Carlisle is England's historic border city. Changing hands between nations for centuries, there's still a sprinkling of Scottish and Scandinavian influence in its hardy northern character. Today, most people come to Carlisle for the outdoors: Hadrian's Wall makes for an arty photo, while the purple peaks of the Lake District add a feeling of serenity. If it's the salty air of the coast you want, there's also a local train line running west to the Victorian seaside towns of Maryport and Whitehaven.
You'll find hostels in Carlisle in buildings that match the city's historic character, like one in a converted stables and another in a Victorian terrace. You could also stay in a brightly painted Carlisle hostel with dorms, private attic rooms and a shared guest kitchen. Free Wi-Fi is standard, so you can browse last-minute tickets for the Old Fire Station music venue, or just grab a few beers for a sociable evening at a Carlisle hostel with an on-site bar.
The city centre is a pedestrianised zone full of shops and restaurants, reaching from the cathedral to the old city gates on English Street. Behind the cathedral, the cobbled lanes of the old town are home to music venues, second-hand book shops and the tranquil gardens of Tullie House Museum. The student-led nightlife centres on Botchergate nearby the train station. For long, lazy strolls by the River Eden, make the 20-minute walk to the vast Rickerby Park. There's even a spa and restaurant within the park.
The 11th-century sandstone fortress of Carlisle Castle dominates the city, as it has throughout the tumultuous history of the borderlands. Cross the Millennium Bridge to reach Tullie House Museum, where you'll learn about the Vikings and border raiders that attacked the city. You can also visit the Roman ruins of Hadrian's Wall, built to keep the Scottish Picts out; Birdoswald (30 minutes from Carlisle) is the best-preserved fort. Watchtree Nature Reserve (20 minutes away) is Europe's biggest man-made nature reserve and a great spot for a stroll or picnic with views over the Lake District beyond.
The closest airport to Carlisle is Newcastle International Airport, 1.5 hours away on the train. There are direct trains to Carlisle Citadel Station, a few minutes' walk from the centre, from London (3.5 hours), Glasgow (1 hour) and Manchester (2 hours). The city centre is compact and easily walkable, and there's a good local bus network to get you to the outlying sights.