Pulling into Durham on the train from the south you’ll be treated to a view you won’t soon forget.
High in the east are the towers of Durham Cathedral, the pride of this Medieval university city and one of Europe’s greatest Romanesque monuments.
Like all of Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage it is built from a dusky gold sandstone.
In the Middle Ages Durham was ruled by Prince-Bishops, who enjoyed near-complete autonomy and could mint their own coins.
The cathedral is posted atop a promontory hewn by the River Wear, and is in a line with the castle, also Norman in origin.
Durham University is a highly regarded institution, infusing the city with youth but also superb museums and a calendar of events like the regatta on the Wear on the second weekend of June.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Durham:
1. Durham Cathedral
One of many things that makes Durham Cathedral so beguiling is that a lot of the architecture was completed in one phase of construction across the turn of the 12th century.
This late Romanesque and early Gothic design shines through in the Galilee Chapel, which has zigzag patterns on its arches and clear remains of Norman wall paintings.
This early phase also produced the earliest surviving large scale stone vault in the world, a technical leap in building design.
This is visible in the nave, traced by Romanesque semi-circular arches joining with the trailblazing Gothic pointed ribbed vault.
There’s much more than we could cover in one entry, but you have to allow plenty of time to visit the tombs of St Cuthbert (d.687) and Venerable Bede (d.735), as well as the Chapel of the Nine Altars and the cloister, which appeared in the first two Harry Potter movies.
2. Treasures of St Cuthbert
The cathedral recently launched the Open Treasures exhibition, which grants the public access to claustral buildings to view a world-class collection of religious artefacts.
Around the cloister you can go into the Monks’ Dormitory, which has interactive exhibits and the covey, with community galleries.
But the centrepiece is the Great Kitchen, which holds the Treasures of St Cuthbert.
One of Northeast England’s most venerated saints, Cuthbert was alive in the 7th century and became the Bishop of Lindisfarne, not long after that famous abbey was founded.
The exhibition has the remnants of the coffin Cuthbert was buried in, as well as artefacts recovered from the grave, like his gold and garnet pectoral cross, an ivory comb and a portable altar.
Later, Medieval silk vestments were placed in the tomb, and these are also on display.
3. Durham Castle
On the promontory near the head of the peninsula stands Durham Castle, also included in Durham’s UNESCO site.
This monument was built as a motte-and-bailey castle in the 11th century during the Norman Conquest to keep this unruly region of England in check and act as a defence against the Scots.
In the years that followed it became the bishop’s palace, before being turned into a college after the Prince-Bishops relocated to Auckland Castle ten miles to the south.
Since 1840 the castle has been occupied by University College, Durham, but you are able to take a look around on a 50-minute guided tour.
Your friendly and clued-up guide will take you into Bishop Bek’s Great Hall from the 14th century (once the largest Medieval great hall in England), as well as the haunting Romanesque Norman Chapel (1048) and Tunstall Chapel (1540). In the latter’s choir are 17th-century misericords carved with curious images from nursery rhymes.
4. Crook Hall and Gardens
In Durham’s Framwelgate area is a gorgeous manor house, the oldest parts of which go right back to the 1300s.
Thanks to two major extensions over the years, Crook Hall is a living timeline of noble architecture, all in a line from the Medieval Hall to the Jacobean and then Georgian extensions.
The gardens are magical too, covering five acres and designed in a sequence of “garden rooms”, with a walled garden, a Shakespeare garden, rose garden, moat pool, silver garden, orchard and cathedral garden.
Inside, you can poke around the Medieval Hall, Minstrel’s Gallery, Attic Room, as well as a Jacobean Room, Georgian Drawing Room and cosy tearoom.
5. Durham Riverside Walk
A fabulous way to get acquainted with Durham is to take a walk along the Wear, and the city has set out a three-mile circular path to give you dreamy views up to the cathedral on its perch.
One thing that will strike you is how dense the foliage is on the riverbanks, even on the peninsula, which with its gnarled ancient trees can feel more like remote countryside than a city centre.
There are lots of curiosities to distract you as you go, and places to stop for refreshment like the Half Moon Inn , a Grade I listed Tudor Pub and the cathedral’s own undercroft, which houses a shop and cafe.
East of the city you can climb another dramatic promontory at Maiden Castle, the site of an Iron Age fort.
6. Palace Green
Today, an atmospheric place to ponder the cathedral and sandstone university buildings, but Palace Green hasn’t always been so peaceful.
When the cathedral went up, this would have been a marketplace, which was cleared because of hygiene and fire hazard reasons.
After that it would have been reserved for the Prince-Bishop and the clergy.
The cathedral isn’t the only thing that deserves your attention on Palace Green, as Cosin’s Hall (1830s), Cosin’s Almshouses (1666), Abbey House (early 18th century) and Palace Green Library (1699) all add to the historic scene.
On the east frontage of the square, Cosin’s Almshouses are now a cafe with a row of outdoor tables in front.
7. Durham University Botanic Garden
Found among Durham University’s various colleges in the south of the city, the botanic garden is in 25 acres of mature woodland and has collections of plants from across the world.
