As the train pulled into the station the view across the rooftops of Durham immediately caught my eye. The sun was sinking low in the sky bathing the cathedral spires, castle walls and swathes of green trees in a golden light. I longed to hop off the train to explore the historic streets but my schedule wouldn’t allow it. When I finally returned, Durham proved well worth the wait. It’s a fabulous city with plenty to do both in Durham city centre and in the surrounding countryside. I didn’t have long in the city so while there I asked several locals, as well as my fellow bloggers, about the best things to see, do, eat and drink there. Here’s our guide to spending the perfect day in the city of Durham plus someone highlights from the many wonderful things to do a little further afield.
I visited Durham as a guest of This is Durham. All views and opinions are my own.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link in this post and go on to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. You can find out more about affiliate links here.
How to spend the perfect day in Durham city centre
Watch the sunrise from Observatory Hill
If you like an early start to your day, one of the best places to see the sunrise is Observatory Hill, southwest of the city centre. It’s about a 25-minute walk from the cathedral. Follow the path across Prebends Bridge heading west and then south onto Quarryheads Lane. At the roundabout continue south onto Potters Lane. After about 150 metres a path on the right heads up to the hilltop view from where you can look back across the city.
Walk along the riverbank
If you can’t drag yourself out of bed in time for the sunrise, a walk along the riverbank by the River Wear as it winds it way around the city centre is another fine way to start your day and build up an appetite.
Starting at the Riverview Shopping Centre just south of the A690 on the west bank the river heads south passing the Framewellgate Bridge on Silver Street, with a backdrop of Durham Castle on the other bank of the river. A little further on Durham Cathedral comes into view.
The riverbanks are lined with trees and you’ll soon feel like you’ve left the city behind. Passing Prebands Bridge, continue along the path as it winds around the southern bend in the river.
At Kingsgate footbridge, cross the river to the opposite bank (which is now the west bank thanks to the bend in the river).
At Elvet Bridge turn left (passing the Tin of Sardines Gin Bar – see later) then turn right into Saddlers Street. Stop here for breakfast (see below) or head north to the historic square, Durham Market Place. Here turn left (east) into Silver Street which will lead you back to Framewellgate Bridge.
Breakfast at Flat White Kitchen
Either (or both) of these walks is the perfect way to start the day followed by a delicious breakfast back in Durham city centre. Flat White Kitchen at 40 Saddler Street serves some of the best coffee and breakfasts in town. Frustratingly though it doesn’t open until 9 am (or 10 am on Sundays). Just next door, at number 39, you’ll find Bill’s Restaurant which has the advantage of opening an hour earlier at 8 am.
Above: Queuing in the rain for a coffee from Flat White Kitchen
Explore Durham Castle
Fellow blogger, Kat from Biker Girl Life recommends a visit to Durham Castle and I’d have to agree with her there. In Kat’s words, here’s why.
“Durham Castle is right next door to Durham Cathedral, and the two together were awarded World Heritage Status in 1986.
The castle was commissioned by William the Conqueror and was one of the first fortified castles to be built as part of his campaign to ‘pacify the North’.
It’s built in the traditional style of Norman castles with a central tower, built on a high mound and surrounded by a walled enclosure. It remained as a centre of power for several hundred years, both to maintain control over the Scots, but later as the home of the Bishop of Durham
In 1837, the castle became part of the University of Durham and is now used as student accommodation, which is why all tours must be guided.
You book the tours at the University Library just outside the castle. Tours only take place during holiday time when the university is not ‘in session’. In summer, it’s best to book in advance as tours sell out. You’ll be enthralled by the architecture and the history (the oldest part of the castle was built in 1080). Don’t miss the Black Staircase, made out of dark oak and standing at 57 ft high. Incredibly, it used to be free-standing but is now supported by columns for safety.
Also, ask your guide (usually a current student) about the Bishop’s blessing and how he got to finally have a hot meal!” Kathryn Bird
Address: Durham DH1 3RW
Cost: £5.00 Adults, Children 16 and under FREE
Parking: There is no parking at the castle. If you’re driving or motorcycling, the nearest public car park Prince Bishops Shopping Centre Car Park, postcode DH1 3UJ.
