Often named as one of the best and happiest places to live in England, Harrogate is a cultivated spa town in Yorkshire.
From the 18th century Harrogate was frequented by aristocrats, industrialists and even a Tsarina, who came to take the waters, rich in sulphur, iron and salt.
That posh clientele brought great wealth to the town, still conspicuous in its dignified architecture, elegant parks, plush tea rooms, galleries and theatres.
Harrogate has one of only four Royal Horticultural Society gardens, and in the surrounding dales are castle ruins, stately homes and millstone grit rock formations hewn into surreal shapes by wind, water and ice.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Harrogate:
1. Valley Gardens
If you want to know what it was like to frequent Harrogate in its prime, Valley Gardens still resonates with that sense of refinement.
There are flowerbeds, woods, close-clipped lawns and rambling paths in 17 acres.
It was here that at “Bogs Field” that Harrogate’s springs were first discovered, 36 in total, and there are holdovers from the spa days in the refined shelters, the Magnesia Well Cafe, the Games Pavilion, the Sun Pavilion and the small stage that puts on concerts on Sunday afternoons in summer.
These more polished facilities are accompanied by a play area for kids, a paddling pool, a boating lake, crazy golf and a pitch & putt course.
On the gardens’ western cusp you can take a walking trail through the countryside to the RHS Garden at Harlow Carr.
2. Bettys Café Tea Rooms
A Harrogate institution, Bettys Café Tea Rooms were set up in 1919 by the Swiss confectioner and baker Frederick Belmont.
A century later, the business is in its fourth generation and is open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, with a menu that infuses Swiss and Yorkshire traditions.
So that might be rösti at breakfast, schitzel at lunch and chocolate torte from the cake trolley.
But Bettys’ high reputation is based on its afternoon tea, which has the traditional platter of sandwiches, fancy handmade cakes, scones, clotted cream and strawberry preserves, all beautifully presented with silver and fine crockery.
3. RHS Garden Harlow Carr
On Harrogate’s western outskirts is one of only four gardens managed by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Harlow Carr was set up at a former Victorian spa on a natural spring in 1946 and is in almost 30 acres.
The bathhouse was turned into the garden study centre, while the Limestone Rock Garden is the scene of the capped spring, and still has a slight whiff of sulphur.
A leisurely stroll will take you through a tapestry of different environments, like a garden showing the development of horticulture and fashion over time, a scented garden, arboretum, a kitchen garden, woodland carpeted with bluebells, an alpine house, a lake dedicated to the Queen Mother, and many more than we could possibly list.
And to put an elegant cap on a visit there’s also a branch of Bettys Tea Rooms at Harlow Carr.
4. Mercer Art Gallery
In the refined former Promenade Rooms, the free Mercer Art Gallery houses the Harrogate District’s extensive art collection.
This is mainly centred on Victorian painters like Edward Burne-Jones, John Atkinson Grimshaw and William Powell Firth, but there are also pieces form the 20th century by the likes of Alan Davie and Laura Knight.
There are 2,000 works in the collection, and these are selected for diverse short-term exhibitions devoted to specific themes or movements and featuring paintings, drawings and prints.
5. Montpellier Quarter
The streets around Bettys Tea Rooms all make up the Montpellier Quarter, which was first developed by the entrepreneur George Dawson in the 1860s with the construction of the Montpellier Parade.
The quarter has more than 50 independent shops, and this being Harrogate most are angled towards high-income clientele.
There are haute couture boutiques, high-end gin shops, design shops, one-off jewellery stores, tapas bars, galleries, beauty salons and more than a few antiques shops.
And if you’re just here for some window shopping the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian spa architecture is a delight, and there are hanging flower baskets, gaslights to complement this rarefied atmosphere.
6. Royal Pump Room Museum
The Royal Pump Room is a handsome rotunda, built in 1842 as a shelter for people to drink from the strongest sulphur well in Europe.
In Harrogate’s heyday as a spa 15,000 people would enter this building every summer, while the delicate metal and glass annexe opened in 1913. The museum opened in the pump room in 1953 and delves into Harrogate’s glory days, remembering the Russia aristocrats and famous writers like Charles Dickens who happened upon the resort.
There are details about the routines that the spa’s visitors would follow, as well as authentic Georgian and Victorian clothing, a richly adorned Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and an exhibition on Egyptology for kids.
You can also take a guided tour down into the basement to be blown away by that potent sulphur well.
7. Knaresborough Castle
A little way past Harrogate Golf Course in the neighbouring town of Knaresborough is what’s left of a castle over the River Nidd.
The remnants of Knaresborough Castle are gorgeous, but the building is also significant as a line of English monarchs (Henry I, King John, Edward I and Edward II) invested great funds developing the fortress.
It was also here in the 1170s that Hugh de Moreville, one of the men who assassinated Thomas Becket, took refuge after the act.
As a Royalist stronghold, the castle was pulled down in the English Civil war by the victorious Parliamentarians to avoid it being reused.
