Finding The Hidden Gems On Your Nottingham Visit
Living in the nearby suburb of West Bridgford, I’ve been exploring Nottingham, England for 25 years and yet I still manage to discover new gems, even now.
So as a local, with inside knowledge and a keen finger on the Nottingham pulse, I want to be your guide! When I visit other places I’m always keen to find the best independent shops, unique coffee spots, cool little historical snippets and quirky little places that only the locals know about. Well, I’m that local and if you visit Nottingham I want to tell you about all the bits you’d probably miss if you haven’t got your own personal tour guide! The Nottingham hidden gems that will have you feeling like a local!
Things To See And Do In Nottingham
There are plenty of things to do in Nottingham as a visiting tourist – take a trip to Nottingham Castle, the Contemporary Art Museum, The National Justice Museum and of course take my self-guided walking tour! But once you’re through with those attractions you’ll be wanting to find those Nottingham places of interest that only locals seem to know about, or perhaps a few hidden gems Nottingham residents haven’t even heard of?
Well here’s our list of the quirkiest, queerest and quaintest Nottingham places…
Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror
A 5 minute walk from Nottingham Castle, the wonderfully brilliant Sky Mirror sits proudly on the terrace of the Nottingham Playhouse. This magnificent silver dish is by the same guy who made the iconic Cloud Gate in Chicago (aka The Bean), installation artist Anish Kapoor. Obviously, The Bean is much more famous but is it as good at receiving Sky TV I ask you!? Stick around and you might be lucky enough to witness a few pigeons headbutt the shiny reflective sculpture.
St James Street NCP Car Park
Have I lost my mind, putting a car park on a Nottingham attractions list!? No, but once you’ve made it through the stairwell to the top floor, you may well be asking if I’ve lost my sense of smell! (who even pee’s in a stairwell!?) Anyway, you’re at the top now so just enjoy the view.
One side offers you a peek through to Old Market Square down Friar Lane and a chance to reminisce about Nottingham’s Tudor version of the current Maid Marion Way. What is now an ugly city through-road was once a beautiful timbered avenue of residences and shops, which could have easily given the likes of Chester or York a run for their money! Sadly, it was only demolished in the 1960s and hopefully the guy in charge was sacked – one of Nottingham’s sad tragedies!
The other side, however, allows you brilliant views over Nottingham Castle. Visiting the castle is definitely one of the best things to do in Nottingham, but for now, you can have an excellent vantage point of our city’s ancient fortress – this is the real reason I recommend a trip to the top of St James Street car park.
The Unknown Quirks Of Nottingham’s Market Square
Head into Old Market Square for a little look around – no visit to Nottingham is complete without experiencing the heart of the city. It happens to be the country’s second-largest public square, pipped to the post by Trafalgar Square, London.
WEIRD DRAINAGE SYSTEM
Years ago Nottingham was a melting pot of two towns – Anglo-Saxon and French Norman, and the market square was where it all went off! If you look closely at the floor you will notice a metal line leading up towards the Council House – today it works as a drainage channel but a little Nottingham secret is that years ago this was where the old wall ran that separated these two feisty camps. Not even a lot of local’s know that!
THE TWO STONE LIONS
One feature of Market Square that is most definitely etched into the lives of most Nottinghamians though, are Leo and Oscar. Sitting left and right at the base of the Council House steps are two stone Lions that have guarded ‘slab-square’ for decades. The Left Lion has become a trademark of several Nottingham businesses and a regular meeting spot for friends (why the left, I’ve no idea!?) Legend goes that the left lion roars if a virgin walks past and the right lion too if an honest politician passes by.
WALT DISNEY’S INSPIRATION
If anyone has seen the Walt Disney film Robin Hood they will know that it was in this very square where Robin won the silver arrow in his arch-enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s, archery contest! I mean, it’s not Croatia and Game of Thrones but hey, who else can lay claim to a talking fox gracing their town?!
THE FINEST ARCHITECT OF THE VICTORIAN ERA?
If you’re stood with your back to the Left Lion then just gaze over to your right and take in some of the finest examples of architecture that the man, Watson Fothergill, left to this industrial town. His signature was towers and turrets, often in the Tudor style, and horizontal lines of blue and red bricks. The occasional gargoyle was thrown in for good measure. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for more examples of his work whilst you visit Nottingham, especially as you make your way up towards Hockley and the Lace Market – his style is synonymous with Nottingham life.
