10 unmissable things to do in Dorset
Secret beaches, naked giants, a ghost village, historic houses, castles, marvellous markets, wonderful walks and more.
Some of our favourite things to do around our glorious county. Always check the websites before setting off, book beforehand if necessary and have a great time.
1. Have a gander at a giant
No one knows the origin of the Cerne Abbas Giant, a huge naked man carved into the chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas. Could be pre-historic, Roman or, according to recently excavated snail shells, medieval. Either way, he’s clearly pleased to see you. The village itself is pretty and The New Inn, with a courtyard, orchard garden and luxury rooms, well worth a visit for a drink, meal or as a base to discover the area.
2. Cop a castle
Your archetypal ruined castle, the dramatic 1000-year-old Corfe Castle, partially destroyed during the English Civil War in 1646, is fun to scramble over, with arrow slits, murder holes and great views of the surrounding Isle of Purbeck. In Sherborne, Sir Walter Raleigh (potatoes, tobacco, lost his head over Elizabeth I) loved living in the 12th century Sherborne Old Castle, so much he built his own one – the ‘new’ Sherborne Castle – right next door. Other Dorset castles include the 17th century Lulworth Castle, a former hunting lodge for aristos and royalty; and artillery fort Portland Castle on the Isle of Portland.
3. Explore a ghost village
Back in 1943, the residents left Tyneham near Lulworth, so the village could be used as an army training ground – and they never returned. Today you can have a mooch around the ruined cottages, schoolhouse and the church and then pootle 20 mins down a path to Worbarrow Bay, another of Dorset’s spectacular yet less popular coves. All makes for a great day out.
4. Hang out on a hill fort
Dorset’s Iron Age hill forts could have been fortifications against enemies or status symbols for local bigwigs (no one knows for sure) but today the ancient earthworks are impressive, vast landscapes with ramparts and ditches, abundant wildlife, spectacular views and wonderful walks. Hambledon Hill near Child Okeford and Maiden Castle near Dorchester are two of the best.
5. Don’t jump off Durdle Door (but do explore the Jurassic Coast)
Limestone arch Durdle Door near Lulworth Cove is the county’s most iconic landmark but it’s just one of the spectacular sites along the Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, which stretches 95 miles from Exmouth in Devon to Swanage in Dorset.
Go fossil hunting in Charmouth, Lyme Regis and Kimmeridge Bay. Climb to the highest point on the whole of the south coast of England at Golden Cap for breathtaking views along the coast. The sumptuous golden cliffs at West Bay (as seen on Broadchurch) lie at the western end of the sweeping 18-mile shingle ridge of Chesil Beach. The pebbles start pea-sized and get progressively bigger as you walk eastwards towards Portland. This National Trust walk from Scratch Arse Ware (real name) near Langston Matravers will take you to down to Dancing Ledge which has a sea water swimming pool in the rocks (the sea itself is too dangerous here). In Swanage, take a circular walk past the dazzlingly white chalk stacks Old Harry Rocks.
6. Re-create an iconic advert
Ridley Scott filmed a boy with a bike taking bread to ‘the top of the world’ (cue Dvořák’s New World Symphony) here in 1973. Today you can stand at the top of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury and survey the extensive views across the Blackmore Vale – take a pic or two – before walking down the steep cobbled street. To find Gold Hill, walk down the alley to the right of St Peter’s Church, off the High Street. Get your breath back over in the former Georgian coach house The Grosvenor Arms, with cut above food and lovely rooms.
7. Escape the crowds on one of Dorset’s secret beaches
Everyone flocks to the popular sandy beaches at Bournemouth, Swanage, Weymouth and Lyme Regis but those in the know head for those off the beaten track. Check out Eype beach (DT6 6AL) near Bridport; Chapman’s Pool (BH19 3LL), just past St Aldhelm’s Head near Worth Matravers; Studland’s South Beach (BH19 3AN); Mupe Bay just round the corner from Lulworth Cove (OS grid ref SY 8434 7993); former smuggler’s cove Church Ope Cove (DT5 1HT) on the Isle of Portland ; Gundimore Beach at Mudeford (BH23 4AG) with views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight; and Shipstal beach in the Arne RSPB reserve (BH20 5BJ).
8. Find Antony Gormley’s Falling Man in a quarry
On sunny days, with its rocky coastline, birds, sea lavender and blue, blue seas, the Isle of Portland, a ‘tied island’ just south of Weymouth, could almost be a Greek island. Good walks, wildlife, a red and white lighthouse – and Antony Gormley’s ‘Still Falling’ in the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park. PS don’t mention rabbits while you’re on Portland; say ‘long-earred furry things’ or ‘bunnies’ instead. The word is taboo here, perhaps dating back to the times when quarry workers associated their burrows with rockfalls or landslides. Cracking shellfish and fresh fish at The Crab House Cafe in Wyke Regis.
9. View a miniature national gallery in a Venetian palace
As seen on Channel 4’s George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked (Sun 23 Aug). In Victorian times, William John Bankes, forced into exile in Venice as a gay man, remodelled the 17th century mansion Kingston Lacey, near Wimborne Minster to resemble a Venetian palace, created exotic Spanish and Egyptian rooms and filled the house with art by the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck and Titian. The gardens aren’t half bad either.
Other country houses in Dorset include the 19th century Romantic style Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch, once home to Harry Selfridge, founder of Selfridges department store. Tudor Manor house Athelhampton House, near Dorchester, with Elizabethan-style gardens, restaurant and live ballet. The Italianate gardens at the Jacobean Mapperton House, near Beaminster (home to the Earl and Countess of Sandwich) have been shortlisted as Historic Houses Garden of the Year 2020, and well worth a look.
10. Mooch the markets in pretty Bridport
Bridport’s three main streets are lined with market stalls from 8am – mid-afternoon every Weds and Saturday, with lots of vintage stuff on Saturdays down on South Street. There’s a farmer’s market the second Saturday from 9am–2pm, with over 30 local producers and if you’re into vintage, Bridport’s got a big vintage scene (without the London prices) down on and around the St Micheal’s Trading Estate and two auction houses, Busby and Bridport Auctions, where you might pick up something quirky for a few quid. Lots of independent cafes and eateries for when you need refreshment.