12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Durham

The old center of Durham, with its magnificent cathedral perched high above the River Wear, is a never-to-be-forgotten sight. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old city center boasts 600 listed buildings, including Crook Hall, Kingsgate Bridge, Elvet Bridge, and the Town Hall. Much of the city's early prosperity stemmed from its strategic position on the route to Scotland, as well as the powerful draw of St. Cuthbert's shrine. At the same time, the beautiful surrounding countryside was divided into large estates on which feudal barons erected splendid castles. From the early modern period onwards, the coal industry came to play an increasingly important role, and pitheads and chimneys soon dotted the landscape. In the 19th-century, the population swelled with an influx of immigrant workers, and while industrialists built grand houses, working class districts grew and trade unions were founded (the annual Durham Miners' Gala is still a major event in the local calendar).

These days, Durham is one of the most visited of England's many beautiful cities and boasts plenty of fun things to do, from exploring its historic architecture to dining at its many restaurants, as well as shopping in locations such as the popular Indoor Market.

1 Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral - or, to give it its full title, The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin, and St. Cuthbert of Durham - is famous for its beautiful British Romanesque-style architecture. Whether approached from the narrow streets of the Old City across Palace Green or from the banks of the River Wear over Prebends Bridge, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is truly awe-inspiring. Completed between 1093 and 1133 (with a few 15th-century flourishes), the building is entered by the 12th-century northwest door once used by fugitives seeking sanctuary.

Inside, visitors will be faced with many wonderful sights to explore, including the graceful Galilee Chapel, the Norman Nave with its massive piers and columns, as well as the Cathedral Tower (it's a 325-step climb to the top, so be prepared for a little exertion). The cathedral also boasts the most intact set of medieval claustral buildings in the UK, including the 14th-century cloister featured in the first Harry Potter film.

Guided tours of Durham Cathedral are offered daily and take 1.25 hours. The cathedral also has an excellent adult learning program for visitors wanting to know more about the area's history and includes lectures, workshops, and tours of the surrounding woods and riverbanks. The Cathedral Library and Archive is also available to those interested in specific aspects of the cathedral's history.

Location: The College, Durham

Official site: www.durhamcathedral.co.uk

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Durham

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2 Open Treasures

In the cathedral's crypt, Open Treasures includes a variety of the cathedral's most important collections and relics representing more than 900 years of history. Its oldest exhibits are the 7th-century wooden coffin of St. Cuthbert, a silver plate collection that once belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham, numerous ancient books, and the Conyers Falchion, an ancient sword used by Sir John Conyers to kill the legendary Sockburn Worm. These days, the only action the sword sees is when it's presented to each new Bishop of Durham upon entering the diocese at Croft Bridge for the first time. This popular tourist attraction also houses the original knocker used by sanctuary seekers in medieval times, a replica of which now graces the cathedral's main door.

Location: The College, Durham

3 Durham Castle

Durham Castle
Durham Castle

Built as a fortress by the Earl of Northumberland in 1072, Durham Castle - also part of the Durham UNESCO World Heritage Site - was presented by William the Conqueror to the city's prince-bishops. The most interesting rooms are the Norman Chapel, with its delightful carved archaic capitals; the large 14th-century dining-hall; the 16th-century chapel; and 17th-century Black Stairs complete with pineapple carvings. The castle is also home to University College, the founding college of Durham University, along with more than 100 students who live here, making this a truly unique building with more than 900 years of living history.

Location: Palace Green, Durham

Official site: https://www.dur.ac.uk/

4 Museum of Archaeology at Palace Green Library

The Museum of Archaeology - relocated to the Wolfson Gallery in Durham University's Palace Green Library - houses finds from the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman periods. The museum also boasts a sizable collection of medieval artifacts, many of them discovered in the old city center during major archaeological digs in the late 20th century. The library is also home to the university's special collections, archives, and early printed books, including more than 70,000 volumes printed before 1850.

