Searching for the perfect weekend break in England? Say hello to the charming city of Durham in the North East of England. Here’s my guide on how to spend a weekend in Durham; what to see, where to stay and, most importantly, where you must eat!
This is a post that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time; pretty much since the day I settled permanently in Durham in late 2018. However, life happens and my plan to really cement myself as a Durham travel blogger was put on the backburner. Whilst Durham narrowly missed out on becoming the UK’s City of Culture in 2025, the future is more than bright and it’s now finally time to dive right into my local city and share exactly how to spend the perfect weekend in Durham.
WELCOME TO THE CITY OF DURHAM
Let’s start with the very basics. Durham is a relatively small city (you can easily walk around in 20 minutes, no metro required here) nestled beside the River Wear in the North East of England; not far from Sunderland and Newcastle. The East Coast main line runs straight through Durham over the impressive Victorian viaduct and boasts one of the most iconic views from a train in this country. If you’re arriving by train, you will immediately be spoilt with gorgeous views across towards the cathedral and castle. If not, don’t worry I’ll have a tip on how to get the same view for free later on.
Durham’s history dates back all the way to 995AD when the monks of Lindisfarne settled here whilst carrying the body of St Cuthbert. Legend has it that they followed a milk maid and the Dun Cow straight into a wooded peninsula. This is the area where both Durham Cathedral and the castle now proudly sit wrapped neatly by the River Wear.
Probably most famous as a university city, I can assure you that there’s plenty for all of us non-students out there and this itinerary will show you exactly how you can spend 72 hours in the city.
A PERFECT WEEKEND IN DURHAM, NORTH EAST ENGLAND
FRIDAY – ARRIVAL INTO DURHAM
I’m going to assume that you’ll be arriving into Durham sometime in the late afternoon. The city centre and all of the hotels I’ve recommended, are just a short walk from the train station and the main car parks so you’ll have plenty of time to settle in. Once you’ve checked in, it’s time to hit the streets of Durham and get your bearings.
After no doubt a lengthy journey, you’ll be wanting to grab some dinner and drinks pretty swiftly after your arrival. As I said above, the city is very small and everywhere I’m recommending can be reached on foot easily. It also means that, whilst I’m putting together a nice itinerary for your visit, with everything being close by, it’s all interchangeable. You can look at my recommendations and customise your weekend in Durham to suit your particular needs.
For my perfect weekend in Durham, I’d look no further than having your first meal at Fat Hippo on Saddler Street, the main street that leads up to Durham Cathedral. Fat Hippo is one of my favourite places to eat in Durham mostly due to the fact that I love burgers. This is probably one of the North-East’s most well-known burger joints and is currently taking the United Kingdom by storm with new openings all the time. There’s plenty of choice for meat lovers and those who are vegetarian/vegan. I love the Wild Bill and the Born Slippy burgers plus you should always order sides; the frickles and beer battered cheese balls are my go-to’s.
That meal should set you up nicely for the weekend. We’re not done for tonight though; you should head up the hill to Palace Green where you’ll find Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle. It’s a great time to admire these buildings as the soft evening light makes this UNESCO world heritage site look even more beautiful.
If you fancy a drink or two on the way back to your hotel, why not try the Tin of Sardines Gin Bar on Elvet Bridge (Durham’s smallest bar with speakeasy vibes + outdoor tables on the bridge during summer) or the Boat Club with lovely views of the River Wear.
9AM – BREAKFAST AT FLAT WHITE KITCHEN
Once you’re up and about, why not head straight to Flat White Kitchen for coffee and brunch in the heart of the city. This is the place to be in Durham. It’s extremely popular and is walk-ins only so don’t be surprised if there’s a short queue outside!
The decor’s rustic, this is a 17th century building after all, but with a modern Australian vibe plus houseplants everywhere; you can’t not love a monstera plant. I’m a recent coffee convert but I can vouch that Flat White serve up damn good coffee here. The food is always on point too. There’s obviously avocado on toast as is expected these days plus fluffy ricotta pancakes and many savoury options too.
10:30AM – WALK ALONG THE RIVER WEAR
It’s time to burn off that early morning breakfast with a calming walk alongside the River Wear. If the weather’s right you’ll be treated to smooth waters and dappled golden light filtering through the historic trees that line this path. You may even be able to catch rowers from the university practicing along the river. From Flat White head down to the river at Elvet Bridge and you can do a full loop of the horseshoe (essentially around the base of the hill the cathedral perches atop) past Kingsgate Bridge (a 60’s concrete architectural icon) before crossing at Prebends Bridge (a quick detour here to see one of Durham’s most Instagrammable spots; Prebends Cottage built in the 1770’s) and continuing on the opposite side of the river down to Framwellgate Bridge. This part of the walk offers some of the best views of the cathedral in the whole of Durham. Rejoin the cobbled Durham streets at Framwellgate Bridge which actually dates back to the 1400’s and the arches remind me of Charles Bridge in Prague albeit on a much smaller scale and without all of the statues.
