Top Things to Do in Dorchester, Dorset

Top Things to Do in Dorchester, Dorset

With one foot in the past and one in the present, Dorchester in Dorset is one of the most historically rich towns in the country and boasts many fascinating things to see and do.

The county town of Dorset since 1305, Dorchester’s long and varied history is inextricably linked with its identity today. Sometimes beautiful and sometimes bold, its plethora of stories and tales are woven into the very fabric of the town and can be explored through many heritage sites and attractions. For the best insights into the town’s history and for the best things to do during your stay, we have put together a list of the must-see attractions in Dorchester, from the best shopping hotspots to must-visit museums.

Visit Kingston Maurward Animal Park and Gardens

The picturesque Kingston Mauward house set within the estate grounds close to the animal park and gardens

2 miles from the historic market town of Dorchester is the dog-friendly Kingston Maurward Animal Park and Gardens. Nestled among 35 acres of Grade II listed parkland and restored gardens, it comprises a verdant patchwork of formal gardens and sweeping lawns that hide all sorts of gems. With two National Plant collections, lakeside trails, children’s play areas and an onsite café, not to mention resident donkeys and cute farm animals you can meet too, it calls to all the family for timeless fun. Whether you’re perched on a country-vista bench or following one of the many trails, the hours will slide by easily here.

Stock up at Dorchester Farmers Market

Dorchester benefits from a wealth of eateries and markets celebrating Dorset’s plentiful natural larder. To savour the fresh tastes and full flavours of the South West, pay a visit to Dorchester’s monthly farmer’s market held on the fourth Saturday of every month. Found on South Street, it promises all sorts of stalls selling farm-fresh produce for your perusal, from local veg to tasty cheese to freshly baked bread. Arm yourself with a roomy hamper and bundle up your favourite goodies, ready to prepare delectable meals in your Boutique abode.

Indulge in a Luxury Spa Experience at Monart Spa

The relaxing pool at Monart Day Spa in Poundbury

The award-winning Monart Day Spa in Poundbury just outside of Dorchester offers the dreamiest days of indulgence. Voted the top national day spa, it is the place to go to nourish body and soul. Slip into the fluffiest robes and slippers and enjoy a personalised spa tour, before making the most of the luxurious spaces to unwind and relax. Boasting one of the UK’s finest thermal suites, it features a gorgeous hydrotherapy pool, caldarium, sauna, infrared pro cabin, aroma steam room and more. Topped off with various treatment rooms and a manicure and pedicure suite for total pampering, there’s no finer place to rejuvenate and revive.

Time Travel with Dorset County Museum

The award-winning Dorset County Museum is one of the town’s must-visit attractions for history-lovers and one of the best museums in the South West. Allowing you to discover 250 million years of Dorset’s history, it boasts a wide array of interesting galleries and exhibits, including everything from the first raptor dinosaur fossil to be found in Britain, to rare Bronze Age jewellery, to Thomas Hardy memorabilia. You can even see fossil evidence of giant crocodiles that once lurked in Purbeck’s Early Cretaceous lagoons. The museum is open daily, and you can look forward to temporary as well as permanent exhibitions.

Explore House and Gardens at Athelhampton

The beautiful exteriors of Athelhampton House on a blue sky day

Athelhampton Estate resides within the Piddle Valley between the villages of Tolpuddle and Puddletown. 7 miles from Dorchester, this ancient manor has been continuously lived in since the Saxon times and is packed to the rafters with history. Today, the mostly Tudor-era house - once a favourite social destination of Thomas Hardy - sits within resplendent gardens and is considered one of the most striking examples of 15th Century architecture in England. Open on select days throughout the year, it’s well worth keeping an eye on Athelhamton’s open days so you can discover the splendour of this characterful house and its magnificent grounds for yourself. For further sightseeing, it’s also only a mile away from Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum.

