County Durham Attractions

County Durham is home to a variety of historical attractions, cultural sites of interest, not to mention natural places of beauty. Here’s 19 of the most worthwhile things to do in County Durham.

Durham Cathedral, Durham

Durham Cathedral

Nestled atop a craggy hill and embraced by the meandering River Wear, Durham Cathedral is the crown jewel of Durham in Northeast England.

This monumental structure, erected between 1093 and 1133, is a wonder of Norman architecture and holds the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inside, the cathedral takes your breath away with its groundbreaking rib-vaulted ceilings and serves as the final resting place for St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede—two giants of Christian history.

More than a relic of the past, the cathedral is a thriving community hub, hosting everything from concerts to exhibitions. Step inside, and you’re enveloped in an atmosphere that seamlessly blends history, spirituality, and culture.

An absolute must-visit attraction if you’re looking for things to do in County Durham.

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Durham Castle, Durham

Durham Castle

Also on our list of essential things to do in County Durham is this amazing keep.

Durham Castle stands as a testament to a turbulent history and evolving architectural styles. Initially built in the 11th century on William the Conqueror’s command, this castle has worn many hats – from a fortress asserting Norman dominion to a palatial residence and now, intriguingly, student housing for Durham University.

The castle captures centuries in its walls—from the early Norman Chapel to the grandiose Great Hall—making it a living timeline that effortlessly melds the past and the present. A visit here is akin to stepping into a captivating history book, illustrated with stone and timber.

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Beamish Open Air Museum, Stanley

Beamish Museum

Imagine a place where history isn’t confined to dusty books but unfolds before your eyes, where the past comes to life in the most vivid way. That’s Beamish Open Air Museum for you.

Located in the picturesque County Durham countryside, this museum transports you back in time, letting you experience firsthand the life and culture of Northeast England from the Georgian era to the early 20th century.

It’s like walking through a time capsule, where every building, tram, and costume is an authentic artefact or replica meticulously curated to recreate specific historical periods.

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High Force Waterfall, Barnard Castle

High Force Waterfall

High Force Waterfall is nature’s theatre at its most majestic, set in the stage of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The River Tees dramatically cascades over a precipice, falling a breathtaking 21 meters, making it one of England’s most powerful and awe-inspiring waterfalls.

This marvel of nature is not merely a sight; it’s a sensory experience. As you approach the waterfall, often heralded by the distant rumble of rushing water, you walk through a serene woodland trail.

The path itself is an inviting prelude, lined with native trees and seasonal flora that color the landscape in varying shades as the year progresses.

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Raby Castle, Darlington

Raby Castle

Situated in the bucolic landscapes of County Durham, Raby Castle is a living tableau of England’s rich past. Originally constructed in the 14th century, this monumental structure was the ancestral seat of the powerful Neville clan, who were key players in historical milestones such as the Rising of the North.

Today, Raby Castle stands as a vibrant, interactive museum, its imposing ramparts and meticulously designed interiors serving as eloquent narrators of stories that span power, family heritage, and artistic prowess.

From the stately Baron’s Hall, resonant with medieval opulence, to the castle’s various galleries that boast an impressive collection of art and artifacts, Raby Castle offers visitors an experience that’s both sumptuous and scholarly.

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Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

Bowes Museum

Situated in the charming town of Barnard Castle, the Bowes Museum is an elegant French château that hosts a world-class collection of fine art and antiques. Established by the passionate art collectors John and Joséphine Bowes, the museum uniquely blends European grandeur with Northern England’s rich cultural tapestry.

From iconic European paintings from the likes of El Greco and Goya, to a captivating 18th-century automaton known as the Silver Swan, this museum offers a multisensory feast for art enthusiasts and casual visitors alike.

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Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland

Auckland Castle
Photo: aucklandproject.org

Located in the market town of Bishop Auckland, Auckland Castle is a stunning palace and a spiritual stronghold that has served as the residence of the Prince Bishops of Durham for over 900 years.

This historical marvel effortlessly blends religious significance with architectural grandeur, offering visitors a rich experience steeped in history, art, and faith.

The castle, which is currently part of The Auckland Project, has undergone extensive restorations, transforming it into a multi-faceted attraction that includes a museum, a Deer Park, and walled gardens.

The highlight remains the castle’s Throne Room, a magnificent space adorned with portraits of the Prince Bishops, which narrates the history of Christianity in the North of England. Moreover, the castle is home to the acclaimed Zurbarán paintings, a collection of artworks that depict the sons of Jacob.

