Dorset Holiday Planning Guide
Celebrated novelist Thomas Hardy lived most of his life in Dorset and used it as a setting in many of his finest works. Today, tourists from around the globe come here for their great English adventure. A Dorset vacation can take you through a variety of landscapes, including steep chalk hills, wide clay valleys, and a series of small but thriving dairy farms. Arguably the most important attraction of this rural region is the enormous Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site stretching for over 155 km (96 mi). A tour along this coastline, with its fossil-rich beaches and secluded bays, is a trip through time: the landforms document the geologic developments that have shaped the surface of our planet over hundreds of millions of years.
Places to Visit in DorsetPoole
: Visit this tourist resort for everything you want in a Dorset holiday, including beaches, a large natural harbor, and history as an important port in the wool trade. Bournemouth
: This former health resort located directly east of the Jurassic Coast draws tourists with its long sandy beach, water sports, and active nightlife scene.Weymouth
: Make a stop at this classic English harbor town, where you can lounge on the 4.8 km (3 mi) long beach, stroll around the restored historical harbor, or try some water sports at the sailing site for the 2012 Olympic games. Lyme Regis
: Use this fossil-filled town as your base for exploring the nearby Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site. Landslides along the seaside cliffs expose fossils of ancient creatures--you might even find some while having a day on the sandy beach. Swanage
: First a small fishing village, then a resort for the wealthy, today this seaside tourist retreat makes a great stop on your Dorset itinerary for its beach and calm bay. Dorchester
: Book a stay in this town to immerse yourself in the world of writer Thomas Hardy, who based his fictional Casterbridge on this town. Explore the streets lined with red and white brick Georgian terraces, hunt for streets and locations he made reference to in his books, or go further back in time with a visit to nearby archeological sites.
Things to Do in Dorset
Popular Dorset Tourist AttractionsBournemouth Beach
: Take a dip in the calm blue water or lounge on the clean sand of this 11 km (5 mi) long beach, where protective cliffs create a microclimate with some of the warmest sea temperatures in the UK. You can also take a hike up the cliffs to see remarkable views of the sea and the Isle of Wight and Purbecks beyond. Monkey World
: Pay a visit to the 13 primate species that call this expansive 26.3 hectare (65 acre) nature park home, or sit in on one of the many talks put on by the organization to learn more about them. Weymouth Beach
: This Dorset attraction embodies the relaxed English coast experience, with a wide sandy beach, quaint beachfront shops, and a pier perfect for a seaside stroll. Lulworth Cove
: This striking natural rock formation arching into the sea makes the perfect place for a moderate hike and picnic. Corfe Castle
: Built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, today these hilltop castle ruins offer a tour through history and fantastic views of the village below.Swanage Railway
: Take a journey on this heritage railway, where a fleet of vintage trains, including steam locomotives, brings you through 9.7 km (6 mi) of breathtaking scenery and Dorset attractions, including Corfe Castle, Jurassic Coast, and historical villages. Stop in a dining car to enjoy a delicious meal or fine tea as you travel in style. Weymouth SEA LIFE Adventure Park
: This aquarium and animal park is home to over over 1,000 animals. Step into a clear tunnel to experience fish, turtles, and sharks swimming all around you, climb the 50 m (164 ft) tower to get a 360 degree view of the coastline below, or enjoy the many kid-friendly rides and water play area. Oceanarium
: Add this tech-filled aquarium to your list of things to do in Dorset and view live sea creatures in ten recreated environments. Don't miss the interactive dive cage, a virtual reality experience that lets visitors experience a 270 degree view of the ocean, replete with marine life. Brownsea Island
: The natural beauty of this island, including two lakes and hiking trails through forests, was the site of the first Boy Scout campground. Today visitors can learn about the history of the islands, including the Boy Scouts and a castle, and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum
: This art nouveau building is a work of art itself, and houses an extensive permanent collection and twice-yearly temporary exhibitions.
Planning a Dorset Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Dorset with Kids
A vacation in Dorset is a fantastic choice when traveling with children, as the area is filled with sandy beaches, exciting fossils, and many attractions tailored to visiting families. Poole
is an obvious choice, serving as a great base for beach days, visiting the Jurassic Coast
World Heritage Site, or trying some new water sports. Swanage
also makes a great location for a Dorset holiday with children, as it has a calm bay for swimming and is conveniently located near many attractions the family will love. You should definitely plan to spend some time in Lyme Regis
, a hot spot for fossil hunting that will delight aspiring paleontologists.
