5 free and affordable things to do in Durham


History abounds in the winding old streets of Durham and the place itself is the main attraction. Wrapped around a tight bend of the River Wear, there are plenty of outdoor activities as well as a good selection of indoors experiences too. Here are some of the best things to do for free or cheaply in and around the city.

Durham at dawn (Photo: Jim Barton via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Durham is one of the most beautiful cities in Britain. Despite only having a population of 48,000, its historic Cathedral gives Durham city status. That cathedral, coupled with the 11th century castle next door, were designated one of UNESCO’s much coveted World Heritage Sites in 1986. Naturally this makes them both popular with tourists, and with good reason.

However, there are plenty of lesser known attractions too. These include a punt down the River Wear, as well as exploring the city’s remarkable history through its rambling streets and centuries-old buildings. But it is not all stuck in the past either, Durham University brings a youthful, scholarly edge to the place too, with services to suit.

See Harry Potter’s classroom in Durham Cathedral

The clositers of Durham Cathedral (Photo: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Those enrolled at Durham University are not the only students for which the city is known though. Head down into the cathedral’s cloisters and you may find you recognise them, having never set foot in them before. At least, you might feel this way if you are a big fan of the Harry Potter movies. The quadrangle is where Harry releases his owl Hedwig, among other scenes. Initially this would have been a multipurpose area, with open-air space to meditate and exercise for the monks, as well as a covered area in which to read or write.

The College, DH1 3EH

Paddle down the River Wear

Rowing down the River Wear (Photo: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Wear is an emerald ribbon tied around Durham. The water along this stretch of the river is tranquil and lazy, making it ideal to explore by boat. You can rent a wooden vessel from Browns Rowing Boats, which uses only handcrafted boats, like they have for over a century. If you manage to paddle a little way from the centre there is a good chance to glimpse birdlife, like herons, along the river’s edge. Dogs are also welcome on board the boats.

Boat House/Elvet Bridge, DH1 3AF

Picnic in Old Durham Gardens

Just to the east of Durham city centre are pleasant 350-year old walled gardens that were restored and made public by Durham Council. The gardens are spread over two levels with a terrace in between and a damson orchard at the lower level. Maintenance and care have been championed by the Friends of Old Durham Gardens, a charitable organisation that keeps this Grade II-listed public space in good shape and free to visit. It is an ideal spot to take a break during the day for a picnic on one of the benches.


Go Shopping at Durham Indoor Market Hall

Durham Indoor Market Hall (Photo: Gerry Balding via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Inside a Victorian-era market hall, with a lofty ceiling supported by steel girders, is Durham Market Hall. Every week from Monday to Saturday, roughly 50 traders set up their stalls selling all manner of products including books, clothing, fine wine, fruit and veg, flowers, and local crafts. It’s a colourful space and a great place to pick up a souvenir, something for the home or stop at the café on-site for a pick-me-up and a slice of cake.

27 Market Place, DH1 3NJ

Follow the Durham Treasure Trail

For those visiting the city with kids, the Durham Treasure Trail is a fun, interactive way to explore the streets. For a small fee you can buy a map, which is either posted to you or available to download, that then leads you on a self-guided trail of roughly one mile. During the course of this there are visual clues to solve, that are aimed a including kids as well as adults. If you solve the clues and reach the final answer, you can then submit this at the end to be entered into a monthly cash prize draw with all the other winners.

Start/finish: Market Place, DH1 3NJ

By Paul Stafford