The Best Things to do in Durham

Durham is a fascinating place to visit in England, which is probably why it tops my recommendation for must-see cities in England. There are many things to do in Durham like seeing incredible historic buildings, admiring castles, enjoying shopping in indie boutiques and eating great food. The best part? Durham is not just beautiful, but fun to visit too.

Given that this city has an abundance of landmarks and exciting must-do activities, I encourage you to spend as long as you can taking in every part of Durham, especially the highlight, Durham Cathedral, perched above the city. But don’t worry; I will tell you about this further along, as well as my tips on the best things to do in Durham and the surrounding areas. This well-known Cathedral City will have you enthralled with its UNESCO-protected old quarter, but there are plenty more fun and exciting things to keep you entertained in Durham.

Don’t miss the Durham Castle, The Durham Museum and Heritage Centre housed in a medieval church and the stunning High Force waterfall in the spectacular Durham Dales.

Ideally suited to families, nature lovers and history buffs, County Durham makes for an excellent region to visit in North East England and in this article I’m going to outline all the best activities. You will have the opportunity to go stargazing, enjoy the scenic coastline and learn about the history of the area are just some of the reasons you must check this place out.

Get excited, as you’re about to discover the most exciting activities in Durham.

Visit Durham Cathedral

You must see the Durham Cathedral and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, both part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is by far the top attraction in Durham, and for good reason.

The Cathedral can be seen hovering over River Wear, and although it is a fantastic site to see, it doesn’t stop there. I highly recommend taking a look inside, or better yet, taking a guided tour to learn about its history.

The interior of the Durham Cathedral depicts the best Norman Engineering. While photos and videos are not allowed, I think this encourages a more personal experience, so take your time to wander around and soak up the historic atmosphere.

Apart from the remains of St Cuthbert, the relics you can witness here include Saint Oswald’s head and the remains of Venerable Bedes. This is a place of historical significance within the city.

Stained window Inside the Durham cathedral

See The Old City

One of the most exciting things to do in Durham is to discover the city’s centre. While this is where most people would begin their adventure, it is worth knowing that what you are seeing is a designated conservation area. In fact, within the city centre alone, around 569 heritage buildings are protected, so keep your eyes peeled for the many listed buildings around you.

Whilst in the centre, I highly encourage you to step foot in the Durham Indoor Market, which dates back to 1851 and is a fantastic must-do activity in Durham. This is more than just a market, this area is steeped in tradition, and it is best to take your time wandering around soaking up the smells, flavours, vibes, and experiences under one roof. There is a weekly outdoor market (every Saturday) and an evening street food market to keep an eye out for to enhance your experience visiting this medieval city.

Street in the city of Durham

Admire the Durham Castle

Learn about the local history and visit the Durham Castle, yet another UNESCO-protected buildings within Durham. Once the residence of the Bishops of Burham, since 1837, the Durham Castle has been home to the students of the University College.

Access it with a guided tour year round for as little as £5 per adult. There are plenty of activities including concerts, plays, talks, and other events for you to participate.

The castle stands on top of a hill opposite Durham Cathedral, and you will be treated to great panoramic city views of this historic city.

Take a stroll into the Norman Chapel to see the oldest accessible part of the castle, which dates back to 1078, as well as the 14th Century dining hall and the 17th Century black stairs.

Good to know: The Durham Castle turns into a B&B when students are on holiday. If you want to sleep in a place full of British history, this is your sign to book your room in advance.

Durham Castle as viewed from the river

Discover Beamish Museum

Don’t miss the famous Beamish Museum, a world-famous open air museum known to tell the stories of life in North East England during the 19th century. It is located just twenty minutes outside of Durham city centre, in the town of Stanley, and it is nicknamed the Living Museum of the North.

I highly recommend a visit here because it’s a fantastic way to get a great perspective of life in the North East of England in the 1800s and 1900s.

This is one of our top recommendations for a visit to Durham and is a must-do activity for all the family, so add this to your list. This incredible museum which depicts Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian life in a fun and exciting way, is also dog-friendly and has many events going on, which can add to your experience.