Location: Wolfson Gallery, Palace Green Library, Durham

5 Oriental Museum

The University of Durham's Oriental Museum on Elvet Hill, just a short distance from the old city center, has excellent art and archaeological collections from the Near and Far East. All of the major eastern cultures and periods are represented, from Ancient Egypt and India, to Tibet, China, and Japan. Highlights include ancient pottery and jewelry, stone sculptures, and antique arms and armor. If possible, try to time your trip to coincide with one of the museum's special "touch tours," when visitors are given the unique opportunity to handle some of their most precious artifacts.

Location: Elvet Hill, Durham

6 Durham University Botanic Garden

Occupying a 25-acre site just south of Durham City, Durham University Botanic Garden is well worth a visit. In addition to its many year-round programs and events, highlights include numerous plant collections from around the world, including China and South Africa, as well as a lovely woodland garden, an alpine garden, and a bamboo grove. The garden's impressive glasshouses are also worth checking out and include a collection of tropical rainforest plants, desert plants, and more familiar plants from the Mediterranean, along with tropical bugs, stick insects, scorpions, and tarantulas. Afterwards, pop into the visitor center with its café and gift shop.

Other notable gardens worthy of a visit are the English gardens at 13th-century Crook Hall, just a short walk from the cathedral, and Wharton Park, which occupies 10 acres on the hillside to the north of the city center. (The latter is a great place from which to watch trains, including historic locos and rolling stock, trundle over the famous Durham viaduct).

Address: Hollingside Lane, South Road, Durham

7 Durham Heritage Centre and Museum

The Durham Heritage Centre and Museum contains many informative and educational exhibitions relating to the town's rich heritage. Housed in a medieval church, it includes excellent audio-visual shows, brass rubbings, and a collection of beautiful stained glass windows. Another great place to gather useful information about the city's past is the World Heritage Site Visitor Centre, which relates the story behind its historic buildings through film and interactive displays.

Location: St. Mary-le-Bow, North Bailey, Durham

8 Beamish, The Living Museum of the North

Beamish, The Living Museum of the North
Beamish, The Living Museum of the North

This fantastic living museum, set in 300 acres of beautiful countryside just 10 miles outside Durham, offers a look into the lives of those who lived in the area during the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras. Costumed characters bring the displays to life and help tell the amazing story of how the Industrial Revolution transformed the region. Incredibly, all the buildings at Beamish were brought brick-by-brick from across Durham County and rebuilt on site.

Beamish also hosts numerous exciting events, including The Great North Festival of Transport, a Georgian Fair, and The Great North Festival of Agriculture.

Location: Beamish Museum, Beamish

Official site: www.beamish.org.uk

9 Durham Town Hall

The interior of the Grade-II-listed Durham Town Hall is well worth taking a peek at. Its modest, glass-fronted reception gallery hides a variety of period rooms, including the dramatic Main Hall, with its stained glass windows and hammerbeam oak roof, and the Crush Hall, with its fascinating memorabilia regarding the life of Count Boruwlaski, just 39 inches tall, who died in 1837 at age 98.

Address: Market Place, Durham

10 Durham Light Infantry Museum

Uniforms, photos, and weapons tracing the history of the Durham Light Infantry regiment from 1758-1968, with an emphasis on WWI and WWII, are all included in this museum. The Medal Room is one of the finest in England and includes displays about the experience of war using soldier's letters and diaries. The museum also offers an excellent research program for those looking to delve deeper into the regiment's history.

Location: Aykley Heads, Durham

Official site: www.dlidurham.org.uk/

11 Finchale Priory

Finchale Priory is an English Heritage property located just minutes from Durham. The charming remains of this once grand 12th-century priory lie beside the River Wear and are well worth exploring. Built in 1196 on an even earlier pilgrimage site, it served for some 400 years as a place of rest and relaxation for monks from nearby Durham Cathedral.

Location: Finchale Priory, Durham

12 Ivesley Equestrian Centre

Ivesley, set amidst 220 acres of beautiful countryside just six miles from Durham, is a must-visit for those interested in horses and equestrian sports. Highlights include an indoor school, show jumps, and several cross-country courses that can be accessed via professional teaching and schooling opportunities or rented out privately. A highlight of a visit is the chance to explore the many nearby riding trails. The center is approved by the British Horse Society, and all instructors are BHS-trained.

Location: Waterhouses, Durham

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