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The 9 best things to do in Dorset

Explore some of the most expensive properties in the world when exploring our list of best things to do in Dorset

Written by
Grace Allen

From the magical Durdle Door to the lush Argyll Gardens in Bournemouth, the best things to do in Dorset have the power of nature front and centre. How could they not? The third most southerly county in England is blessed with beauty at every turn, with over half of Dorset designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The natural beauty finds its way into the towns, with buzzing farmer's markets, quaint local shops and a sense of community marking Dorset as a delightful place. No matter your preferred style of vacation, Dorset steps up to the plate and smashes it out of the park.

Best things to do in Dorset

Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove
Dave Morton

1. Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove

Where is it? Between Poole and Weymouth. 

What is it? Located on the Lulworth Estate in south Dorset, Durdle Door is an entirely natural limestone arch formed simply by waves eroding a hole through the middle.

Why go? As one of Dorset’s most photographed landmarks, Durdle Door is worth the car journey. This spectacular coastline was designated England’s first natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001. It’s even in the same prestigious family as America’s Grand Canyon and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Better on a sunny day, get there in time to enjoy a good Dorset sunset – a half-hour walk will lead you over to similarly picturesque Lulworth Cove, perfect for a picnic.

Lyme Regis

2. Lyme Regis

Where is it? West Dorset.

What is it? Nicknamed ‘The Pearl of Dorset’, Lyme Regis’s beaches and cliffs form part of the Jurassic Coast. With a bustling harbour and rip-roaring independent shopping and dining scene, Lyme Regis is a year-round treat.

Why go? Lyme Regis is high up on the list of places to visit within Dorset. A popular palaeontology spot for fossil-hunters, there’s even a dedicated annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. But if you’re more interested in frocks than rocks, you’ll find a handful of cute boutiques to browse too. Wolf down fish fingers and chips at light and airy Hix Oyster & Fish House before checking out Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s renowned River Cottage HQ, only a few miles away. If you fancy getting stuck into a cookery course in a rustic farmhouse, this is the place.

Gold Hill

3. Gold Hill

Where is it? Shaftesbury.

What is it? The only real hilltop town in Dorset, Shaftesbury overlooks the lush Blackmore Vale (part of the Stour Valley).

Why go? Shaftesbury had a taste of fame in 1973 with Ridley Scott’s Hovis’s ‘Bike’ advert, which features an industrious young lad pushing his basket of loaves up Gold Hill. The hill looks exactly the same today and hosts an annual ‘Cheese Race’, requiring contestants to cart 25kg wheels of cheese up the steep and cobbled street. 

Brownsea Island

4. Brownsea Island

Where is it? Poole Harbour. 

What is it? The largest of the islands in Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island is where the Scouts originated from back in 1907.

Why go? Accessible by ferry or private boat, Brownsea Island is home to a nature reserve and a great deal of wildlife. Most of the island is owned by the National Trust, but Dorset Wildlife Trust owns a portion of land, too. If you're lucky, you might spot an indigenous red squirrel, spotted Silka deer or roaming peacock. The island features a visitor centre, museum, and a cafe for mid-afternoon cuppa. Consider booking tickets for Brownsea Open Air Theatre, which annually stages open-air Shakespeare plays in a unique setting.


5. Bridport

Where is it? East along the coast from Lyme Regis. 

What is it? The pretty town of Bridport holds a popular farmer’s market every second Saturday of the month.

Why go? Once voted the ‘best Farmer’s Market in Dorset’, you can find over 30 local producers at this twice-monthly Bridport event. Cheese, chutneys, bread, meats, local veg – foodies will agree that there are few nicer ways to spend a weekend than idly browsing a market. In fact, Bridport also holds a weekly market (every Wednesday and Saturday) selling bric-a-brac, clothing, flowers and food. Complete your weekly shopping trip by swinging by Furleigh Estate Vineyard and Winery for a bottle of local wine.

Studland Beach and Nature Reserve

6. Studland Beach and Nature Reserve

Where is it? Just south of Poole. 

What is it? A bracing beach walk is a must when visiting Dorset’s spectacular coastline. Studland Bay in Purbeck features a four-mile stretch of golden, sandy beach.

Why go? Whether you want to crash out on the sand with a good book, embrace a bit of water sport action or tackle one of the Bay’s designated nature trails, Studland Bay has something for everyone. An (almost) 1 kilometre stretch of beach is a designated naturist zone if that's your bag. Beloved hotel and restaurant The Pig is mere moments from the beach and offers simple British garden food as well a snug room for the night.

Hardy’s Cottage

7. Hardy’s Cottage

Where is it? Near Dorchester. 

What is it? No author has captured the essence of the West Country quite like Thomas Hardy. His birthplace is the quintessential country cottage in Higher Bockhampton.

Why go? Hardy was born in this cob and thatch cottage in 1840. Built by his great grandfather, it sits beside nature reserve and woodland Thorncombe Woods (visit in Spring for a bluebell fest). Featuring a pleasingly cute English cottage garden, the house was left much as it was inhabited by the Hardy family. Unlike some historical houses and museums, visitors have access to all the cottage’s nooks and crannies. Venture into the author’s old bedroom, in which he penned early classics ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’. To get the full Thomas Hardy experience, visit nearby Max Gate, the house the author designed and moved to on the outskirts of Dorchester. Both are National Trust properties. Head south to the coast for a glimpse of Chesil Beach, the setting for Hardy’s ‘The Well-Beloved’ and, more recently, Ian McEwen’s ‘On Chesil Beach’. 


8. Sandbanks

Where is it? Poole Harbour. 

What is it? Heard of Sandbanks? This stretch of sand in Poole Harbour is the most expensive bit of coast in Britain.

Why go? With its slightly flashy reputation, pricey Poole Harbour has been likened to Palm Springs (albeit with a chillier climate). Football manager Harry Redknapp famously lives here, and the streak of impressive multi-million-pound houses along Sandbanks is certainly worth a nosy. After a spot of property window shopping, enjoy a slap-up fish lunch at revered seafood spot Storm. Flower lovers should amble over to Compton Acres – this privately owned garden is open to the public and zoned with different themes: Italian garden, Japanese garden, heather garden, and a wilder, wooded area. Stop for a hot beverage at the charming tea room.

Alum Chine and Argyll Gardens

9. Alum Chine and Argyll Gardens

Where is it? Bournemouth.

What is it? For a taste of the tropics, visit the lush Argyll gardens at Alum Chine.

Why go? Alum Chine beach is quieter than those beaches close to Bournemouth town centre, and along with nearby Argyll gardens, this is the ideal spot to spend a peaceful morning. Believed to have origins in the 1920s, the tropical garden thrives because of its (very localised) micro-climate. Capture the very essence of the British beach break by renting a pleasingly pastel-hued beach hut situated along Bournemouth’s seven miles of award-winning beaches.

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