The cathedral city of Durham is renowned for its University.
Although it is on the smaller side as far as British cities go, it packs a lot in!
From the meandering River Wear, its castle and Palace Green to the cafés with homemade banoffee pie and shows at the Gala Theatre, there’s something for everyone in the historical city.
Table of Contents
- 1 Location
- 2 Durham City Geography
- 3 The History of Durham City
- 4 The University
- 5 6 Things to See and Do in Durham City
- 6 Eating and Drinking in Durham City
- 7 Final Thoughts on the Best Bits of Durham City for 2023
Durham lies on a meander on the River Wear in the North East of England and is the administrative and ceremonial center of County Durham.
Durham City Geography
The incised meander of the River Wear encloses Durham City on three sides, forming a city peninsular with the Market Place at its base.
Durham is a hilly city and claims to be built on seven symbolic hills with the Cathedral taking the most prominent position above the river.
The city is picturesque, with dense woodland on the steep riverbanks.
Durham is 11 miles from Sunderland, its next nearest city and 17 miles from Darlington, which is the largest place in County Durham.
The city of Newcastle is almost 20 miles away, but there are many trains a day running between the stations, and it takes as little as 16 minutes.
The History of Durham City
Durham is a historical city boasting both a cathedral and a castle in close proximity.
The decision to build them this way was a strategic one in terms of the city’s defenses and gives the cathedral the most prominent position in the city.
The old city center area where they sit has changed very little over the past two centuries.
The peninsula was once surrounded by castle walls extending from the keep with two gatehouses.
The walls were removed by the Victorians with the exception of one of the gatehouses which remains on the Bailey.
Aside from the castle and cathedral, there are more than 630 other listed buildings within the city including:
- Elvet Bridge
- Chorister School
- Crook Hall
- Framwellgate Bridge
- St Giles Church, Gilesgate
- Prebends Bridge
- Kingsgate Bridge
- Church of St Margaret of Antioch, Crossgate
- Durham Heritage Centre, which was once the Church of St Mary-le-Bow.
For most of the year, Durham is teeming with students from its university.
The university was founded in 1832 and, in 1837, it was granted a Royal Charter.
It claims to be the third oldest university in England, and it came over 600 years after the founding of Oxford and Cambridge.
It ranks in the top 150 universities in the world and has an international reputation
Durham University is a collegiate university where students reside in colleges but study in departments within the city.
The University was named University of the Year in the Sunday Times in 2005 and has twice been awarded Sports University of the Year in 2015 and 2023.
The university estate is spread throughout the city, with educational buildings dotted around The Bailey and on the Elvet Hill site.
The university includes 63 listed buildings.
The first colleges were those on The Bailey – University College within the castle and Hatfield College and the modern colleges were built “on the hill.”
One college, St Mary’s which started as a single-sex female college, had some of its foundation stones laid by the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947, later her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
6 Things to See and Do in Durham City
If you’re planning to visit Durham city, you have to make a plan because there are plenty of things to see in this area.
First, let’s start with the Durham cathedral…
1. Visit the Cathedral
Of course, a visit to Durham would not be a visit to Durham without taking in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham, to give it its full name.
Commonly known as Durham Cathedral, the religious site is the seat of the Bishop of Durham, who is ranked fourth in the hierarchy of the Church of England.
The present-day cathedral was built in the Norman era with foundations starting to be built in 1093. This replaced the city’s ‘White Church.’
Its first function was to house the bodies of the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert.
In 2019, the cathedral welcomed 727,367 visitors, which is no surprise given the things it offers!
- Climb the tower (up 325 steps!) giving you an unrestricted and remarkable view of the city, quite unlike any other view there.
- Take a tour through the cathedral’s 1000-year history with a knowledgeable guide.
- Visit the Cathedral Museum and step into the Great Kitchen, marveling at its octagonal shape.
- Visit the places where famous films were filmed including some of the Harry Potter movies and Avengers: Endgame.
- Take in a service or Evensong.
- Visit the Undercroft Café and shop.
The Cathedral is free to enter but it’s recommended that you give a donation of around £5 to help with the cathedral’s running costs.
2. Visit the Castle
Durham Castle is at the center of Durham’s World Heritage Site, a place that has been occupied since the 11th century.
The castle is actually one of the university’s colleges (University College, informally called ‘Castle’).
However, there are guided tours for visitors too.
What to Expect? A tour costs £5 for an adult and it’s free for children and Durham University Campus Card Holders.
3. Boating on the River
If you fancy having a look at Durham from on the water, then a trip on the Prince Bishop River Cruiser or hiring one of Brown’s rowing boats is ideal.
The one-hour cruises take place all year round and there are also evening cruises, with tickets starting as low as £5.
4. Durham University Botanic Garden
The Botanic Garden is a beautiful place that is set in mature woodland.
There’s an alpine garden, Bamboo Grove and a wildflower meadow too mention a couple of things!
It’s a great place to bring children to let them blow off some steam.
Students, carers, and infants can enter for free, with prices starting at £4.50 for others.
5. Durham Museum and Heritage Centre
The Heritage Centre tells Durham’s story from medieval times through to the present day.
There are models of the city as well as other artefacts to enjoy. Entrance prices start at £1!
6. Go Shopping
The city boasts a great range of shops as well as an indoor market.
Why not wander down the cobbled streets and see what treasures you can find?
There’s a good mix of high street, designer, and independent boutiques for you to browse.
Eating and Drinking in Durham City
Visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to eating and drinking in the city.
From cozy cafés to upmarket restaurants, there’s something for everyone. Here are a few of my favorites.
If you adore homemade cakes, Vennels Café is a great find.
Hidden down a narrow alleyway (from which it gets its name), Vennels is unique.
There are historic beams, old sewing machine tables and quirky crooked ceilings.
The banoffee pie is the stuff of legends, and I cannot resist a stop each time I visit the city.
Hotel Indigo Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar and Grill
For chic and style, Rotunda Bar is the place to go.
Set within the boutique hotel, the Rotunda Bar serves up food that tastes simply divine.
The hotel and bar are set in what was Old Shire Hall, the University Offices.
If you’d like a place to stay in Durham, I’d highly recommend it!
The rooms are elegant and unique, picking up on the building’s former history and use.
The Fat Hippo
For casual dining with sumptuous burgers in baskets, the Fat Hippo is just the ticket.
It’s small and quirky and the food is just … mmm! Definitely the best burgers in Durham City!
Final Thoughts on the Best Bits of Durham City for 2023
No matter what you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it in Durham City.
There’s the castle, cathedral and old listed buildings for the history buffs.
And for those shopaholics looking to splurge a little cash you have plenty of outlets to choose from.
The botanic gardens, river walks and boat rides for those who like being outdoors and at one with nature.
Top off your day with a piece of Vennels’ banoffee pie and you’re on to a winner!