Norwich does not give up its secrets easily to the casual visitor.
The Fine City lacks the grandeur and ambition of the Georgian architects who gave us the endless golden monuments of Bath; there are no Industrial-age edifices such as can be found in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham. Nor are there any jaw-dropping monuments to Britain's past as appear in London, Bristol or Edinburgh. When tourists begin looking for the 'centre' of Norwich, they are often surprised to discover it does not really exist.
Known for its Norman castle and cathedral, and famed for its rambling outdoor market, Norwich charms easily. But as a small medieval city, still mostly confined within the remnants of its original medieval walls, the dark underbelly shows just as easily. The sights and sounds of Bath or Edinburgh or Oxford might distract a tourist long enough not to notice the subtle signs or the rough edges which are often swept aside to preserve a certain aesthetic. The locals might see the shut shops, shabby streets, or rough sleepers, while tourists are encouraged to look elsewhere.
But in Norwich, this underbelly is always within reach. Turn left instead of right and you reach a forgotten street with post-war tower blocks on every side. Carry on just a few meters too far beyond the trendy cafes and historic pubs and you are suddenly faced with a row of shabby shopfronts, an ugly underpass or yet another hastily-designed car park. For a city heaving with independent shops and restaurants, it can be a surprise to turn the corner and stumble on an empty building whose only apparent use is to house the homeless sleeping in the doorway. In Norwich city centre there are no streets safe from the realities of urban dwelling and the poverty that exists parallel to prosperity. There are no strongholds of the great and the good in which one can hold onto the illusion that all is well in the world.
For the casual visitor, Norwich has plenty of charm and is even quite photogenic—in a quaint, quirky sort of way. But it lacks the glorious gothic height of Lincoln or York, or the continental grandeur of a city square filled with historic monuments like Venice, Bratislava or Ljubljana. Though walkers quickly realise that Norwich is hillier than our reputation suggests, there are no hilltop edifices to photograph; for all its pastoral qualities, Norfolk can hardly be called rugged.
But for the long-term visitor, for the resident or the regular, for those who know where to look and what they are looking for, Norwich becomes a city of endless delight. For those who do not rely on the internet for recommendations, for those who can look beyond Tombland for eating and entertainment; for those willing to walk a little further, for the curious and the creative, Norwich outstrips any city its size and many bigger contenders. Take another look at the empty buildings; most are big High Street chains whose loss is hardly felt. Others are not empty for long; as Norwich grows a reputation for independent business people come from far and wide to build their dreams in the Fine City. Every month new shops, cafés, restaurants or pubs open across the city and visitors and residents alike flock to explore and experience new food, or ale, or atmospheres.
For anyone who loves proper pubs and is passionate about real ale, there is nowhere like Norwich. During Norwich's annual City of Ale trail in 2023, a record 59 pubs joined up across the city, each championing locally made real ale, some with up to fifteen available on hand pump at any one time. Half a dozen or more city centre pubs offer up to 10 real ale choices daily, mostly drawn from East Anglian breweries—a staggering variety unheard of in most British cities.
Norwich is unparalleled in its pubs and real ale; but for those looking for another drug, look no further: tea and coffee merchants, cafes and brunch hotspots abound. The Norwich Lanes, a winding network of narrow medieval streets spreading across the centre of the city, contain hundreds of independent businesses catering for every taste. For foodies, Norwich Market offers a staggering array of attractively-priced street food stalls, and whatever your budget there are creative options on every corner, from the venerable 45-year-old family run Waffle House serving savoury and sweet waffles with an ever-changing menu; to the fleet of tasting-menu restaurants on St Benedict street; to the new and exciting food hall Yalm offering 6 kitchens and 3 bars to choose from, all offering quality food and good atmosphere.
Casual visitors to Norwich will not leave disappointed. But for regular visitors and residents with open minds and a thirst for exploration, there are secrets to be discovered with every excursion. Though a remarkably well-preserved medieval city, Norwich is not a museum trying to preserve a past long left behind. The dark underbelly is never too far away, but perhaps it is no bad thing to be reminded that in our world poverty and prosperity are always closely interwoven.
Norwich does not give up its secrets easily, but for those who want to discover them they are more than worth the effort.