A weekend break in Durham City

Stuart Forster looks at what to see and do during a weekend break in Durham City in northeast England.

I’m convinced that Durham, in north-east England, has much to offer for a weekend break. As a local, though, you might think I’m biased?

I grew up nearby and have lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the cathedral and walked along the tree-lined banks of the river Wear. It meanders into a loop here, forming an easily defendable, natural stronghold. Long ago, Britain’s Norman invaders saw strategic potential in the land here and built the castle which is today part of Durham University.

Durham Castle, a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Durham City, England
Durham Castle, a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Durham City, England.

The Perfect Little City?

Travel writer Bill Bryson is a former chancellor of the university and locals are proud to point out that in Notes from a Small Island he describes Durham as “a perfect little city.” The cathedral has been voted Britain’s top landmark in the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. So perhaps my enthusiasm for Durham is not blind fondness?

Durham is approximately three hours north of London by train and has plenty of places to stay because, over the past couple of years, new hotels have opened in the city centre.

Hotels and Guesthouses in Durham

If you’re looking for four or five star accommodation then the Radisson Blu Hotel and Marriott Durham Royal Country may appeal. Additionally, three miles away, the 80-room Ramside Hall Hotel and Golf Club is a four star venue that attracts golfers to its 27 championship-standard holes.

For somewhere smaller and slightly unusual, there’s The Town House Durham  (34 Old Elvet, tel. +44 (0) 191 384 1037). None of the ten rooms in this boutique hotel are alike. They range from the sensuous Ruby room, which has a bath set at the foot of its oak four-poster bed, to the garden-like Le Jardin, with its grass style carpet.

Over the summer months you can also book accommodation within the castle. For a special night, you can stay in the Bishop’s Suite, once the Bishop of Durham’s master bedroom. It means you’ll wake in a four poster bed to tapestries on the wall. The sitting room has great views over the river Wear.

A Victorian railway viaduct carried carries the United Kingdom's East Coast Mainline through Durham City, facilitating rail connections with London, Edinburgh and other cities
A Victorian railway viaduct carried carries the United Kingdom’s East Coast Mainline through Durham City, facilitating rail connections with London, Edinburgh and other cities.

A Café or Chips?

If you enjoy home-style food Durham has a few options worth exploring. Try lunch at the Almshouse Café on Palace Green, next to the cathedral. The ever-friendly Vennel’s Café (71 Saddler Street) is located in a lane where local craftspeople have their workshops. Personally, I enjoy picking up fish and chips near the market place then walking the five minutes up to Palace Green and eating them while watching people stroll by.

If you’d rather pack a picnic and lie in the grass by the leafy riverside there’s plenty to choose from at the atmospheric Durham Indoor Market, which dates from Victorian times. Locally-produced meats, freshly baked breads and cheeses are offered for sale.

A hearty lunch will give you the strength for an hour’s rowing in a boat hired from Brown’s Boathouse, located next to Elvet Bridge. If that sounds too energetic, you can take a leisurely sightseeing cruise on the Prince Bishop Riverboat Cruiser.

Pubs and Bars in Durham

Being out on the river can be thirsty work but there’s no shortage of decent pubs in Durham. Some off the city’s liveliest night spots can be found close to the 500-seat Gala Theatre at Walkergate, which is also the home of Durham’s tourist information centre. Fat Buddha and The Champagne Bar by Ebony are both highly recommended by locals.

Of course, no trip to Durham would be complete without a touch of history and culture. This means a visit to the Norman era cathedral, which dates back to 1093, is essential. The Romanesque-style Durham Cathedral is free to enter but donations are welcomed; the weekly maintenance bill exceeds £60,000.

 The River Wear flows by the Framwellgate Bridge illuminated at night in Durham, England
Durham City is a lovely place to stroll at night. The arch of the Framwellgate Bridge reflects in the water of the River Wear.

Durham cathedral and castle

Along with the neighbouring castle, the cathedral is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle was previously the city residence of the Bishops of Durham but, during term time, more than a hundred students from the University College live here. For a fee you can take a guided tour of the castle, led by students (call  +44 (0)191 3343800 to check the availability of tours).

Crook Hall and Gardens, at Sidegate, on the opposite bank of the Wear, is also worth a look. The restored manor house dates to the 1200s and has beautifully kept gardens, which include a maze and a ‘secret’ walled garden.

I enjoy capping a visit to Durham with a hand-pulled beer at The Half Moon Inn (86 New Elvet). Feel free to drop me a line with your favourite spot.

The viewing platform at the top of Durham Cathedral's tower presents outstanding views over Durham City and the surrounding countryside.
The viewing platform at the top of Durham Cathedral’s tower presents outstanding views over Durham City and the surrounding countryside.

Further information

Find out more about attractions in and around Durham on the This is Durham website.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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