20 Muddy approved attractions in Dorset
From the big-beast tourist destinations to our cool insider alternatives, read on for our pick of 20 unmissable attractions in Dorset
Whether you live in Dorset, are just visiting for the day or staying for longer, here’s what to see and do plus a big helping of insider Muddy know-how to guide you away far from the madding crowds.
Headliner: Corfe Castle
Your archetypal ruined castle, the dramatic 1000-year-old 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. There’s a miniature version of the castle and village nearby.
In-the-know intel: Portland Castle, the Isle of Portland
Overlooking Portland Harbour, this very well-preserved fortification was built by Henry VIII in the 1540s to protect against French and Spanish invasion, used as a seaplane station in the First World War I and a training base in the Second. Interactive stuff for kids and fab views.
Headliner: Monkey World, Wareham
Go meet some of your closest relatives in the 65-acre ape rescue centre, which provides sanctuary for hundreds of rescued (from labs, circuses, pet shops, etc) and endangered primates from around the world. You might have seen this place on TV?
In-the-know intel: Swanage Railway, Swanage
Take a ride on a steam train from the blue flag beach seaside resort of Swanage to Corfe Castle and back again.
Headliner: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth
The Victorian Sir Merton Russell-Cotes built this extravagant cliff-top house as a birthday pressie for his wife Lady Annie. Together they filled it with Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art and loads of fascinating artefacts from their travels around the world. Lovely gardens too.
In-the-know intel: Sculpture by the Lakes, near Dorchester
While away a few hours meandering around the 26 acres of deep-water lakes and wildflower and native grass meadows dotted with thirty sculptures by former lawyer turned sculptor Simon Gudgeon.
Headliner: Durdle Door, near Lulworth Cove
Probably Dorset’s most iconic attraction, the natural limestone arch was formed by the sea around 140 million years ago. The picture-postcard, almost circular, Lulworth Cove is right next door and a fossil forest close by. This part of the Jurassic coast is part of the Lulworth Estate; you can park at the top and walk down a steep path to the pebbly beaches below but beware – as you’ve probably seen in the news – it can get very crowded.
In-the-know intel: Worbarrow Bay, near Lulworth and Wareham
A few miles further on but without the hoards: the sweeping circular Worbarrow Bay (BH20 5DE). The beach is only accessible when the army’s Lulworth Ranges are closed and reached via a footpath from the free car park at the fascinating ghost village of Tyneham, whose residents left their homes in 1943.
Headliner: The Jetty, Mudeford, Christchurch
Multi-award-winning fish and seafood restaurant slap bang on the waterfront in the grounds of the Christchurch Harbour Hotel & Spa. Chef Patron Alex Aitken started life as a trawler man, taught himself to cook, won a Michelin star at his Hampshire restaurant Le Poussin before coming here to cook up fab fish caught and landed daily from Mudeford Quay. Meat, veggie and vegan options too.
In-the-know intel: Dorshi, Bridport
Michelin-listed, laid-back eaterie with East Asian/Modern British small plates, dumplings and not dumplings – perfect for sharing – cocktails, takeaways and provisions.
Headliner: Mapperton House, near Beaminster
The Italianate gardens at the Jacobean house near Beaminster (home to the Earl and Countess of Sandwich) have been shortlisted as Historic Houses Garden of the Year 2020.
In-the-know intel: Keyneston Mill, Tarrant Keyneston, near Blandford Forum
You’re in for a heady experience at the UK’s largest private botanic garden devoted to aromatic and scented flowers. Home to Parterre Fragrances, there are over 1,500 varieties of fragrant plants and flowers grown on the 50-acre estate. Tours, events, shop and cafe – and I expect you can pick up some perfume too.
Headliner: Rockreef, Bournemouth
Test your skills – and your nerve – on the end of Bournemouth Pier, with 28 themed climbing walls, a high line aerial obstacle course, a stomach-churning vertical slide and the world’s only pier-to-shore zip wire.
In-the-know intel: Lyme Bay RIB Charter, West Bay
High speed thrills and a massive adrenaline rush – or a more sedate cruise – along the Jurassic coast.
Headliner: Monart Spa, Poundbury
Super luxe day spa with eight different types of spa experience – thermal Suite, Sauna, Salarium, Caldarium, Aroma Steam Room Polaris Ice Fountain, Salt Grotto, Experience Showers – and a hydrotherapy infinity pool, relaxation lounges and skincare/beauty treatment rooms. Shall I go on? Read our review.
Go to the bottom of the garden at The Pig-on the beach for a luxury spa treatment. The Potting Shed Treatment Rooms are two cute shepherd’s huts overlooking the spectacular Old Harry Rocks.
Headliner: Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour
Take the ferry from Poole Quay across to the National Trust-managed island, with its variety of habitats – woodland, heathland and a lagoon – and wealth of wildlife. It’s one of the very few places in the UK that you might spot a rare red squirrel.
In-the-know intel: Badger Watch Dorset, near Dorchester
Arrive around 6.15 and stay until midnight if you like to watch badgers emerge from their setts and forage for food – you might see owls, foxes, rabbits and bats, too.
Headliner: Kingston Lacy, Wimborne
You could spend a whole day at this National Trust house inspired by a 17th century Venetian mansion and stuffed with paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian, Brueghel and the largest private collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the UK. The grounds are spectacular, too: a seven-acre Japanese Garden is in the pink with cherry blossom in Spring and turns a fiery red in Autumn with 40 varieties of acer; the wider 8,500-acre estate takes in Holt Heath National Nature Reserve and Badbury Rings.
In-the-know intel: Athelhampton, near Dorchester
Have a snoop around the privately-owned – magnificent – Athelhampton House with its spectacular Tudor interiors (wood panelled walls, pargetted ceilings, stained glass windows) and 19th-century formal gardens. Cafe and live ballet too, sometimes.