On Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, Swanage is a seaside town that will have people of all ages under its spell.
Here you’re at the eastern gateway to the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Dorset and Devon coasts, inspiring wonder for its limestone formations and fossils.
You can venture off to stunning natural landmarks like Durdle Door and the closer Old Harry’s Rocks.
Swanage is on an east-facing bay on a very sheltered part of the south England coast.
The town’s main beach is as safe as it gets for youngsters, and if you’re an active type you can plan breathless summer days diving, paddleboarding and kayaking.
In the town’s hinterland are panoramic Purbeck Hills, crossed by a heritage railway that takes you to the majestic Corfe Castle.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Swanage:
1. Jurassic Coast
Swanage is just inside a World Heritage Site covering 96 miles of Dorset and Devon coast and spanning 185 million years of geological history.
Day trips into the region will lead you to sights like the scallop-shaped Lulworth Cove and the natural arch at Durdle Door.
Palaeontology as a science was practically born here, and spearheaded by the prodigious self-taught collector Mary Anning in the early 19th century.
There are Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils all along the Jurassic Coast.
Fossil collecting is mostly encouraged, because if people don’t find these specimens they’ll eventually be destroyed by the sea.
The best spots tend to be further west at Seatown, Burton Bradstock and Charmouth, but close by, Swanage Bay, Studland Bay and Chapman’s Pool are all well-rated.
The latter yields lots of Jurassic reptiles, ammonites and shells, but can be difficult to negotiate and is unsafe for children.
2. Swanage Beach
An annual Blue Flag winner, Swanage Beach has a long curve of white sand on a light gradient.
You may not find a better beach in the UK for families, not least because of the amenities like shops, cafes, restaurants and amusements metres away in the resort and along the promenade.
You can hire deck chairs and sun loungers, while the choice of activities is large, and helped by Swanage Bay’s pool-like waters.
As we’ll see, a host of intense watersports are available here, but for some light fun you can rent a rowboat or pedalo for an hour.
3. Old Harry Rocks
The easternmost landform on the Jurassic Coast, the Old Harry Rocks are a set of chalk stacks of Handfast Point.
Here the chalk of Ballard Down has been eroded since the Last Ice Age into tall columns of rock that are the remnants of collapsed natural arches.
The stacks look ancient but are in a constant state of flux: Old Harry, the most prominent stack, has a wife, which is now just a stump after collapses in 1509 and 1896. It’s a mind-boggling thought, but these rocks are a surviving piece of a continuous line of cliffs that once stretched all the way to the Isle of Wight nearly 20 miles to the east.
4. Swanage Railway
After passenger services on the line from Wareham to Swanage were withdrawn in the 1970s it became a 9.5-mile heritage railway.
Over time five stations and a halt have been reopened on the Swanage Railway and since 2017 there has been a regular passenger service on the entire line.
The timetable of steam and diesel trips as intensive as any heritage line in the UK, really picking up in March and continuing right through to the end of October.
The railway is a fabulous way to experience the arresting landscapes of the Isle of Purbeck and sights like the craggy ruins of Corfe Castle.
At the height of the season there are 13 departures a day from Swanage Station, but you can also try special experiences, like having a go firing and driving the engine, or boarding a cream tea or luncheon service.
5. Studland Bay
North of Swanage Bay, past the Old Harry Rocks is Studland Bay, sparsely populated and looked after by the National Trust.
On the water is Studland Beach, sandy, four miles long and shelving gently to the bay.
The light slope and calm seas are ideal for youngsters, and there are eye-opening view down to the Old Harry Rocks.
One signposted 900-metre section has what may be the UK’s most famous naturist beach.
Tracing Studland Beach are dunes, woodland and heath, as well as Second World War pillboxes.
Studland Bay was where rehearsals for D-Day took place.
The northern interior is Godlingstone Heath, which inspired Thomas Hardy’s fictitious Egdon Heath, the setting for Return of the Native.
6. Durlston Country Park
Into the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, Durlston Country Park is 320-acres of coastal scenery managed by Dorset County Council.
This area was exploited for its limestone, and it’s not hard to spot mine shafts on trails, while Tilly Whim Caves is a quarry in a valley caused by glaciation.
Not to be missed in the park is the Great Globe, literally a 40-ton limestone globe carved in the 1880s, a fascinating document of the world’s geography at the time.
This was commissioned by the Swanage businessman George Burt, who also built himself the Revivalist castle above at the scenic Durlston Head.
There you’ll find the park’s visitor centre, with a cafe, restaurant, shop and ever-changing exhibitions.
7. Swanage Pier
The view from Swanage Pier rivals that of any pier in England, with a complete panorama of Swanage Bay from its south side and the Isle of Wight across the Solent.
This pier is from 1895, and just east you can see a row of piles, the last remnant of an older pier that opened in 1861. A charitable body, the Swanage Pier Trust owns this monument and conducted a restoration that earned it Pier of the Year in 2012. On the landward side there’s a small gift shop run by the trust, as well as a museum that has an underwater camera showing off the sea life beneath the pier.
