Stuart Forster, a travel writer based in North East England, suggests things to do in County Durham.
Disclosure: Some of the links below and banners are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
It still surprises me when otherwise well-travelled English people reveal that they’ve never been as far north as Durham. Others have viewed the countryside of the county of my birth only from train windows during trips to and from Scotland.
Being a local lad, I’m keen for them to experience the history, countryside and coastline of County Durham — all of which I rate highly.
What to see in Durham City
Most LNER trains take less than three hours to cover the 232 miles between King’s Cross and Durham City. One of the best views of the university city is undoubtedly through windows on the righthand side of trains decelerating across the Victorian viaduct that leads into Durham’s station.
The castle and neighbouring cathedral dominate central Durham. The visitor centre at Palace Green, the grassy square separating the two historic buildings, shows short videos featuring Lego figures and expert insights to gently introduce the history of the joint UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Few offices in medieval Britain wielded the power of the Prince-Bishops of Durham. Significantly, they were permitted to mint coins, levy taxes and raise an army, they played a significant role in defending England’s northern fringe from Scottish incursions.
Durham Castle tickets
Students lead tours of Durham Castle, a former residence of the Prince-Bishops, whose wood-panelled dining hall is reminiscent of Hogwarts’ great hall in Harry Potter films. Few bedrooms in the region match the stately air of the Bishop’s Suite, whose time-faded Flemish tapestries, carved four-poster bed and river views are likely to be available to visitors to experience during overnight stays from January.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for an urban base with a sense of history, consider booking a room at the Hotel Indigo, the location of Durham’s Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Grill. Occupying the Old Shire Hall, formerly the meeting place of the county council, the Grade II listed building features public areas with ornate tiling and stained glass windows.
Strolling the footpath skirting the peninsula-like loop in the River Wear you’ll be able to understand why steep-sided central Durham proved an attractive and easily defendable base during medieval times. The path passes by a temple-like folly known as the Count’s House, named in honour of Joseph Boruwlaski, a diminutive Polish musician and dancer who retired to Durham after entertaining European royalty, including Empress Maria Theresa.
North Pennines AONB
Having a car gives you access to walks in the county’s rural west. The North Pennines is designated both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Park and a UNESCO Global Geopark. Starting from the High Force Hotel car park, a nine-mile circular trail explores Teesdale’s rugged landscape. The highlight is seeing the River Tees churning between a natural gate of dark dolerite rock and then tumbling more than 60 feet at the High Force waterfall.
Staying at Seaham Hall, a luxury hotel with an expansive spa, places you by Lord Byron’s Walk. Named after the Romantic poet who married Anna Milbanke at the manor house in 1815, the walk leads towards the 11-mile Durham Coastal Footpath that sweeps southward along clifftops and through former pit villages.
Pausing on Seaham’s Terrace Green means an opportunity to view Ray Lonsdale’s larger-than-life sculpture Eleven ‘o’ One Tommy. Commonly known simply as Tommy, the metal sculpture depicts a World War One British soldier clutching his rifle. You can almost hear the slumped warrior sighing with exhaustion.
Beamish open-air museum offers insights into North East England’s industrial heritage. Causey Arch, the world’s oldest single-arch railway bridge, stands close to the popular attraction. Completed in 1726, the bridge was built for horse-drawn wagons to transport coal along wooden rails.
From the footpath alongside Causey Burn you can look up at the stone arch from which its architect Ralph Wood is reputed to have thrown himself after its completion, predicting its immanent collapse.
Another of the region’s disused railway lines has been incorporated into the Red Kite Trail. Peer up and you may well spot the V-tailed birds of prey after which the trail is named. The 11-mile circular walk straddles County Durham’s northern boundary with Gateshead and skirts the landscaped gardens of the National Trust’s Gibside, which was commissioned by coal owner George Bowes.
Things to do in Barnard Castle
His descendent John was one of the co-founders of The Bowes Museum, whose art collection encompasses works by El Greco and Francisco Goya. The grand, château-style building is in Barnard Castle. The market town is approximately 40 minutes’ drive southwest of Durham City.
Dotted with antique shops, Barnard Castle hosts a sizable farmers’ market on the first Saturday of each month. English Heritage administers the remains of the medieval fortress named after its founder, Bernard de Balliol.
Bishop Auckland things to do
Another of the castles in County Durham, Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, is open to members. Built as a residence of the Prince-Bishops of Durham, it hosts Jacob and his Twelve Sons, a series of paintings by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán depicting the founders of Israel’s tribes.
Orientate with views of the town from Auckland Tower, where you can buy tickets for attractions such as the Mining Art Gallery and Spanish Art Gallery. You can also walk in the 150-acre Deer Park that was established as a private hunting ground for the prince-bishops during the late 12th century.
Nearby, Binchester Roman Fort is worth stopping by to see its two excavated bathhouses. Stone plundered from the fort was transported a couple of miles and repurposed to construct the compact place of worship at Escomb, which claims to be the country’s oldest complete Saxon church.
There are, of course, many more attractions in County Durham and you’ll find some of the mentioned in posts elsewhere on this website.
Map of County Durham
The map of County Durham below shows the places of interest mentioned in this post about things to do in County Durham:
Travel to Durham
LNER and Transpennine Express trains call at Durham Station. Connect at Darlington to explore the south of County Durham and the Tees Valley.
Both Newcastle International Airport and Teeside International Airport are options if you are considering flying as an option.
Durham City is a five-hour north of London. Turn off the A1(M) at Junction 62 and follow the A690 into the city centre.
Hotels in County Durham
Looking to stay in style? Rockliffe Hall, a five-star hotel and spa near Darlington, is one of County Durham’s luxury accommodation options. Consider booking the King James Suite at the Lumley Castle Hotel, a 14th-century fortress with views over the Emirates Riverside cricket ground.
Search for accommodation in County Durham via Booking.com:
Books about County Durham
Keen to know more about County Durham? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
111 Places That You Shouldn’t Miss in County Durham by Elizabeth Atkin:
Go to thisisdurham.com for more ideas about things to do and places to stay in County Durham.
Find out more about the county by visiting the This is Durham website.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer based in northeast England. He has written for National Geographic Traveller, The Telegraph and Wanderlust.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
Thanks for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post outlining some of the many places to visit and things to do in County Durham. You can find several other posts about destinations in northeast England on this website, including one about the Durham Miners’ Gala.
‘Like’ the Go Eat Do Facebook page to see more photos and content.
If you enjoyed this post why not sign up for the free Go Eat Do newsletter? It’s a hassle-free way of getting links to posts on a monthly basis.