If you fancy a longer walk, Old Durham Gardens are beautiful in the Spring.
11:30AM – GRAB A COFFEE AND A CAKE AT VENNELS CAFE
It’s time for a quick pit-stop and there’s few better places to grab a coffee and a cake than at Vennels; a Durham institution. The building itself dates back to the 16th century and it’s said that English Mustard as we know it originated in this very building no thanks to a Mrs Clements in 1720. From here it’s a quick walk back uphill to Palace Green ready to explore the jewel in Durham’s crown.
12PM – EXPLORE DURHAM CATHEDRAL & DURHAM CASTLE
Durham Cathedral, in it’s present form, dates back to 1093 and is certainly one of the most famous cathedrals in the country. It contains the Shrine of St Cuthbert which draws visitors from all over the world. Whilst I’m not a man of religion, it’s not hard to be taken back from the sheer scale and beauty of Durham Cathedral. You can explore the interior for a donation but you should definitely pay just £5.50 to climb the 325 steps of the central tower where you will have the best views over Durham.
Interestingly, Durham Cathedral was used in the first two Harry Potter movies; the Cloisters as part of the school yards at Hogwarts, the Chapter House as a classroom and apparently the upper levels were used as the Forbidden Corridor. Any fan of Harry Potter would be silly to miss reliving the earlier films right here. Finally, another must-see is actually a scale replica of the cathedral made out of Lego. It’s huge – over 12ft long and 5ft 6in high!
Durham Castle is just opposite the cathedral on the other side of Palace Green and together they make up Durham’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle, as with the cathedral, was built on the orders of William the Conqueror shortly after the Norman conquest of England. However, since 1837, the castle has been part of the University of Durham as the ‘University College’ comprising of accommodation plus a Great Hall where all meals are served. Tours of the castle are conducted daily by students and are well worth the £5 admission fee. Out of term time, you can actually stay over in the castle which no doubt would be an experience in itself.
3PM – QUICK NOSE AROUND DURHAM’S INDOOR MARKET
Back to the Market Place and you should make time for a quick peek around Durham’s Indoor Market. The hall has a classic cast-iron pitched roof with over 40 independent traders selling everything from houseplants to records and from craft beers to second hand books. There are photo opportunities a plenty; I love the How Bazaar with its Turkish lanterns.
3:30PM – WANDER THE RIVERWALK FOR BEERS & COCKTAILS
I absolutely love this new area of Durham on the western side of the River Wear. There are plenty of bars and restaurants spilling out on to the Riverwalk’s plaza with great views back up to the Cathedral. On a hot day, you’ll struggle not to feel the European vibes with all the tables and chairs outside. You can drink fancy cocktails at The Curious Mr Fox, Turtle Bay and even Pizza Punks plus probably the best Gin and Tonic at Old Tom’s Gin Bar (worth a visit for the open bar and historic building) and then have a few Mediterranean nibbles at El Pincho.
7:30PM – ENJOY MEXICAN TACOS AT BARRIO COMIDA
Any trip to Durham would not be complete without experiencing the most perfect Mexican food at Barrio Comida. This place is famous for its tacos and my recommendation is to order as many as possible and try to find a favourite. My top picks are the Al Pastor (spit roast adobo marinated pork, roasted pineapple and salsa roja) and Pescado (fried fish, cabbage salad, crema and xni pec onions).
One thing that really makes Barrio Comida stand out relates to their tortillas. Barrio Comida import heirloom corn from Mexico and, each and every day, create their own corn tortillas. Honestly, something like this really impacts the taste; you’ll struggle to find much better anywhere in this country.
Once you’re filled up on tacos (maybe some totopos and guacamole too), it’d be rude not to have Barrio Comida’s soft serve ice cream – Milk & Honey was my choice with violet crumble and honeycomb.
If you’re in the mood for making your night a long one; head to the Walkergate area for more drinks and don’t miss Wiff-Waff, the home of Beer Pong (trust me, it’s brilliant when you’ve had a few).
You will have by now realised the truth in what I was saying earlier; Durham is a very small city. There’s no doubt you’ll feel like you already know the city like the back of your hand after a full day exploring yesterday. I’m hoping your feet are up for it as today I’d recommend walking a bit further out of the centre so that you can tick off nearly all of the top things to do in Durham.
However, first things first is food; obviously.
9AM – PANCAKES AT RIVERVIEW KITCHEN
Ask any local in Durham to recommend somewhere for breakfast, chances are Riverview Kitchen will be one of the first words out of their lips. Quite possibly the fluffiest and tastiest pancakes are found right here; the Banoffee pancakes are always my go-to with banana, toffee sauce and honeycomb pieces. There’s plenty of choice too if you’re after something more savoury. Try and blag a window seat here as you’ll get (you guessed it) great views of the river as well as Framwellgate Bridge. Another plus point for me at least is that it’s dog friendly!
