The best things to do in Dorset

Penned on the 21st February 2024

The best things to do in Dorset

Over half of the southwest county of Dorset is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (now known as a National Landscape) – and it's easy to see why. From the dramatic white cliffs of Durdle Door and the stunning fossil-laden beaches on the Jurassic Coast, to quaint coastal villages and vibrant market towns, there really is beauty to be found around every corner here.

When it comes to things to do, Dorset is the perfect place for an outdoor adventure on land or sea, with plenty of breathtaking routes for both hiking and kayaking. There’s fascinating history and culture to discover here too, especially as this county is home to the magnificent ruins of Corfe Castle and the birthplace of novelist Thomas Hardy. 

Whatever you’re seeking in your southwest escape, we’ve gathered all of our favourite things to do in Dorset to help you plan a magical trip to remember.


Kayak under Durdle Door

Kayakers paddling through Durdle Door in Dorset

Perhaps the most famous attraction on the Jurassic Coast, and certainly the most photographed, Durdle Door is a magnificent rock archway, carved out by erosion some 140 million years ago. It was designated England’s first natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a status shared by the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. The striking landscape here makes it a gorgeous place for a picnic at the beach or a walk along the coast – but for an extra special experience you can also take a kayak tour to marvel at the landmark from the water. Lulworth Outdoors offer guided three-hour trips around the bay and provides all of the kit you’ll need. Weather permitting, you may also have the opportunity to paddle right through the archway!


Go fossil hunting at Lyme Regis

Fossil hunting in Lyme Regis

The Jurassic Coast is a paleontological paradise and the perfect place for fossil hunting – and one of the best spots to go looking is the beach between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. Famed Paleontologist Mary Anning was born in this seaside town and discovered the first complete Ichthyosaur to be found in England (she was just 12 years old at the time!). You can follow in her footsteps and go scouring the beach and the ammonite pavement, visible at low tide, or head to the Lyme Regis Museum where you can explore the exhibited fossil collections. The museum also runs Fossil Walks, if you’d prefer a little expert guidance on where to look. There’s even a Lyme Regis Fossil Festival hosted here in the early summer, for dedicated fossil fans. 


Visit Thomas Hardy’s birthplace

Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset, a thatched cottage surrounded by greenery

Dorset’s historic county town of Dorchester is home to the birthplace of Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, whose works include Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Literature enthusiasts will be delighted to know that you can visit and explore all of the nooks and crannies of Hardy’s birthplace, a quintessential thatched-roof cottage nestled amongst ancient woodland in the village of Higher Bockhampton (managed by National Trust). For the full Hardy experience you can head to Max Gate afterwards, a gorgeous property that he designed and lived in later in his life. You can explore the various locations in the area that inspired Hardy’s many West Country-based novels too, including Chesil Beach, Puddletown Forest and Stinsford. 


Walk the South West Coast Path

A stretch of cliffs in Dorset with the Wouth West Coast Path running along the top

The towering white cliffs, sweeping golden beaches and turquoise waters make Dorset home to some of the most breathtaking coastal landscapes in the UK. And with a 95-mile section of the South West Coast Path running along the county’s coastline, there are plenty of glorious walks to be had! Whether you’re after a short easy ramble or a longer more challenging climb, on all of the routes you’ll be rewarded with fresh sea air in your lungs and stunning panoramic views. There are charming seaside villages, stunning wildlife and magical hidden coves to discover along the way, as well as the Golden Cap, the highest point of the South West Coast Path. You can plan your hiking adventures in our guide to Dorset’s coastal walks


Explore Corfe Castle

An Aerial shot of Corfe Castle in Dorset at sunset

The dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle are perched on a peak in the Purbeck Hills, dominating the skyline and guarding the gap between land and the Isle of Purbeck, halfway between Wareham and Swanage. It’s one of the UK’s most iconic survivors of the English Civil War and was partially demolished in 1646 by the Parliamentarians. At over a thousand years old, the castle’s walls are filled with fascinating history and (often grisly) tales of treachery and treason that’ll captivate history lovers of all ages. You can wander the grounds and imagine the action that would have taken place here, looking out for arrow loops and ‘murder holes’ as you go. The views between the ruins are outstanding too. Plus you can visit the quaint neighbouring village afterwards (also named Corfe Castle) and call into the historic Greyhound Inn for a classic pub lunch.


Spend a day beside the sea in Weymouth

A view of Weymouth beach in Dorset

In the pretty town of Weymouth you’ll find everything you need for a great British day out at the seaside. In fact, this is where British seaside holidaying began after King George III’s frequent visits to bathe in the coastal waters made them popular in the late 1700s. Nowadays Weymouth’s award-winning beach is consistently recognised as one of the best in Europe thanks to its golden sand, safe shallow waters and idyllic location – perfect for settling into a striped deckchair with a book whilst your little ones make sandcastles, perhaps. Post-beach, enjoy a leisurely stroll along the pastel-coloured fishing harbour and magnificent Georgian seafront, dipping in and out of quirky independent shops and treating yourself to ice cream or the ultimate seaside classic, fish and chips. 


Marvel at Old Harry Rocks

An aerial shot of Old Harry rocks in Dorset

Old Harry Rocks is another of the Jurassic Coast’s famous geological landmarks. It’s made up of dramatic chalky rock formations, standing tall and stretching out into the sea beyond the headland of Handfast Point at Studland Bay. Thousands of years ago Old Harry was connected to The Needles, another chalk rock stack on the Isle of Wight – it’s since eroded away but The Needles are still visible in the distance on a clear day. You can explore the cliffs and soak up the views by foot, walking the short-but-stunning stretch of coast path from Studland. Or if you’d prefer to see Old Harry up close from the water, regular boat trips depart from Swanage and Bournemouth. Keep an eye out for the resident seals too! 


