Where the River Wear enters the North Sea, Sunderland is a city that has found a new path after the decline of coalmining and shipbuilding in the 70s and 80s.
Nissan opened the largest car factory in the UK in Sunderland, and while that might not sound touristy, this former zone of heavy industry has two beaches at Seaburn and Roker that have earned the international gold standard for cleanliness and facilities.
There are little reminders of Sunderland’s shipbuilding and coal industries here and there, while the city’s once renowned glass trade is remembered with a super riverside museum.
In many ways Sunderland is unrecognisable from 25 years ago, thanks to its revitalised city centre, cultural amenities, country parks where collieries used to be and museums at old industrial sites like a pumping station.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Sunderland:
1. Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens
You’ll be a lot more knowledgeable about Sunderland after a visit to this museum that was spruced up in 2001. The neighbouring Winter Gardens greenhouse was also reconstructed after being struck by a bomb in the war and demolished in the 1960s.
You can see the first ever Nissan to come off the production line, marking a new chapter in the city’s history.
There’s also a collection of Sunderland Lustreware ceramics from the 19th century and a display of paintings by the industrial landscape artist L. S. Lowry, who spent his summers in Seaburn in the 60s and 70s.
One of the more bizarre exhibits is a taxidermied lion called Wallace, which visited the city as part of a lion-taming show in the 1800s and made such an impression he was brought after he died.
The Winter Gardens is a dazzling rotunda with 2,000 plant species and a treetop walkway looking over Mowbray Park.
2. National Glass Centre
Tied to the University of Sunderland, and sitting right on the Wear, this museum documents the glassmaking industry in the city.
Completed in 1998, the building is a wonder, made from glass and steel, and with a massive transparent roof that lets you look into the galleries below.
Glassmaking has a long past in Sunderland, thanks to Benedict Biscop who in the 7th century hired French glaziers for the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory, now St Peter’s Church and set moments from the museum.
The craft took on an industrial scale in the 18th century, while Pyrex was manufactured here in the 1900s.
The galleries explain how a ready coal and sand supply helped put Sunderland on the map for its glass.
Top glass and ceramics artists put on exhibitions at the museum, while there are daily glassblowing demonstrations and you can sign up to try the craft for yourself.
3. Roker and Seaburn Beaches
It’s a sign of Sunderland’s regeneration that the city has not one but two Blue Flag beaches, commended for their environmental standards and facilities.
Both Roker (aka Whitburn South) and Seaburn Beaches are long, wide and sandy, and bookended by rocks.
High in the Roker Cliff Park between the two beaches is the Roker Pier Lighthouse, constructed in 1856 and moved from the Old South Pier to the cliff-top in 1983. Both beaches are child-friendly, with golden sands for sandcastles and lifeguards on duty all summer long.
At Roker, Pier Point has cafes and restaurants, while there’s a row of international restaurants lining the promenade in Seaburn.
4. Roker Park
This refined seafront park is a relic of the Victorian period and was donated to the city by the local landowner Sir Hedworth Williamson in 1880. That generous act is honoured with a sandstone and granite memorial fountain.
Another charming monument from the age is the iron bandstand with a copper roof.
The park also has some interesting geography, as to get to the seafront on the northeast side of the park you have to walk through a ravine.
For facilities, there’s a miniature railway for children, a model boating lake, tennis courts and playgrounds.
In summer you can watch an outdoor play, while autumn evenings bring the fanciful Sunderland Illuminations.
5. Herrington Country Park
It can be hard to imagine, but this sprawling country park in the west of the city was once an open-cast mine.
There’s a small hint of what came before at the preserved pit wheel in the Miners’ Memorial Garden, as well as the large depression in the centre of the park, now a lake for model boats.
There are well-maintained walking and cycling trails, pieces of public art recording the heritage of the area, a cafe, a skate park and adventure play area.
You can even buy healthy bird feed for the park’s waterfowl from the cafe.
Some of Sunderland’s biggest annual events take place in the park, like the Kubix Music Festival in August, for classic pop and rock acts, and the Race for Life in aid of Cancer Research.
6. Souter Lighthouse
Five miles up the coast from Sunderland City Centre, the Souter Lighthouse made history in 1871 when it became the first lighthouse purposely designed to use alternating electric current.
Its 800,000 candle power light could be seen for 26 miles, on a portion of the North Sea Coast with dangerous rocks at the foot of magnesian limestone cliffs.
This marvel of its age was decommissioned in 1988 and handed over to the National Trust.
You can scale the 76 steps to the top of the tower for a heart-lifting view and take coastal walks in the meadows along the cliffs, known as the Leas.
There’s a nature reserve on a reclaimed colliery at Whitburn Coastal Park, while the Foghorn Field (home to a genuine foghorn!) has a cafe and an adventure playground for children, and also hosts outdoor events in summer.
7. Keel Square
A dynamic public space fronting the Magistrates Court in Sunderland’s shopping precinct, Keel Square opened in 2015 after several years and almost £12 million of construction.
Landscaped with sandstone, gritstone and bronze, this plaza is a celebration of Sunderland’s maritime and industrial heritage.
Embedded in the pavement is the Keel Line, commemorating Sunderland’s shipbuilders with a strip of inscribed granite recording the names of the 8,102 ships laid down in the city since 1786, as well as illustrations of famous people, events and places.
