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Best things to do and see in the County of Durham

Plan your break to the County of Durham

“Where is County Durham?” we hear you say. Well, this small and frankly underrated county is in North East England – comfortably wedged between North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. From stargazing in the unspoilt Durham Dales and one of England’s biggest waterfalls, to perfectly preserved castles and Durham City's Harry Potter filming locations, there are so many things to do on a short break in the County of Durham.

Here are ten reasons why Durham is the perfect place for your next staycation.

This article will cover:

  • Things to do in Durham
  • Best places to stargaze
  • Places to stay in County Durham
  • Harry Potter filming locations

With restrictions easing across England, please continue to follow government guidance and remember to plan ahead and check attraction websites before travelling. Take a look at our top tips on how to escape the everyday responsibly to see how you can make the most out of your day trips and breaks.

1

Discover one of the best places for stargazing

Grassholme Reservoir

Dark sky captured on Grassholme Observatory telescope

Out of the 16 dark sky discovery sites dotted throughout the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and UNESCO Global Geopark (some of the darkest skies in England, don’t you know), you’ll find 12 of them in the Durham Dales. If you fancy gazing into the vastness and beauty of the universe, head to the Grassholme Observatory, a purpose-built observatory overlooking Teesdale’s Grassholme Reservoir. Using a range of high-tech instruments and computers, you’ll be transported to the stars to see planets spin, gas clouds glow and galaxies light up the universe.

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For a truly unique night-time show, book onto one of Gary Lintern’s astrophotography experiences. On a trip out to one of the North Pennines’ dark sky reserves, Gary will help you get to grips with dark sky photography so you can capture the perfect memento. With all background and experience levels welcome, it’s sure to be a late-night jaunt you won’t want to forget.

Find more places to stargaze in the County of Durham
2

Treat yourself to a luxury weekend away

Seaham

Outdoor swimming pool at the Seaham Hall Hotel

Tucked away in the County of Durham are some of the region’s finest country house hotels – one being the five-star Seaham Hall. Named one of the best places for a spa break in the North East, the Georgian hotel’s award-winning Serenity Spa is home to a collection of pools, outdoor hot tubs and a myriad of relaxing treatments that are sure to leave you glowing. In the evenings you can tuck into seasonal food in The Dining Room or be transported to the far east at the Asian-inspired Ozone restaurant before heading up to your very own suite (one of which is named after the daughter of Lord Byron). While each room has its own individual character, all feature beautiful décor and unbeatable views. Can we book now?

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Or why not take it a step further and indulge your regal fantasies at a real English castle? Lumley Castle Hotel, overlooking the River Wear, has dominated the Durham landscape for more than 600 years and prides itself on offering guests the chance to step back in time while surrounded by modern comforts. Snuggle down in decadent four-poster beds, take afternoon tea in the castle’s inner courtyard, settle down with a post-dinner drink in front of a roaring log fire and let your worries simply melt away.

Find more places to stay in the County of Durham
3

Discover County Durham’s Harry Potter filming locations

Durham, County Durham

Couple wandering the cloisters at Durham Cathedral

Durham County’s landmarks and landscapes often play a starring role in television shows and blockbuster films, and one of the most notable locations is Durham Cathedral in Durham City. The UNESCO World Heritage Site and place of pilgrimage for almost a millennium doubled up as Hogwarts in a few of the Harry Potter films. Follow in the footsteps of Hermione, Harry and Ron in the Cathedral’s cloisters, and take a peek into The Chapter House, which was transformed into Professor McGonagall’s classroom for her transfiguration lessons. The Cathedral’s Galilee Chapel was also used in Marvel’s superhero phenomenon, Avengers Endgame, where it became the Asgardian Palace that Thor returns to in order to retrieve one of the infinity stones. 

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Other recognisable filming locations include Low Force Waterfall, which was used for scenes in BAFTA award-winning 1917 and Netflix’s The Witcher, and The Lambton Estate in Chester-le-Street which has featured in a myriad of big and small screen dramas including Lady Macbeth, starring Florence Pugh, and BBC’s The Paradise. Lambton Castle unfortunately isn’t open to the public, but you are free to wander around the Earl of Durham’s estate during the summer months to catch a glimpse of this stately filming location.

