A beautiful city at the heart of the North East of England, Durham charms visitors with its scenic riverside walks, centuries-old architecture, and a myriad of places to eat, drink and shop.
Most famous for its stunning cathedral and one of the oldest universities in the UK, Durham has been heavily shaped by its ecclesiastical and academic roots. The region’s coal mining heritage has also nurtured a strong sense of community, which can be witnessed at the hugely popular annual Miners’ Gala.
Durham’s community spirit, which has been passed down through generations, has retained a close-knit, friendly atmosphere alongside its flourishing international reputation. Locals, students and visitors have all contributed to the growth of a wide variety of shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants in the city. Many of these are just a short stroll from each other along its characterful historic streets.
Flat White has become something of a Durham institution, occupying two sites, which include a café tucked next to the river (21a Elvet Bridge) and a trendy bistro just around the corner (40 Saddler Street). Flat White prides itself on serving some of the best coffee in the North East, supplied by the Ouseburn Coffee Company, an independent roastery based in Newcastle. Brunches at the Flat White Kitchen bistro might entail luxurious stacks of pancakes or baked eggs on sourdough toast, while lunches include unconventional sandwiches and superfood salads. For three nights of the week a small plate menu offers dishes like sweet corn fritters, braised lamb or Thai style crispy pork belly.
Vennels (Saddlers Yard) is probably Durham’s most revered café. Accessed through a very narrow passage off Saddler Street, it takes its name from this old style of alley or “vennel”. The café can be commended for preparing all food on the premises such as tasty breakfasts and light lunches. Its freshly baked scones are remarkable, featuring unusual ingredients like Stilton or dates. The 16th century building that houses Vennels has three floors, festooned with wooden beams, fireplaces and era-appropriate décor. It is rumoured that this was part of the location where today’s version of English mustard originated. This recipe for Durham mustard, honed by Mrs Clements in the 1720s, acquired a national reputation and was a particular favourite of King George I.
It is quite a challenge to walk past the pretty exterior of Tealicious Tearoom (88 Elvet Bridge) and not be tempted by its fare. Here freshly baked sponge cakes ooze layers of jam and cream; rich cheesecakes are embellished with Oreo cookies; and glazed fruit glimmers from the top of tartlets. These can all be accompanied by one of 17 varieties of loose-leaf tea sipped from a delicate teacup. Children have also been thoughtfully catered for with little teapots filled with juice or milk. Furthermore, selections of regionally inspired sandwiches are made to order and adorn cake stands as part of the indulgent high tea menu.
Cafédral Durham (1 Owengate) is a convenient place to rest weary legs after many hours of sightseeing. The first floor café occupies a prime spot on the corner of the street that joins the city centre with Palace Green, the castle and the cathedral. Beautifully tiled steps lead up to a room decorated with works of art, plants and eccentrically mismatched furniture. Customers are given a friendly welcome from the staff at this family-run café as they choose from a varied menu of homemade lunches, sumptuous cakes and good quality drinks, which include award-winning hot chocolates.
Durham boasts a popular indoor Market Hall, plus many of the high street chains. Nevertheless, browsing the independent outlets often results in the best shopping experiences. Established by two art school graduates, one of the city’s favourite boutiques, The Mugwump (37 Saddler Street), has been trading for over half a century. Each of its three floors and six rooms are packed full of gifts including ornaments, homeware, ladies clothes and accessories. From local photography and contemporary ceramics, to Steiff teddy bears and ball gowns, The Mugwump has something for everyone.
A bit of an Aladdin’s cave, Velvet Elvis Emporium (88 North Road) is brimming with handmade jewellery and bespoke gifts, many of which can be personalised by the store. Vintage clothing from several decades is also displayed in this colourful shop that sits near the junction of Silver Street and North Road. Upstairs is a laid back café where homemade cakes, good coffee and healthy meals can be consumed while admiring the quirky decorations hanging from the walls.
Straying from the main shopping thoroughfare can be fruitful, especially when discovering a creative hub like Fowlers Yard (Back Silver Street). This row of workspaces is hidden down steps leading off Silver Street or can be accessed through the back of the Market Hall. Here artists, designers and makers display their crafts in red brick studios with barn-like doors. Some run workshops and courses for activities like embroidery and weaving, while others provide daily demonstrations of their work, such as printmaking or portrait painting.
Located on the western reaches of Durham, Restaurant DH1 (The Avenue) offers a fine dining experience on the lower floor of an elegant Victorian villa. Since opening in March 2014 this family-run business has quickly established itself as one of the most ambitious restaurants in the city. It serves well-presented, seasonal British fare, including regional specialities like Whitby crab and Lindisfarne oysters. Evening diners can choose from à la carte or tasting menus, which consist of up to nine courses. Vegetarian menus have been carefully compiled separately, plus there is an option to select matching wines.
Entering The Cellar Door (41 Saddler Street) involves stepping down into the depths of a 13th century cellar. Here visitors will find a charming little restaurant, which is unexpectedly brightly lit, although there is a more authentic cavern-like room as well. Alternatively, diners can take in pleasant riverside views from the balcony. Separate lunch and evening menus get the taste buds watering with dishes that include ingredients like scallops, venison and monkfish. Desserts are equally as tempting, such as mint chocolate fondant or Baked Alaska.
Lebaneat (47 North Bailey) can be found nestled among the Bailey colleges and within close proximity of the cathedral. Its comprehensive menu encompasses hot and cold starters, sharing platters, Lebanese mains, salads and wraps. The traditionally prepared food, using fresh authentic ingredients, has secured a decent reputation for this restaurant. Such popularity led to the opening of a takeaway premises and a second restaurant; the brightly decorated Wrap House (69 Claypath). Here, large table bookings can be accommodated and diners are able to bring their own alcohol.
From tiny old pubs, to lively cocktail bars, there are plenty of different thirst-quenching options in Durham, catering for a mixture of clientele. It would be easy to assume that the city’s drinking establishments are crammed full with students, but this is not necessarily the case because most of the university colleges conveniently run their own bars.
Tucked away along an alleyway off North Street is a quirky bar specialising in beers, ales and spirits from around the world. The Head of Steam (3 Reform Place), aptly decorated with dried hops and brewery logos, serves regional ales as well as over 200 varieties of bottled beer. If that’s not enough, it also hosts drinks tasting evenings, live music from local bands and has a food menu featuring freshly made pizzas, burgers and Sunday lunches.
The Boat Club (Elvet Riverside) is situated in one of the best spots in Durham, overlooking both the River Wear and Elvet Bridge. During fine weather lunch and drinks can be enjoyed on the terrace while watching rowing boats glide past. In the evening the venue still serves food, but turns livelier with a young crowd sipping cocktails or craft beers and dancing to music from the resident DJs.
Those seeking something more unusual can step back in time at Grade II listed Victoria Inn (86 Hallgarth Street). Largely unaltered since it was built in 1899, this cosy pub pays tribute to a bygone era with Victorian décor, period features and open coal fires. Popular with real ale enthusiasts, it serves cask ales from local breweries as well as a wide range of whiskies. Furthermore, its four-star bed and breakfast accommodation is within easy walking distance of most of the city’s sights.