10:30AM – EXPLORE DURHAM’S BOTANIC GARDENS
A one mile walk from Riverview Kitchen along the river and up past Prebends Cottage will bring you to Durham’s Botanic Gardens. If you have time, take a few minutes on the way to climb up Observatory Hill off Potters Bank for even more beautiful views across Durham.
Entry to the botanic gardens costs just £4 for adults and you’ll have access to not only native woodland but plant collections from across the globe (including China and New Zealand), a bamboo grove and glasshouses. There are two glasshouses; a Tropical House and a Cactus House, both of which are must-sees within the botanic gardens.
12:30PM – SUNDAY LUNCH AT WHITECHURCH FREE HOUSE
Back towards the city, you’ll stumble into Whitechurch Free House (Flat White’s sister venue). Despite being situated opposite the University, don’t assume that this is a place solely for students. Whitechurch offers quality coffee, great brunches and even better Sunday lunches. You can’t go wrong with two courses for £21.
If you’ve got a car, I would probably drop off everything just for another pork belly Sunday lunch at the Travellers Rest in Witton Gilbert.
3PM – AFTERNOON BEERS
You’re possibly very full by now but we’re on the weekend wind down so I’d highly recommend grabbing a few beers at two of my favourite places in Durham; the Holy Gr(ale) and Head of Steam. Both of these pubs offer an unrivalled range of craft beers and ales in Durham and beer lovers everywhere will not be disappointed relaxing in either one or both of these.
4:30PM – VIADUCT & WHARTON PARK
I mentioned earlier that I would take you to one of the best lookout spots in Durham, a little local secret behind the train station. After a few beers, head out of town to admire the impressive viaduct (definitely the best entrance to a city via train) before things get steeper up to the summit (it will feel like a summit trust me) of Wharton Park. This is where you’ll find more staggering views across to the cathedral and above the viaduct. This is the closest you’ll get to that iconic train view without actually being on the train!
Sadly, I’m sure it’ll be time to leave Durham by now and make your way home to grab an early night before it’s back to work as usual. If you’re catching the train home, it’s probably a good idea to grab your bags before heading up to the viaduct area and Wharton Park as you can quickly walk back down the hill to the station. Whilst waiting for your train, you could probably fit in just one more drink at the aptly named Waiting Room which is such a great little bar on platform 2.
I’ve no doubt that you’ll have enjoyed your weekend in Durham and despite having seen practically all of the city I’m hopeful that the city will leave you wanting more. The Riverwalk has a few more openings planned for some great bars and restaurants and the Milburngate development will be nearing completion shortly. I can’t wait to see Durham taking things to another level over the years to come.
MORE TOP PLACES TO EAT IN DURHAM
I know everyone has very different tastes when it comes to food so I have a few more recommendations if the ones I’ve set out above don’t take your fancy. I love these: Golden Pearl (authentic cooking in an Asian supermarket), Rabbit Hole (Dim Sum), The Cellar Door (modern European food), Turkish Kitchen (lovely Turkish food), Tango (burgers to rival Fat Hippo), Turtle Bay (Carribean chain), The Food Pit (many street food vendors under one roof) and, last but by no means least, Pizza Punks (unlimited toppings on sourdough pizzas).
WHERE TO STAY FOR A WEEKEND IN DURHAM
As I’m only a short drive away from the city centre, I can’t say that I’ve ever stayed overnight in Durham but there are plenty of options covering everything from budget to luxury. On the budget side you’ll have a comfortable night at the Premier Inn (currently on Walkergate but a brand new one will open soon in the new Milburngate development). There’s the Radisson Blu Hotel and Hotel Indigo (beautiful building) before deciding to really push the boat out at The Townhouse (city centre hot tubs) or Forty Winks (a luxury B&B on a beautiful tree lined cobbled street).
GETTING TO/FROM DURHAM
As I said above, Durham is situated on the East Coast mainline which makes it so easy to get to for those down towards London and those up closer to Edinburgh. From London, you’re talking just a three hour journey which actually isn’t that bad if you wanted to escape the big city life for a weekend.
By car, the city of Durham is practically on the A1 too (junction 61 or 62) so it’s really well positioned for visitors wanting an easy weekend break. The Prince Bishops Car Park (DH1 3UJ) and Riverwalk Car Park (DH1 4SJ) are handy for heading straight into the city.
SPENDING LONGER THAN A WEEKEND IN DURHAM? HERE’S WHAT ELSE TO SEE FURTHER AFIELD
Whilst the city of Durham may be small, County Durham is huge and has so much to offer for visitors spending longer in the area. You can literally spend a morning in the rugged vastness of the North Pennines, have lunch in the city and finish the day with a beach walk. The big hitters that are non-negotiable and have to be seen when visiting are Raby Castle, High Force Waterfall, Finchale Priory and Beamish Museum. I’ll shortly have another guide on the best things to do in the whole of County Durham but until then here’s a few photos to wet the whistle.