Find more filming locations in the County of Durham
4

Take a stroll through time at Beamish

Beamish

Family boarding an old fashioned bus at Beamish

Experience the County of Durham’s history first-hand at Beamish, The Living Museum of the North. This working museum is set in 300 acres of Durham countryside, bringing the Industrial Revolution (and the early 20th century) to life through costumed village folk, agricultural workshops and authentic buildings that were brought brick-by-brick from around the region and rebuilt on Beamish land. Wander around the cobbled Pit Village and visit the friendly shopkeepers that line the high street, practise handwriting at the school, see what’s cooking in the cottages and take a ride on the Beamish Tramway, all before tucking into some battered cod from Davy’s Fish and Chip Shop.

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Journey through 2,000 years of history, myth and legend at Kynren, an outdoor live-action extravaganza, performed by a cast and crew of 1,000. You’ll be led through 29 dramatic scenes and stories – from Arthur’s spellbinding journey through time, to the heat of the industrial Victorians – complete with stunts, water jets and pyrotechnics. New for 2021, the 11Arches Park is packed with even more immersive attractions, like the Viking Village, Maze of Fame and the Georgian Animal Croft. Kynren runs on selected dates throughout the summer, making it the perfect holiday treat for the kids.

Find more things to do with the kids in the County of Durham
5

See one of the biggest waterfalls in England

Forest-in-Teesdale

High Force Waterfall in County Durham

Journey under towering trees to the spectacular High Force Waterfall, one of the County of Durham’s most impressive natural landmarks. Beginning its journey on the fells of the North Pennines AONB, the River Tees swells before plunging 21 metres into a gorge below. While the falls are gorgeous all year round, the best time to visit is in the autumn and winter months when, thanks to heavy rainfall, the water is at its most powerful – and, if it’s cold enough, you might be lucky enough to see it freeze. After stopping to admire the falls (and getting a pic or two), carry on your adventure using the variety of marked routes that take you around, across and through the surrounding countryside.

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If you continue along the circular route, you’ll come across Low Force Waterfall, another of Durham’s spectacular natural wonders, which tumbles over the Whin Sill, a layer of dolerite rock formed 295 million years ago. Elsewhere in the Durham Dales you’ll find a myriad of landscapes, cycling routes (including Killhope Cross – England’s highest A Road) and walking trails, to help you escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Explore more of the county’s great outdoors
6

Step inside some of England’s most famous castles

Staindrop, Darlington

Family riding bikes at Raby Castle

Raby Castle wouldn’t look out of place in a Game of Thrones episode. After all, it’s where the Rising of the North occurred during the Civil War. It’s said 700 knights met in secret in the castle’s Baronial Hall to discuss how to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I in favour of Mary Queen of Scots. Nowadays, the castle is a treasure trove of Medieval, Regency and Victorian furnishings and artworks, while its grounds are home to a 200-acre deer park and ornamental gardens. The Coach House is also a treat to see, as it’s filled with 18th and 19th-century coaches, carriages and chariots.

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For such a small county, there sure are a lot of castles in Durham. Located in a town of the same name, the ruins of Barnard Castle are set on a rock high above the River Tees. Enjoy fantastic views over the gorge, and keep an eye out for Richard III’s boar emblem carved above the inner ward. Another is Durham Castle. Now home to students of University College (part of Durham University), visitors can also stay in this historic fortress during the summer break. Or learn more about The Prince Bishops of Durham – once the most powerful men Britain – at Auckland Castle. You can explore the historic palace, accompanying galleries and surrounding deer park.

Find more castles and historic houses in the County of Durham
7

Journey along timeless coastal trails

Durham Heritage Coast

Sunset view over the cliffs and sea of Durham Heritage Coast

If rambling is your thing, then you’re in luck – the County of Durham is chock-a-block with must-do walks. Durham Heritage Coast, for example, has 11 miles of trails along the England Coast Path National Trail, with views of dramatic bays and yellow Limestone cliffs, and plenty of spots for wildlife watching. Stop off at Seaham, home to the county’s one and only marina, to hunt for some of its world-famous multi-coloured sea glass.

