth Cavendish lived a colourful life (with four marriages!) and was a prominent character in Elizabethan society.
But the thing that impressed me the most was that Derby Cathedral is very in touch with the community nowadays, hosting events and getting involved with local festivals. While we were visiting, the Derby Folk Festival was, as mentioned, in full swing, and one special performance occurred right at the top of Derby Cathedral’s tower. A Call from on High took place on a windy day, where Sinfonia Viva performed music inspired by the cathedral itself.
For those interested, the cathedral offers tower tours to see the bells and the views from the top. Even if it’s not festival time, make sure to stop by this unique cathedral – and see if you can spot the resident Peregrine Falcons while you’re at it!
Sample a local delicacy at Derby Pyclet Parlour
Ever heard of a pyclet?
Before I got to Derby, neither had I! But this particular food item is tied up in the history of Derby, starting all the way back in 1864 when the Monk family opened a bakery. The pyclets, which can be described as flattened, denser versions of a crumpet, were sold near the Guildhall for decades.
Pyclet production went on for over a century until the bakery sadly closed. If it weren’t for a revival in 2011, the Derby pyclet may have been lost to history. But now visitors can try pyclets for themselves – and close to where they were first sold so many years ago.
The Derby Pyclet Parlour is one of the shops operating in Derby’s Market Hall. We perched on one of the stools lining the counter and debated on which pyclet we should order. I’m a sweet-tooth, so I couldn’t resist the Nutella pyclets, while Chris chose the savoury Welsh rarebit pyclets. We hadn’t eaten that long before trying out the pyclets, but they were so good that we ate every little bit anyway!
You can’t visit Derby and leave without trying this local delicacy. But, since the Derby Pyclet Parlour operates within the market hall, ensure that you check out their opening hours or you might miss out.
Get acquainted with the real ale scene at The Exeter Arms
Thanks to Lonely Planet calling Derby the best place to drink ale in the whole world, along with the city’s breweries gaining plenty of their own accolades, beer lovers should definitely add a Derby pub (or three) to their weekend itinerary.
We stopped by The Exeter Arms, a traditional pub located across the river on Exeter Street. As soon as I saw the bar area, I knew that this was a pub for serious beer aficionados. All of the (many) beers on tap are listed above the counter. Chris was in his element, and we liked The Exeter Arms so much that we decided to stay for dinner.
The beers are provided by a local brewery called Dancing Duck but, if you’re not that keen on real ale, there are other drinks on offer too. Real ales are made using traditional ingredients like barley, hops, water and yeast, and mature inside casks without using any extra carbon dioxide. There are different varieties to try – from stouts to golden ales – especially at pubs like The Exeter Arms.
While Chris worked his way through the beer list, I perused the food menu. While we were tempted by the burgers and the traditional English pub classics, we eventually made our decision. I had the Hommity pie, a vegetarian deep-filled pie with potato, cheddar and spinach. It was genuinely one of the best vegetarian pies I’ve had anywhere. Chris went the meaty route, with the sirloin steak and chips, and he raved about his choice too.
If you’d also like to visit The Exeter Arms, I’d recommend booking ahead, especially at meal times. This pub is a local favourite and it seems to be continuously full – and I suspect it has a lot to do with that extensive real ale menu.
Become enlightened at Derby Museum and Art Gallery
A museum and art collection rolled into one, it’s easy to spend a few hours at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. It’s also a top choice for anyone visiting as a family, with plenty of hands-on and interactive displays. I found the collections fascinating, as I felt like we got to learn about all of the people and products that have been linked to Derby over the years in a single afternoon.
The art gallery, for instance, has the largest collection of artworks by Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright painted during the 1700s, and much of his work is associated with the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. He became particularly renowned for the way he was able to paint light, and nowhere is this more impressive than in his artwork ‘A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery’. If you only have time to see one thing in this museum, make sure that it’s this painting; the original, with its interplay between light and dark, as well as the individual details of each person’s face, is incredible to examine up close.
On the museum side, it should come as no surprise that I loved the archaeology collection. The most interesting find here – and it’s one that takes up an entire room – is the 3,400-year-old longboat. This Bronze Age boat was made out of a single tree trunk, measuring at 10 metres! You can also find other items, including Roman finds and a Viking sword, in this collection.
But if art or longboats don’t take your fancy, there are other collections on Derby’s famous porcelain and natural history, as well as temporary exhibitions. As an added bonus, Derby Museum and Art Gallery is completely free to visit.
Catch a movie, have a meal or admire art at QUAD
Because you can do all of those things in one place in Derby, and that venue is QUAD.
Described as a cultural hub, the goal of QUAD is to make art more accessible to all, offering a cinema, cafe, gallery and workshop all under one roof. With its modern, cube-like exterior, QUAD is one of the most eye-catching structures in Derby’s Market Square.
We stopped by to take a look around QUAD, which often hosts exhibitions and other events too, and for a quick lunch between Derby Folk Festival shows. I honestly wish I had an arts centre like this around the corner from where I live. Of course, everyone loves going to the cinema, but QUAD also encourages creativity by hosting courses in all manner of artistic pursuits, such as photography, creative writing and poetry. On top of that, QUAD also has regular crafts and book club meetings, as well as quiz nights.
