The best things to do in County Durham

Penned on the 5th January 2024

The best things to do in County Durham

In the North East of England you’ll find County Durham, a hidden gem nestled between North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. This small but charismatic county has so much to offer for a staycation, from unspoilt countryside in the North Pennines and Durham Dales to stunning coastlines and bustling towns and cities. There are fascinating historic landmarks and attractions to discover, as well as plenty of fantastic eateries to sample local food and drink. Harry Potter fans will love that it’s home to some of its filming locations too!

Whether you’re seeking a family holiday filled with outdoor activities, a cultural adventure, or a peaceful escape for two amongst nature, County Durham has something for everyone. We’ve curated a list of some of the best things to do to help you plan a magical trip to remember. 


Admire the architecture at Durham Cathedral

The impressive interior architecture of Durham Cathedral in County Durham

Durham Cathedral was built in 1903 and has been welcoming and inspiring visitors ever since. It’s situated right in the heart of Durham World Heritage Site in the city and is renowned for its spectacular Romanesque architecture. On your visit you can explore the 12th-century Galilee Chapel with its original medieval wall paintings, climb the 325 steps up the Cathedral tower, marvel at the breathtaking Rose Window in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, and walk in the footsteps of Harry, Ron and Hermione along the medieval Cloister, which was famously used as a filming location in the first two Harry Potter films. If you fancy learning more about the Cathedral’s fascinating 1000-year history you can take a guided tour with an expert too. And if hunger strikes during your visit, the Cathedral’s Undercroft Café serves tasty light lunches and sweet treats.


Walk amongst the wildlife on the Durham Coastal Footpath

Looking over bushes at Blast Beach and the sea in County Durham

The Durham Coastal Footpath is an 11-mile walking route following the England Coast Path National Trail from Seaham to Crimdon. Along the way you’ll find impressive scenery and an amazing diversity of wildlife, making it a nature lover’s dream and a gorgeous location for a day out walking. The coastline here is particularly unique thanks to its internationally rare geology of Magnesian Limestone Coastal grasslands, which are home to all kinds of stunning wildflowers, insects and birdlife. The denes here are habitats for deer, foxes, badgers and bats and in the beautiful woodlands you’ll find oak, ash and yew trees and a magnificent display of bluebells in spring. Whilst you’re walking along the highest points of the coast path, keep an eye out for marine life like dolphins and basking sharks out at sea too. You can read more about Durham’s varied coastal wildlife in this guide


Travel back in time at Beamish Museum

An old-fashioned red bus with people on the top deck at Beamish Museum in County Durham

Beamish is a world-famous open air museum set in 350 acres of splendid Durham countryside. Designed to bring to life the history of North East England, throughout Beamish you’ll find people in character, complete with costumes from the 1820s Pockerley, the 1900s town, the 1940s farm and more. You can truly immerse yourself in the experience by trying some of the freshly-made bread in the Edwardian Bakery, having your hair done in a 1950s salon, going to see the pit ponies in their stables and discovering what life was like in this part of the UK during the Second World War. All year round Beamish hosts entertaining events and festivals too (take a look at their current schedule). There’s so much to explore and discover for all ages, you’ll want to stay all day! Fortunately there are plenty of places you can stop to refuel for lunch – the 1900s town tea room or the 1950s town fish & chips, perhaps? 


See the waterfall at High Force

High Force waterfall through the trees

In Forest-in-Teesdale within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty you’ll find High Force Waterfall, a natural phenomenon and one of the most impressive and powerful waterfalls in England. The River Tees has been plunging into this gorge and creating a 21-metre cascade for thousands of years – but the rocks exposed below have origins dating back over 300 million years! The short circular walk to the base of the falls is lovely too, meandering through peaceful woodlands where there are special trails for curious children to discover clues along the way, as well as wood-carved woodland creatures amongst the trees. If you’re ready for lunch afterwards, you can head to the nearby High Force Hotel, a traditional inn serving delicious pub meals – or if the weather’s good you can grab takeaway drinks, snacks and ice cream to enjoy in the hotel’s outdoor seating area.


Explore the seaside town of Seaham

The harbour walls and lighthouse at Seaham Harbour in County Durham

Seaham is a vibrant harbour town on Durham’s heritage coast. Here you’ll find plenty to see and do for all tastes and ages, including a Georgian port and promenade to wander along the bustling seafront, beautiful shingle beaches with rockpools to explore and an abundance of sea glass to search for, a busy marina where you can sip coffee overlooking the bobbing sailing boat masts, and dramatic cliff-top views from the coastal path. History enthusiasts mustn’t miss ‘Tommy’, a striking World War I statue by artist and steel fabricator Ray Londsdale, and St. Mary the Virgin church, recognised as one of the twenty oldest surviving churches in the whole country, dating back to the 7th century. You’ll have ample choice when it comes to eating and drinking in Seaham too - The Lamp Room is perfect for a satisfying steak or delicious tapas with a bottle of red. 


