A SMALL city with a big story is how Lancaster is described. Steeped in 1,000 years of history, with beautiful period architecture, heritage attractions and bustling independent bars, restaurants, shops and galleries, Lancashire’s county town has plenty to offer for a weekend break.

I’d only ever been through Lancaster on the way to the coast, and had seen little of the city beyond a bridge crossing the River Lune. So on a recent weekend visit, staying at the charming Lancaster House Hotel, I was keen to explore.

The city’s ancient stories are hidden in its walls and buildings; coming to life at the splendid Lancaster Castle. Perched on the hill overlooking the city and its river, the castle is one of the North’s most significant historic monuments, used as a place of trial and punishment over centuries.

It dates back to Roman times - it still has a Roman bath - and has witnessed historic trials, from the Pendle Witches to the Birmingham Six, and 200 executions for everything from stealing cattle to murder. A working prison until 2011, it’s a fascinating ‘living’ monument, with tours to its old cells and crown court.

More of the city’s past unfolds in the Cottage Museum - an intriguing glimpse of early Victorian life in a tiny house - and Lancaster Maritime Museum in the former Custom House at St George’s Quay, the city’s 18th century harbour.

Strolling along the quayside brought us up close to elegant Georgian architecture lining the river banks. There are more walks, and cycle routes, around the city and surrounding coast and countryside, with stunning views out to the Fylde Coast and Lake District. You can also take to the meandering towpaths of the Lancashire canal, which has daily cruises.

Also worth a visit is Williamson’s Park, with its Edwardian butterfly house and hidden follies, and, dominating the Lancaster skyline, Ashton Memorial; its gleaming copper dome surrounded by sculptures and allegorical paintings. An outdoor viewing gallery looks out across Morecambe Bay to Lakeland fells and mountains.

Home to Lancaster University, and a campus of the University of Cumbria, the city has a vibrant feel. Old streets bustle with quirky boutiques and galleries, and the Charter Market offers food, crafts and books. We were spoilt for choice with cafés, coffee shops, restaurants and street stalls offering falafels, homemade soups and cakes.

A short drive from the city centre is the Lancaster House Hotel. Entering the grand reception lounge, with a crackling open fire and sweeping staircase leading to a minstrel’s gallery, felt like walking into a warm hug, after our early evening drive in lashing rain. The hotel is a few minutes from the M6 but we took the scenic route, turning off by Ingleton through a succession of pretty villages.

Our room was a stylish studio suite with a comfortable lounge area, which included a TV and sink-into sofa, and a spacious bathroom with stand-alone bath. After a day of shopping and sightseeing, my friend and I unwound in the Sandpiper Club spa, with a swim in the pool (there’s also a fitness suite) and relaxing stints in the sauna, steam room and fabulous outdoor hot tub. A neck and back massage left me feeling even more ‘zen’.

We dined in the elegant Foodworks Restaurant, showcasing fine local Lancashire produce. Starters included Fleetwood smoked cod and pancetta fish cake, which we both went for, chicken and bacon timbale, steamed mussels and courgette, halloumi and herb cake, and among the nibbles were salt and pepper squid and smoked pig’s blankets. My main course was melt-in-the-mouth pan-fried red mullet and my friend went for chargrilled chicken breast, marinated in a garlic, chilli and lemon glaze. Other choices included minted Lancashire lamb hotpot, roasted venison haunch and, from the grill, Pork Tomahawk and sirloin steak. With desserts such as chocolate and orange pudding and caramelised apple tart, it was a tough choice, but I went for a tasty coconut rice pudding with berry compote and my friend had the cheese board, which included smoked Lancashire and a nip of Sandeman’s ruby port.

We enjoyed a nightcap from the Sandeman’s Bar, curled up in armchairs in one of the lounge’s cosy corners. Blending country hotel charm with contemporary chic, the hotel has a relaxed vibe. Friendly staff made us feel very much at home throughout the weekend.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast of delicious eggs Benedict, it was time to head back to Yorkshire.

With the Forest of Bowland, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales all within a 30-minute drive, the Lancaster House is ideally placed for a country break. And, with so much to do and see in Lancaster, it’s somewhere I plan to return to soon.

* Visit englishlakes.co.uk/lancaster-house