Durham Castle and Cathedral by Kat Biker Girl Life
Lunch at The Undercroft
The Undercroft Restaurant, in the cathedral, is the perfect place to stop for a light lunch. You can sit inside under the sweeping medieval arches or outside in the cloisters. The Undercroft Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday 10 am to 4 pm, and on Sunday from 12 noon to 4 pm. Tables can be booked by calling 0191 386 3721 or by emailing [email protected]
Visit Durham Cathedral
When I visited the cathedral, I was lucky enough to catch the Museum of the Moon installation at the cathedral but it’s a must-visit attraction even without the spectacular giant moon suspended at its heart. Here’s Kathryn from Wandering Bird’s take on the cathedral.
“As you walk around the city of Durham, you won’t be able to miss the incredible cathedral – it dominates the skyline in much of the city. But don’t just walk past, there are plenty of reasons to visit inside.
Durham Cathedral was built in 1093 at the request of William the Conqueror and is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list due to its historical and architectural importance.
The nave is thought to be the FIRST structural pointed arch in the world and it is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all the Norman workmanship, as well as the original layout and design of the cathedral.
Any Harry Potter fans, will be excited to learn that many of the scenes in the movies were filmed here. The cloister is where Harry let Hedwig free to fly, many of the covered walkways were used to film scenes between classes and the Chapter House is Professor McGonagall’s classroom.
Don’t miss the chance to climb up inside the tower – it may be 325 steps, but the views over the city make them all worthwhile.
There is no cost to enter the Cathedral but there is a suggested donation of £5 pp. You can also book guided tours and you need to pay to do the tower climb.” Kathryn Bird
Guided Tour: £7.50 per person £3.50 child £20 Family ticket (2 adults, 2 children)
Central Tower: £5.50 adult £2.50 child
Address: Durham Cathedral, Durham, DH1 3EP
Parking: There is no parking at the cathedral but you can use the ‘Park and ride ‘ from either the Belmont Car Park DH1 1SR, the Sniperly Car Park DH1 5RA or the Howlands Car Park DH1 3TQ. For a full list of Durham City Centre car parks visit Durham car parks<
Public transport: A hop-on-off bus runs between the bus/train stations and the cathedral. The nearest train station is Durham Station, 0.8 miles away.
Gin at Tin of Sardines Gin Bar
After all that walking, you’ll be in need of a pick me up and my favourite bar in Durham is the Tin of Sardines. Here Tabitha from Travel Compositions tells us more.
“Tin of Sardines Gin Bar is located on the edge of Durham’s Elvet Bridge. With under five tables and a hutch-like set-up for the bar counter, Tin of Sardines is labelled as Durham’s smallest gin bar and “probably the smallest gin bar in the world” as you’ll be packed into this quaint bar like a tin of…well…sardines!
But don’t let size fool you, This intimate bar’s shelves are stacked high with over 200 gins and 50 mixers from around the world. If you have a hard time deciding on a gin, have a knowledgeable dapper-vested “ginologist” concoct you a gin and tonic tailored to your taste preferences: dry, fruity, florally, citrusy, you name it they will accommodate it. Your cocktail can come in a variety of colours, garnished with fresh homegrown herbs and botanicals.
Day drinking is acceptable here as they open early afternoons, and the earlier the better as far as crowds go.” Tabitha
Where to find Tin of Sardines: 18 Elvet Bridge, Durham DH1 3AA, United Kingdom
Dinner through the Cellar Door
There’s a host of restaurants to choose from along Elvet Bridge and adjacent Saddlers Street. One of my favourites though is hidden behind an inconspicuous door on Sadler Street. Make your way down a narrow flight of stairs and discover what lies beyond the Cellar Door. Offering international cuisine made from seasonal, locally sourced produce this wonderful high-end restaurant in a thirteenth-century cellar. with stunning views of the river Wear and Elvet Bridge.
Website: The Cellar Door
Address: 41 Saddler Street, Durham, County Durham DH1 3NU (a 2 minute walk away from Prince bishops car park.)
Telephone: 0191 383 1856
Above: Riverside walk in Durham city centre at night
Things to do near Durham
Of course, if you are staying in Durham it would also be a shame not to venture further afield and explore at least some of the glorious countryside and coast. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Beamish, the Living Museum of the North
I’ve not been myself but Moumita from Chasing the Long Road highly recommends the Living Museum of the North, about 10 miles north of Durham.