Much of its stone was recycled for buildings in Knaresborough, but much is still in situ.
On the upper floor of the adjacent courthouse there’s a museum with furniture from the Tudor Court and computer reconstructions of how the castle would have looked in the 1300s.
8. Ripley Castle
Three miles north of Harrogate is a glorious Grade I listed country house dating back to the 1300s.
Ripley Castle has been a residence for the Ingilby family for 26 generations.
On guided tours the family annals are presented to visitors, telling tales of romance, intrigue across 700 years.
The Old Tower, dating to the middle of the 16th century, is a treat, with stacks of antique books, fine wood panelling, porcelain, chandeliers and armour.
Also here is an authentic priest hole, built to conceal catholic clergy at a time of religious persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Try to time your visit for spring, when the National Hyacinth Collection in the castle’s woodland is in bloom, along with some 150,000 flowering bulbs.
Also out in the grounds is a “Play Trail” for kids, while they can take special, fun tours of the castle.
9. Brimham Rocks
Meriting every second of the 20-minute journey into the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Brimham Rocks is a National Trust site where moorland, meadows and woods are littered with otherworldly millstone grit formations.
These rocks have been shaped over millennia by wind, water and glacial activity, and many are named.
There’s the Dancing Bear, the Camel, the Turtle, the Watchdog and the Sphinx, although you may have to use your imagination occasionally.
If there’s one you have to photograph it’s the top-heavy Idol Rock, a gigantic boulder balancing precariously on just a small nub.
10. Harrogate Theatre
People have been treated to live entertainment in Harrogate since 1788 when the Georgian Theatre catered to the crowds descending on the resort.
The Harrogate Theatre’s main house (1900) is on Cheltenham Parade, but the company also operates the Royal Hall, which we’ll talk about below, as well as a handful of other venues around the town.
The theatre has something for most ages and tastes, whether it’s award-winning drama, well-known touring musicians, children’s productions, opera, dance, classical soloists, choral performances, poetry readings or talks.
Something to mark in the diary is the annual Harrogate Comedy Festival, in the first two weeks of September, booking 53 performers at 34 shows.
11. Royal Hall
The prestige performance venue in Harrogate is the Plush Royal hall, which was completed in 1903 and designed by Frank Marcham, one of the busiest architects of the day.
The theatre was initially called the Kursaal, taking cues from similar venues at German spa towns, but changed its name to Royal Hall at the outbreak of the First World War.
The outside is understated and gives no hint of the Beaux-Arts splendour of the concert hall, which is ornately gilded and stuccoed.
The Royal Hall hosts many of Harrogate’s premier shows, concerts and talks, and is the anchor for the Harrogate International Festivals, a series of events in music and literature in summer.
12. Crescent Gardens
Very central, this neat green space is fringed by the Mercer Gallery and the Royal Hall and was laid out in the 1890s.
This was an oasis in the resort where people could roam and relax after taking Harrogate’s waters.
The spa amenities tracing the park have been turned into apartment buildings containing some of the most expensive homes in the North of England.
The park is fastidiously neat in any season and has gaslights, manicured flowerbeds and shrubs, and statues from the spa displayed where the bandstand used to be.
13. Spofforth Castle
Five miles in away in the namesake village, Spofforth Castle is a ruined fortified house built into the bedrock.
For nearly 300 years this was the seat of the Percy family, one of the most powerful families in Northern England.
The castle was founded by William de Percy, who arrived right after the Norman Conquest and was a mover and shaker in William the Conqueror’s court.
Like many strongholds in England, Spofforth Castle met its end in the English Civil War, and its remaining architecture dates from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The ruins are an English Heritage site, and it is believed that the rebel barons thrashed out the Magna Carta here in 1215.
14. Pateley Bridge Nidderdale Museum
Back out in picturesque Nidderdale, there’s an enlightening museum at a former Victorian workhouse in the market town of Pateley Bridge.
Workhouses were where destitute people were provided with employment (tough, manual labour), but also healthcare and education for children.
A building like this is just the place to paint a picture of Yorkshire life in days gone by, and the museum has an array of reconstructed scenes from Victorian times.
There’s a cobbler’s shop, a school room, a solicitor’s office, a Victorian parlour and kitchen, a joiner’s shop and a general store.
Also on show are agricultural tools, religious paraphernalia, various costumes and artefacts relating to 19th-century .
15. Plumpton Rocks
Four miles southeast of Harrogate is a Grade II listed pleasure garden created in the 1760s.
In 30 acres, Plumpton Rocks is full of millstone grit formations, weathered into strange shapes and given evocative names like Lover’s Leap, Lion’s Den and Needle’s Eye.
At the base of these rocks is a man-made lake, bordered by mature woodland, bedded with bluebells in spring and bright with rhododendron blossom in midsummer.
The most romantic view is looking north from the south end of the lake, and this scene was painted by J. M. W. Turner in 1797 as a commission by the estate’s owner, Edward Lascelles.