See The Cerne Giant

The Cerne Abbey Giant, a chalk figure carved into a hillside  in Dorset

Perhaps one of the more unusual things to see in the county, The Cerne Giant is a huge ancient naked figure sculpted into a chalky hillside in the Dorset Downs. It’s 180ft tall making it Britain’s biggest chalk hill figure! And, incredibly, the origins and identity of the Giant are not known for certain. Over the years it’s been speculated to be a Celtic version of Hercules, a symbol of fertility, or even a 17th-century prank, although the most recent research from National Trust archaeologists suggests it is likely to have been constructed in the late Saxon period. The best place to see the mysterious Giant is from the Giant’s View car park or on the short circular walk up to the Giant’s feet. 


Look for wildlife at Brownsea Island

A red squirrel sitting on a log at Brownsea Island in Dorset

Brownsea Island is the largest of a cluster of small islands in Poole Harbour – although at just 1.5 by 0.75 miles, it’s small enough to wander around in a couple of hours or less. The island is a nature reserve that’s only accessible by foot on the passenger ferry from Poole Quay, and the lack of vehicles makes it a unique, unspoilt haven for local wildlife. In fact, indigenous red squirrels can be found here, a rare species on mainland England. There’s also a huge variety of birds on the island, including dunlin, sandwich terns and kingfishers, as well as roaming sika deer. Brownsea is also famously the birthplace of scouting! The first ever scout camp was held here all the way back in 1907. 


Visit picture-perfect Gold Hill

A view down Gold Hill in Dorset, a steep street lined with old cottages

Frequently voted as one of the prettiest streets in England, Gold Hill in the small village of Shaftsbury is well worth a visit. It was made famous by the iconic Hovis bike advert that aired in the 1970s – and it still looks very much the same today! Wander the steep cobbled streets admiring the chocolate-box thatched cottages and Grade I listed buildings, and enjoy the sweeping views of Blackmore Dale in the lush Stour Valley and all the way to Glastonbury Tor in the northwest. When your feet are tired and you’re ready for a bite to eat, head to The Salt Cellar restaurant and coffee shop for a light lunch or an indulgent cream tea.


Enjoy fresh seafood with a view

The Oyster and Fish House, a restaurant overlooking a harbour in Dorset

Seafood lovers mustn’t miss The Oyster and Fish House, a gorgeous restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the picturesque Cobb Harbour. Chef Mark Hix strives to use only ethically sourced, simply served British ingredients, bought direct from the fisherman. The Oyster and Fish House’s menu is so fresh, in fact, it often changes twice in a day – though you’ll usually have a choice of dishes like grilled Dover sole or red gurnard on the bone, steamed mussels and, of course, a selection of local oysters. There’s even an oyster happy hour, should you time your visit right! And if the weather allows, you can sit out on the terrace and savour your meal in the fresh sea air with a glass of crisp white wine or fizz on the side.


Go paddleboarding at Sandbanks

Two paddleboarders on the sea in Dorset

Sandbanks is one of Dorset’s most popular Blue Flag beaches, with soft golden sands and a breathtaking location on a small peninsula at Poole Harbour. There’s plenty to do here including crazy golf, a children’s play area, volleyball, shopping and more – but if you’re after a more serene activity, Sandbanks’ sheltered bay and shallow waters make it the perfect place to try stand-up paddleboarding. Poole Paddle Boards offers equipment hire for all ages and abilities, including pumps, safety gear and everything you need for your adventure. Once you’re set, enjoy an hour or so paddling your way along the sparkling shoreline, soaking up the views and admiring the yacht-filled marina and extravagant houses on ‘Millionaire’s Row’. 


Climb Portland Bill Lighthouse

A view of Portland Bill lighthouse in Dorset at sunset

The rugged Isle of Portland stretches out into the English Channel, joined to the mainland only by the shingly Chesil Beach. Standing tall atop the cliffs is the majestic red and white Portland Bill Lighthouse, built in 1906 to warn vessels of the rocky and hazardous waters below and help them navigate through the English Channel. In 2015 the visitor centre here was refurbished and now you can enjoy the lighthouse in all its splendour, both inside and out. There are lots of interesting interactive displays to explore and learn about Portland Bill’s history – but the highlight has to be climbing the lighthouse’s 153 steep steps to see the incredible panoramic views of the Jurassic Coast from the ‘lantern room’. 


Shop local in Bridport

A shopper browsing in Soulshine bakery in Bridport, Dorset

Along the coast from Lyme Regis you’ll find the pretty market town of Bridport – and with a thriving scene of quirky independent shops, it’s a wonderful place to enjoy a day of mindful retail therapy. Wander the high street and you’ll find a lovely mix of florists, gift and lifestyle stores, fashion boutiques and bookshops. For eclectic secondhand gems, head to Bridport’s bustling Alleyways antique centre where you’ll find over 50 traders selling their wares. There’s also a fantastic farmer’s market every second Sunday of the month, the perfect place for foodies to pick up some artisan local cheese, chutney, vegetables or freshly baked bread. When you’re ready to refuel, head to Soulshine for a satisfying sandwich and a locally-roasted coffee. 


Staying in Dorset

La Cabine Francaise, a grey shepherd's hut in Dorset

If you’re looking for an idyllic base for your visit to Dorset, take your pick from our collection of handpicked hideaways in the countryside and on the coast. 



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