Weekend in Dorset

Dorset is located on England’s south coast and is one of the UK’s most beautiful counties. Often considered a sleepy backwater, this misapprehension couldn’t be further from the truth. Dorset is a vibrant county with numerous attractions and several large towns with fine restaurants and hotels. These towns compliment Dorset’s beautiful rural landscapes, which include long sandy beaches and the spectacular Jurassic Coastline, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There’s a lot to see and do in Dorset within a short distance, making Dorset an ideal destination for a weekend break. 

Map of Dorset

Most of Dorset’s significant towns are on or around the south coast. The Poole, Bournemouth, and Christchurch combined area accounts for half the county’s population. Dorchester and Weymouth are also notable towns as you head west. In the north of the county, Shaftesbury and Sherborne are the main towns. 

There’s good local public transport and a decent road network in Dorset. However, there isn’t a single motorway in the county, so expect some country roads as you venture out. The train network is efficient on the southern coast, but rail closures in the 1960s have meant the center and the north of the county is underserved.

Best Time for a Weekend in Dorset

Dorset’s location on the south coast of England affords it a mild climate throughout the year. Temperatures in the winter rarely dip below 0c or rise above 25c in the summer. This makes Dorset a year-round destination for weekend breaks.

The seaside resorts of Poole, Bournemouth, and Weymouth are best visited during the summer months of June, July, and August. This allows you to make the most of the fine beaches, which are the main reason to visit. However, there’s still plenty to see and do away from the beach in these towns.

Rural areas are typically best visited in Spring or Autumn. There’s less traffic on the roads, and the Dorset countryside is at its best during these times. Fields of bluebells flower through late March to May and provide one of the county’s most iconic images. Autumn is also a time of vibrant colors in Dorset.

View of Lulworth Cove on the Jurassic Coast
The perfectly circular Lulworth Cove is one of the Jurassic Coasts top sights.

Where to Stay During a Weekend in Dorset

For this guide, we’ve focused our recommendations on the larger towns. There are, however, a host of rural accommodation options, which range from simple B&Bs to Luxury Spa Hotels. 

Poole – Situated on the second largest natural harbor in the world, Poole is very much a coastal town. It’s wonderful old town by the quay is home to fine Georgian mansions and historic buildings. There’s a wealth of accommodation and restaurants in this area, with Hotel du Vin, the pick of the bunch. Closer to the beaches, the Harbour Heights Hotel is the best choice. For more budget-focused travelers, there are several Travelodge and Premier Inn hotels in town.

Bournemouth – Dorset’s largest town, is a great place to stay. There’s a wealth of accommodation for all budgets across the West Cliff, the East Cliff, and the town center itself. There’s no shortage of amenities in Bournemouth, with numerous restaurants, bars, and cafes. All the accommodation is within walking distance of the beach, with many hotels offering stunning sea views. The Connaught Hotel on the West Cliff is our pick of places to stay. 

Weymouth – Weymouth is a great place to stay to explore the nearby Jurassic Coast. A much smaller town than either Poole or Bournemouth, it’s home to numerous independent B&Bs and a few decent restaurants. It’s a pleasant historical town, and you’re never more than a few minutes from the beach, making it a dream place for beach lovers. The Gloucester House Hotel on the seafront is the place to stay.

Best Things to see and do During a Weekend in Dorset

There’s so much to see and do in Dorset that it’s hard to include everything within a single guide. The main attractions in Dorset can be categorised as:

  1. Beaches
  2. Nature and outdoors
  3. Historical
  4. Museum and galleries
  5. Attractions

 

Read on to find the best things to see and do in each of these categories. 

Beaches

Sandbanks Beach – The beach at Sandbanks begins on the world-famous Sandbanks spit. Undoubtedly Poole’s premier beach, it is home to some of the most expensive homes in the UK. This long sandy beach runs for several miles before merging with Shore Road Beach. The beaches are part of a larger 10-mile stretch of beach that runs to Christchurch. 

Bournemouth Beach – The beach at Bournemouth is the most developed and busiest of all the beaches in the area. You’ll find the same soft sands as at Sandbanks, but the piers and surrounding bars, cafes, and shops tend to attract a younger clientele. 

Shell Bay – Situated on the opposite side of the entrance to Poole Harbour, Shell Bay is connected by ferry to Sandbanks. The beach is quieter and undeveloped, given its more remote location. It’s a beautiful place for a swim in the summer months, or a dog walk at other times of the year.