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Or why not tackle one of the six Northern Saints Trails that wind their way through the county and across northeast England? Based on ancient pilgrim trails across the North East, the trails – Angel’s Way, The Way of Learning, The Way of Life, The Way of Light, The Way of Love and The Way of The Sea – bring the fascinating stories of the region’s Saints to life. A favourite trail among visitors and locals alike is The Way of Light, which takes you past majestic abbeys, through battle sites of the Dark Ages and across sweeping valleys, forests and fells.

Find more walking routes in the County of Durham
8

Embark on an outdoor adventure with alpacas

Barnard Castle

Group walking alpacas over the Durham Dales

Alpacas are having a bit of a moment (they’re cute and fluffy – what’s not to like?), so if you want to get your fill, look no further than Teesdale Alpacas, based in the Durham Dales. Walking beside your own furry friend, you’ll embark on a picturesque trek through the countryside, where you’ll learn all about alpacas and their calming influence. If you’re lucky, you’ll even wrap up your walk with a visit to see the babies! Alpaca treks are available all year round, but most take place during the summer.

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Prefer something that’ll get your heart pumping? Weardale Adventure Centre has you covered. You can fill your boots with a whole bunch of activities, like rock climbing, kayaking down the River Tees, caving in Durham’s historic lead mine and brushing up on bushcraft skills. The best bit? You’ll be surrounded by endless natural beauty from start to finish.

Find more adventure activities in the County of Durham
9

Take a ride on the world’s oldest railway

Stanley

Steam locomotive N.C.B No.49 with a colliery passenger train steaming along the Tanfield Railway, the World's Oldest Railway in North East England

If you’re partial to immersive experiences, then why not take a steam train ride into the past. With Tanfield Railway – the world’s oldest railway – you’ll embark on a six-mile journey through the rolling countryside and wooded valleys of the County of Durham, aboard a vintage steam train with Victorian carriages. You’ll pass Causey Arch on your steam adventure, which is said to be the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge. Or take the 18-mile heritage route with Weardale Railway which runs from Bishop Auckland to Eastgate. Train services run throughout the year with special evening and afternoon services dotted throughout the calendar.

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County Durham is the cradle of British railway – so what better way to learn all about our nation’s railway history than in the town where it all began. Inside the fascinating Locomotion Museum, you’ll discover where the world’s first steam-powered public railway sprang to life, encounter impressive locomotives and find out how the introduction of trains to Shildon changed a sleepy town forever. Home to 70 rail vehicles – from impressive steam engines to more unusual objects, like the ornate private coach used by Queen Alexandra (wife of King Edward VII) – Locomotion is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the North East.

Find more history and heritage in the County of Durham
10

Delve into curious culture

Barnard Castle

Couple walking in the grounds of The Bowes Museum

Based in the town of Barnard Castle, The Bowes Museum is housed in a magnificent French-style building and plays host to a huge collection of art, fashion and design. Uncover amazing artefacts from the wardrobe of Empress Eugenia, and admire paintings, drawings and sculptures amassed by one of Durham’s greatest love stories, John and Josephine Bowes. Stick around for the unveiling of the Silver Swan, an enchanting animatronic which dates back to 1773 and puts on a show daily at 2pm. If you have time, you can also explore the beautifully landscaped gardens designed by the Bowes themselves. 

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Bring the county’s mining heritage to life at Killhope Lead Mining Museum in the North Pennines. Put on your hard hat and wellies and descend into a 150-year-old mine to explore the dark underground world of a Victorian lead miner. Back up on the surface you can wander the fascinating historical exhibitions (there are thousands of objects on display), sift through silt to see what minerals you can find, and catch a glimpse of the iconic working waterwheel. Fun, educational and immersive, it’s a great day out for all ages.

Find more museums and galleries in Durham
23 Jun 2021(last updated)

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  • 1

    Grassholme Reservoir

  • 2

    Seaham

  • 3

    Durham, County Durham

  • 4

    Beamish

  • 5

    Forest-in-Teesdale

  • 6

    Staindrop, Darlington

  • 7

    Durham Heritage Coast

  • 8

    Barnard Castle

  • 9

    Stanley

  • 10

    Barnard Castle

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