Things to Do in Dorset with Kids
There are plenty of entertaining and inspiring family vacation ideas in Dorset; the region has everything you need to have a relaxing and fun time together. Of course, you’ll want to get in a few beach days in the coastal region--try Bournemouth Beach
, where a special microclimate due to overhanging cliffs creates unusually warm water, letting the kids splash around for longer without getting too cold. To learn more about the creatures that live in the sea, check out Oceanarium
, where kids can see live animals and experience a virtual reality version of being swallowed by a whale, or Weymouth SEA LIFE Adventure Park
, where rides, creatures, and live shows will delight young visitors. Don't forget the loveable residents at Monkey World
, where you can get up close to over a dozen kinds of monkeys and other primates. Take a trip back in time with a journey on Swanage Railway
, where train enthusiasts of all ages have the chance to ride on a real steam locomotive. For a dose of the fine arts, add Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum
to your Dorset itinerary. The child-friendly museum includes a designated play area for little ones, plus activities, such as detective hunts, for older children. For a hands-on creative experience, visit Sandworld Sculpture Park
, where you can view incredible sculptures crafted out of sand and have a go at it yourself in their covered sand sculpting area.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Dorset
Renting a car will be the easiest way for you and your family to get around on your Dorset trip. Trains can be a fun alternative, whereas children may have a hard time staying in their seats on longer coach bus tours. There is a ton to do with kids in the area, so prevent burnout by interspersing high energy activities such as amusement parks with more laid-back days at the beach. When it comes to dining out, most cafes and teashops welcome younger guests, but restaurants are not always a sure thing. Some welcome families, providing high chairs and kids’ menus, while others have strict policies where children are not allowed after 6pm. Call before you head out to dine to check the venue’s policies.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Dorset
Cuisine of Dorset
The cuisine of the region is heavily influenced by the surrounding area, including the farmland and ocean, and has recently become very involved in the organic movement. On your Dorset vacation, consider trying a dish that highlights the region's produce, such as lettuce soup--a local favorite similar in flavor to asparagus soup. Haddock casserole and mackerel baked in cider are two ways to enjoy the bounty of the sea. If you're up for something meaty, try dishes made with lamb or beef from animals who graze in the region’s pastures. Portland sheep is a special breed native to the Isle of Portland
, and was one of the first that had lambs throughout the year, providing a steady supply of the tender meat. Sweeten your trip to Dorset with a sample of Dorset apple cake or pudding made with gooseberries. Another notable baked good is the Dorset knob, a dry savory biscuit only produced during January and February, and typically eaten with cheese or soaked in sweet tea.
Shopping in Dorset
With its bustling markets, lively shopping streets, and waterfront areas filled with small, independent stores, shopping is a major attraction in Dorset. Markets make a great place to visit for lively people-watching, picking up some local treats for a picnic, or purchasing antiques or crafts as souvenirs to bring back home. Bridport Market
is especially well known, with its wide selection of produce as well as antiques and bric-a-brac. The fossils found along Jurassic Coast
also present an opportunity to purchase very special souvenirs: Lyme Regis
has a number of shops dedicated to fossils. The Fossil Workshop
, for example, has a broad selection of fossils available for purchase as well as friendly and knowledgeable staff who can help you identify and clean fossils you find yourself while exploring the area. Make your own souvenir of your Dorset holiday at Stuart Wiltshire Glass
, where a knowledgeable craftsperson will guide you through the glass-blowing process.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Dorset
History of Dorset
Dorset is thought to have been inhabited by humans since around 12,500 BCE. As more people came over from Europe, the population adopted agricultural practices and cleared a lot of wooded areas for farming and raising animals. The high hills of Dorset have made it a strategic point for defense for centuries, as evidenced by the many Bronze Age and Iron Age hill forts in the area. To see how Iron Age settlers defended themselves, visit Maiden Castle
, a large fort with great views of the surrounding green landscape.
