Epic waterfalls, delicious food and history await you in Durham. Whether you’re visiting for a day or a week, these ideas for days out in Durham will give you a great flavour of the county.
Wow does it feel great to be exploring more of the UK again! There’s nothing like being cooped up for months to give you not only a new lease of life but also a huge appreciation for our beautiful country.
Most recently, our travels took us to the North East England to explore Durham. It was my second time in the county. A couple of years ago I spent a week exploring some of Britain’s most beautiful cathedral cities, and started my trip in Durham City.
I fell in love with the city. There’s a real magic to it, with the picturesque views from the river up to the castle and cathedral, as well as the skinny shopping streets weaving up the hill.
I felt like I’d only dipped my toe in the water of what Durham offered, so when the tourist board, This Is Durham invited us to see more of the county, I couldn’t wait! Three lockdowns, a few delays and two postponements later, we finally confirmed the trip and hopped on an early morning train from King’s Cross.
A trip to Durham differs from many trips to UK counties, as it offers such a variety of landscapes. There are four areas to the county: Durham City, the Vale of Durham, Durham Dales and the Durham Coast. Each part has its unique features, and alongside the changing landscapes, there are new activities to try, places to stay, food to sample and more.
To make it easy to plan your trip, I’ve created four single day itineraries, each with great ideas for fun days out in Durham. No matter what you’re interested in, there will be a day out for you!
4 Fun Days Out In Durham That Everyone Will Enjoy
1. A Fun Day Out In Durham For Active Adventurers
This day out in Durham is ideal for active sorts who love exploring beautiful countryside and immersing themselves in nature.
The Durham Dales were a highlight of our trip. This area incorporates Teesdale and Weardale and features undulating hills swathed in lush green grass, moorland and epic valleys with rivers passing through. There are several picturesque villages dotted through the county too, but it was the natural beauty of the countryside that really won me over.
To make the most of your first day out in Durham I’d recommend starting at Hamsterley Forest. The county’s largest forest has numerous walking, cycling and horse-riding trails meandering past huge silver birch, oak, hazel, chestnut, pine, spruce and even sequoia trees. There’s even a Gruffalo trail for kids, as well as plenty of adventure playgrounds to keep little ones entertained.
Keen cyclists will love hitting the trails, some of which are really challenging! For us, it was more about an escape from the hustle and bustle. We popped trainers on and explored some of the pretty walking routes on foot, taking lots of photos and enjoying the sounds of birds around us.
It’s a forest full of surprises. A one point I stumbled across this artwork which seemed to blend effortlessly with its surroundings.
Parking at Hamsterley Forest is only £6 for the day, so if you’re looking for a day out in Durham for all the family, it’s a great option (and on a budget too!)
Next up, it’s time to continue touring Durham’s spectacular countryside with a trip to the county’s most famous water feature, High Force Waterfall. The drive from Hamsterley Forest to High Force takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Durham. It’s proper road trip territory!
As you follow the course of the River Tees, there are huge valley panoramas as you go. You’ll even pass through some cute towns such as Middleton-in-Teesdale. We had to stop several times along the way to take photos. It’s lucky we weren’t in a hurry!
High Force Waterfall
High Force Waterfall is a one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Britain, with an impressive 21m drop carved through a gorge. The rocks around it have origins dating back over 300 million years! I can’t even comprehend timelines like that!
To reach the waterfall, you park by the High Force Hotel, buy a ticket and then trek along the well-kept trail. It’s a scenic route taking around 10 minutes, passing through woodland, over a bridge and down to the epic falls.
I was in awe of its power. It had rained just before our trip, so water levels were high. The gushing water was loud and exciting! I was mesmerised. There are lots of rocky areas towards the bottom of the path which you can explore safely, without going near the water’s edge.
In addition to seeing High Force, we also stopped by Low Force Waterfall, which is a short drive away. It’s not as vast, but it’s very beautiful and there’s a rope bridge to cross here too (kids will love that part!) If you’re looking for a lovely walking route in this part of Durham, there’s a circular route that passes by both waterfalls.
Eat: Rose and Crown, Romaldkirk
If you decide to follow in our footsteps, I’d recommend stopping for lunch at the Rose and Crown in Romaldkirk. This friendly pub has a great atmosphere and barrel-loads of country charm.
Lots of the ingredients featured on the menu are sourced within the county of Durham too, including meat from Peats Butchers in Barnard Castle. I tried the beef bourguignon pie which was rich and unctuous. Sadly, it was such a big portion I couldn’t squeeze in dessert!
