Halfway between the popular British cities of York and Edinburgh, historic Durham will captivate you with its winding river, characterful streets and its UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral and Castle, plus, this buzzing university city has Harry Potter film locations to discover.
Located close to two beautiful British National Parks (the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales), Durham is also on the doorstep of the incredible North Yorkshire Coast, moments away from the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural beauty, and only 3 hours from London by train.
Perhaps best of all is that there are so many things to see and do in Durham for free. This guide will help you to discover exactly what to do in Durham and in the nearby area for an amazing city break.
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7 Best things to see and do in Durham
If you love history, you will love the steep and winding medieval streets of Durham. The whole peninsular area encompassing the towering cathedral and the castle is so special that it’s been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986.
Explore Durham Cathedral
Dating back more than 900 years, Durham Cathedral is steeped in history and inextricably linked to the introduction of Christianity to the north of England.
Visit to see the Lindisfarne Gospels – handwritten on vellum and dating back to the 7th century, the incredible stained glass windows, including the contemporary Illumination Window, and the Chapel of the Nine Altars.
The best way to explore the Cathedral is to join a cathedral tour with an expert guide or to climb the 325 steps in the central tower for the ultimate rooftop view of Durham.
If you love Harry Potter, you’ll also enjoy the Cloister and Cloister Garth, which featured in the movies Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Don’t miss: The Durham Cathedral Museum with the awe-inspiring Monks Dormitory, the Great Kitchen, and the Pilgrim’s Gallery
- The Cathedral is popular – aim to be there before 11 am when the biggest crowds arrive
- Prebook your tower tour – they sell out very quickly.
- The cathedral is free to visit but relies on donations, so please do be generous if you can.
Call into Durham Castle
Durham Castle dates back to 1072 and was once the home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, but since 1837, it’s been occupied by University College, Durham. It’s hard to imagine a more incredible place to live and learn as a student!
While you get a good view of the castle from outside, the best way to understand its size and to explore properly is to book a 45-minute guided tour.
From the moment you walk along the cobbled Barbican and through the Gatehouse into the Courtyard, you’ll be impressed by the 1,000 years of architecture.
The beautiful Norman Chapel with its lovely sandstone pillars is the oldest building in Durham, while the Tudor Tunstall Chapel is where you can discover delicate carvings of pipe playing pigs!
There’s also an amazing carved archway, a fabulous 13th century Great Hall, and the famous wonky Black Staircase. Tours are guided by enthusiastic and well-informed university students and cost £5 per adult (concessions are available). Book your castle tour here.
Browse Durham Market
With medieval origins, Durham Market Place is at the heart of the city, with a thriving indoor market that has over 40 independent traders. Outside, you’ll see the statues of Neptune, the mythical Roman god of the sea, and the Marquis of Londonderry astride his horse.
There’s an impressive Victorian Town Hall and Guildhall, where you can discover the history of this fascinating city which received its first Royal Charter back in 1179. At the eastern end of the marketplace, you’ll find the pretty Victorian St Nicholas Church (known as St Nics), which was built to replace a 12th-century church.
Fun fact: The marketplace was built over part of the former church cemetery!
Take the Durham Peninsular Walk
Durham’s location on a bend in the River Wear lends itself perfectly to a circular walk around the city’s main attractions, in the city itself, and along the riverside. In just a couple of hours on the Durham Peninsular Walk, some of the interesting things you can see include:
- The Journey sculpture by Fenwick Lawson which shows how six monks carried the body of St Cuthbert to Durham from Lindisfarne, in the 9th century
- The Storyteller’s Chair that is used to help children understand the history and wildlife of the city
- Prebends Bridge, Framwellgate Bridge and Elvet Bridge – the stone arched bridges crossing the River Wear into Durham City Centre
- The North and South Bailey, and Dun Cow Lane: Historic Durham streets, with interesting architecture
- St Mary the Less Church: A beautiful church with an interesting Royal connection
Relax at Durham Botanic Gardens
The rather splendid Durham University Botanic Gardens cover a 10-hectare woodland site about 30 minutes walk from Durham City Centre.
The alpine garden, winter garden, bamboo grove, and glasshouses provide plenty to discover, and the newly developed woodland garden and wildflower meadow are lovely serene places to wander.
The visitor centre has a coffee shop and the gift shop is crammed with unique and interesting gifts you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Here’s a handy map of the gardens to help you plan your visit.
Hidden away behind the mighty cathedral, the Durham Museum and Heritage Centre is located in the redundant church of St Mary-le-Bow. The museum takes you on a journey through the history of Durham from medieval times to the present day. Look out for the reconstruction of a Victorian prison cell, the model of the market in medieval times, and the beautiful “Rose of Raby” – a stunning early 19th century stained glass window originally from Brancepath Castle.
Best day trips from Durham UK
Just 15 minutes from Durham on the train, Newcastle is a fantastic, vibrant city for a day trip or a longer city break. While Newcastle is well-known for its love of football and exuberant nightlife, there’s so much more to discover.
Start with a visit to the soaring Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which is also known as the “Winking Eye Bridge” or the “Blinking Eye Bridge”, as it’s a tilting bridge.
