The largely rural county of Dorset in southwest England is home to rolling hillsides, dramatic cliffs, and sweeping beaches – all combining to offer some truly unique places to visit.
Perhaps best known for the Jurassic Coast, a long stretch of coastline that attracts fossil hunters and visitors keen to see its rock formations dating back millions of years, Dorset is quite simply one of the jewels in England’s crown. If you’re planning to visit Dorset and would like to fill your itinerary with some memorable landmarks and attractions, we’ve selected some of the places you certainly shouldn’t leave off your list.
Jutting out to sea close to Lulworth Cove on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is Durdle Door, one of the most famous stone arches anywhere in the world. The natural limestone arch, which formed thousands of years ago, draws huge numbers of visitors from far and wide every year, most of whom are sure to grab a picture of themselves in front of the landmark before they leave. Flanking the arch is a sandy beach where bathers can relax and enjoy the calm waters against this distinctive geological backdrop.
Dorset is teeming with achingly pretty beach towns and among the most popular is Swanage. Situated on the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula in the county’s southern borders, the delightful resort town is home to a gorgeous stretch of sand set in a picturesque, sweeping bay, along with numerous man-made attractions such as colourful beach huts, a Victorian seaside pier, a steam railway, and plenty of boutiques, antique shops and restaurants in the quaint town centre.
The seaside village of Charmouth lies in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic Coast and its large, unspoilt beach is widely considered one of the finest in Britain for unearthing fossils dating back tens of millions of years, ranging from marine reptiles, intricate crinoids, ammonites, and even dinosaur remains. Seasoned fossil hunters can be seen digging around the loose gravel and shingle on the beach where the ancient relics are most commonly found. During the summer months the beach is also popular with families thanks to its large expanses of sand and calm waters.
Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens
The coastal town of Weymouth may be best known for its sandy beach, but head inland and you’ll discover somewhere truly a world away. Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens is a haven of bucolic tranquillity, featuring a huge variety of rare and exotic plants from across the globe. Boasting its own microclimate in a woodland valley, the gardens make for an ideal afternoon’s leisurely amble, with stunning views of the Jurassic Coast to enjoy as you go.
Buller’s Way, Abbotsbury, Weymouth / Mon-Sun 10am-5pm
For a more traditional beach experience, the seven-mile stretch of sand – comprising five individual beaches – bordering the attractive university town of Bournemouth is one of Dorset’s most popular spots. Alum Chine, a Blue Flag award-winning beach that’s loved for its wide, clean expanse, is a particular draw, situated away from the hustle and bustle of Bournemouth Pier and the town centre. Young families in particular come here to enjoy the fun-packed, pirate-themed adventure playground.
Russell Cotes Art Gallery & Museum
While in Bournemouth, particularly if confronted with a rainy day, you may want to head to Russell Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. Housing a superb collection of mainly nineteenth and early twentieth-century paintings, the art works on display are particularly impressive as they can be viewed within their original context of sumptuous period interiors that shine a light on the distinctive tastes and personalities of those who once lived here.
East Cliff Promenade, Bournemouth / Tues-Sun 10am-5pm Closed Mon
The market town of Dorchester has a rich literary history and perhaps its most famous wordsmith was Thomas Hardy. Indeed, so strongly linked is the late author and poet with Dorset that a Thomas Hardy Trail has been created that invites Hardy enthusiasts to stop off at various significant landmarks throughout the county. Among them are several to be found in Dorchester, including an eye-catching statue of the writer, and his former home, Max Gate, where guided tours are available.
Dorset is blessed with some of the UK’s finest country houses and one of the most impressive is Kingston Lacy, an elegant 17th-century Italian-inspired country mansion on the borders of Wimborne. Set in picturesque landscaped gardens and extensive parkland, the residence is a veritable treasure trove of prestigious art, boasting paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel, along with the country’s largest private collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. The grounds, complete with Japanese garden, authentic tea house, and woodland, are also well worth a wander.
Wimborne / Mon-Sun 9.30am-5pm
Lyme Regis Museum
Situated on the scenic seafront in the town of Lyme Regis, this family-friendly museum offers a fascinating insight into the area’s ancient past, which has seen it become one of the world’s most renowned sites for finding fossils. As well as fossils galore, the museum also features a captivating new interactive geology gallery, along with a dedicated learning centre where you can find out about Lyme Regis’s rich history, including the long line of acclaimed writers who have called the town home down the years.
Bridge St, Lyme Regis / Tues-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 10am-4pm Closed Mon
One of Britain’s most distinctive survivors of the 17th-century English Civil, this partially demolished castle sits proudly atop a hill overlooking the eponymous village down below. Imbued with 1,000 years of history as a royal palace and fortress, the castle offers visitors the chance to look around its remaining walls, nooks and crannies, while soaking up the breathtaking views across the Isle of Purbeck peninsula.
One of Britain’s most exclusive seaside towns, Sandbanks is renowned for its gorgeous beach, world class seafood restaurants, and opulent coastal homes. Jutting out into the English Channel, the town enjoys spectacular views in every direction – across Poole Harbour, towards Brownsea Island and along the Jurassic coastline. While here you can spend your days pottering about on the blue flag beaches and in the sheltered bathing waters, enjoying coastal hikes, or simply finding a peaceful spot with a seascape backdrop to sit and watch the world go by.
The perfect Dorset family attraction that doesn’t involve traipsing to a beach, this Ape Rescue Centre in Wareham is packed full of primates who have been saved from a harrowing life. Spread over some 65 acres, the spacious and well laid-out venue is both fun and educational, with a daily programme of keepers’ talks that provide a captivating insight into life at the park, its inhabitants, and its ongoing international breeding programmes for endangered species.
Tout Hill, Longthorns, Wareham / Mon-Sun 10am-5pm
Perched in the middle of Poole Harbour, this island wildlife sanctuary provides respite from the hubbub of the mainland. Thriving natural habitats, including woodland, heathland and a lagoon, have created havens for wildlife here, such as the red squirrel and a wide variety of birds. The island is also steeped in history, with several industries, including cattle farming, daffodil farming and pottery, having thrived down the years. Indeed, if you head to Pottery Pier you can still spot shards of the ceramics that were once crafted there.
While Dorset’s best known spots are along its coastline, the county is also home to a smattering of picture-perfect towns and hamlets that can be found inland. One of the most stunning is the village of Milton Abbas, a rural idyll nestled in beautiful countryside and dotted with whitewashed cob and thatch cottages. No surprise, perhaps, that the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown worked on the village’s design.