Eat and Stay: High Force Hotel, Forest-in-Teesdale
For dinner and an overnight stay in the Durham Dales, I’d recommend checking into the High Force Hotel. Located across the road from the trail to the waterfall, this is a lovely country hotel. We had a very comfortable stay here. Everyone was so friendly and made us feel very welcome. I adore northern hospitality – it always feels like people have more time for you as you go further up the country!
After our active day in Durham, we sat down for a relaxed dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. There’s a classic menu on offer (steak, salmon, mussels, pies etc) along with some really intriguing dishes too. I decided to order the Mediterranean lamb salad, which was absolutely divine. The flavours of yoghurt, fresh coriander, pomegranate and lime were a delight. If it’s on the menu when you visit, you simple have to try it!
2. A Fun Day Out In Durham For Lovers Of History And Culture
Like many people, I hadn’t heard of Barnard Castle until the news headlines last summer… but it’s certainly been put on the map! It turns out to be a very pretty market town with a great independent shopping scene, a 12th century castle (which was later developed by Richard III), a picturesque location by the River Tees and several historic sites close by.
The town itself has a lot of character. There’s a pretty market place where a market still takes place regularly.
Start your day in Barnard Castle exploring the shops, perusing everything from antiques and vintage clothing, to hand-made gifts, jewellery and tasty deli items. One of the highlights for me was Chocolate Fayre – a treasure trove of sweet treats. The smell was enough to draw me in.
Inside the store you’ll find delicately-decorated chocolates made by talented chocolatiers, creamy ice cream and even an indulgent signature hot chocolate. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll be in heaven.
By chance, a print caught our eye outside First Impressions Bespoke Framing, an art shop in the town centre. We ended up rifling through the troughs of artworks by local painters, photographers and printmakers, and even bought one to take home. Every time we look at it we’ll remember our morning in Barnard Castle!
Two of Durham’s most famous sites are located close to the town of Barnard Castle: The Bowes Museum and Raby Castle. I’d recommend visiting both if you have time.
The Bowes Museum
There are two reasons to visit The Bowes Museum: for the art collection and for the building’s architecture. The French-style chateau is absolutely spectacular, like something from a fairy tale. It doesn’t feel like the sort of building you’d find in the northeast of England!
It was built in the 19th century by John and Joséphine Bowes, who wanted to create a world-class museum to introduce the world of art to the local people.
It was a huge success, and today is considered as one of the most important collections of European art. Inside you’ll find lots of treasures including priceless artworks by greats including Canaletto, Goya and El Greco. There are even some landscapes by Joséphine Bowes herself, who was a talented painter.
The highlight at The Bowes Museum is the 240-year-old silver swan automaton, which was created to move using intricate mechanics. After seeing the swan, you can watch a video to see its incredible movement.
After perusing the collections of art, fashion and furniture, descend the museum’s grand sweeping staircase and visit Café Bowes. The museum’s café has a range of brunch dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches as well as a few more substantial options. It’s the ideal place to rest your tired legs after exploring the upper floors. I had the gin and maple cured salmon, which came with potato salad and beetroot. It was light and delicious and just what I fancied after a busy morning in the museum.
I couldn’t wait to visit Raby Castle on this trip to Durham. It’s one of the most impressive castles I’ve visited in England. This 14th century castle has turrets, towers, a moat and even a huge portcullis. Inside are majestic dining rooms, spectacular spaces for entertaining, vast kitchens and servants’ quarters.
I’d recommend buying tickets to go inside, or even book a guided tour if you want to learn all the tales from history. After touring the castle, spend some time exploring the enormous grounds. There are 200 acres of parkland and woodland as well as traditional 18th century ornamental walled gardens.
One of the highlights for me was seeing the animals that roam free on the grounds. There are several herds of deer, often spotted grazing right in front of the castle and lake. Plus, you’re likely to see some of the long-horn cows too. What a sight this was… such a poser!
3. A Fun Day Out In Durham For Beach Lovers
As mentioned, one of the best things about visiting Durham is the fact you can experience the city, beach and countryside all in one trip.
On one of your days out in Durham I’d recommend visiting the beach in Seaham. Durham Heritage Coast runs from Hartlepool to Sunderland and has a great coast path running along the edge. Limestone cliffs line the shore, with pebbles and sea glass resting on the soft sand. If the weather is good, it’s a stunning coastline, but as with anywhere looking out at the North Sea, it can be pretty blustery, although it’s perfect for blowing the cobwebs away!
