Stuart Forster looks at Dover attractions to visit while waiting for a ferry, including Dover Castle, South Foreland Lighthouse, the famous White Cliffs and Dover Museum.
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Planning a ferry trip from Dover to France that gives time to spare before your sailing? The town has several attractions where you can easily spend a couple of hours. Here’s a look at Dover Castle and other things to do while waiting for a ferry.
I recently made my way to Calais aboard a DFDS Ferry. Arriving in Dover well ahead of my planned departure enabled me to undertake a spot of sightseeing even before leaving England. This allowed me to cover the main Dover attractions to allow me to plan this Dover travel guide as well as discover key Dover Castle facts.
Exploring Dover Castle
Dover Castle proved a rewarding place to head for views over the Port of Dover and town. The strategic, easy-to-defend hilltop has been utilised for centuries.
The castle is the biggest in England and the location of the oldest surviving lighthouse in the country. The Roman Pharos, whose time- and weather-worn remains stand next to St-Mary-in-Castro church, is 1,900 years old.
A plaque inside the church, whose origins are from Saxon times, made me contemplate the scale of casualties of World War One.
Dover Castle history
During that conflict, the castle was utilised as a military base. A Fire Command Post conveys how sentries scanned the Channel for enemy warships, whose profiles are displayed on the walls.
During World War Two the castle served a similar purpose. Tunnels were excavated from the chalk beneath the castle during the 1790s when Britain feared invasion from Napoleon’s Army. Originally dug to billet defenders they were extended in the face of a similar threat posed by German forces.
During May 1940 the tunnels — whose existence was kept secret — were used as the command post for Operation Dynamo, which saw Allied troops withdrawn from Dunkirk. I joined a guided tour of the tunnels, where videos and recordings bring to life aspects of that chapter of 20th-century history.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the underground hospital, escape room or the regimental museums in the castle. If you enjoy taking your time to read displays, it’s easy to spend half a day exploring the castle.
King Henry II’s Great Tower
Looking out to sea from the rooftop of the Great Tower, a keep erected during the reign of King Henry II, I wondered what kind of impression the vast fortification would have had on people 800 years ago. Even today it’s a large building. In the late 12th century, its scale must have wowed people.
That didn’t stop the castle from being besieged in 1216, during the First Barons’ War.
Décor within the great hall, royal bed chamber and kitchens gives an impression of how they might have looked long ago.
The castle makes a rewarding place to spend time. History is lucidly brought to life in a location whose scale and strategic significance are enormous.
Things to do in Dover
Walk up or down the wonderfully named Grand Shaft, a staircase linking Dover’s harbour to the Western Heights. A triple staircase corkscrews 140 feet through the chalk of the White Cliffs. It was built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars to enable military personnel to move rapidly between their barracks and the harbour.
The soldiers’ barracks were on the Western Heights, the location of the Drop Redoubt and Citadel forts. Both were built at the beginning of the 19th century but the latter was expanded in the 1850s in the wake of renewed fears of a French invasion.
Find out about life in Dubris (Dover) when it was part of the Roman Empire at the Roman Painted House (New Street). Travellers were passing through Dover even in Roman times. The Roman Painted House dates from around 200 and was rediscovered by the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit in the 1970s. It was a mansio, meaning ‘hotel’, with a hypocaust heating system and murals depicting the god Bacchus. Five rooms have been excavated.
Port of Dover
Snap a picture of the Banksy mural. Depicting a workman standing on a ladder and chipping away one of the stars of a European Union flag, it can be seen on the gable end of a house in Dover. It was added overnight during May 2017 and can be seen from the A20, on the way towards the Port of Dover.
Stroll along the waterfront. At Marine Parade, overlooking the Outer Harbour, you can see a statue of Charles Rolls, whose surname formed half of the Rolls-Royce brand name. Rolls was also an aviation pioneer. On 2 June 1910, he was the first pilot to make a non-stop double aerial crossing of the Channel. Just 40 days later he was the first Briton to be killed in an aviation accident.