“Beamish, the Living Museum of the North, is an open-air museum in Northeast England stretching over 300 acres of land. Beamish is a treasure trove of the late Victorian and Edwardian past of the local area – visiting this museum is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Durham. Located almost halfway between Durham and Newcastle-upon-Type, Beamish lies about 9 miles north of Durham City Centre.
Once here, hop on the vintage tram and explore the different sections of this open-air museum, such as 1900s Town, 1900s Pit Village, 1950s Farm, Colliery, and Pockerley. It’s beautifully preserved to make the visitors take a glimpse at how life was in Northeast England in the era of the industrial revolution. It’s fun, interactive, and educational – suitable for all ages.
Pop into Jubilee’s Sweet Shop and taste the old favourites like hardboiled sweets. You can see at the rear of the store how the chocolates are made using the recipes from the early 1900s. Davy’s Fish and Chip shop, cooked in beef drippings, in 1900s Pit village is a favourite among locals and tourists alike.
Don’t forget to collect the unlimited yearly pass that will let you come back throughout the year without having to pay anything extra.” Moumita
Cost: Adult £19.50, Child £11.50, Family (2 Adults + 2 Children) £51.00.
Public transport: From Durham Train Station, take the Northern Train to Chester-le-Street Station and from there, take bus service Country Ranger 8 to reach the Beamish Museum. The overall journey takes almost 40 minutes.
The Bowes Museum
My choice, however, would be the magnificent Bowes Museum, 25 miles southwest of the city of Durham. Housed in a purpose-built French Chateau on the edge of the quaint English village of Barnard Castle, The Bowes Museum houses a fabulous array of artworks including paintings, ceramics, textiles, and tapestries, collected by its founders, John Bowes and his wife Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier, Countess of Montalbo, who sadly both died before the gallery opened in 1892. Its most renowned exhibit is the 18th-century Silver Swan automaton.
Website: TheBowesMuseum.org.ukAddress Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 8NP
Admission fee: Adult – (Annual Pass): £15.50, Over 60 (Annual Pass): £13.50, Student – (Annual Pass): £13.50, Student (Day Entry Only): £6.00, Children Under 18: £5.00
High Force Waterfall
Maja from Away With Maja also recommends visiting at least one of County Durham’s waterfalls.
“One of the best attractions in County Durham, High Force is a spectacular waterfall on the River Tees that drops 21 meters (69 feet).
The rocks surrounding the gorge are ancient – some date back over 300 million years. It’s a short walk on gravelled footpaths down to the main viewing point, and back via a loop through the woodland. It’s about 35 miles southwest of Durham but well worth visiting as part of a day out when staying in the area.” Maja
Location: High Force Waterfall, Alston Rd, Forest-in-Teesdale, Barnard Castle DL12 0XH
Admission fee:£ 2.50 for adults, £1 for children (ages 5-15), and free for children under 5.
Parking is available at the High Force Hotel, which is £3 for 3 hours and £6 for 6 hours.
To see more of Upper Teesdale and the Durham Dales, visit Low Force waterfall, just downstream from High Force. It’s a hike of approximately 2 miles (which follows the Pennine Way National Trail) from Low Force to High Force. If you’re wanting to visit more waterfalls, head to Cow Green Reservoir and walk 30 minutes along the reservoir to see Cauldron Snout, another beautiful waterfall in the Pennines AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) that shouldn’t be missed!
Where to stay in Durham City Centre
The City Hotel is in a central location by Elvet Bridge. It’s perfectly situated to explore the city centre, castle and cathedral by day and the bars and restaurants by night. The hotel’s pub features live music at the weekend.
If you’d prefer something a little quieter, The Radisson Blu is a short walk from the old town and features all the facilities you’d expect from a larger hotel including a swimming pool, spa and fitness centre. The rooms are spacious, smart and comfortable with many overlooking the River Wear.
Where to stay in County Durham
Headlam Hall, Darlington
This charming, family-owned 17th-century country house is set within a large walled garden in the scenic Durham dales. It’s an idyllic country retreat with a luxury spa and golf course. Headlam Hall is also a working farm providing much of the produce used in the superb restaurant.
Above: Lord Gainford Suite, Below: Headlam Hall Restaurant
Website: Headlam Hall
Address: Near Gainford, Darlington, DL2 3HA
Join my 'Behind the Scenes' newsletter
Delivered monthly to your inbox with all my behind the scenes news, latest posts and giveaways exclusive to my subscribers.