England’s first seaside resort first pulled in holidaymakers in the 17th century after a curative spring was discovered in the cliffs in the south of the town.
Up to that time Scarborough had been a fishing port in the shadow of fearsome castle built by Henry II, and hosted the Scarborough Fair, a six-week market that attracted merchants from across Europe.
The ruined castle is still an authoritative presence atop its promontory between the North and South Bays.
When the railway arrived in the middle of the 19th century it brought mass tourism to Scarborough, and the regal spa buildings, the cliff funiculars and the gigantic Grand Hotel soon followed.
Now, even though English seaside resorts have suffered since the 1970s, Scarborough is a touch of class, home to the last remaining seaside orchestra in the UK, and the acclaimed Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Scarborough:
1. Scarborough Castle
Occupying the 91-metre promontory between the north and south bays are the remnants of Scarborough’s Medieval castle.
This indomitable roost over the North Sea was a hill fort in the Bronze Age, and in the fourth century was used as a signal station by the Romans.
You can now locate the ruins of an Anglo-Saxon chapel, built around 1000 on the site of the signal station.
The stone curtain wall ringing the promontory was raised in the 12th and 13th centuries, and is in great condition, with a mighty barbican granting access to the baileys.
To reach these you have to cross a stone bridge from the 1330s, where the decayed remnants of the 26-metre keep hove into view.
This was wrecked during a mighty bombardment in 1645 during the English Civil War.
In the west wall you can identify the remains of the hearth that heated the great hall.
2. Peasholm Park
Just behind the North Bay is the fanciful Peasholm Park, designed in an Oriental style in 1912. At that time the park was Scarborough’s venue of choice for extravagant galas and exhibitions, but its glory faded as the century wore on.
The park closed in 1999 after its pagoda was damaged by arson, but reopened in the 2000s and is now a treasured part of the resort.
One of many old-time delights is the Battle of Peasholm, a naval re-enactment that has taken place three times a week each summer on the ornamental lake for nearly 90 years.
There are also brass band concerts and lantern displays in the park, as well as a putting green, artificial waterfalls, a Japanese Garden, and the Peasholm Glen Tree Trail with exotic tree species.
3. St Mary’s Church
High on the isthmus between the old town and castle, St Mary’s is a Grade I listed church, first erected in the 12th century.
That building was mostly lost in Civil War in the 17th century, and was rebuilt at the end of the 1600s.
Out in the sprawling graveyard you can find the ruins of the old west towers, which give a sense of how much larger the Medieval church used to be.
The main reason people stop by is to visit the grave of Anne Brontë, best known for the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
She passed away at 29 in 1849, and her gravestone, now heavily weathered, was commissioned by her sister Charlotte.
In 2011 this was accompanied by a new plinth, placed in front.
4. South Bay Beach
On a smooth arc, the South Bay Beach is the one that fills up fastest in summer.
The castle promontory to the north and the line of cliffs to the south help to buffer the worst of the North Sea currents.
The beach is also oriented to the south so is bathed in sunshine on clear summer days.
There’s enough golden sand to sunbathe on at high tide, and when the tide goes out you can take younger members of the clan out for rockpooling to hunt for crabs and starfish.
And being a classic English seaside beach, there are donkey rides on the shore, as well as amusements, ice cream parlours and fish & chip shops along Foreshore road behind.
5. The Spa, Scarborough
At the base of the cliffs on South Bay, the Spa is a 19th-century complex of performance venues erected at the site of Scarborough’s natural springs.
The current Grand Hall opened in 1880 after the previous spa saloon burnt down in 1876. The complex is nearly half a mile in length and you can reach it via the magnificent Spa Bridge, dating to 1827, and the South Cliff Lift from 1873. The Grand Hall seats 2,000 and is the home of the Scarborough Spa Orchestra and hosts the annual Jazz Festival in September.
The smaller Victorian Theatre has a bust programme of shows in summer, as well as pantomimes at Christmas.
Outside, on the promenade is the Sun Court, a splendid Neoclassical colonnade with a stage where the Spa Orchestra and other bands put on outdoor shows in summer.
6. North Bay Railway
At Peasholm Park you can take youngsters on a round trip to Scalby Mills on the other side of the North Bay via a miniature railway.
The line opened in 1931, and nearly all of its rolling stock dates from the first two years of service.
The one exception is a brand new steam engine built purposely for the railway and commissioned in 2016. The other locomotives are all diesel powered.
There are three stops on the line, for a total return journey time of about half an hour, and you can get off at Scalby Mills to visit the Sea Life Centre.
7. North Bay Beach
Like the South Bay Beach, the North Bay is a perennial Blue Flag winner.
This less frequented beach is a bit more open to the North Sea and has rolling waves that attract surfers.
But even if the water is a bit more boisterous, the beach is safe for paddling and there’s an RNLI lifeguard on patrol throughout the summer.
The north end of the beach has a rocky reef and outcrops that are exposed for little ones to go rockpooling when the tide goes out.
