Beautiful landscapes and coastlines, sandy beaches, top restaurants and lively towns – Dorset has something for everyone. No wonder it’s become such a desirable location for Londoners, young families and many others.
If you’re considering moving to Dorset, here’s the lowdown on how to settle in straight away and enjoy the area like a local…
Coast and country
Over half of the county of Dorset consists of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so if you love the great outdoors, you’ve come to the right place.
Of course Dorset is internationally famous for the Jurassic Coast, the World Heritage Site stretching almost 100 miles from Exmouth to Studland Bay. You’ll already know the iconic Durdle Door natural arch at Lulworth (top), and perhaps Old Harry Rocks on the Isle of Purbeck. You’re likely to be familiar with the shifting pebbles of Chesil Beach, and the opportunities for fossil-hunting around Lyme Regis.
But there are plenty of lesser-known spots along the Jurassic Coast that are just as amazing. Kimmeridge Bay on the Isle of Purbeck has some of the best rockpools in the country, while Dancing Ledge is a stunning spot for sea views and strange optical illusions.
Meanwhile, inland there are heaths, vales and forests to explore, teeming with wildlife including otters and kingfishers. The Dorset countryside is famous as the heart of novelist Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. It’s peppered with Iron Age hillforts, stone circles and beautiful villages and towns, such as Sherbourne with its Abbey and two castles, or Shaftesbury with its instantly-recognisable steep cobbled street Gold Hill.
And there’s much, much more besides…
Best for a traditional family day at the seaside:
There are ten miles of sandy beaches at Bournemouth and Poole, while perfect swimming and sandcastle conditions make Weymouth and Swanage ever-popular seaside holiday destinations.
Best for beachside strolling:
A local summer treat is to hop on the Mudeford Ferry in Christchurch and cross to the unspoilt Mudeford Sandbank and Beach (home of the extraordinarily expensive beach huts). The Beach House Café serves seafood with great views over Christchurch, while the nearby Hengistbury Head is a special nature reserve with lots to explore. Start at the Visitor Centre.
Best for watersports:
For surfers and windsurfers Kimmeridge Bay ( ‘K-Bay’) is a local legend. Surf Steps is a great surf school at Bournemouth beach (near Boscombe pier). If you fancy trying windsurfing or paddle-boarding, head to The OTC, a purpose-built centre at the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy, which was the sailing venue at the 2012 Olympics.
If surfing isn’t thrilling enough for you, you can try coasteering (jumping off cliffs into the sea, basically) at several locations including Dancing Ledge with Land and Wave.
Dorset foodies really are spoilt for choice. At the top end of the market in Sandbanks (reportedly Britain’s most expensive seaside town) is Rick Stein’s latest world-class seafood restaurant.
Lyme Regis has a fantastic dining scene and is home to HIX Oyster and Fish House. Over at Studland there’s the Pig on the Beach, which as well as being a very trendy boutique hotel is a superb restaurant. And another great, hidden away hotel with a restaurant (and a spa where you can swim under the stars) is Summer Lodge Hotel in the village of Evershot.
For an unbeatable fish soup, head to the brilliant Hive Beach Café at Burton Bradstock.
Best for knickerbocker glories:
The Bramble Café and Deli in Poundbury is the current venture of superb local chef Mat Follas (he won Masterchef in 2009) and is already becoming famous for brilliant seasonal food and that signature dessert.
Best for afternoon tea:
Moreton Tea Rooms in Dorchester is a local teatime legend (booking advised at weekends). Traditional Dorset cream teas in grand surroundings can be had at the Royal Bath hotel in Bournemouth and the lovely Knoll House in Studland.
Best fish and chips:
But there are also lots of great independent stores throughout the county. Sherborne, Wareham, Swanage and Lyme Regis in particular have plenty for those who like boutique shops, handmade gifts and so on.
Best local food shopping:
Dorchester Market has been running on Wednesdays since the 1860s, and there’s a car boot variant on Sundays too.
Even better is Wimborne Market and Antiques Bazaar – a huge covered market with over 200 stalls selling something for everyone.
10 fantastic things you can only do in Dorset
1. Go dolphin-spotting at Durlston
Durlston Country Park is a huge National Nature Reserve with all kinds of habitats, and is one of the best places in the UK to see dolphins. Sign up to receive Dolphin Alerts here and you’ll be told when there are dolphins visiting Dorset (and whales, basking sharks and seals too!)
2. Gaze at Midsummer in Bournemouth
Russell-Cotes is an English Victorian gem – a house, museum and art gallery. The best-known and loved picture in the collection is the 1887 ‘Midsummer’ by Albert Joseph Moore – guaranteed to warm the cockles.
3. Discover the Blue Pool
4. Search for red squirrels at Brownsea Island
Brownsea Island is in the middle of Poole Harbour, but once you step off the ferry you feel like you’re a million miles away from civilisation. Now a National Trust property, the island is full of wildlife including a healthy population of red squirrels.
5. Have an ice cream at Barford Farmhouse Garden
A real summertime Dorset treat is to visit Barford Farm Farmhouse Garden, close to the River Stour at White Mill and enjoy a local Barford Farm ice cream. Heaven!
6. Make a pilgrimage to St Mary’s Chapel
In the grounds of Lulworth Castle is St Mary’s, a Georgian chapel that’s of the most beautiful little buildings in England. And while you’re at Lulworth, head for the Doll’s House shop for some homemade fudge.
7. Catch a film with at the Castle
On the subject of Lulworth Castle, a few times a year Luna Cinema show classic movies on a big outdoor screen right in front of the battlements.
8. A night at the theatre in Lyme Regis
The Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis is a charming, vibrant venue with gorgeous décor including a fantastic bar. Always a good night out.
9. Stroll amongst sculptures
Sculpture By the Lakes is a tranquil haven for art and nature lovers: a beautiful sculpture park created by Simon Gudgeon set in 26 acres of Dorset countryside.
10. Have breakfast with a view at Chesil Beach
The Taste Café is fast becoming one of Dorset’s favourite eateries. Go for a full English complete with Dorset black pudding – and stunning views over Chesil Beach.