After enviously eyeing up those courses and events, we settled down in QUAD’s colourful cafe for lunch. The menu offers bigger dishes like fish and chips or burgers, as well as lighter meals like sandwiches and flatbreads. We were pretty much constantly eating in Derby, so I opted for the lighter soup of the day, which was a flavourful broccoli and blue cheese soup, while Chris chose the Cajun chicken sandwich.
I could imagine bringing my laptop to QUAD and working there for a day (while ordering top ups of their lovely coffee). It’s a spot that inspires people to be productive and creative, and, if I lived in Derby, I have no doubt I’d be going back to QUAD again and again.
Go for a wander
I feel like this is an essential item on any travel itinerary, as simply walking around is my favourite way of getting to know a new place.
For me, Derby is an attractive blend of old and new, where history and innovation often stand side by side. With my sore feet and new high-record step count as evidence, we spent that weekend exploring as much of the different areas of the city as humanly possible. From the busy streets of the Cathedral Quarter to the shopping haven of the intu Derby mall, Derby packs a lot of variety.
We also enjoyed walking along Derby’s River Derwent, which is a hub of activity within itself, with kayaks and other small boats making their way under the many bridges that crisscross the waterway. The quiet paths near the river take in sights like Derby Cathedral, the Silk Mill and the Derby River Gardens.
You don’t need a car or public transport to explore Derby, and we visited all of the places listed on this itinerary on foot. There’s so much to see in Derby and if you don’t like sticking to itineraries, just pick a direction and see where your feet take you.
End off a Derby weekend with brunch at The Bookcafe
If you decide to make a foray into Derby’s nightlife scene, you may find yourself in need of a restorative meal come Sunday morning. And, since I think there’s no better meal than weekend brunch, I know just the place you should head to when hungry in Derby.
Located in a historic Grade II-listed building on Cornmarket, The Bookcafe is another busy spot at just about any time of day. This venue hosts evening events and offers everything from breakfast to afternoon tea and beyond. As mentioned, though, we were on the hunt for breakfast.
The cafe is filled with books, quirky decor, mismatched furniture and an unrivaled view over the goings on of the Cathedral Quarter. There are big, cosy sofas to sink into as well as the traditional table-and-chair option. We went for the latter before ordering our food.
For breakfast, there’s everything from the Full Derbyshire to traditional Derby pyclets; I was naturally drawn to my personal morning favourite, eggs benedict. Whatever you decide to eat in the end, go ahead and order any of the lattes too, as all of these come with a rather unexpected surprise.
Like all of the food we had while we were in Derby, the standard was excellent, and I would love to come back to The Bookcafe for one of their events. After all, there’s no better combination than food, books and an original venue, so The Bookcafe went down as one of our best finds in Derby.
Accommodation in Derby
When it comes to accommodation in Derby, I can’t imagine our weekend being as good as it was if we didn’t have The Stay Company as our homebase.
Part of this is down to convenience, since these serviced apartments are located on Friar Gate (as are plenty of the attractions I wrote about in this post). But there’s so much more to The Stay Company other than its ideal position within Derby.
Three Grade II-listed properties have been converted into high-quality holiday apartments, with each containing absolutely everything a traveller needs. It’s a home away from home (heck, as we walked in, I remember amending this by saying ‘it’s better than my real home’). The accommodation options vary between studios and one-bedroom apartments, as well as two-bedroom flats in a range of standard, superior and deluxe.
We stayed in a one-bedroom apartment – and it was a flawless experience. The apartment felt modern, with splashes of colour from the artworks hanging on the walls, and featured more space than we could ever need. The spacious bedroom had an extremely comfortable bed, the bathroom had fluffy towels and Cole & Lewis toiletries, while we couldn’t get enough of our open-plan living room and kitchen setup. The facilities are all top of the range, but The Stay Company makes their offering even better with their attention to detail.
We were greeted with a welcome note (complete with our names and a real wax seal) that sat alongside our supplies for breakfast for the entire weekend. Croissants, pains au chocolat, jams and spreads, fruit and cereal – and even some milk in the fridge. As if that wasn’t enough, there was also a cookbook highlighting recipes from Derbyshire just in case we felt like cooking our own meals.
The apartments suit weekend travellers, but are also a good fit for long-term stays, as all of the units include washing machines and full kitchens. On-site parking is available, and Derby’s city centre is a five-minute walk away.
We adored our time with The Stay Company and we would recommend it to anyone looking for luxurious and private accommodation that places you right in the heart of Derby.
Follow my steps
Like my itinerary for Derby? You can follow my footsteps with the map below!
As if you haven’t been able to tell already, I concluded my weekend in Derby feeling pleased and surprised at just how much there is to do – and to eat – in this city. And I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface, especially if you start looking at the sites and activities within driving distance of the city. Do yourself this favour: if it wasn’t already on your UK bucket list, add Derby right now.
I’m already looking into going back to experience one of Derby’s other festivals!
Have you been to Derby? Or are you a local? Let me know of any good spots I missed by leaving a comment below!
Note: My trip to Derby was hosted by Visit Derby but, as always, all opinions and my newfound affection for Derby pyclets are entirely my own. Special thanks to The Stay Company, Natalie Heard, Lisa Bridge, Martin Roper and Kathy Frain.
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