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Crook Hall and Gardens, Durham

Crook Hall and Gardens
Photo: thenorthernecho.co.uk

Crook Hall and Gardens is a hidden oasis of tranquility and beauty. Comprising a medieval hall that dates back to the 13th century and a series of stunning gardens, this enchanting destination is a blend of history and horticultural splendour.

The hall itself is a patchwork of architectural styles, including medieval, Jacobean, and Georgian, each layer adding richness to its centuries-old narrative.

As you wander through the property, you’re transported across time and space—from the ancient, oak-beamed rooms of the hall to the contemporary elegance of the Secret Walled Garden.

Each garden has its own unique theme, be it the romantic allure of the Shakespeare Garden or the mystic atmosphere of the Cathedral Garden, each offering a unique sensory experience.

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Weardale Railway, Bishop Auckland

Weardale Railway
Image: weardale-railway.org.uk

Chugging along the picturesque landscapes of County Durham, the Weardale Railway offers a nostalgic journey through the rolling hills and idyllic valleys of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

This heritage railway line extends for about 18 miles, linking the communities of Bishop Auckland and Stanhope, and offers a unique, vintage mode of exploring this breathtaking region.

Onboard, you’ll find charmingly restored carriages and attentive staff that transport you not just from one station to another, but to a bygone era of travel. Special themed rides, such as the Polar Express during the Christmas season, add a layer of enchantment for visitors of all ages.

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Killhope Lead Mining Museum, Bishop Auckland

Killhope Lead Mining Museum
Photo: killhope.org.uk

Situated amidst the scenic North Pennines, the Killhope Lead Mining Museum is a remarkable portal into the region’s industrial past. This award-winning museum transports visitors back to the 19th century, offering a vivid glimpse into the lives of the miners who once extracted lead ore from these hills.

Not just a static display, Killhope allows you to truly immerse yourself in history; you can don a hard hat to explore the original underground mine, sift through the ‘jiggers’ to find your own pieces of galena (lead ore), and see the iconic 10-meter waterwheel in action.

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Finchale Priory, Durham

Finchale Priory
Photo: english-heritage.org.uk

Located on the banks of the River Wear just outside Durham, Finchale Priory is a mesmerizing ruin that whispers tales of spiritual devotion and medieval monastic life. Founded in the 13th century as a Benedictine priory, this site served as a holiday retreat for the monks from Durham Cathedral.

Today, it stands as an eloquent example of early English architecture, its weathered stones and arches imbued with a sense of timeless tranquility. As you wander through the remnants of the church, chapter house, and cloister, you can almost hear the echoes of Gregorian chants and the footsteps of monks who once sought solitude here.

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Seaham Beach, Seaham

Seaham Beach

Situated along the Durham Heritage Coast, Seaham Beach is a stunning natural retreat that offers a refreshing contrast to the industrial past of the Northeast. Known for its unique combination of sandy stretches and rugged cliffs, the beach is a haven for both relaxation and adventure.

Famed for its sea glass, remnants from a bygone era of glass factories, collectors scour the shores for these frosted, colorful gems shaped by years of natural tumbling. The beach is also home to an iconic lighthouse which is set against the brooding backdrop of the North Sea.

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Hamsterley Forest, Hamsterley

Hamsterley Forest

A verdant sanctuary stretching over 2,000 hectares, Hamsterley Forest is the outdoor playground of County Durham. Blanketed in pine, oak, and spruce, this forest teems with life, from darting red squirrels to the melodic calls of resident birds.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Hamsterley offers a plethora of activities — be it the thrill of mountain biking down challenging tracks, horse riding along designated paths, or the simple joy of a family picnic by the riverbanks.

In addition, seasonal changes bring about a colourful metamorphosis, from carpets of bluebells in spring to golden hues in autumn. Hamsterley Forest, with its boundless beauty, truly is nature’s playground awaiting exploration.

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Locomotion Museum, Shildon

Locomotion Museum

Situated in the historic town of Shildon, Locomotion serves as a compelling chapter in the National Railway Museum, presenting a dynamic narrative of Britain’s railway heritage.

As the birthplace of the railway, Shildon has a deep-rooted connection to locomotive history, making it the perfect location for this engaging museum.