Make Way to the Roman Town House

The Roman Town House attraction in Dorchester with old Roman remains and a building protecting original Roman mosaics in the background

The Romans first settled in Dorchester (which they knew as Durnovaria) in 43AD. After conquering the local Celtic people who had been in the area since 3,500BC and who had established the nearby Maiden Castle, the Romans quickly established themselves and set to work making their mark on the area. One of the best examples of Roman architecture from this time is Dorchester’s Roman Town House, the only fully exposed Roman house in Britain. A top attraction in Dorchester, the full layout of the house, outbuildings, wells, and more are all visible and the site can be visited year-round. At the town house’s West Range, you can even see some beautiful Roman mosaics still in situ.

See the Sunflowers at Maiden Castle

 Less than 2 miles from the town centre, Maiden Castle (one of our favourite picnic spots) near Dorchester is one of Europe’s biggest and most complex Iron Age hillforts – though evidence has found human activity on the site goes back at least 6,000 years. The size of 50 football pitches, the enormous fort was once home to a small, self-sufficient community, but from 800BC onwards, expanded to become the most significant settlement in southern Dorset. Today, you can visit this dog-friendly attraction year-round, following the paths created by thousands of years of footsteps and soaking up the far-reaching views over the surrounding countryside. A particular highlight is its summer sunflower trail which transforms the surrounding fields into beaming seas of yellow.

Go On Prehistoric Adventures at the Dinosaur Museum

A model dinosaur on display at The Dinosaur Museum in Dorchester

Just 7 miles from Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, the award-winning Dinosaur Museum is a fantastic family-friendly attraction in the heart of Dorchester. First opened in 1984, it has been thrilling visitors for decades and promises an insight into the area’s prehistoric residents. Ideal for dinosaur fans of all generations, it displays a range of real-life and replica dinosaur fossils, skeletons, and true-to-scale dinosaur reconstructions that are sure to captivate, including a life-size Stegosaurus and T-Rex. The museum also features hands-on, interactive displays and offers the chance to touch real, fossilised dinosaur teeth, eggs and, for the brave, poo.

Go Shopping at Brewery Square

The county town of Dorset, the streets of Dorchester brim with history and character. A place where contemporary culture and history vibrantly collide, it’s surrounded by heritage sites and ancient monuments and peppered with modern shops, restaurants and attractions. Somewhere that truly embodies this diversity is Brewery Square, home of Dorchester’s iconic Eldridge Pope Brewery. From shop hopping to cinema trips to sampling traditional Dorset foods or exotic flavours in one of the square’s many eateries, you can find ample to see and do here.

Follow the Trails at Puddletown Forest

An aerial view of Puddletown Forest near Dorchester

On the outskirts of Dorchester is an adumbral arcadia where walkers can swap coastal hikes for tranquil forest strolls. Especially beautiful during the spring and autumn months, Puddletown Forest is a historically and ecologically rich area of broadleaf woodland. Woven with paths and trails that flow through its mature trees, it sets an idyllic scene for family and dog-friendly walks in Dorset - a county swathed in ancient woodlands. Lace up your boots, set your course and soak up the fresh air as leaves flutter and tree trunks gently creak. With lots of rare wildlife calling the forest home, you may even come across some of the more unusual residents too, including rare butterflies and lizards. 

Go Back in Time at Maumbury Rings

Maumbury Rings in Dorchester is the site of a large henge created around 5,000 years ago. While its origins are unclear, historians have discovered that it was built by Neolithic communities and later repurposed by the Romans as an amphitheatre. Hosting 10,000 strong, the henge was used for Roman ‘entertainment’ – namely, gladiator fights and executions. Unfortunately, this gory theme set the tone for the amphitheatre’s ensuing years too, being the site of the 15th Century Judge Jeffreys hangings and 18th Century Mary Channing execution. Happily, these days, the dramatic earthwork can be visited year-round for peaceable events, including sun-drenched picnics and open-air music concerts and theatre performances. 

