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Best hotels in County Durham 2023: Where to stay for pub walks, historic charm and family holidays

This small but mighty county has it all – coast, countryside, historic charm and top-notch hotels

Helen Pickles
Tuesday 25 April 2023 17:27 BST
Take a break from it all at a historic castle or relax at a private spa
Take a break from it all at a historic castle or relax at a private spa (Lumley Castle)

There’s far more to Durham than its namesake city – historic and photogenic though it is. Just three hours by train from London, the small but perfectly formed county in North East England has a beautiful, bracing coastline, alongside miles of soft, green hinterland and heather moorland. With walking and cycling trails that criss-cross the county and views that stretch for miles, Country Durham’s great outdoors are ripe for exploring, whether on two feet or two wheels.

But there’s more than breathtaking countryside and coast on offer. You’ll discover picture-postcard market towns scattered among the Dales, boasting indie shops, cute tea rooms and cosy pubs. You certainly won’t be stuck for finding a warming drink and delicious food on your doorstep.

If you’re after more of a cultural city break, historic Durham itself oozes charm. Kick off with a visit to its famous cathedral and castle before taking a tour of the museums, botanical gardens, and a host of other cultural attractions. Travelling with kids in tow? They may just recognise some cinematic backdrops used in films such as Harry Potter, Avengers: Endgame as well as TV-hit Downton Abbey.

As for where to stay, nowhere is very far from anywhere else in this county, so you can take your pick from a mix of city and country pads. While the city, unsurprisingly, has the buzzier places, first-timers might be surprised by the clutch of swanky country house hotels – often bubbling with spas. There are also smartened-up inns that nicely balance a traditional locals’ bar with cosseting bedrooms. Here’s our pick of the best hotels to call home during your County Durham break.

Best hotel for city buzz: Hotel Indigo

Neighbourhood: Durham city

This magnificent hotel will fulfil your Victorian dreams (Hotel Indigo)

In the city’s former County Council offices, this is a clever repurposing of a Victorian red-brick and stone building that bursts with civic pride, from its marbled staircase to its domed tower. Although part of a chain, Hotel Indigo aims to give each hotel a “neighbourhood feel”, hence you’ll find lots of nods to academia (Durham is one of England’s oldest universities) and the city’s cathedral.

The 83 rather masculine bedrooms – spread across a warren of floors and corridors – are lightly themed, perhaps featuring a tie-striped rug or ecclesiastical-style chair. The restaurant – in the striking, circular, oak-panelled former council chamber – is a Marco Pierre White steakhouse, so quite meaty. The hotel’s an easy stroll to the river or 10 minutes to the castle and cathedral.

Best for good-value stays: The Kingslodge Inn

Neighbourhood: Flass Vale, Durham city

The Kingslodge retains a country pub feel (Kingslodge Inn)

In a tricky to find but surprisingly quiet and handy location – 10 minutes from both the station and the market place – this former coaching inn has been jollied up into a bright and cheery, welcome-to-all sort of place.

The open-plan bar-restaurant has a folksy, rustic style, with tartan carpets, panelling and brickwork, mis-matched chairs, and collections of paraphernalia. Food is cheerful, crowd-pleasing stuff – pizzas, steaks, fish and chips – with equally upbeat staff.

Bedrooms are modest, with plaid carpets and frill-free furnishings. But it’s a tick in the box for somewhere well-priced to rest before another day’s sightseeing.

Best for a traditional pub feel: Victoria Inn

Neighbourhood: Durham city

One of the cosy rooms at the Victoria Inn, Durham (Victoria Inn)

Close to Durham prison (handy if you’re visiting) and many of the colleges, and a five-minute walk across the river to the market place, this well-named pub is a determinedly unreconstructed Victorian hostelry.

Step straight into a small bar (there’s also a “back” room and “front” room), with blackened floorboards, red banquettes, real fires, Victorian prints and Staffordshire pottery. There’s an impressive collection of whiskies, as well as around five local real ales, plus games of dominoes and boisterous local craic.

The six smallish bedrooms are neatly furnished in a cottagey style – all come with bathtubs.