Come for the wrought iron lights, benches and painted railings, and to take a cruise to Poole Quay.
8. Shell Bay
Still part of Swanage, Shell Bay is at the very end of the Studland Peninsula, facing Poole and its immense natural harbour.
The beach here is beautiful and undeveloped, with a light curve of almost white sand, fringed by dunes and heathland.
You can look across to Sandbanks in Poole, and sit for a while, watching the water traffic including big passenger liners passing through the harbour entrance on the way to the Channel Islands.
If you want to go further you can catch the Sandbanks ferry to set foot on another wonderful beach, backed by some of the most exclusive properties, not just in the UK but the whole world.
9. Water Activities
Swanage’s coastline deserves to be seen from the water, and there’s a list of companies waiting to take you out onto Swanage Bay, Studland, Poole Harbour and west along the Jurassic coast.
Land & Wave, Cumulus Outdoors, Dorset Kayaking and H2O Adventures are all local and have a big choice of guided kayaking expeditions.
The sea is almost always safe, and there’s untold natural beauty to energise you.
On top of that, Swanage is regarded as the home of scuba diving in the UK, as one of the few sheltered portions of coast in the UK. Divers Down and Mike Potts Diving are the main ports of call.
Paddleboarding is also available, while Cumulus provides coasteering trips below the cliffs and into caves on this rocky coast, wearing wetsuits, helmets and buoyancy aids.
10. Outdoor Adventure
The Isle of Purbeck’s robust terrain is just right for a whole host of invigorating activities.
All around Swanage there are telltale scars of former quarries, and along with the Jurassic Coast’s natural cliffs, these are waiting to be climbed or abseiled.
The Purbeck Hills a tough range of chalk downs, offering rollercoaster mountain biking trails through protected countryside and past Iron Age, Roman and Saxon sites.
Cumulus Outdoors also has a high ropes course for groups of six, while true adventurers can pick up survival skills on bushcraft sessions and challenges out in the wilderness.
11. Corfe Castle
Ten minutes in the car, but also a heritage train ride from Swanage, there’s a castle controlling a gap in the Purbeck Hills.
This was built by William the Conqueror right after the Norman Conquest.
And in a time of wooden motte and bailey fortresses, Corfe Castle was a game-changer as it was at least party built from stone.
The site, a ruin since the end of the Civil War in the 17th century, is conserved by the National Trust and resonates with English royal history, having been reinforced by a line of monarchs, especially Henry III in the 13th century.
In 1645 Corfe Castle was one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds in southern England, and was taken when a corps of Parliamentarians pretended to be reinforcements for the besieged Royalists.
In summer 2018 there was a programme of Civil War activities, like the Civil War Encampment, testing your 17th-century surgeon skills and aim with a musket.
12. Swanage Museum & Heritage Centre
The handsome Old Market Building (1890) on the Swanage seafront has some interesting exhibits on the human history of the town, as well as its geology and geography.
You can investigate a few interesting periods from Swanage’s past like the development of radar technology in Purbeck, as well as the prehistory of the Jurassic coast, with an impressive array of fossils.
The ARP (Air Raid Precautions) headquarters from the Second World War has been recreated here, as have period shop displays from Lloyd’s Dispensing Chemists and Burt’s Stores.
13. South West Coast Path
Swanage is at the last leg of an epic 630-mile National Trail, clinging to England’s southwest coast and ending at Poole Harbour.
In Swanage you could head out in either direction, walking up towards Studland, stopping at Handfast Point to take in the Old Harry Rocks and gaze across the Solent to the Isle of Wight to identify the matching chalk stacks, the Needles.
Going south and west from Swanage, the trail takes you through the Durlston Country Park for the Anvil Point Lighthouse and Great Globe.
On the way to the magnificent cove at Chapman’s Pool there are towering cliffs, signs of Iron Age settlement and the vestiges of long abandoned quarries as you go.
14. Purbeck Way
This 15.5-mile walking route from Wareham to Swanage (Ballard Down or Chapman’s Pool), leads you past Corfe Castle, and through an amazing diversity of natural habitats in a short distance.
That has much to do with the geology of the region, where there are eight different types of rock, from clay to sandstone, chalk and limestone, each supporting their own plant and animal species.
Much of the landscape is owned by conservation organisations like the National Trust, and this has left the space clear for migrating and breeding bird species, butterflies like the Adonis blue and wildflowers like the bee orchid.
15. Agglestone Rock
In the middle of Black Heath, a mile or two in from Studland Beach there sits a strange natural landmark atop a cone-shaped hill.
Looking very out of place, Agglestone Rock is a 400-ton sandstone boulder that can be seen from all directions.
The legend goes that the Devil threw Agglestone Rock from the needles (off the Isle of Wight) in the hope of hitting one of the region’s great monuments like Salisbury Cathedral, Corfe Castle or the now ruined Blindon Abbey.
There’s a superb view east over Studland Bay, and you can visit the rock via the National Trust’s three-mile Godlingstone Heath walk.