Relax at Sculpture by the Lakes

A beautiful bird sculpture next to a still lake surrounded by frost-covered grass and trees at Sculpture by the Lakes in Dorchester

One of the top things to do in Dorchester, Sculpture by the Lakes is a self-professed haven of peace and tranquillity. Situated at Pallington Lakes a few miles from the town centre, this unique sculpture park and art venue is one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking of its kind in the UK. Blending bucolic countryside and contemporary culture, it seamlessly welds over 120 sculptures into the pastoral setting of the park, providing an inspiring environment for exploration and contemplation. Head over to uncover its 26 acres of grounds, meandering past picturesque lakes, glittering streams, and knotted woodland as you go.

Peruse The Keep Military Museum

The Keep Military Museum is a family-friendly museum in Dorchester that welcomes visitors of all ages to learn about the town’s military history. Set within a 19th Century Portland stone replica of a Medieval castle, it makes for both a striking landmark in the town and a great attraction for all ages. One of the top things to do in Dorchester on a rainy day, you can head inside and explore the museum’s four floors, taking a journey through 300 years of history. You can also head to the keep’s roof on sunny days for superb panoramas across Dorchester and the surrounding countryside.

Take the Stand at Shire Hall

Dorset’s courthouse from 1797 until 1955, Shire Hall has a significant place in Dorchester’s history and today shares its intriguing past through various events and exhibitions throughout the calendar. Bringing more than two centuries of justices (and injustices) to life, it invites you to explore its old cells, docks and exhibitions and learn all about some of the renowned cases held here. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the story that inspired Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and more, countless tales wait to be discovered here.

Thomas Hardy Discovery

Discover Hardy’s Cottage

The thatched cottage and well-maintained gardens of Hardy's Cottage, the former home of Thomas Hardy, surrounded by woodland

Hardy’s Cottage on Cuckoo Lane near Dorchester is where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840. A picture-perfect cob and thatch cottage decorated with flowering creepers, this National Trust-run site, along with its neighbouring visitor centre, invites visitors to uncover the life and legacy of the celebrated Victorian author. Not only his birthplace, but the cottage was the much-loved home of Hardy for many years and is a veritable time capsule encapsulating many of his belongings and possessions. Set next to Thorncombe Wood, it’s also backed by a beautiful 65-acre nature reserve and heath where trails and paths aplenty weave and wind.

Wander Hardy’s Cottage Walk

The 6-mile walk to Thomas Hardy’s cottage provides a great way to see more of Dorchester and retrace the steps of one of the town’s most famous figures. Fictionalised as Casterbridge, Dorchester was at the heart of the region Hardy called “Wessex” and features in many of the famous author’s poems and novels, including The Mayor of Casterbridge. To follow in his footsteps, pick up the circular walk from High East Street and head out of the town towards tranquil green pastures. The walk features beautiful water meadows, Hardy’s Cottage, Higher and Lower Bockhampton and Stinsford’s church, Hardy’s childhood church.

Pick Up the Hardy Way

The Hardy Way is a long-distance trail that winds through Thomas Hardy’s country. Beginning at his childhood home, Hardy’s Cottage, and ending at his burial site, St Michael’s Church in Stinsford, it covers an impressive 217 miles and incorporates gorgeous Dorset and Wiltshire countryside along the way. Ticking off many Hardy highlights en route, it features many of the towns and villages that inspired Hardy’s stories, including Dorchester itself, Evershot (Evershead in Tess of the dʼUrbervilles) and Cerne Abbas (Abbotʼs Cernel in Far From the Madding Crowd).

Take a Trip to Max Gate         

An outside view of the National Trust-run Max Gate house and gardens in Dorchester, the former home of author Thomas Hardy

Though he is best-known for his literary creations, Thomas Hardy formally trained as an architect in his younger years. In 1885, he harnessed these skills to design and build Max Gate, a sophisticated townhouse on the edge of Dorchester town centre. Now managed by the National Trust, Max Gate showcases the spaces in which he both lived and worked, even writing some of his most well-known novels like Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. As well as the house, you can also see his garden too, sheltered from the world outside by tall walls and bushy trees.

Feeling inspired to discover Dorchester? Take a look at our luxury cottages in Dorset here.

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