With its magnificent Norman cathedral and castle, and the meandering river Wear, this ancient university city is a great setting for a weekend away, says Cathy Packe


There is no shortage of cultural events in Durham, particularly during the university term, including plenty of concerts in the cathedral (look out for the University Choral Society concert on 21 June). The traditional 169th Regatta takes place on the river Wear on 14-15 June.


Durham is on the East Coast Main Line between Darlington and Newcastle; there are fast and frequent services from London King's Cross and Edinburgh on GNER, plus cross-country services on Virgin Trains from Bristol, Birmingham and Sheffield. For more information call National Rail Enquiries (0845 7484950). The station is a 15-minute walk from the centre of the old city. Newcastle and Teesside airports are both a half-hour drive away. British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) connects Newcastle to Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Heathrow and Southampton; easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyjet.com) flies to Belfast, Bristol and Stansted; and British European (08705 676 676; www.flybe.com) links Belfast to Durham. Flights from Teesside to Heathrow and Jersey are operated by BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.co.uk), and to Aberdeen and Wick by Eastern Airways (01652 680600; www.easternairways.com).


Durham is divided neatly by the river Wear, which loops around the rocky plateau on which the old city was built, all but cutting it off from its surroundings. This area, known as the peninsula, is where many of Durham's oldest ecclesiastical and academic buildings are located, and the atmosphere here is completely different from the more modern part of the city that has grown up around it. The tourist office (0191 384 3720; www.durhamtourism.co.uk) is open Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm, Sun 11am-4pm, and is in the new Millennium Place development, next to Durham's latest cultural addition, the Gala Theatre (0191 332 4041; www.galadurham.co.uk).


The Royal County , by the river on Old Elvet has long been established as the best place in town (0191 386 6821; www.marriotthotels.com/xvudm). Double rooms, including breakfast, cost £110 on Fridays and Saturdays, £140 for the rest of the week. Around the corner on New Elvet is the Three Tuns (0191 386 4326; www.swallowhotels.co.uk/durham); doubles here are £92 for bed and breakfast. Outside university term times, accommodation is available in one of the dozen colleges. They all have their merits, but University College is the most stylish; accommodation is in the castle , and breakfast is served in the Great Hall. Book through the accommodation office on 0191 334 4106. College rooms start at around £20.50 per person for bed and breakfast.


Durham is wonderfully scenic, but the most startling panorama is the one from the railway station . Set on a hill above the city, it is a good vantage point from which to see the castle and cathedral , side by side on the hill opposite.


An hour-long cruise on the Prince Bishop river cruiser (0191 386 9525) is a good way to appreciate the city, and in particular the cathedral , from the water. Trips run daily in summer at 12.30, 2 and 3pm. They leave from Elvet Bridge , and cost £4.50, children £2. For a more energetic river excursion, hire a rowing boat from the boathouse next door (0191 386 3779); these cost £3 per adult, £1.50 per child per hour (£5 deposit).


Start exploring the peninsula by walking along the river path between Framwellgate and Elvet Bridge . This passes the Museum of Archaeology , installed in an 18th-century fulling mill (0191 334 1823; www.dur.ac.uk/fulling.mill), which was once used for the fulling, or cleaning, of cloth. It now explores the city's past from prehistoric to medieval times. It opens daily from 11am-4pm, admission £1. At the bridge, turn towards the Market Place , once the heart of the city, and on to Saddler Street; then continue to the Heritage Centre and museum in the church of St Mary-le-Bow (0191 384 5589) for a glimpse of life in Durham from the 17th century onwards. This opens 2-4.30pm at weekends in May and October; June daily 2-4.30pm; July-September, 11am-4.30pm daily; entrance £1.20. From here walk up the cobbled lane into Palace Green , the heart of the old city that contains the castle , cathedral and several of the oldest university buildings.


The Almshouses restaurant on Palace Green (0191 386 1054) serves a small but appetising selection of hot and cold dishes at lunchtime. The restaurant opens 9am-5pm daily; during the morning or afternoon this is a good place for a coffee stop. In the cathedral itself, the Undercroft restaurant (0191 386 3721) is an excellent alternative. It opens 10am-4.30pm from Monday to Saturday (to 5pm late May to mid-October) and from 10.30am-5pm on Sunday.