The highlight of visiting the Durham coast was searching for sea glass on the shore. Between 1850 and the 1920s, Seaham was home to the largest glass bottle works in Britain. The Londonderry Bottleworks produced up to 20,000 hand-blown bottles every day. Everything from drinks bottles to perfume bottles, in numerous different colours.
At that time waste glass was dumped in the sea. Over time fragments have been shaped and smoothed by the ocean, returning to the shore these days as colourful gems. I thought we’d be searching and rummaging to find them, but they were everywhere! Clear ones, green ones, blue ones and even a stunning bright turquoise fragment. I popped a handful in my pocket to take home as another souvenir of our time in Durham.
Seaham has a lively seafront area, close to the marina. If you’re looking for places to eat and drink, there are plenty of great options. For coffee go to Black Truffle Coffee Shop, for ice cream enjoy the retro vibes at Lickety Split Creamery and if you’re looking for brunch or lunch visit The Lamp Room or Flamingo Bar and Café in the marina area.
Eat and Stay: South Causey Inn
For a bit of fun, we stayed at South Causey Inn which has a bar, restaurant and hotel all on site. I say a bit of fun, as this is somewhere that loves novelty. The restaurant has a retro movie theme, there’s a double decker bus outside (one of many quirky accommodation options) and then there are several themed suites to stay in too.
We were shown to Captain Cook’s Cabin, a luxurious nautically-styled room with an outdoor hot tub. The attention to detail made us smile. There was a captain’s outfit waiting to be tried on, a globe-style drinks cabinet, treasure chests and even a ship’s wheel to steer our bed on it’s course!
If you’re looking for somewhere really fun to stay, there are other themed rooms at South Causey Inn, including a tree house, a roman villa, a log cabin and French boudoir!
4. A Fun Day Out In Durham For City Lovers
Each of these days out in Durham has covered different themes. For the final day it’s time to head to Durham City.
Durham City has a compact centre complete with cobbled streets, stunning river views, ancient university buildings, quirky shops, a spectacular cathedral and an ancient castle. It’s one of the most historic cities in England.
You simply have to visit Durham Cathedral during your trip to the city. Over 1,000 years await as you explore the stunning interiors, cloisters and undercroft.
When I visited a few years ago the tower was under scaffolding. This time though, it was back out on show, and there was even an option to climb to the top! If you get the chance to do this, I definitely recommend it!
It’s a steep climb up 325 steps. I’d say it requires some basic fitness and I wouldn’t do it if you’re claustrophobic or scared of heights. Once you emerge at the top, you’ll be met by the most incredible views of the city. I loved this perspective, with the castle looking so small next door, and the cloister area of the cathedral providing such a perfect square of green.
It was also a great reminder of how green the city is. You can see trees everywhere, particularly around the river area.
Last time I visited Durham I also took a tour of Durham Castle, which was built in 1076 by William the Conqueror and is the oldest surviving building in the city. If you’re interested in history, I’d recommend this. The castle is a treasure trove of Norman chapels, 11th century carvings and ghost stories! It’s also still inhabited today… mainly by Durham University students who actually have some halls of residence in the castle! How cool is that?
Durham Riverside Walk
The River Wear runs below Durham Castle and Cathedral. As mentioned, the city is very green, and you’ll appreciate it all the more as you follow the Durham Riverside Walk.
This 3-mile circular route is a lovely way to see a different side to the city. I’d recommend walking just before sunset for some amazing views of the buildings illuminated by the last golden rays of sunshine.
Eat: The Cellar Door
Durham City has a great reputation for food and after loving it so much last time, I couldn’t wait to return to The Cellar Door restaurant, a short walk from the cathedral. Housed in a 13th Century cellar, this is an independent fine-dining restaurant serving excellent dishes at affordable prices.
If you can visit at lunchtime, you’ll benefit from the set lunch menu which is great value at £18 for two courses or £22 for three.
I tucked into a starter of asparagus with hollandaise and a poached egg, which had all the ooziness and indulgence you look for. For my main course I had an incredible trout dish which was served with diced Jersey royals, samphire and a punchy wild garlic oil. It was generous, well cooked and beautifully presented. It might seem unoriginal visiting the same restaurant on my two visits, but it really is that good! Perhaps I’ll be back there on my next trip to Durham too!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my suggestions for four great days out in Durham. I loved the variety of scenery and activities on offer in this picturesque part of England. If you’re planning a trip, definitely check places are open and operating before you travel. After a difficult year for the tourism industry, I was really impressed with the safety measures in place. Durham is a county with lots of open space, so if you’re looking to escape the crowds this year, it’s a great option.
A big thanks to This Is Durham for inviting me to explore the county. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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