"Few city skylines stir the soul as movingly as that of Durham..."
Few city skylines stir the soul as movingly as that of Durham. Arrive by train (right-hand side if travelling north) to get the finest view: the three towers of the cathedral and mighty bulk of the castle, sitting atop their rocky outcrop, soar heavenwards. No wonder they were one of the first landmarks to be created a World Heritage Site. The joy of the city is that it mixes the old with the new: culture with cafés, history with shopping.
Get your bearings
Starting at Elvet Bridge, take a walk along the River Wear, which loops around the steep-sided banks. With wooded slopes towering above, you get a real feel for the city's defensive position. Pause at Prebends Bridge for the dreamy view of the cathedral and castle (painted by Turner), then admire the fine Georgian houses on South Street, opposite, while keeping an eye out for some of the university's rowing team powering by on the river.
Head up to Palace Green where the cathedral, considered the finest Norman building in Europe, seems to fill the sky. High spots include the nave's rib-vaulting and carved pillars, tombs of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, Galilee Chapel and the Treasury. Vying for attention across Palace Green is the Norman (though much rebuilt) castle. Originally the home of the Bishops of Durham, it's now part of the University (England's third oldest), offering impressive student accommodation! Guided tours include the Great Hall, kitchen (still in use), Norman chapel and 17th-century oak staircase.
Dive down a narrow alley off Saddler Street, below Palace Green, to Vennels (71 Saddler Street), a café spread over two creaky floors and famed for its homemade scones (they're huge) and cakes (try the flapjacks or banoffee pie). If it's sunny, sit in the charming courtyard. For excellent coffee plus good-value, simple snacks, try Flat White, a slip of a funky café with exposed brick walls and mismatched furniture just above the river (21a Elvet Bridge).
Take a stroll
A 20-minute walk south of the city brings you to the leafy surroundings of the university, and two hidden gems. Everything you wanted to know about Eastern arts can be found at the Oriental Museum, from 3000BC burial jades to Zen suicide swords, Islamic metalwork to Chinese dynastic dragon robes. Across the other side of South Road is Durham University's Botanic Garden whose 24 acres include a bamboo grove, hothouses of tropical plants and cacti (plus scorpions and tarantulas), wildflower meadow, North American tree trail as well as quirky artworks, including a Millennium Bug and her buglets.
Hit the shops
For the unusual and one-off, head to the area around Silver Street, Saddler Street and Elvet Bridge. Tucked behind Silver Street is Fowlers Yard - a clutch of artists' and craftworkers' studios where you can pick up original jewellery, textiles and tapestry work. On Elvet Bridge you'll find designer clothes at Van Mildert or antiquarian books at John Shotton. A wander up Saddler Street, with its elaborate shop fronts - Doric columns, bow-front windows, some dating back to Tudor times - will reveal quirky home furnishings, a cookshop, bohemian clothes and witty gifts. Save time for the covered Victorian market. More than 50 stalls offer everything from handmade linens and traditional sweets to incense oils, hats and ironmongery.
Big night out
Chill out with cocktails at fashionable Ebony, near the Gala Theatre. If real ales are more your thing, try tiny Victoria Inn, with its open fire, or the Court Inn, which has two cask ales unique to the pub. Opposite the pub, Zen is a sleek and stylish restaurant serving Thai-Asian food; outside heaters and fleece shawls mean you can dine al fresco. For something brisk and buzzy, Hide offers good-value pastas and sharing plates, while for a little corner of France in a rustic-chic setting, try Bistro 21 just north of the city. Don't forget to check out what's on at the Gala Theatre - comedy, classics, musicals - and round off the evening with drinks at Whisky River by Elvet Bridge, overlooking the river.
Places to stay
Radisson Blu Hotel (from £70)
This sleek, 207-room hotel overlooks the river and is a 10-minute walk from the centre. Business-smart rooms have free broadband and floor-to-ceiling windows, and there's a health club with a pool.
Victorian Town House (from £80)
Midway between the station and city centre, this stylish, well-priced B&B - contemporary furnishings in airy period rooms - is quiet and relaxed. Two of its three rooms have views of the cathedral. Nice extras include bicycle storage and WiFi.
Gadds townhouse (from £90)
Ten rooms with wow! Purple woven fabric walls, private cinema and popcorn machine, sauna and hot tub… just some of the indulgent highlights. Tucked away in a Georgian townhouse in Old Elvet, it has an excellent grill-room restaurant, too.