Cycle the Sea to Sea (C2C) route

The river flowing past Durham with Durham Cathedral in the background

Those who love exploring on two wheels will be pleased to know that the popular C2C Cycle Route passes through County Durham. This 140-mile trail was the first of Britain’s coast-to-coast routes and is one of the most well-cycled of them all. If you want to undertake the full C2C journey, it starts at Whitehaven in the west of the country and finishes in the east on the shores of the North Sea, either at Tyneside or Sunderland (your choice!). You can complete it over several days, or if you just fancy cycling the 30-mile-long County Durham section then that starts with a climb through the breathtaking landscape of the Pennines before descending across the county border and finishing on the more gentle, family-friendly railway paths of Durham. 


Take a tour at Teesdale Cheesemakers

A platter of cheese from Teesdale Cheesemakers on a table with three glasses of wine

In the Teesdale countryside surrounded by green valleys and countryside, foodies will love this family-run artisan cheese producer. Teesdale Cheesemakers makes award-winning cheeses using milk from their fifth-generation family farm – you can’t get much more local than that! There are all kinds of  ‘cheese experiences’ on offer, including cheese and wine pairings, cheese-making days and guided tours and tastings. There are plenty of different cheeses to sample too. Teesdale makes a mouthwatering array of soft cheeses, blue cheeses and crumbly cheeses, many of which have picked up prestigious accolades over the years. If you’re still hungry, you can visit the on-site Café Cheesedale too, for a comforting cheese toastie, a cheese platter or a hearty beef burger. 


Go birdwatching at RSPB Saltholme

Two swans swimming in the water at RSPB Saltholme

Whether you’re a keen birdwatcher or a nature-loving newbie, RSPB Saltholme is the perfect place to take your binoculars and look out for a wonderful diversity of birdlife. The reserve is home to a breeding colony of common terns, avocet and lapwing in the summer and huge murmurations of 10,000 to 20,000 starlings in the winter, as well as flocks of wildfowl, wading birds and more. There are four wildlife viewing hides from which you can look for the birds (with binocular hire available if you haven’t got your own). Families will enjoy exploring the visitor centre, where you’ll find viewing screens and a viewing gallery, plus accessible trails, a play area and a range of activities that’ll help visitors of all ages learn about and get closer to the incredible birdlife. There are picnic benches around the reserve for you to tuck into a packed lunch too. 


Explore the magnificent Raby Castle

Raby Castle above the water in County Durham

Set in a 200-acre deer park in the Durham countryside, Raby Castle is one of the most impressive complete medieval castles in the UK. It was built by the Nevill family back in the 14th century and has a dramatic history – it’s particularly well-known for being the place where the infamous ‘Rising of the North’ was masterminded in 1569, a (failed) attempt to overthrow Queen Elizabeth the First and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. The castle is open for visitors to explore and learn about this and all of its fascinating stories from the past. You can also admire the grand interiors from room to room and wander the picturesque surrounding grounds, looking out for the red and fallow deer as you go. There’s a hideaway playground too, if you’ve little ones who want to let off some steam, as well as a stunning Yurt Café to grab a coffee or a bite to eat.


Enjoy stargazing in the Durham Dales

Looking up through the trees at the night sky at Low Force in County Durham

There are 16 amazing dark sky discovery sites across the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and UNESCO Global Geopark, and 12 of them can be found in the Durham Dales. These dark sky areas have been designated with this status because they have low light pollution, vast sightlines and good public access, making them the perfect places to go stargazing on clear nights. You can take a look at Durham’s dark skies map to see all of the different stargazing locations. Stargazing is a magical activity that you can enjoy with nothing more than a blanket, flask of hot chocolate and the naked eye – but if you fancy exploring the awe-inspiring wonders of the universe a little more closely, head to the Grassholme Observatory. Here you can see planets spin, gas clouds glowing and breathtaking galaxies overhead using the Observatory’s high-tech astronomy instruments and computers. 


Shop local at Durham Market Hall

Shelves with jars full of coffee beans

Durham Market Place is the focal point of the city of Durham, steeped in history and shopping tradition. Its characterful Market Hall is home to 40 independent traders, selling food, clothing and accessories, books, homewares, toys, vinyls and more. Every Saturday there’s an outdoor market here too, as well as monthly Food Producers' and Crafters’ markets, all of which transform the Market Place into a bustling hive of activity, perfect for a spot of independent retail therapy and immersion in local culture. When you’re ready for something to eat, take a short walk along the river to The Food Pit, another bustling hall, this time with street food vendors serving the likes of hot dogs, burritos, chicken parmesan, Greek food, waffles and more, all under one roof. 


Try the outdoor activities at Hamsterley Forest

Looking over the treetops of Hamsterley Forest in County Durham

Hamsterley Forest is a stunning 5,000-acre oasis, situated along the side of a sheltered valley adjacent to the North Pennines. Adventure-loving families will be in their element here thanks to the range of outdoor activities on offer. There are waymarked walking and running routes of varying lengths and difficulties, cycling and mountain biking trails and tracks for all experience levels, and wild play trails that children will find magical. Whatever your adventure of choice, a day in Hamsterley Forest will give you plenty of opportunity to encounter its spectacular wildlife, picturesque waterfalls and oak woodlands. Plus there are panels along the way that encourage you to stop, notice and connect with the nature that’s around you so you can feel the wellbeing benefits of the beautiful forest environment


Staying in County Durham

alfresco living at this cabin in the countryside

If you’re seeking an off-grid retreat for your County Durham escape, take a look at our curated collection of hideaways in this area.


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