The High Street has a good if unoriginal selection of shops; some of those along Saddler Street cater for the more bohemian tastes of the student population. More colourful is the covered market that was built in 1851, when legislation allowed trading activity in the Market Place to move under cover. It opens daily except Sunday. At the top of the stairs leading to the Balcony Bistro is the original bell, once rung at 11pm every Saturday night, to mark the close of trading.


Durham Castle (0191 334 3800; www.durhamcastle.com) was donated to the university in 1832, and students have lived inside ever since – surely the classiest student digs in the country? It was built 900 years ago as a fortress to protect the Normans from the Anglo-Saxons, and later turned into the Bishop's Palace. Unless you know a student who can invite you in, the only way to get beyond the gatehouse is to go on a tour (Mon-Sun 10am-12.30pm and 2-4.30pm, every half hour). This is a fascinating glimpse of a working castle, and highlights include the kitchens, great hall and Bishop Tunstall's chapel.


The latest popular spot is Varsity , at 46 Saddler Street (0191 384 6704; www.varsitybars.com), designed, as its name suggests, to appeal to the student population; it opens Mon-Sat 11am-11pm, and Sun 12-10.30pm. A quainter, and usually quieter, spot to drink a glass or two of the local beer is the Dun Cow at 37 Old Elvet (0191 386 9219).


Durham's restaurants tend to reflect the budgets of the younger, more transient elements of the population, so there are plenty of happy hours, cheap deals and brasserie food. Jimmy Allen's, in an atmospheric dungeon under Elvet Bridge , serves American-style food daily, 11am-11pm (0191 375 7574). Emilio's, on the same bridge (0191 384 0096), does good Italian dishes, and is open Mon-Sat 11.30am-2.30pm and 5.30-10.30pm; Sun 6-10.30pm. For something a little more sophisticated, try Brown's restaurant in the Three Tuns Hotel , which opens Mon-Sat 10.30am-3.30pm, Sun 12-2pm, and daily 7-9.30pm.


Durham Cathedral (0191 386 4266; www.durhamcathedral.co.uk) is the most magnificent Norman church in England, built nearly 1,000 years ago and part of a Benedictine monastery for more than 400 years. The church itself (open daily 7.30am-6pm, to 8pm in summer) contains the tombs of Saint Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, a chapel dedicated to the Durham Light Infantry, and a memorial to the Durham coal miners who always had a close association with the cathedral. A door from the cloisters leads up to the Monks' Dormitory (open from 7 April until 28 Sept, Mon-Sat 10am-3.30pm, Sun 12.30-3.15pm; entrance 80p); this now houses part of the cathedral library. The old monastery kitchen is now used as the cathedral bookshop.


For the heartiest breakfast in town, go to Hide Café at 39 Saddler Street (0191 384 1999). It opens daily 9.30am-11pm, and on Sunday from midday.


There is a bench by the river at the southern end of the weir, where you can sit and admire the cathedral façade, the old fulling mill and the river beneath. It's the most-photographed view in the city – but it's awe-inspiring to see this scene in real life.


The Botanic Garden , behind Collingwood College, is a university research facility, but its beautiful grounds are open daily to the public from 10am-5pm (Hollingside Lane; 0191 334 5324; www.dur.ac.uk; adults £1.75, children 50p). Different areas of the garden include a Himalayan dell, and a fossil fern bed.


The North of England Open Air museum at Beamish (0191 370 4000; www.beamish.org.uk) is an enjoyable experience of life in the North-east as it was lived over the last couple of hundred years. The buildings and other local features were all brought from their original location and reconstructed at the museum. Beamish is 12 miles from Durham, and can be reached on bus 720 which leaves the bus station (0870 608 2608) hourly between 9.55am and 4.55pm; return tickets cost £4.50. The museum is open daily from 5 April until 2 Nov, 10am-5pm (last admission 3pm); it closes Mon and Fri in winter. Entrance is £12, children £7; all tickets £4 in winter.