Dorset is a unique holiday destination that combines a host of exciting local attractions with a deep and fascinating history. With everything from impressive National Trust properties and small local museums to the natural wonder of the Jurassic Coast, history lovers will find Dorset to be an embarrassment of riches.
Take a moment to read through our expert guide to Dorset’s best historic attractions and prepare to set out on a timeless holiday full of unforgettable moments.
Dorchester is home to the imposing Maiden Castle, which is rightfully regarded to be one of the most impressive Iron Age hillforts in Europe. The structure dates back to the 1st Century BC and much of the Castle’s history has been uncovered by archaeological excavations during the modern era.
Maiden Castle is today an English Heritage site and can be explored as part of an exhilarating day out. Today you’ll find livestock roaming the grounds rather than Roman soldiers or Neolithic warriors, so you can take your time to explore the castle site and enjoy its long, rolling views. When visiting Maiden Castle it should be noted that there is a small car park on-site, which can become busy during the peak travel seasons. It should also be noted that the fort ramparts are unfortunately not suitable for wheelchairs and that while dogs are welcome to visit the castle, they should be kept on a lead at all times for the protection of local grazing sheep.
As an outdoor attraction, Maiden Castle can be rather exposed, fortunately however the popular destinations of Dorchester and coastal Weymouth are only a short drive away. This means that after you have walked along the ancient wall of this impressive fort, you can go on to enjoy a visit to Dorset’s country town or even a traditional day out on the beach - the choice is yours!
Steam into Swanage
Nothing sparks a feeling of nostalgia like stepping back in time to the golden age of steam travel. The famed Swanage Railway line offers special journeys throughout the year along with views of some truly spectacular scenery along the way. The line boasts one of the most frequent timetables of any heritage line, with a route that will take you through the Purbeck countryside, past the iconic ruins of Corfe Castle and beyond all from delightful surroundings of unique authentic carriages. The Swanage Railway stock of carriages has been fully restored to their former glory, with their original features so you can enjoy a timeless journey with a genuine link to the past.
Pulling into Swanage, near Nestleton will afford you a blissful day of exploring the charming seaside town and its local shops and restaurants before catching the train for an enjoyable trip home.
Real stream-travel enthusiasts should consider attending special events like driving days and dining carriages and joint ticketing options for local attractions such as Corfe Castle Model Village. Special events and journeys can vary throughout the year, so be sure to pay a visit to the Swanage Railway website to find out what is going on.
Following a hugely successful lockdown fundraising appeal, service is now resuming on Swanage Railway. Do check before you travel to avoid disappointment.
The National Trust estate of Kingston Lacy is a remarkable family home that has been given a new life in the style of a Venetian Palace set in the heart of the Dorset countryside. The home was given its current aesthetic during the 19th century, but the home has endured a tumultuous history, with the house being subject to at least two sieges during the English Civil War and later playing host to a large military encampment in the south-east quarter of the park grounds during the Second World War. For the majority of its history Kingston Lacy was owned by the Bankes family, until the death of Ralph Banks in 1981, which saw the bequeathment of the estate to the Nation Trust with the gift being formally accepted in August 1982.
Today the National Trust continues to maintain the home and estate as an enchanting venue for relaxed walks during any time of the year. The estate’s woodlands are home to beautiful snowdrops and bluebells that carpet the ground during the springtime, while azalea, camellia, rhododendron take centre stage during the warmer months.
Back at the house itself, you can tour the ornate rooms and discover the fascinating history of this elegant mansion. Treasures on display include striking wood carvings, exceptional furniture and priceless paintings by Titian and Van Dyke.
Booking in advance is essential right now for tours at Kingston Lacy, following the lockdown. Right now, it’s open on weekends only.
Highcliffe Castle stands as both a world-class holiday attraction and as one of Dorset’s most impressive historic buildings. The significance of this impressive Georgian mansion is highlighted by its Grade 1 listed status, which recognises the status of Highcliffe Castle as perhaps the most important surviving example of the romantic gothic style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, Highcliffe Castle has a fascinating history and despite being gutted by a number of devastating fires during the 1960s, the mansion was fortunately restored during the 1990s through the combined efforts of Christchurch Council, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Highcliffe Castle is now owned and operated by BCP Council, which manages the estate as both one of Dorset’s best tourist attractions and a building of special historic interest.
Since its restoration, Highcliffe Castle has become a truly iconic visitor attraction. In addition to the mansion itself, visitors are able to explore the estate’s beautiful grounds and beach, or even take a walk through the 24-acre Steamer Point Nature Reserve and on into Mudeford.
While Highcliff Castle is undoubtedly an excellent place to visit for its unique architecture and beautiful grounds, there is so much happening through the year that you’ll want to return time and time again! Events and exhibitions are regularly held in the castle and its grounds, while the onsite shop and tearooms will ensure that you have everything you need for a memorable visit. Rooms and grounds are also available for hire for private functions and even weddings, making Highcliff Castle the perfect venue for both magical family occasions and holiday excursions.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Highcliffe Castle, or its events throughout the year be sure to check out the official website.
The Jurassic Coast
Dorset is famed for its Jurassic Coastline, which has been the site of several revolutionary fossil discoveries over the years. One of the great joys of holidaying on the Dorset coastline is the chance to go fossil hunting to uncover your very own historical treasure.
One of the great things about fossil hunting is that the best time to venture out is actually during the winter months. This makes fossil hunting a wonderful pastime to enjoy during the off-season, as the beaches will typically be less busy and the erosion of the coast caused by winter weather can reveal previously hidden fossils.
Beginners looking to try their hand at fossil hunting should consider any on the local beaches between Charmouth and Lyme Regis as both safe and relatively abundant hunting grounds. You won’t need a lot of equipment aside from a keen pair of eyes to discover examples of fossils on the beach, as terrific examples can often simply be found lying amongst the stones and pebbles on the sand. Do keep in mind that if you are fossil hunting during the winter to make sure that you have some good quality footwear and wrap up warm!
Even though fossil hunting can be an exciting and rewarding pastime, it is unlikely that you’ll stumble across a complete dinosaur skeleton (although if you do - we’d love to hear from you!). Fortunately, The Etches Collection in Kimmeridge is a stunning museum of marine life from the Jurassic period, which delivers an immersive look at the natural world and a fantastic opportunity to imagine how the fossilised creatures on display might have lived millions of years ago.