In England’s West Country, Dorset is a rural place without a single city.
But what Dorset does have is the most romantic countryside and heroic coastal landscapes that make up the UNESCO-listed Jurassic Coast.
Wherever you go there’s always something memorable to see close by.
On the sea are atmospheric ports, perfect sandy beaches, massive cliffs and natural wonders like Durdle Door.
You’re in England’s fossil-hunting capital here, where exciting finds are guaranteed with a little patience.
And strewn across the interior are castles, abbeys and stately homes, many of which you may already have seen on TV or in movies.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Dorset:
It’s easy to see why the coastal town of Weymouth is such a hit with tourists: Straight away there’s the enchanting harbour, set on the banks of the River Wey before it reaches the sea.
The quays have a quaint jumble of old inns and warehouses, and you can take in the scene from a waterside bench and watch the yachts and trawlers come and go.
And then there’s the beach: Long, sandy and with waters safe for kids to spend whole sunny days paddling and splashing around.
There’s always something big going on in Weymouth, be it the Kite Festival in May and the Seafood Festival on the quaysides in July.
A spa town from the early-1800s onwards, Bournemouth attracted Regency and Victorian society’s upper crust for health retreats for its warm climate (comparatively!), gardens, pine woodland and fresh sea air.
Large villas were built in this time and continue to lend the town a feeling of grandeur and opulence.
There are seven miles of beaches on the coast, one of which is the Blue Flag Alum Chine, with perfect golden sands.
Potter around the artisan shops in Westbourne and sample the nightlife around the Square area.
A real trove of British art and decoration awaits at the Russell-Cotes Gallery, set in a sumptuous Art Nouveau villa on a cliff-top.
Dorset’s county town is both beautiful and historic, with tons of listed buildings in its centre and majestic estates like Athelhampton and Kingston Maurward in the immediate countryside.
For shopping and nightlife, look no further than the newly regenerated Brewery Square, set in front of the striking old Eldridge Pope Brewery.
The esteemed Victorian writer Thomas Hardy spent most of his life in and near Dorchester.
You can visit Thomas Hardy’s Cottage, a quaint thatched house where he was born in 1840 and resided until 34, during which time he wrote classics like Far from the Madding Crowd.
Also open is the more sophisticated Max Gate, a Victorian mansion that Hardy occupied from 1885 until he died in 1928.
4. Jurassic Coast
The entirety of Dorset’s western shoreline, from Studley all the way to the boundary with Devon, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The rugged limestone throughout has recorded some 185 million years of natural history, and is layered with fossils of the plants and animals that have lived in this area during that time.
The beaches have been prime fossil-hunting territory for hundreds of years, and were first made famous by the 19th-century amateur, Mary Anning, whose eye for a valuable fossil has never been equalled.
The village of Charmouth is right by Golden Cap, the highest cliff on England’s south coast, and is also home to the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre where you can tap into the natural and human history of this singular coastline.
On a vast natural harbour, Poole’s calm, sheltered seas are possibly the best on the south coast for watersports, and sailors, fishers, windsurfers all very well-catered for.
If you’re up for some sightseeing, the twee traditional quay in Poole is a working maritime district and the point of embarkation for a host of cruises and excursions.
One of the favourites is Brownsea Island, owned entirely by the National Trust and cloaked in pine and oak woodland, with exciting little fragments of history here and there.
But Sandbanks is what really draws the crowds in Poole.
Most people say it’s the best beach in Britain, a sandy spit that shields the north side of the harbour and has a kilometre of soft golden sand.
It’s not unusual to see Sherborne included in lists of the UK’s most beautiful towns.
Sherborne is mostly built with the ochre-coloured “ham stone”, quarried from just across the boundary in Somerset and making everything just a little more gorgeous.
For a small town there’s a great deal to see.
The abbey is outstanding, particularly the fine fan vaulting in the nave and chance.
This building started out as a Saxon cathedral in the early-8th century, and you can still see vestiges of this structure around the western portal . Add to this, two castles, the newest of which was ordered by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594, and you’ll have enough for a breathless couple days of sightseeing.
7. Lyme Regis
If you fancy yourself as the next Mary Anning make a bee-line for Monmouth Beach where she found most of her fossils.
The word is that you have a better chance of finding something when the weather is unsettled at low tide.
In summer you may just be in need of a blissful few hours by the sea.
The Cobb is an fabled landmark, a powerful harbour wall that you may know from Meryl Streep’s the French Lieutenant’s Woman, and was also described in Persuasion by Jane Austin, who lived in Lyme Regis for a time.
In which case, Cobb beach is the spot for you, a spotless pebble beach on with calm seas that are transparent when the sun’s out.