Weymouth Beach – A very traditional beach, you’ll find donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows, and fairground rides. It’s an excellent choice for families, and it’s close to the accommodation and amenities of Weymouth.

Chesil Beach – An exception to the sandy beaches found elsewhere in the county, Chesil  Beach is an 18-mile-long shingle beach. Primarily made up of small pebbles, it’s an incredible sight. In some places, the beach is 200 meters wide and up to 15 meters high. That’s a lot of pebbles! It’s an amazing, if arduous, place for a walk. 

Bournemouth beach and Bournemouth pier
Bournemouth Beach is a blue flag beach and one of the finest in England.

Nature and Outdoors

Old Harry Rocks – A rock formation off the Isle of Purbeck at the eastern edge of the Jurassic Coast. The rocks are made up of 3 chalk formations, including a stack. They’re visible from the Poole and Bournemouth beaches, but there’s a great walk across the Purbeck Hills to see them closer up.

Durdle Door – Possibly the most spectacular sight in Dorset, this limestone arch is the jewel in the crown of the Jurassic Coast. The arch and surrounding beach draw visitors from far and wide throughout the year, particularly during the sunny summer months.

Lulworth Cove – Another attraction along the Jurassic Coast, Lulworth Cove is a near-perfect circular cove set amongst steep limestone hills. It’s a spectacular setting and a great walk when combined with the nearby Durdle Door. 

Jurassic Coast – Stretching 95 miles from Old Harry Rocks to Exmouth in Devon, the Jurassic Coast is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its incredible geology includes rock formations from the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic periods. That’s almost 190 million years of geology in this one small area. The coast has numerous spectacular geological features, such as Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove. It’s also home to countless fossils, many of which can be found loose on its numerous beaches.

Brownsea Island and Poole Harbour – Brownsea Island is located in the heart of Poole Harbour and is a National Trust protected nature reserve. Visiting here is like turning the clock back 100 years or more with a quaint castle and a rural setting. It’s home to numerous peacocks and the endangered red squirrel, which cannot be found anywhere else in the UK. A visit to the island is often accompanied by a tour of Poole Harbour, which showcases just how large it is. In fact, Poole Harbour is the second largest natural harbour in the world.

Durdle Door at sunset
Durdle Door is Dorset's most iconic attraction and a must-see of any visit.

Historical

Corfe Castle – Built between the 12th and 13th centuries, this ruined castle on a hill occupies a spectacular location in the Purbecks. The castle was one of the last Royalist strongholds in the English Civil War, hence its destruction in 1645. Enough of the castle remains to give you a good idea of how it would look before its destruction. 

Kingston Lacey – A spectacular country mansion built between 1663 and 1665. It’s surrounded by wonderful countryside and curated gardens. It’s a great place to see bluebells flower in spring.

Portland Castle – Is an artillery fort built in the 16th century by Henry VIII. It was converted into a private residence after the Napoleonic Wars. It has a rich history as a command center for numerous conflicts and wars.

Maiden Castle – This is one of the largest Iron Age hill forts in the world. Abandoned since the Roman invasion in the 1st century AD, only the shape and undulations remain. This doesn’t detract from the spectacular setting and the scale of the site.

Highcliffe Castle – This is a Gothic Mansion located just outside of Christchurch. Built in 1835, the castle has a colorful past and is a Grade 1 listed building. It’s one of the finest examples of romantic architecture in the country.

Corfe Castle at sunset
Corfe Castle occupies a spectacular hilltop setting on the Isle of Purbeck.

Museums and Galleries

Russell-Cotes Museum – An art gallery and museum on Bournemouth’s East Cliff, the museum resides in a spectacular listed building. It’s home to an eclectic mix of sculptures and paintings.

Bovington Tank Museum – Home to over 300 armored vehicles, the tank museum is the largest in the world. Featuring tanks from WW1 and WW2, it’s an excellent place for a family day out. This is especially true during the annual Tankfest.

Sculpture by the Lake – Just outside Dorchester, this combination of countryside and sculpture strikes the right chord. It’s a beautiful and atmospheric place with 26 acres of countryside and lakes to explore.

Dorset Museum – Situated in Dorchester, this fine museum charts the county’s geological and human history. Focused on families, there are plenty of interactive exhibits to keep the kids entertained.

