Durham: a city blessed with an abundance of culture and character
Historic and charming Durham is arguably the jewel in the crown when it comes to the north of England’s top tourist destinations.
Centred around a World Heritage Site, and blessed with culture, ancient sites and character in abundance, the city welcomes visitors in their droves every year. It’s not only packed with attractions, but is a great base for exploring the surrounding coast and countryside, too.
Nestled on the River Wear and in close proximity to Newcastle, Sunderland and Darlington, Durham itself can be traced back to AD 995 – founded by divine intervention if local legend is to be believed.
It’s reported that the funeral bier of St Cuthbert came to a standstill in a nearby village and could not be moved, until the Saint appeared before the monk Eadmer, instructing him to take the coffin to Dun Holm – an old Norse name for Durham. The monks are said to have then built a shelter on the spot where Durham Cathedral would later stand.
Must-see Durham Cathedral
To this day, Durham Cathedral is the city’s most revered and eye-catching landmark, proudly casting its eye across the beautiful landscape beyond. Built in 1093, the Norman cathedral still boasts the majority of the original structure, although parts have been added and modified over the years.
A visit to Durham Cathedral is worth it for the views alone. A climb up the central tower’s 325 steps is rewarded with spectacular panoramas across the whole city and out across the local countryside – a must for anyone visiting the area.
Parts of the Cathedral even doubled as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films, so Potterheads will be keen to pay a visit as much as history and architecture lovers.
Within the building, Durham Cathedral Museum – previously known as Open Treasure – is also well worth stopping by, to learn more about the history and heritage of this famous landmark, through interactive stories, exhibitions and treasures.
Exploring the city
Durham’s heritage doesn’t stop at the Cathedral, though. You can’t beat a stroll along the city’s spectacular riverbanks, taking in the wonderful architecture and history that the city has to offer.
A three-mile circular walk starts opposite Federation House on Green Lane – or anywhere else along the route that you prefer to pick up the circuit – and continues crossing Baths Bridge, St Oswald’s Church, Elvet Bridge and university playing fields, all nestled in the shadow of the imposing Cathedral.
Head a little further out of town, and you’ll find the Oriental Museum. It belongs to Durham University, and is home to more than 23,500 Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Egyptian artefacts, including pottery from the Malcolm MacDonald collection, objects from the Edo period, the Zhou Dynasty and Coptic period.
The Museum makes a worthwhile half-hour there-and-back extension to the circular walk – or venture a little further still, and enjoy exploring the beautiful 10-hectare Durham University Botanic Garden too.
If that’s not enough culture for you, you can also add Durham Museum and Heritage Centre and a guided tour of Durham Castle to the list. Both are just a short distance from the Cathedral in this compact and picturesque city.
If it’s a spot of retail therapy you’re after, the Indie Durham City Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, sharing updates from distinctive shops, cafés, bars and restaurants across Durham, are a useful source of inspiration and recommendations. Set up by City of Durham Parish Council, the project promotes and supports independent traders throughout the heart of the city.
The historic Durham Market Hall, in particular, is the perfect spot for a stroll, and has been delighting shoppers since 1851. These days, 40 different local traders can be found here, making it ideal for treating yourself or to pick up some souvenirs. Goodies include everything from fabrics, toys and homeware to antiques, books, guitars, meat and cheese, jewellery, wine, and a whole host more besides.
Durham also has many fabulous independent cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy a coffee, quick bite to eat, or celebratory dinner. Tealicious Tearoom and Cafédral are among the excellent choices for a pit stop, while new recruits – including the soon-to-open Café Ravika and recently launched The Curious Mr Fox – are appearing all the time.
At The Riverwalk, The Food Pit is also a great option for those catering for various tastes. With eight different street food stalls offering delicious cuisine from around the world, plus a bar serving craft beer and more, you’ll be able to keep the whole clan happy under one roof.
Festivals and adventures
With events making a cautious return in 2021, there is also much to look forward to in Durham’s calendar. The inaugural Durham Fringe Festival takes place from 28 July to 1 August, with comedy, dance, magic and other performances due to enliven four stages across the city.
Then, in November, it’s time to welcome back Lumiere, the UK’s largest light festival, which has taken place every two years since 2009. Featuring eye-catching temporary art installations across Durham, Lumiere gives locals and visitors the chance to see the city in, quite literally, a new light.
Sports fans will also want to take time to head north of Durham to the nearby market town of Chester-le-Street, home to Durham County Cricket Club. Their home ground, Emirates Riverside, has also hosted ICC World Cup fixtures and occasional England Test matches, and is among the country’s most picturesque settings for first-class cricket, with its backdrop of the imposing Lumley Castle.
While you can easily keep yourself amused in Durham City, the surrounding county – which is called Durham as well – also boasts a wealth of fantastic things to do.
Family adventures are well catered for, with Adventure Valley, just north of the city, featuring go-karts, soft play, llamas and plenty more to keep the kids entertained.
Meanwhile, Diggerland, at Langley Park, is perfect for ambitious Bob the Builders. Kids can have a go on dumpers and giant diggers, or hop aboard go-karts, mini Land Rovers and Diggerland’s awesome machinery-based rides.
Also beyond Durham’s city borders, Locomotion can be found en route to nearby Darlington, and offers a wonderful day out for the whole family. Based in Shildon – known as the world’s first railway town – Locomotion houses the nation’s collection of railway vehicles, with steam engines, exhibitions and huge feats of engineering dating back more than 100 years.
Days out in the country
Beamish Museum is a living and working museum which showcases the history of life in the North East. Set across 300 acres of stunning County Durham countryside, visitors can explore an Edwardian dentist and a 1900s pit village, ride on 1950s buses, or savour the famous Davy’s fish and chips. Tickets take the form of the Beamish Unlimited Pass, meaning that you pay once and can then visit multiple times during the next 12 months.
Twenty-five miles south-west of Durham City, Barnard Castle (of controversial ‘eye-test’ fame) is a glorious market town nestled within the Durham Dales. Here, you’ll find the fortress of the same name, managed by English Heritage, casting its gaze across the Tees Gorge.
Durham is also within easy reach of England’s east coast and the beautiful beaches at Seaham, where you can even scavenge for its famous ‘sea glass’. In fact, the whole East Durham coastline is glorious for a day out of the city, with options for clifftop walks if you’re feeling adventurous.
Getting and staying there
Situated on both the East Coast Main Line and the A1 motorway, Durham is well connected by both train and road, while Newcastle International Airport and Teesside International Airport are both within easy reach.
As you’d expect with any tourist-friendly city, Durham has plenty of hotels and accommodation options to choose from. Among the top picks are Hotel Indigo Durham, housed in a beautiful redbrick building that was originally the headquarters of Durham County Council, and the Kingslodge Inn, a cosy pub with rooms in a woodland city-centre setting.
There’s also no shortage of quaint and classy Airbnb options available in the city or further afield.
Durham will steal your heart
As far as UK cities go, Durham may remain somewhat under the radar compared to its bigger, more illustrious cousins. But in many ways, its semi-clandestine existence in the North East makes it all the more alluring.
We can guarantee the bountiful charm and character on display will steal the hearts of even the hardiest of visitors and fortunately, there’s so much to see and do, you’ll always find the perfect excuse to return for another reconnaissance.
At the time of writing (June 2021), many opening times and arrangements were still restricted, or subject to change, due to Covid-19. Please follow the links provided to obtain the latest information before you visit.
All photographs by Graham Soult.