The area was invaded by Romans in 56 BCE, when they landed in Poole Harbour
. This prompted a disruption of trade and a period of scarcity in the region. By the 1st century CE, the area had recovered somewhat and was exporting grain to the rest of the Roman Empire. There are many remaining artifacts from the Roman period that you can visit on your tour of Dorset. For example, Romano-British House
in the town of Dorchester
--a major Roman settlement--features well-preserved mosaics and an aqueduct.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, from about 400 CE to 650 CE the region of present-day Dorset was an independent British kingdom. The geography of the region, including the coastline and defensive ditch in what is today the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
, protected the area from Saxon invasion. But when the Roman road over the ditch was reconstructed in the 6th century, the Saxons began to advance and eventually took over the area. The church became increasingly powerful under Saxon rule, building many monasteries and churches, including Sherborne Abbey
, which you can visit today during your Dorset holiday. It was in the Middle Ages that the area started drawing visitors, attracting the nobility for hunting and fishing; the 12th and 13th centuries proved very prosperous for the region and the population increased. It was also in the medieval period that the region--and especially Bridport
--became a popular manufacturing site for rope, an industry that continues to this day. However, Dorset was hit particularly hard by the Black Death, which probably came to England in 1348 through port towns such as modern-day Weymouth
During the Tudor and Georgian periods the monastic estates broke up and agriculture advanced, creating larger settlements and growing the population of the region. The English Civil War in the 17th century saw the region divided, with some areas such as Sherborne Old Castle
acting as royalist strongholds, and others, such as the town of Lyme Regis
, falling strongly in the Parliamentarian camp. After the war, a cottage industry of textiles, sailmaking, and lace flourished. However, with the start of the Industrial Revolution the region could not compete with the newly mechanized mills in other areas. The remaining farming economy sparked the trade union movement, with local farm workers forming one of the first unions in the 1820s. In the 19th century, major railways opened in the area, bringing increased mobility to the region. Get a sense for 19th-century steam locomotive travel with a ride on the heritage Swanage Railway
. Beginning in the early 1800s when King George III took his holiday in Weymouth, Dorset tourism become a major industry, and now rivals agriculture as the area's most important economic activity. During World War I and II, the region served as an important naval site, especially the harbor in Portland, which was a major base for the British Navy.
Landscape of Dorset
With a unique geography that includes fossils, coastline, forests, pastures, and chalk hills, you will have many opportunities to appreciate the area's natural beauty on your trip to Dorset. The terrain consists mostly of chalk, clay, mixed sand and gravel, and stone, including some that is fossil-rich. The area has chalk hills and limestone ridges separated by valleys and floodplains. A visit to the Jurassic Coast
is an essential stop on any Dorset itinerary. This World Heritage Site is a hotbed for professional and amateur paleontologists, who can hike around and collect fossils. The area is home to two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including Cranborne Chase
, where you can walk through pastureland and wetlands, getting beautiful views of the rolling green hills. To enjoy a coastal hike, walk along the beach and cliffs of Hengistbury Head
, where you can see great views of the steel blue ocean. Pack a picnic and head for a trek around Lulworth Cove
to see one of the region’s most unusual landscape features: a natural stone arch that curves from cliffs into the ocean. Another perfect picnicking and hiking spot is Brownsea Island
, where the variety of landscape includes woodland favored by wildlife such as spritely red squirrels, deer, and birds.
Holidays & Festivals in Dorset
The region has a number of traditional and charmingly quirky festivals that make lively additions to any Dorset itinerary. As it is a major agricultural region, many of the festivals celebrate local farming and food: foodies should check out the Christchurch
Food and Wine Festival held every spring to sample the best flavors of the county. The Dorset Knob Throwing festival celebrates all things associated with the famous biscuit, including knob eating and throwing contests, knob painting, and a knob and spoon race. Another eccentric celebration not to be missed is the Bridport
Hat Festival, with music, entertainers, and lots of outlandish headwear. The region's rich history provides many other things to do in Dorset, including the Great Dorset Steam Fair in August, which celebrates steam engines, or the Lyme Regis
Fossil Festival, where you can learn all about the dinosaurs and other creatures preserved in the area's geology. Art and culture lovers will enjoy relaxing at the Swanage
Jazz Festival in July.
Dorset Travel Tips
Climate of Dorset
Dorset has a more moderate climate than the rest of England, with warm summers and mild winters. Average winter temperatures fall in the range of 4.5 to 8.7 C (40.1 to 47.7 F), with some snow falling. Summer temperatures are warm, averaging 19.1 to 22.2 C (66.4 to 72.0 F). Like the rest of England, the weather can be unpredictable, so be sure to bring rain gear and check the forecast. While the mild climate makes it a good location to visit year-round, the majority of tourists plan their Dorset holiday in the summer, when most attractions are open and the beach is more enjoyable.
Transportation in Dorset
Renting a car will be the easiest way to get around on your Dorset holiday, especially if you plan on visiting more remote attractions and nature areas. A few train and bus lines also service the region. Buses run between main towns and to some rural areas. The main train line runs from Bristol to Bath, while another runs from London to Weymouth, servicing Southampton, Bournemouth, Dorchester South, and Poole along the way. For a transportation option that is itself a Dorset attraction, take a ride on one of the well-maintained antique steam locomotives of the Swanage Railway