If you’d like a permanent base next to the beach for the day, you could always rent one of the colourful chalets along the promenade.
8. Central Tramway
Shuttling up and down the cliff by the humungous neo-Baroque Grand Hotel is the pick of Scarborough’s five funicular railways.
This opened in 1881 and has been run by the same company ever since.
The 71-metre track has a 50% gradient, linking Marine Parade by the town centre with Foreshore Road on the beachfront.
The tramway is open from February to October and has a charming, Victorian-style upper station with a tea room and outdoor seating in its front yard.
Coming up for 140 years later, the line remains the handiest way to get down to the South Bay from the centre of the resort.
9. Stephen Joseph Theatre
This highly-regarded theatre is a cultural touchstone for North Yorkshire.
For more than 35 years up to 2009 the theatre’s artistic director was playwright Sir Alan Ayckboure, and in that time nearly all of his plays premiered at this venue.
On the menu will be high-quality productions at the 404-seatrer theatre in the round, and 165-seat end-on stage auditorium.
You can also catch all sorts of music, from jazz to folk and classical soloists and small ensembles.
The smaller auditorium also has regular cinema screenings for black and white movies, international arthouse films and current blockbusters.
10. South Cliff Italian Gardens
Just south of the spa, the South Cliff Italian Gardens were plotted at the turn of the 20th century and sit on a terrace that bends with the contours of the cliff.
In the Italian Renaissance style, the gardens have geometric flowerbeds, a lily pond topped with a statue of Mercury and two very ceremonious stairways climbing to shelters beneath pergolas dating to 1914. It’s all part of a long tapestry of open spaces, including a rose garden and a cliff-top path with wonderful vistas back to the castle, all equipped with stairways and the Cliff Lifts down to the beach.
11. Scarborough Fair Collection
A short way down the coast in Lebberston is a museum with a set of vintage fairground organs and “showman’s engines”, road-going steam locomotives.
These engines were a fixture of English seaside resorts in the first half of the 20th century, and the showpiece is the Iron Maiden, which was the star of its own self-titled movie in 1962. The machine was built in 1920, originally to haul stone at the Isle of Portland in Dorset, before becoming a showman’s engine.
Also in the display are a 97-key Gavioli Concert organ, as well as a 101-key Hooghuys organ.
There’s a vintage “gallopers” ride from 1893, a caterpillar ride from 1928, as well as an array of miniature vehicles, model railways and vintage cars.
12. Rotunda Museum
When this attraction was built in 1829 it was one of the UK’s first buildings constructed expressly as a museum.
The driving force behind the Rotunda Museum was William Smith, remembered as the “Father of English Geology”. The collection has more than 5,500 fossils and 3,000 minerals, many of which are “type specimens”, or the first of their kind to be recorded and described.
For amateur geologists and fossil hunters the museum is the stuff of dreams, with mammoth teeth from the Ice Age, Jurassic fossil plants, Cretaceous fossils and numerous Carboniferous plants.
There are also pieces of bone, antler and flint from the enigmatic Stone Age site at Star Carr, and the skeleton and sarcophagus of the Grishthorpe Man, buried in the Bronze Age in a scooped-out oak tree.
13. Scarborough Harbour
One of the many great things about Scarborough is that the harbour under the castle promontory is a working port with a fishing fleet.
You can amble along Sandside, as well as the Old Pier to watch the traffic, grab a crab or lobster sandwich and get a closer look at the lighthouse.
This building dates from 1806, but had to be reconstructed after the notorious bombardment at the start of the First World War, which also damaged the castle.
Sandside has a broad pavement, filled with outdoor seating for its long row of cafes, ice cream parlours, restaurants and bars.
And if you’re ready for a voyage on the North Sea, the harbour has fishing companies organising trips for up to ten hours.
14. South Cliff Clock Tower
A landmark for Scarborough at the entrance to the South Cliff Gardens, this clock tower was built on a scenic overlook to commemorate George V’s coronation in 1911. The tower was inspired by Christopher Wren’s English Baroque monuments, and has a lantern and weather vane over four clock faces set in pediments and framed by Ionic columns.
This clock had to be wound manually until the 1960s.
It was electrified not long after a winder’s ladder slipped, trapping him in the tower overnight.
The Holbeck Putting Green is just below the tower, and tests your short game as you take in the fabulous view of the bay.
15. Oliver’s Mount
Further inland, this area of high ground has a supreme view of southern Scarborough.
The 152-metre hill is named after Oliver Cromwell, as the supposed place where the Parliamentarian forces set up their artillery in the English Civil War.
Later, Anne Brontë wrote about Oliver’s Mount in her 1840 poem, the Bluebell.
There’s an eye-catching stone obelisk to Scarborough’s victims in the two world wars, while the hill’s roads form England’s only road racing circuit.
Oliver’s Mount staged British Formula III races in the 50s, but is better known for bike racing.
On the early May bank holiday weekend the Scarborough Festival of Speed takes place here, putting on speed hills climbs, bike and car displays and setting up trade stands.