The line measures 291.7 m, the exact length of the largest vessel launched in Sunderland, the Naess Crusader (1972). At beginning of the line is a monumental sculpture, Propellers of the City, by Stephen Broadbent, with 400 photographs of shipyard workers on a giant wheel.
8. North East Land, Sea and Air Museums
At the former RAF Unsworth on the way to Washington, this transport museum is mostly about the history of flight.
Special attention is paid to the early years of jet aviation, and there’s a serious collection of British-made planes like an Avro Vulcan, a Gloster Meteor, a Hawker Hunter, a De Havilland Comet and a De Havilland Vampire, as well as American and French models like a Lockheed T-33A, an F-86D Sabre and a Dassault Mystère IV. You’ll have lots of engines to check out, and a host of military land vehicles like armoured personnel carriers, tanks and trucks.
You can learn about Wearside in the Second World War on a replica street scene, and on selected dates you can see the North East Electric Traction Trust’s fleet of vintage trolleybuses and trams.
9. St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth
This history of this fascinating church by the Wear and University of Sunderland campus goes back to 675 when it was founded by Benedict Biscop as a priory, making it one of the oldest stone churches in the country.
What is very rare is just how much of that first building remains, and you can see it in the porch, west wall and fragments of stone carvings.
The green space surrounding the church has recently been landscaped to illustrate the size of the complex in Benedict Biscop’s day.
The Venerable Bede, often cited as “The Father of English History”, lived and studied here from the late 7th century.
The church has interactive museum displays, as well as a craft shop, cafe, an apiary and a working potager.
10. Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art
A highly-regarded art destination, the NGCA opened in 1995 and has a flexible 35m x 17m hall that can be divided into smaller rooms and spaces depending on the exhibition.
In its 20 or so years, the gallery has helped introduce some now well-established artists like AK Dolven, Sam Taylor-Wood and Adam Chodzko, providing their first commissions and publications.
When we wrote this article there was a major exhibition by celebrated photographer John Kippin, with upcoming shows for photographer Dan Holdsworth and installation artist Kelly Richardson.
11. Penshaw Monument
Above the Herrington Country Park in Houghton le Spring there’s a striking folly atop Penshaw Hill, looking like a Greek temple has been transplanted to Wearside.
Built from local gritstone, the Penshaw Monument dates from 1844 and commemorates John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, the Whig statesman who had an important role in the British colonisation of New Zealand.
At 30 metres long an 20 metres high, this National Trust property has the scale and detail of a Classical temple, with Doric columns, an architrave, frieze, cornice and pediment.
One of the pillars conceals a spiral stairway to access a scenic viewing platform, open Easter to the end of September.
12. Mowbray Park
Among the North East of England’s oldest urban parks, Mowbray Park is right in the city centre, behind the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.
The park opened in 1857, but had been in the pipeline for more than 20 years, after the city realised it needed more green space following a cholera epidemic in 1831. As you wander over the little hillocks around Mowbray Park you may be interested to know that these bumps were caused by forgotten limestone quarries.
The park was the showpiece for the city centre’s regeneration in the 1990s, and has fine monuments like the cast-iron William Hall Drinking Fountain from 1878 and a bandstand giving concerts that people watch on deckchairs.
Author Lewis Carroll was fond of Sunderland, and to honour the connection, there’s a Through the Looking Glass-themed play area with a giant chessboard and walrus sculpture.
13. Sunderland A. F. C.
The definition of a “Sleeping Giant”, Sunderland A. F. C. slumped to the third tier of English football (League One) in 2018. That prompted a change in owner and manager, and their fans, known as Mackems, expect to see the club back in the Premier League before long.
But for now you’ll have no trouble getting tickets at the Wearside Stadium of Light (1997), which at a capacious 49,000 has the scale of a Premier League ground.
What’s impressive is that almost 21,000 fans committed to a seat in 2018-19, so while the Black Cats may be playing below their level the atmosphere should be boisterous.
The club’s greatest recent success was the FA Cup in 1973, and there’s a statue outside of manager Bob Stokoe, who spent nearly all of his playing career at bitter local rivals Newcastle United.
There are daily tours at 13:00 (except on matchdays).
14. Hylton Castle
Ten minutes up the Wear in the residential North Hylton suburb is Sunderland’s second-oldest building, which as of 2018 is being transformed by English Heritage and Sunderland Council into a major visitor attraction.
There has been a castle on this small mound since the Norman conquest, while the impressive four-storey gatehouse tower dates from the turn of the 15th century.
On the west facade of the are some 20 mouldings of coats of arms for local noblemen, as well as the banner of King Henry IV. The castle was the residence for the Hylton family for hundreds of years up to 1746, and after they left the building became a school, workshop and a mansion for a Victorian shipbuilder .
15. Ryhope Engines Museum
Founded in 1868, the Ryhope Pumping Station, in the suburb of the same name, functioned for a century before finally shutting down in 1967. The site is still owned by Northumbrian Water, and still houses its pair of awesome Hawthorn beam engines, which have just celebrated their 150th anniversary.
The station no longer pumps water but those engines are in working order, and you can come and see them on Sundays, along with set of smaller engines, three boilers from 1908, a waterwheel and a blacksmith’s forge.
There are also special “Steaming Weekends” five times a year when you’ll get to watch the engines and their 18-ton flywheels in motion.