There’s a lot more to Durham than its impressive quota of Norman architecture. Cool boutiques and cozy boozers litter the cobbled streets of this fine university hub , and a quick wander around will take you from the crowds and hustle of Saddler Street to the serene and leafy River Wear. There’s a burgeoning arts scene (the stunning Lumiere light show drew in hundreds of thousands of visitors last year) and foodies will delight in a stream of hip eateries where creative, affordable grub is the order of the day. Head out of the metropolis and in just 15 minutes you can reach the remote, unhampered beauty of the Durham Dales. No wonder Bill Bryson dubbed it “a perfect little city”…
Where to stay
Head to The Radisson Blu for contemporary, budget-friendly digs
For an urban haven, head to the Radisson Blu, a striking contemporary glass building overlooking the river. It’s a central spot and a budget-friendly one, with rates from just £89 a night. The rooms are bright and airy, with wonderful views over the city. Grab a meal at the hotel's Filini restaurant for hearty Italian fare such as Venetian pasta and lemon-scented seafood risotto, or book yourself in for some chill time at the Lime House spa.
Strike out to the country and you may want to book in at Seaham Hall, a palatial hotel set in 37 acres of woodland overlooking the sea. Recently crowned Small Hotel of the Year at the 2013 North East Tourism Awards, it is chic and luxurious, with first class facilities and an award-winning spa (more of that later).
Five high street pit stops
The Mugwump is filled to the brim with unusual treasures
• The Mugwump – a three-storey treasure trove of vintage gowns, cool jewellery and original prints. Saddler Street
• The Head of Steam - a lively pub with unusual beers, ales and ciders (think Rekorderlig strawberry and lime cider and Chase marmalade vodka). North Road
• Vennels Café - for top notch coffee and cake. We defy you not to like the banoffee pie. Saddler Street
• The Crushed Chilli Gallery - a working glassworks studio with a great selection of contemporary paintings and photography. South Street
• The Dun Cow – very much a traditional boozer, this small, friendly hideaway serves real ale and homemade bar snacks. Old Elvet
Food and drink
Grab the best sticky toffee pudding in town at Oldfields Eating House
Oldfields Eating House is a popular spot with locals and tourists alike and serves up hearty British dishes sourced locally, created with flair and served in a cool, Manahattan diner-style layout. There’s always something a little unusual on offer here, whether it’s the smoked haddock pan haggerty or monkfish and veal casserole topped with puy lentils. Their signature burger comes with Camembert made on a farm in Sedgefield and the decadent sticky toffee pudding is a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth.
For fab Thai food, make sure you pop by Zen on Court Lane. It’s nearly always crowded but you can pick up a “street food basket” crammed with Thai fish cakes, glazed chicken skewers, duck spring rolls and more for just £12.50. High-end diners should head out of the city and book a table at Michelin-starred restaurant The Raby Hunt, around 30 minutes from Durham near Darlington. Head chef James Close is a rising star of the food world and puts an eclectic spin on seasonal, local ingredients. The A La Carte menu features dishes such as smoked eel with duck liver parfait and pan fried hare with crispy kale and blackberry. Vegetarians are catered for too, although you need to book two days in advance for a meat-free nine course tasting menu.
Things to see and do
Magnified pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels projected onto the walls of Durham cathedral during the 2013 Lumiere
Start your day off by heading up to Durham’s historic cathedral and castle (a UNESCO World Heritage site that doubles up as university halls) on Palace Green, then dip down to the tree-lined walkway and lower footpath by the River Wear. Durham is a small city and a chilled walk along the river is great way of seeing everything from the 18th century Prebends bridge to the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology and hardy rowing teams scooting up and down the river on practice runs.
Arts-wise, the free Lumiere festival is a creative and economic coup for Durham tourism and drew in around £4.3million when it was first created in 2011. It returned again last November, attracting 175,000 visitors to see the city’s urban landscape transform over four nights into a mystical trail of light installations supported by the Arts Council England. A huge 3D elephant stomping atop Elvet Bridge and a haunting collection of glowing LED dresses in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral were among the highlights of the show, hailed by critics as an artistic triumph.
Durham Dales: five places to visit
The Durham Dales: perfect for a hearty walk or two
• Hamsterley Forest – 2,000 acres of woodland with cycle and horse-riding trails
• High Force – spectacular waterfalls converge where the River Tees drops 21 metres
• Auckland Castle – once the seat of power in the North East with beautiful paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán
• Eggleston Hall Gardens – The “secret garden of the North” and the filming location for one-time ITV series Ladette to Lady
For a proper walk, grab a pair of wellies and download a map app for a meander around the Durham Dales, part of The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with miles of tranquil moorland, hills, rivers and valleys. Market towns such as Bishop Auckland, Chester-le-Street and Stanhope are worth a nose around for antiques, tea rooms and craft shops, as is the Durham Heritage Coast, with limestone cliffs and dramatic views across the North Sea.
An enormous swimming pool beckons at Seaham Hall's Serenity Spa
If you’re more about facials than forays the countryside, cut a dash to the Serenity Spa at Seaham Hall. This enormous shrine to relaxation - one of the largest spas in the North East - has everything you might need to unwind, from a 20-metre circular pool with massage stations to outdoor hot tubs shrouded by woodland. The 13 treatment rooms are decked out in teak and limestone and run treatments using Elemis and Darphin products. The Serenity Wellbeing Massage with warm, aromatic pure oils, is a treat indeed and well worth devoting 50 minutes of your life to. Make sure you pay a trip to the hammam jacuzzi and spacious black granite steam room as well. Finish off your not-so-arduous day with a trip to the spa's Ozone restaurant, a slick Pan Asian eatery with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and delights such as green Tiger prawn curry and freshly made duck pancakes on offer.
Getting there and away
Durham is a four and a half hour car ride from London or you could fly to nearby Newcastle or Durham Tees Valley airports. A great way of getting to the city for a quick weekend break is by train - there are 16 mainline services from London and East Coast tickets start from £30 return. Upgrade to first class here and you'll have a meal thrown on the evening service, so you can speed up North while feasting on a fillet of bream and apple and quince crumble, washed down with a cooling gin and tonic.
A Sublime Serenity for One day spa package at Seaham Hall's Serenity Spa is £165 for two hours of expertly administered treatments, including the Serenity Body Polish, Serenity Bespoke Massage and a Serenity Facial, a two-course lunch in the renowned Ozone Restaurant and full use of all spa facilities from 9am to 5pm