Good to know: The entry fee is £21 per adult. The official site suggests spending at least 3 hours to see all the exhibitions.

trinkets from the Beamish Museum in Durham

Take a look at The Oriental Museum

With the extensive and impressive collections here, visiting this museum is one of the best things to do in Durham, especially to learn more about oriental artefacts. This exciting museum represents all the primary Asian cultures and eras, such as China, Egypt, Korea, India and Japan, and features a whole host of unbelievable collections — 23,500 artefacts to be precise.

The museum hosts fun, family-friendly activities, making it a fantastic place to visit, for all ages. For the history buffs, you can keep an eye on the current exhibitions which are ever-changing, so each visit can differ from the next, all the while leaving you with some great memories and experiences.

I recommend a quick stop at the Oriental Museum gift shop to discover a beautiful range of gifts and souvenirs inspired by the current exhibitions and collections.

Wander through Wharton Park

If you arrive to Durham by train, just a few minutes from the Durham Railway Station is the Wharton Park, an ideal place for a leisurely stroll.

Top tip: Hike to the top of the hill to admire great views across the city. It’s free to do so, and it’s a great place to take lots of photos of the city.

View of Durham cathedral from Wharton Park

Relax with a cup of coffee, then check out the view point next to the carved statue of Mr. Wharton. Don’t miss the community gardens area with delightful plants.
boyward, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Walk in the Durham University Botanical Garden

For a date with nature not far from the city, you need to take a few hours to wander around the Durham University Botanical Gardens, which houses a variety of exotic plants. Walk around the large garden set in 25 acres of mature woodlands.

Keep an eye out for the many sculptures around you, as well as the dedicated science trail leading you around the area. Advanced booking is not required, so you can easily just turn up whenever you visit Durham.

There are plenty of exhibitions and events year round. The garden looks splendid throughout the year, as every season has its own special items of flora and fauna.

Insider tip: As ever, I always recommend visiting either towards the end of Spring for a glorious bloom of flowers or in the autumn when the trees turn into an array of epic colours.

Sculpture of Gaia at the Durham botanical garden

Hike on the Durham Heritage Coast

One of my personal recommendations for when you visit Durham is seeing the award-winning Durham Heritage Coast. Venture off to Seaham, just a twenty-five-minute drive from the centre, and take in some fresh sea air.

Durham Heritage Coast is world-famous for its unique wildlife and plants, making it a magical place to take a hike and get some great photo opportunities of dunes and wild cliffs.

As well as delightful promenades to walk, there is an array of artworks to witness and wild, rugged nature, cliffs and idyllic beaches to discover.

Take on the Durham coastal footpath which is 11 miles long from Seaham to Crimdon. Admire dramatic views of coastline, cliffs and imposing headlands.

Good to know: From my experience, this is a moderate walk. The hike can be enjoyed no matter the weather, but ideally, you will still bring your best walking shoes and some waterproofs.

Durham Heritage Coast

Discover the High Force Waterfall

You might have already guessed, but Durham is an excellent location to pursuit outdoor activities. I highly advise that you take the time to visit the High Force Waterfall, located in the Durham Dales.

The High Force Waterfall is located an hour outside Durham, and it’s in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I appreciate this is a little far out of the city centre, but I still highly recommend making the trip to see it. This majestic waterfall on the River Tees in Teesdale is considered one of the most spectacular waterfalls in England. And for good reason, as it truly looks incredible, especially after a whole night of rainfall.

Not only is this waterfall plummeting over rocks which date back 300 million years, but the skies above are known to be one of the best places for stargazing, but stay tuned for more on this exciting activity.

In addition, there is a peaceful woodland walk to the base of the waterfalls, which allows for perfect photo opportunities and there are even dedicated themed children’s trails at certain times of the year.

Good to know: It costs £3 to park and £2.50 per person to see the waterfall. Small price to pay for such a fantastic attraction.

View of the High Force Waterfall near Durham forest in Teesdale

Go Stargazing

One of my favourite things about the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty region is that it’s home to the country’s darkest skies, making it the ultimate place for stargazing. There are plenty of places to observe the clear night skies, but I recommend starting at the Grassholme Observatory for an experience like no other.

With a lead astronomer by your side to point out all the stars, planets and constellations, you will have the best stargazing experience. If you have a keen interest in specific areas of astronomy, make sure to check out these dedicated events, which will take your experience that step further. Believe me when I say a visit to this UNESCO geopark is out of this world and will be a memorable experience for all.