The world’s oldest-known seagoing boat is displayed in the free-to-visit Dover Museum. The vessel is approximately 3,000 years old. Dating from the Bronze Age, it was discovered in 1992 during the construction of the A20 road between Dover and Folkestone.
The White Cliffs of Dover count among England’s most iconic natural landmarks. Why not stroll along the clifftops to visit South Foreland Lighthouse. The lighthouse’s claim to fame is that it was the first to use electric light. Of course, singing or whistling (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover, the song made famous by Vera Lynn’s wartime recording, is entirely optional!
Map of Dover
Zoom in to this map of Dover to find the location of attractions in the Kent town:
Travel to Dover
Under normal driving conditions, Dover is a little over two hours’ drive from London. Allow longer if you have a ferry to catch. The A2 offers an alternative to the M2.
Trains from London Victoria run to Dover Priory railway station.
Hotels in Dover
Search for accommodation in and around Dover via HRS:
Books about Kent and England
Planning a trip to Dover and have time to explore the port town or elsewhere in Kent? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Ordnance Survey Pathfinder Guides’ Kent: Outstanding Circular Walks:
See English Heritage’s Dover Castle page for information about the historic site’s opening times, entry prices and more details about the things to do and see.
The White Cliffs Country tourism information website has details about places of interest in Dover, Deal and Sandwich as well as other Dover attractions.
The Visit Kent website also has information about what’s on and places to stay in and around Dover.
For travellers arriving by ferry, Dover is the first place they set foot in the country. The Visit England website has ideas about places to visit across the nation.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. He is based in northeast England.
Photographs illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography. Why Eye Photography specialises in travel photography and undertakes assignments worldwide. If you have a project you’d like to have photographed, please call 07947 587136 to discuss your requirements.
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A version of this post was initially published on Go Eat Do on 01 July 2019.
JanisJuly 22, 2019 at 08:37
Dover Castle is wonderful, we live in Kent so have visited a few times. I love the underground tunnels and the Operation Dynamo exhibition.
Stuart ForsterJuly 22, 2019 at 13:23
Agreed. The range of British history that can be experienced at Dover Castle is remarkable.
Kacie MorganJuly 23, 2019 at 13:46
I didn’t realise there was quite so much history in Dover and I had no idea they had a Banksy mural. Great read!
Stuart ForsterJuly 29, 2019 at 15:51
Thanks Kacie. I strolled past the mural and was intrigued to see a couple of people photographing it with their phones. It wasn’t until chatting with a local a couple of hours later that my suspicions that it might be a Banksy were confirmed.
Mellissa WilliamsJuly 29, 2019 at 14:22
We went to Dover Castle ourselves a few months ago and were really impressed. There is a lot to see and do. The actors really bring history alive
Stuart ForsterJuly 29, 2019 at 15:54
There were a couple of decent video productions that caught my eye. One on the Plantagenets (they were a rather dysfunctional bunch) and the videos relating to the Dover Castle during World War Two and its role in Operation Dynamo.
AnnaJuly 29, 2019 at 15:47
Whilst I have seen Dover castle a few times from below I have not yet had the chance to visit it! Will most definately be arriving a good few hours before the ferry next time! Also the grand shaft!? Who named that?!
Stuart ForsterJuly 29, 2019 at 15:49
I had a fantastic few hours checking out the town and what it has to offer. The castle was somewhere I’d wanted to visit for a while.
David BarbaAugust 14, 2022 at 01:09
I am a 26 times great grandson of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine! I want to visit Dover and learn about my family and history of Dover! I love all the great pictures of Dover! Such a beautiful and historical city!
Go Eat DoAugust 20, 2022 at 09:59
That’s an impressive family tree and must be fascinating to research so many generations back. So good to know that Go Eat Do is read by royalty! The castle really is one of those attractions where it’s easy to spend a day.