Locomotion boasts an extensive collection of railway vehicles, artifacts, and interactive displays that explore the transformative impact of railways on society and industry. One of the main highlights is the iconic locomotive, the Sans Pareil – a steam engine dating back to the early 19th century.

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Tanfield Railway, Stanley

Tanfield Railway

Cherished as the world’s oldest railway, Tanfield Railway offers a magical journey back in time, set against the charming backdrop of the Northeast English countryside.

Originating in the early 17th century primarily for coal transport, today’s Tanfield Railway operates as a heritage line, preserving the romance and mechanics of steam locomotion.

The railway takes passengers on a nostalgic trip across scenic landscapes, through Causey Arch—the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge—and onwards through woodlands and open fields.

The line features a collection of vintage steam engines and carriages, meticulously restored to recreate the golden age of rail travel.

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Hartlepool Museum, Hartlepool

Hartlepool Harbour

Nestled in the maritime hub of Hartlepool, this captivating museum is a kaleidoscope of the area’s rich past and vibrant culture.

Housed within the elegant confines of a restored Victorian structure, the museum offers an eclectic range of experiences, from stepping aboard the HMS Trincomalee – the UK’s oldest floating warship—to delving into local lore and history.

It isn’t just about naval accomplishments; exhibits span subjects as diverse as the town’s industrial evolution and the impact of the First World War, particularly the Hartlepool Bombardment.

With continually changing special exhibits and interactive displays, this is a treasure chest that keeps revealing new gems, making each visit a fresh adventure in learning and discovery.

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Adventure Valley, Durham

Adventure Valley
Image: adventurevalley.co.uk

Adventure Valley, located in Brasside, Durham, is a sprawling family-friendly attraction offering a perfect blend of outdoor and indoor activities for visitors of all ages.

With six play zones spread over 50 acres, the park provides a wide range of options including animal experiences, adventure courses, and soft play areas.

The farmyard setting offers an intimate encounter with various animals such as goats, rabbits, and pigs, delighting both children and adults.

For the more adventurous, the Action Creek and Runaway Ranch zones offer go-karts, zip lines, and even a mini-golf course.

Indoor facilities, such as the massive play barn featuring slides, ball pits, and climbing frames, ensure entertainment is not hampered by weather.

The café serves a variety of locally-sourced food and beverages to keep your energy up throughout the day.

Seasonal events, like Halloween Spooktacular and Santa’s Grotto, add festive flair, making it a year-round destination.

With its array of activities and experiences, Adventure Valley serves as an ideal spot for family outings, school trips, and even corporate team-building exercises.

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Diggerland, Durham

Diggerland, Durham
Image: diggerland.com

Situated in Langley Park, Durham, Diggerland offers an extraordinary amusement experience focused on diggers and JCBs.

Perfect for families, the park boasts an array of 20 unique rides and drives that let visitors operate real construction machinery.

Whether you’re steering a dumper truck or getting a bird’s-eye view from the Skyshuttle, there’s something to captivate everyone.

For the little ones, there are mini diggers where they can dig for treasure or hook-a-duck.

Those interested in a little competition can take part in the Dippy Ducks and Skittles games, driving actual diggers to knock down pins or guide ducks into pool, under the supervision of trained staff. 

There’s also an indoor play area should the rain set in, as well as an indoor cafe.

Throughout the year, Diggerland also hosts themed events, making each visit unique.

Easily accessible and open from February to November, Diggerland provides a fun-filled day for digger enthusiasts and curious minds alike.

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About County Durham

County Durham in Northeast England is a realm where the tug of the past is ever-present, despite the modern world’s rapid advance.

This county, bordered by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and North Yorkshire, is a blend of dramatic landscapes and historical landmarks.

As you move from the east—where the land is more level and better suited for farming—to the hilly west, the physical contours evoke the region’s mining and railway heritage.

The River Wear serves as the county’s aorta, snaking through the landscape, connecting places and people.

Durham, the historic county town, is not just a location; it’s an experience.

The presence of Durham University adds a youthful vibrancy, counterpointing the age-old gravitas of the monumental Durham Cathedral – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that defies the passage of time.

The shift from a coal and rail-based economy to one focused on services and tourism speaks to the area’s resilience.

The blend of old and new, the juggling act of preserving heritage while promoting innovation, is the lifeblood of County Durham.

It’s a place where the winds carry whispers of ancient legends, even as the towns and villages pulse to the rhythm of contemporary life.

Offical Durham Tourism Site

https://www.thisisdurham.com

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