If you’re in Bournemouth there’s no reason not to board the train for the town of Christchurch, just a brief jaunt to the east.
This town combines unblemished countryside, a gorgeous old quarter and first-rate beaches with a harbour at the confluence of two rivers.
There’s so much to discover in the area that you’d be better off hiring a bike to get from one beautiful place to the next.
You can go for a restorative walk by Highcliffe beach, try crab-fishing at Mudeford Quay or explore the ruins of the Constable’s House, an original Norman building.
Best of all could be Christchuch Priory, a glorious medieval monastery that survived Henry VIII’s Dissolution by becoming a parish church in the 1500s.
In wonderful scenery, Swanage is a seaside town with a beach that is up there with the best in the county.
The beach has soft white sands, and its shallow incline creates lots of shallow water for littler beach-goers to play in.
On steep hillsides, the resort is very smart and has taken good care of its Victorian stone buildings which house tea rooms, pubs and fish & chip shops.
This being the Jurassic Coast there are natural wonders here.
Old Harrys Rocks is the most majestic site in the area an ensemble of chalk outcrops.
If you laugh in the face of vertigo you can walk along the eroded path on the narrow isthmus, where there’s a sheer drop on either side, to get a closer look at the vertical stack at the end.
A lovable country town, Shaftesbury is the only major hilltop community in Dorset, located more than 200 metres above sea level.
Shaftesbury is well-accustomed to visitors and has its fair share of inns and bed & breakfasts in wonderful period buildings.
There has been a settlement at this site since at least Saxon times, and the former abbey was established in the 9th century.
Pop into the museum next to the ruins that now decorate a sublime garden.
Gold Hill meanwhile, encapsulates rural England perfectly.
This steep cobbled street has stone thatched cottages and the most astounding views of the countryside.
Gold Hill first came to the nation’s attention via a Ridley Scott commercial for Hovis bread, and it has since become a cherished landmark.
11. Blandford Forum
In 1731 the town of Blandford was razed by fire.
And this event is what grants it such an architectural unity today, as nearly everything you see in the centre is from the reconstruction in the years that followed, led by the uncommonly-named Bastard Brothers.
So the pleasure of visiting Blandford lies in navigating its genteel Georgian streets, particularly around the baroque town hall and corn exchange, which are both Grade I-listed.
There’s a Fire Monument in the marketplace to commemorate the fire, and the town museum has interesting exhibits about the grand rebuild.
An absolute must-do in around Blandford is the Hall & Woodhouse brewery, in business since 1777 and famed for its Tanglefoot bitter.
Comprising both East and West Lulworth, this area in the middle of the Jurassic Coast has some of the UNESCO site’s most heart-lifting seascapes.
The most inspiring of these is Durdle Door, a natural arch facing a secluded sandy bay.
The arch is set off by the more resistant limestone, which climbs above Durdle Door to the east and is also spectacular when viewed from Man O’ War Bay next door.
Lulworth Cove is majestic too, rated as one of the South’s seven natural wonders, and forming an almost perfect bowl protected by rugged rocks.
Put Lulworth Castle on your itinerary as well: Even though it has a brawny appearance, this 17th-century building was always more of a stately home than a fortress, and has seen a lot of fascinating events in its time.
Few English towns can claim to be defended by their Anglo-Saxon walls.
But Wareham can make that brag, and if you’re an amateur historian you have to take a tour of these tall earthen banks.
The walls are actually Roman in origin, but the Saxons beefed them up during the reign of Alfred the Great to keep out the Danes.
There are information boards on the way to point out the sites of ancient skirmishes and bloody executions.
A little way from Wareham are the eerie but beautiful ruins of Corfe Castle, where large chunks of the keep and imperious gatehouses remain.
14. Isle of Portland
You’ll be leaving Dorset’s soft and forgiving countryside behind when you cross the tombolo at Chesil Beach onto Portland, a huge plate of Jurassic limestone.
This is a craggy, elongated island, four miles in length and exposed to the elements.
Some of the world’s most famous landmarks are made from stone quarried at this very place: Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and even the United Nations headquarters in New York feature Portland Stone.
The limestone is a big attraction for adventure sports fanatics who come to climb and abseil on the rocks.
For everyone else there’s uplifting walks, energising coastal scenery and sights like Portland Castle, an artillery fort commissioned by Henry VIII in 1539.
This town has two parts, the inland Bridport, an agreeable market town in hilly countryside, and West Bay, an uncommonly charming fishing harbour on the coast.
The town is very visitor-friendly and has a good selection of one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants to keep you around a little longer.
And then the coastal section is a traditional port, limestone cliffs and a tempting sandy beach.
Fossil-hunting is also on the menu in this town, and the Bridport Tourist Information Centre can give you tips to make sure your hunt is as successful as possible.