Pause at the 135 foot tall Grey’s Monument, erected in 1838 to honour the former Prime Minister Earl Grey, and to commemorate the passing of the 1832 Reform Act which led to the abolition of slavery within the British Empire.
Then, explore Grey Street, where 40% of the buildings are listed as being of historical and architectural importance. Look out for the Theatre Royal, Grainger Market and the Central Arcade, plus a host of independent shops, restaurants and bars.
For more ancient history, you must visit the 12th-century fortress that gave Newcastle its name – Newcastle Castle! Then journey further back in time to see the Newcastle Roman Fort and Hadrian’s Wall Path
Spending more than a day in Newcastle? Don’t miss the opportunity to visit Anthony Gormley’s iconic Angel of the North sculpture or to take a tour through the Victoria Tunnel – an old coal wagonway that became a shelter during WW2.
York is compact and easy to explore, making it perfect for a short break. If you arrive in York by train, start with a walk along the York City Walls which date back to Roman times, and are some of the best-preserved city walls in the UK.
From your high vantage point, you’ll get excellent views of the city, including York’s incredible 7th-century Gothic cathedral – York Minster. Leave the walls at Bootham Bar (one of the ancient gateways to the old medieval city), and visit the Minster to see the beautifully restored Rose Window. You can also explore the crypt and take a (payable) tower tour.
The National Railway Museum is free to visit.; however, the cheapest way to see York’s paid attractions is with a York City Pass, which you can use at the York Dungeon, Yorvik Viking Centre, York Castle and many more places.
For lunch, you can’t beat the medieval Shambles Market with its narrow, winding, cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings. Enjoy delicious street food at the Shambles Street Kitchen or traditional fish and chips at Gert and Henry’s, before nipping along to The Shoppe That Must Not Be Named for all your Harry Potter memorabilia.
For something a little different, the York Cold War Museum is a restored 1960s cold war bunker, or you could follow the York Cat Statue Trail through the city, then have posh afternoon tea at Bettys Tearooms or book a leisurely river cruise to see York from a completely different perspective.
The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
If you want to blow the cobwebs away in a wild and beautiful place, the North Pennines AONB is where to go. A UNESCO Global Geopark since 1988, the North Pennines AONB is Britain’s second-largest AONB at 2,000 square kilometres.
Discover moors, meadows, rivers and woodlands, that are perfect for walking, hiking, biking, horse riding, and fishing, plus, 16 Dark Sky Discovery sites and abundant pretty villages.
Head for Killhope Museum or the Weardale Museum to learn about the area’s lead mining history, or take a trip on a Heritage Railway on the Weardale or South Tynedale Railway. The Museum of Classic Sci-Fi in Allendale is a quirky find and Eggleston Hall Gardens. are simply stunning.
Where to Eat in Durham
Here are some of the best places to eat in Durham – all within a stone’s throw of Durham Cathedral:
- Cafedral: An uber-pretty little family run café with the best honeycomb mocha I’ve ever tasted. It’s dog-friendly too! Find it at 1 Owengate.
- Flat White Kitchen: This 17th century townhouse, right in Durham City Centre has been sympathetically renovated into a fabulous eatery. Drop in for the excellent coffee, stay for the cakes! Find it at 40 Saddler Street
- Cellar Door: Tucked away down narrow steps in a 13th century building, you’ll find great river views and fine dining with dishes made from local ingredients. The Jerusalem artichoke risotto with black truffle is ridiculously tasty and Sunday lunch here is incredible! Find Cellar Door at Saddler Street on the way up to the cathedral.
Where to stay in Durham in UK
The City Hotel: If you’re looking for the best budget price hotel near Durham City Centre, then the three-star City Hotel is a great choice. Located just 0.2 miles from Durham Castle, the City Hotel is in a quiet location making it a comfortable place to stay at a very reasonable price.
The sophisticated Victorian four-star Hotel Indigo is 450 yards from Durham Cathedral, right in the heart of the city. It’s the perfect location for exploring Durham city centre and for access to public transport if you fancy visiting other places of interest nearby.
The 83 elegant boutique guest rooms offer all the facilities you would expect, with indulgent spa bathrooms, plus, most offer great views of the cathedral. You’ll also love the Marco Pierre White Steakhouse restaurant and the proximity to the buzzing nightlife in Durham’s narrow city streets.
Unique and fabulous
Located just outside Durham, Lumley Castle is glorious if you’re looking for a truly unique experience, want to be close to the best things to see and do in Durham. This quirky 14th-century castle has hosted British Royalty, is well located, and the service is outstanding.
Choose from cosy rooms in the castle or quieter, more contemporary rooms in the castle mews. All are beautifully decorated, with unique touches and all of the facilities you would expect. Lumley Castle also has an excellent restaurant, serving breakfast that will keep you going all day and superb evening meals.
Check out Lumley Castle prices and availability here (you’ll be amazed how inexpensive it is!
Before You Go
If you’re heading to Durham for a city break, be sure to bookmark this page for later! If you love England as much as I do, sign up for my weekly newsletter for even more adventures and tips for travels in England!
Until next time!
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