Best hotel for stepping back in history: Lumley Castle Hotel

Neighbourhood: Chester-le-Street

The kind of place you’d lock up a princess (or spend a lovely weekend) (Lumley Castle)

Picture a child’s drawing of a fairy-tale castle, and it’s unlikely to be too dissimilar to this hotel. The 14th-century building, with towers, battlements and courtyards, sits commandingly above the River Wear.

Inside, you’ll find stone-flagged halls and passageways, vaulted ceilings, tapestries and gilt-framed paintings, and acres of red velvet. The castle bedrooms are satisfyingly atmospheric, too. Those in the courtyard and mews are medievally themed, and all are on the generous side. Traditional English food is served in the romantic, vaulted dining room.

Durham’s international cricket ground spreads out below, while both Durham city and Newcastle are a 20-minute drive (or reached even quicker by train – the station’s a five-minute taxi ride away).

Best hotel for a swanky spa: Seaham Hall

Neighbourhood: Seaham

Treat yourself to a stay in one of Seaham Hall’s suites (Seaham Hall)

The setting is a bit unlikely – a coastal, ex-mining town – but this splendidly white Georgian mansion stands proudly alone in its parkland, untroubled by its surrounds. Indeed, most guests don’t feel the need to stray far – a 10-minute walk to a modest beach is usually the limit – as the spa is the focal point of most stays.

The vast (17 treatment rooms) Asian-themed affair accessed by a subterranean walkway – plus pool, outdoor hot tubs and a “thermal experience” – can be quite exhausting.

Suites (nothing so basic as a room, here) are generous to a fault, with soft-as-butter carpets, velvet fabrics, dashing feature wallpapers and vast bathrooms, some with hot tubs. Dine posh in the glitzy main restaurant or Pan-Asian in the spa.

Price: Doubles from £315

Book now

Best hotel for a weekend in the country: Headlam Hall

Neighbourhood: Headlam village, Darlington

Relax and unwind in this countryside house (Headlam Hall)

All country house hotels promise relaxation, but what makes Headlam stand out is that it’s family owned with a hands-on presence, and everything is on a modest rather than flamboyant scale. Yes, there’s a spa, pool, hot tub and even tennis and golf, but nothing over the top (golf is a nine-hole course, for example).

It’s nicely historical – Jacobean core, Georgian and Victorian additions – with comfortable rather than showy interiors. Think rugs on flagged floors, a pretty drawing room, panelled hall and hunting prints.

Bedrooms are modern country house in style, with the odd antique in main hall rooms, more rustic in the mews and more contemporary in the new-build spa block.

Food mixes fancy fine dining with the more rustic, and there’s a charming walled garden to wander around, helping you work up an appetite.

Price: Doubles from £145

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Best for good walks and fine food: The Rose & Crown

Neighbourhood: Romaldkirk, Barnard Castle

The perfect spot for a Sunday roast (and you can bring four-legged friends with you) (Rose & Crown)

Next to the church and opposite the village green, this creeper-covered Georgian coaching inn is your archetypal village hostelry, subtly smartened up for today’s discerning guests. The bar and snug are still low-ceilinged, horse-brassed and warmed by a fire, but not over-cluttered.

Modern British cooking – Teesdale lamb is a speciality – is served up in the oak-panelled dining room, as is a handsome breakfast that will fire you up for a day’s walking, with many routes straight from the door.

Dogs are welcome, with large, hound-friendly bedrooms in the courtyard rooms (more contemporary), while the pub rooms are more characterful with exposed-stone walls and window-seats.

Price: Doubles from £140

Book now

Best for a family-friendly hotel: Ramside Hall

Neighbourhood: near Durham city

With treehouses for the kids, plus golf, gym and spa, this is an all-round family pleaser (Ramside Hall)

This family-run hotel has expanded over the years from a faux-castellated Victorian hall into a sprawling, slightly corporate affair. It has around 130 bedrooms – all large, modern and handsome, with plaid carpets, shiny feature walls and spoiling bathrooms. It also has some striking treehouses (great for families) and a plethora of playthings.

There are two golf courses, a 25m pool, flashy gym and a huge spa. The latter includes all the latest must-haves, such as an outdoor vitality pool.

Lounges and bars are dotted around the complex, and there are four restaurants. The views aren’t the most inspiring, but it’s only five minutes from the A1 and a further five minutes to Durham city.

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