There’s an Alpine garden, a wildflower meadow, an arboretum, a bamboo garden, as well as a set of glasshouses, for Mediterranean, desert and tropical species.
In the tropical house you can also find tarantulas, stick insects and butterflies, while out in the parkland there will be rare Manx Loghtan sheep grazing in spring.
You can take part in self-led activities like bird-spotting, and on weekends there’s usually something going on to keep kids entertained, like facepainting, a teddy bears’ picnic and circus workshops.
8. Durham Indoor Market
Under a metal and glass canopy the Durham Indoor Market trades Monday to Saturday in a hall that first opened in 1852. This glorious Victorian buiding was restored in 1996 and has more than 50 traders, almost all with long ties to the Durham community.
Most of these businesses source their wares in the area, which is of course good for quality and freshness, but also means that you’ll be helping the local economy by shopping here.
There are bakers, artisan confectioners, haberdashers, art suppliers, jewellers, tobacco sellers, fishmongers and butchers, to name a few.
If you have an appetite the market has cafe with free Wi-Fi, and a stall selling freshly baked pizza.
9. Oriental Museum
Durham University’s Oriental Museum is the only museum in the North of England dedicated to Asian and African cultures.
The museum was established in 1960 as a kind of treasury for the Oriental School’s large and growing collection of art and archaeology.
There’s an abundance of jade and porcelain from China, ceramics and bronze mirrors from Korea’s Joseon and Goryeo Dynasties, figurines and jade from the Indian subcontinent and weapons, ceramics, armour and metalwork from Japan’s Edo and Meiji periods.
The museum also has a strong Egyptian collection, including a funeral mask from the 18th dynasty (some 3,500 years ago) and cuneiform tablets from the Middle East.
10. Wharton Park
Set against Durham’s train station, Durham’s Wharton Park has earned a Green Flag for its facilities and upkeep.
Walking up to Wharton Park from the cathedral you may not notice you’ve scaled quite a high slope, and will be rewarded with photogenic views of the cathedral.
The park was founded in the middle of the 19th century by the landowner and coal magnate William Lloyd Wharton.
To enhance those vistas, the park was endowed with mock battlements to serve as a viewing platform.
There’s also an amphitheatre, encircled by grassy slopes where people bring picnics to watch music performances in summer.
Kids will love the miniature electric cars, which they can drive on a track for £1 on school holidays and weekends in spring and summer.
11. Palace Green Library
Durham University’s Palace Green Library has a calendar of excellent temporary exhibitions to look into.
When this article was written in the summer of 2018 there was a show about excavations of 17th-century mass graves conducted by the University’s archaeology department.
Since 2013 the Palace Green Library has also periodically displayed the early 8th-century St Cuthbert Gospel, a treasured Anglo-Saxon manuscript written in Latin at the holy island of Lindisfarne.
The exquisitely decorated leather binding still covers the St Cuthbert Gospel, and is the earliest known bookbinding to survive in the West.
The Palace Green Library also organises children’s activities on some weekends, while you can catch other exhibitions at the Wolfson Library and the University of Archaeology.
A theme park that will capture the imagination of younger children, Diggerland is all about heavy-duty machinery.
At Diggerland kids will be able to safely work their own hydraulic loader in a stacking game, hunting for buried treasure, knocking over skittles and hooking ducks out of water.
There are also rides powered by heavy-duty excavators, like Skyshuttle and Spindizzy, while Groundshuttle whizzes you around on a JCB Telehandler.
You can also drive your own dumper trucks and steer loaders, take a ride on a train pulled by a dumper and go nuts at the two-storey indoor play area.
13. Gala Theatre
By the Wear at the top of Durham’s peninsula, the Gala Theatre is a £15m performing arts complex.
The Gala has something going on most nights, hosting national renowned comedians, a number of theatre companies, opera, dance, classical and jazz ensembles and a number of cover acts.
There are also pantomimes at Christmas, matinees for youngsters, talks and conversations with interesting cultural figures and television personalities.
The Gala has a two-screen cinema screening both the latest blockbusters and smaller independent films.
14. Old Durham Gardens
A recommended stop on the east end of the river walk is this 17th-century walled garden half a mile east of the cathedral.
The Old Durham Gardens were once attached to a manor house that was torn down in the 19th century.
They lie on a tall, south facing terrace, sloping down to an orchard.
The damson plum trees on the terrace go right back to before the garden’s foundation, around the early 17th century.
In the early 20th century the gardens were overhauled as a simple recreation area before regaining their old topiaries and formal pattern in the years after they were bought by the council in the 1980s.
15. Finchale Priory
For a quick excursion, the ruins of Finchale Priory can nestle in a loop in the Wear not far downriver from Durham.
Maintained by English Heritage this former Benedictine priory is in meadows and woodland and dates from the second half of the 13th century.
Changes were made over the next three centuries, right up to when the priory was suppressed in 1535. A lot of Medieval workmanship survives, most memorably in the vaulted refectory undercroft, which you can walk through.
There’s also beautiful tracery in the church’s blind arches, and on the south wall of the chancel are two sculpted seats from the sedilla and a double piscina.
Also look for the capitals at the top of columns, intricately ornamented with acanthus leaves, pine cones and crockets.