Scaplens Court Museum – This is a 15th-century Grade 1 listed house in Poole Quay. It houses a museum that charts life in the area during the Victorian period and the preceding 300 years. It’s an interesting and evocative place to visit.

Attractions

Weymouth Sea Life Centre – The finest aquarium outside of London, is home to sharks, turtles, penguins, and much more. Interactive features, a large play area, and an outdoor swimming pool make this a top family attraction. 

Monkey World – This is a vast 65-acre monkey and ape sanctuary in the Dorset countryside. The park is home to chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons, to name just a few of the primates. It’s an excellent attraction for children and adults alike.

Compton Acres – Situated in Canford Cliffs, Compton Acres is one of the premier private gardens in southern England. These beautifully curated and tranquil gardens also feature breathtaking sea views from the onsite restaurant and cafe. 

Hardy’s Cottage – Once the home of the famous novelist, Thomas Hardy, this cob and thatch cottage is a perfect example of Dorset from a bygone era. The house is an ode to the life of Thomas Hardy and Dorset life in the nineteenth century.

Gold Hill – If you’re looking for a reason to visit North Dorset, this must be it. Located in Shaftesbury, Gold Hill was made famous by its presence in an iconic TV advert from the 1970s. The cobbled streets, thatched houses, and countryside views make this the most beautiful and quintessentially British street in the country. 

Weekend in Dorset - Sample Itineraries

We’ve created several 2-day weekend itineraries based on staying in one of the three major hubs of Poole, Bournemouth, and Weymouth. There’s plenty of scope to extend these itineraries by days or even weeks if you have the time. 

Weekend in Poole

Friday evening – Arrive and have dinner at Poole Quay. The Guildhall Tavern and Storm are both excellent choices.

Saturday – Explore Poole’s old town before visiting Scaplens Court Museum.  After brunch on the quay, take a ferry to Brownsea Island and explore the island during the afternoon. Your return ferry ride will take you around the island and give you a mini-tour of the harbor. In the evening, visit the quayside pubs for some live music. There’s no shortage of good food options, with the Customs House and Oriel on the Quay two of the best. 

Sunday – Make your way down to Sandbanks Beach before taking the ferry to Shell Bay for a stroll along the pristine beach. Grab some lunch at one of the beachside restaurants, with the Pig on the Beach a great option. In the afternoon, visit Old Harry Rocks or Corfe Castle before heading home.

Weekend in Bournemouth

Friday evening – Arrive in Bournemouth and have dinner in town. Neo and the Crab are two good options. 

Saturday – Begin by taking a stroll along the promenade on Bournemouth beach and enjoying the seafront area. Head up to the Russell-Cotes Museum on the East Cliff to view the eclectic collection before grabbing lunch. In the afternoon, head out to Highcliffe Castle to enjoy its splendor and stunning views. Return to Bournemouth for the evening and enjoy the vibrant nightlife in the Triangle Area or on Old Christchurch Road. There are restaurants and bars to suit all different tastes.  

Sunday – After breakfast, head out west to Monkey World. Visit the rescue primates in this beautiful, spacious setting. After grabbing lunch in a country pub, head to Kingston Lacey and the nearby Badbury Rings. The two are connected by a long, spectacular tree-lined road. 

Weekend in Weymouth

Friday evening – Arrive in Weymouth and have dinner in your hotel or one of the local restaurants. Rockfish and Crustacean are two excellent local seafood restaurants. 

Saturday – In the morning, head down to the Sea Life Centre with its vast array of sea life. Return to the town center for a pub lunch before exploring Weymouth Beach and the promenade area. Later in the afternoon, take a short trip to Chesil Beach. In the evening, wind down with a drink and dinner in one of the bars and restaurants along the harbor. 

Sunday – After breakfast, you’ll be jumping in the car and heading east to take in the best of the Jurassic Coast. The first stop is the spectacular arch at Durdle Door before you walk over the hills to Lulworth Cove. There’s a short, direct route or several longer scenic routes, depending on how much time and energy you have. After grabbing some lunch in the local area, continue west to Swanage and, finally, to Old Harry Rocks.  

Enjoyed this Guide?

We hope you’ve enjoyed our Dorset Weekend Break guide. Why not try some of our other guides for the United Kingdom or Europe?

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