Just up the way from Market Square is the Victorian shopping precinct known as Exchange Arcade. Many pass it by thinking that it is part of the Nottingham Tourist Information Office, or perhaps just the store-rooms of the shops that line the front. But, it’s worth taking a little detour beyond the exterior for a glimpse of this elegant Grade II listed building.
The Exchange was Nottingham’s first official shopping centre and was originally occupied by an upmarket food emporium, Burton’s Arcade, which was Nottingham’s equivalent of Fortnum & Mason. Today is still houses upmarket shopping venue’s but I think you’ll agree it’s the internal dome and decorative features which makes it a worthwhile stopping point.
Whilst not a secret to locals, this somewhat off the beaten path destination can often elude visitors to the city. Basically, you’d probably never just ‘stumble upon it’!
And whilst the main purpose of this assigned quadrant is for a regular weekend market, Sneinton Market is so much more. The surrounding permanent units are brimming with creatives and entreupeneurs and bring the punter everything from coffee stops and food vans to gift shops full of local creations. Our favourite place though definitely has to be The Watered Garden – Nottingham’s best house-plant shop!
Nottingham’s Quirky & Hidden Bars
Nottingham has the best nightlife in all of the East Midlands and to cover all the excellent bars would need a blog post all on its own. (I am conscientiously researching this subject for the good of my readers and maybe one day that post will arrive, let no one say I am not the charitable Philanthropist). However, there are some that you mustn’t miss on your Nottingham visit, whether that be for their historical references or just their quaint location. Several of the following Nottingham places have also got their stories woven into the history of not only this town but this country too.
YE OLD TRIP TO JERUSALEM
This famous Nottingham pub is at the base of the castle and is apparently the oldest inn in the land – 1189AD to be exact; the same year Richard the Lionheart became king and Pope Gregory the third ordered the crusade to the Holy Land. If that wasn’t enough to warrant a drink, it’s also the home of a haunted galleon ship and a magic chair that gets women pregnant, most of it carved out of the sandstone upon which Nottingham Castle sits above.
THE PITCHER AND PIANO
Set in an old church, she really is a beauty. Bar and restaurant chain Pitcher And Piano have sympathetically preserved the finest details of this grand place of worship and contrasted them with some pretty cool modern bits too. It’s atmospheric and cool and not to be missed when you visit Nottingham.
THE HOCKLEY ARTS CLUB
Hats off to the genius that has resurrected this joint in the last few years. Tables are hard to come by and its popularity is a reflection of its surroundings. It’s a nod to the industry which put Nottingham on the map… Lace. Once the old manager’s offices of the Lace Factories down the road, the Hockley Arts Club has recreated the look, along with some extra pizzaz! It’s also one of Nottingham’s hidden bars and can be found at 20a Carlton Street.
REVOLUCION DA CUBA & THE ALCHEMIST
These two Nottingham bars both fall into the category of ‘excellent cocktail bars in excellent buildings’. That’s a thing in my books and should be in yours too – who doesn’t want a Screaming Orgasm in one of Queen Victoria’s throwback architectural beauties? The ceilings are high, the architraving is glorious and the bathrooms are delicious. I may have been known to do a sneaky roll, à la Kim Kardashian, on the circular pimp-bed in Revolucion’s girl’s room.
Lost Property – opposite The Hockley Arts Club, is another hidden bar that is worth getting your magnifying glass out for. When you see the suitcases you know you are warm and a G&T is within reach. But why here? Well, it’s about time somebody opened a bar which pays homage to the caves of Nottingham. The city has over 600 of them and were long ago one of the few places you could get yourself a pint of Mead in this town. Nowadays, this is one of the best bars to experience a bit of real Nottingham – sat in the limestone caves like bygone days.
THE MAGIC GARDEN
Since Covid hit and we were forced to socialize outdoors, The Magic Garden has been such a hit with those who’ve discovered its secret. But it seems such a misjustice that we’re only just finding out about this hidden green-space! Once the property of the Paul Smith Emporium, I guess we should have guessed that the grounds would be as inspiring as the old clothes shop used to be – and now we all get to enjoy it!
It’s an established garden of rose-beds, treliss work and topiary and several tables are hidden way out of view. If you want to feel like Alice in Wonderland whilst you sip your gin, you must visit the Magic Garden. (And it’s not just for the girls – the Craft Beer on offer is an easy enticement for the lads too!)
