The city of Durham lies in the North East of England, just a 15 minute train ride from Newcastle. Steeped in history, the city is characterised by its Cathedral and the University. The city is a perfect size for a weekend get away, with plenty of local restaurants and shops, and history sites that explore the history of Durham and beyond.
Things To Do and See in Durham
Durham City Centre
Although small, Durham City Centre has plenty of things to see and places to go. Off of the main market square, the streets are lined with shops and cafes. Many of these shops and spots to eat are independent, meaning you can enjoy something special and different on your visit to Durham. The cobbled streets can be busy with tourists, enjoying drinks and food on outdoor seating. You can still find some high street shops, with chain stores just off from market square.
Durham Market Hall
In the town centre is Durham Market Hall. What was once a Victorian market hall, is now filled with different local & independent vendors. The market hall is filled with a variety of traders, so you’ll surely be able to find what you’re after (or what you didn’t realise you were after!). Outside, in Market Square, there’s a weekend market and often evening food stalls too!
If you’re looking for a movie or theatre show, Gala Durham is the spot for you. They host a variety of performances, from musicians to stand up and everything in between. For the latest box office hits, Gala Durham has a two screen cinema.
The Cathedral dominates the centre of the city, and its influence can be seen across the city, as it still owns many of the buildings and sites across Durham. Durham became the site of the shrine of St Cuthbert, one of the most influential saints in Britain, after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. It was built in 1093, and is now inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cathedral holds the relics of St Cuthbert, as well as the remains of St Oswald and the Venerable Bede.
Mass is still observed at the Cathedral, which visitors can attend. It is free to visit the Cathedral, and you can explore many areas of the Cathedral including the central nave, and the cloisters – which many will recognise from Harry Potter!
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Opposite the Cathedral, across Palace Green, is the Castle. During term time, the Castle is home to over 100 Durham University students, part of ‘University College’. It was also recognised as a World Heritage Site, alongside the Cathedral.
Construction of Durham Castle began in 1072, built in the standard Norman style with Motte and Bailey. It was built as a means to defend the North against the Scots, and to control the local area.
You can visit the Castle by self guided tours, but these must be booked in advance, as students will be using the Castle during term time.
The Botanic Garden is a short walk from town, past the science site of the University. Set in 10 hectares of woodlands, the gardens are beautiful to visit any time of the year. Within the gardens are nature trails for kids to follow, sculptures to find and admire, and even some sheep living in a field.
Although currently closed, there is a visitor centre and a greenhouse, which has tropical plants and even some amphibians to make friends with!
Museums in Durham
Durham’s history is explored across many sites in the city. Not only do the Cathedral and Castle provide insights into the religious importance of Durham in the North East, there are several museums which also explore Durham’s history and beyond.
Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Archaeology is housed in a building in Palace Green – a perfect in between for those visiting the Cathedral and the Castle. The museum showcases artefacts local to Durham from Prehistory to Medieval. The museum even holds the cremated remains of the first known resident of Durham!
The museum holds the collections of Durham University, and regularly holds displays curated by students studying Museum Studies. Currently, the special exhibition is exploring Durham’s history from Prehistory to Roman times, and there is an impressive collection of artefacts discovered in the river bed.
Durham Light Infantry Collection
Also housed in the Palace Green Library is The Durham Light Infantry (DLI) regiment collection. This display details the history of the DLI, from its inception in 1758, through the World Wars, until it was reduced in size and eventually formed the Light Infantry in 1968 with three other battalions. Here you can see uniforms, medals and memorials to the DLI.
The Oriental Museum
The Oriental Museum was opened in 1960, to support the University’s School of Oriental Languages. The collections have grown since Prof Thacker initially set up the museum, and are now open to the public as well as students and academics.
The galleries at the Oriental Museum span a large geographical areas, from North Africa to South East Asia. The tiered floors of the museum explore different geographical areas, with levels dedicated to China, Korea, India, and Japan and collections from South East Asia and the Levant and Middle East. Galleries on the upper level display an impressive collection (of over 7,500) Ancient Egyptian artefacts. New for 2021, the museum has an exhibition on the Silk Roads, showing how these trade links can traced through Europe to materials in Durham.
Durham Museum and Heritage Centre
A short walk from the Cathedral, situated on the Bailey, is the Durham Museum and Heritage Centre. The museum is housed in the old parish church of the North Bailey, a beautiful Entry is ticketed (and costs £2.50 for an adult). The museum explores the history of Durham from medieval to the 20th century.
Walks in Durham City
Durham sits in a bend of the River Wear, and is known for its many bridges that cross the river from different spots in the city. The river provides lots of beautiful walks, suitable for most seasons (as long as there’s not been a lot of rain to flood the bank). You can access the river from many points within the city – mostly there are stairs leading down next to the many bridges.
You can follow the river within the city centre itself – hopping on at one bridge and walking to another. There’s also the opportunity to hire boats and row on the river itself.
Or if you follow the river outwith the city centre – past the racecourse, there’s many beautiful spots to stop along and admire the view.
As mention, Durham is famous for its bridges crossing the River Wear. The historic bridges once controlled entry to the city. Whilst the bridges are now wider than what they would have been in Medieval times (once lined with shops and busy with carts), you can still see hints of their previous buildings, such as on the edge of Elvet Bridge which had chapels at either end.
Prebends Bridge is perhaps one of the most famous bridges, and most visited. The bridge has beautiful views across the river towards the Cathedral. The bridge was apparently constructed with this view in mind, in the 18th Century, and trees were planted over the river bank to create the romantic view.
Observatory Hill is a place where you’ll find many students – being situated right beside some of the colleges, and not a far walk from the main campus itself. You’ll also find beautiful views of the city from this high point. The walk itself isn’t hard – there’s not much of a climb, and its not too long till you find yourself out of the woods and into the fields above Durham. The hill gets its name from the observatory that sits atop the hill, built in 1839. The Weather Observatory is now owned by the university.
Those are just some of the things to do in Durham. Of course, Durham County has plenty more to offer than just Durham city. Travelling a bit further afield will bring you to more historical places such as Beamish Museum or Auckland Castle. For those who like the sea, Durham Heritage Coastline is easily accessible, and for the keen walkers, Durham Dales are an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and well worth a visit.
I’ve experienced the city as both a student, whilst completing my year-long Masters, and called the city home. More recently, I’ve been back on wee trips to visit my boyfriend, who is now studying at Durham University, and viewed the city from a tourist’s perspective. Durham is a great place to visit for a few days, or as a base to explore the North East more widely – with Newcastle just a short train ride away.
What would be the first place you would visit in Durham?
Check out Durham on my Instagram! Lately I’ve been sharing reels of places that I’ve been visiting, and I’ve currently got two reels from Durham’s Archaeology Museum and the Oriental Museum!