Two people stargazing - dark sky reserve England

Drive to Barnard castle

If you’re like and like trips outside the city too, then you must add Barnard castle to the list. It’s only a 40 minute drive from Durham centre but it’s so worth your while. I know you’re expecting this attraction to be a castle, but Barnard castle is actually the name of a market town. And yes, there are also castle ruins for you to see, as the town itself is build around a medieval castle ruin.

The castle ruin is one of the top attractions here and to purchase your tickets just head over to the Heritage centre entrance. It’s good to remember that you don’t need to book your tickets in advance.

Expect stunning vista points over the Tees Gorge and make sure to not miss Richard III’s boar emblem carved above the inner ward.

Other things to see in Barnard castle: Bowes museum, a superb estate with a French style designed house. Do check their huge collection of art, ceramics, and antiques.

The ruin of Barnard castle from the riverside

Explore the Durham Town Hall

I do love a heritage building which is why I recommend visiting the Tall Hall in Durham. It’s a Grade II listed building and it has been central to the life in the city for over 650 years.

Just know that the Town Hall is open to the public Wednesday to Saturday. Located in the market place, the Town Hall is one of the most historic buildings in Durham, dating back to 1655.

For something exceptional, don’t miss the Lantern Room which, in my opinion, looks most splendid. This room is available for hire for special events, so there is a chance that during your visit you might not be able to visit.

Relax in Palace green

Palace Green is a green area in the centre of the city, and was once the city market place. Just a short walk from it is the famed Palace Green Library, known for the university’s special collections. Great news, the entry to the library is currently free of charge for visitors, so why not take advantage of this?

Interesting to know: Palace green is right next to the Durham Cathedral and the Castle. As they both form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2008, Green Palace became part of this site also.

Palace green in Durham part of Unesco World Heritage

Where to stay in Durham

Durham Castle – For a unique stay in Durham, I recommend booking your room at the Durham Castle. It is worth noting that you can only stay at Durham Castle on a Bed & breakfast basis during university vacations, so book well in advance for this option; however, there are two incredible staterooms and plenty of comfortable standard rooms to choose from throughout the year. You can discover their great accommodation options here.

Hotel Indigo – The location of this hotel right in the heart of the city centre and just five minutes from the railway station is just one of the top reasons to select Hotel Indigo. Make sure to book in advance and ask for a room with a view of Durham Cathedral, of which there is just a handful — this will add that wow factor to your stay here. As well as having comfortable ultra-modern rooms, you will have a cocktail bar and Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill onsite, so what more can you ask for? Book your room at Hotel Indigo.

Durham Mariott – Seen as Durham is a city steeped in history, why not stay in a hotel that is just as historical and a stay at Durham Mariott, which dates back to 1815, is just the ticket? As well as recently refurbished rooms to relax in, you will have delicious coffee at Paddy & Scots coffee shop and succulent steaks at the ready at Cast Iron Bar & Grill. This is a top choice for accommodation in the city of Durham since its location is close to everything you intend to visit. Book Durham Mariott now.

Durham houses at sunset

How to get to Durham

Air: The closest airport to Durham is Newcastle, which is just a 36-minute drive away and is well served by many international and domestic airlines.

Train: You can be in Durham within three hours if you leave from London, and the city is well connected by train to many other parts of the UK, too, making train travel a straightforward and convenient way to get there.

Car: The A1 motorway ensures fast, easy access from the country’s south, while the A66 from the west provides a scenic cross-Pennine route from the stunning Lake District and M6 motorway.

Love travelling around England? Take a look at the most beautiful places to visit in England. Stay in some of the best places in London, enjoy a superb London itinerary, and don’t forget to check how to dress properly for the English weather. Take a romantic trip in the Cotswolds and visit the nearby cities of Bristol, Gloucester and Cheltenham.

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Jade Paleon writer contributor at You Could Travel

Jade Poleon – Jade Poleon is a free spirit who started travelling in 2007 and has visited over 90 countries, which inspired her passion for travel writing. She has been a freelance travel writer since 2013, having established her website, which led to her sharing her skills with numerous online publications, allowing her to live out both of her true passions.


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