THE MALT CROSS
A Victorian dance hall that has stood the test of time, but the front door is a real ‘blink and you’ll miss it’! My father drank here in his uni days and it’s still just as thriving today. The glazed arched roof and mezzanine balconies are what give it its demeanour and atmosphere, the acoustics make for a great live music venue but also just sing the echo’s of the happy punters – a really great place to have a pint.
Another bar, that whilst not hidden, certainly wouldn’t draw you in from the outside. On face value you might be forgiven for thinking this was just a quick Oriental lunch stop-off but step beyond the counter and things start to look a bit different.
Downstairs is a pretty great cocktail bar but upstairs is a collection of rooms that transport you to another continent. One of our favourite places in Nottingham to just hide away and enjoy your drink in peace.
Some Nottingham Sights A Bit ‘Out There’
Personally, I’m not a fan of the clothes but I’ll often have a wander around upstairs to just enjoy this unique and quirky shop. It has a 6 seat cinema (which you can rent out if you have 5 friends), a sweet shop and free tea and coffee. All in the eccentric and colourful style that it is known for; if only all shops could be like this one! Oh, and the best changing rooms ever (each cubicle is different too)…
This place became a contender in my bid to find the best coffee shops in Nottingham mostly because I’ve admired this building for years. I mean, the coffee is excellent (and very local), but Flying Horse Walk is over 400 years old! It’s an old Coaching Inn with some exquisite detailing. So, if you are going to explore Nottingham and attempt to see all these hidden gems and local joints then you will need a refuel at some point and it doesn’t get more ‘in the know’ than this. You might have to take a while deciding on which cake you want though, Oh, the selection…
NOTTINGHAM STREET ART
This isn’t Berlin, Spitalfields or Melbourne with their queue’s of Instagrammers waiting to get their pic but you are in one of the most creative cities in the UK. Nottingham has a great Art Scene and encourages artistic and creative entrepreneurs massively so with that comes its stamp.
We’re proud of our affinity with the creative arts and we even have a ‘Creative Quarter’ which encompasses most of the Lace Market and Hockley. That’s where you will find most of our cool street art and graffiti if you’re thinking of what to do in Nottingham that’s a bit different. I particularly like Cobden Chambers and Woolpack Lane’s contributions. And the best bit – you don’t have to wait in line for a photo and if you feel like kissing the alien you can kiss the alien, there’s no one around to see you!
Deserving a spot all of its own though is the recent addition to Nottingham’s uber-cool reputation – Banksy’s latest paint-drop. A young girl with a hula-hoop is stencilled very close to a broken-down bike… how apt for the city which brought you Raleigh! Banksy claimed it as one of his and it’s been attracting those in the know ever since.
It is a bit out of town though so expect a 15 minute walk up Ilkeston Road.
THE BRIAN CLOUGH MONUMENT
Especially for football fans, but even if you’re not, you can’t not pay homage to the guy who gave Nottingham a name and put it on the map in many people’s opinion. One of the greatest football managers in the game’s history, he gave Nottingham Forest 18 years of his talents and propelled them to inconceivable European success. He took the club from 6th from the bottom of the Second Division to win back-to-back European Cups in 79′ and 80′.
Only him and Robin Hood have their own sculptures in this town so if you’re going to acknowledge the green-smocked outlaw you should also take notice of Old Big ‘Ead’s influence on our sporting city too.
Just a short walk (about a mile) from Nottingham’s Market Square, sits an old Nottingham legacy that not many are aware of; the home of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians. George Green was a child genius who only stayed in school until he was 10, leaving to work in his father’s bakery.
The windmill still functions today, when the weather is right, and not only can you pick up some award-winning organic flour but you can also visit the adjoining museum for free to find out more about the things which interested George Green – electricity, magnetism, light, sound and waves. He may have failed to complete his schooling but his mathematical theories are used by scientists and engineers all over the world still. It’s a great little museum for kids if you’re looking for things to do in Nottingham, something a bit different, its free and you can also get right to the top of this working mill.
Note: Green’s Windmill gets a mention in my other post A Family Mini Break In Nottingham but make sure you have a read for some more top idea’s of stuff to do with kids in Nottingham – there’s plenty going on!
So, there you have it : My insider’s knowledge on all the bits of Nottingham you may not stumble across if you’re only here for a short while – things to do and see to give you a real feel for this city. And, if you’re looking for some top nosh for lunch then look no further – I have the best 5 Burger Joints right here for your perusal! Have fun in this brilliant city and be sure to let me know how you got on!
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