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Best known for its fossil-filled, dramatic Jurassic coastline and beautiful beaches, as well as outstanding countryside and literary history, there are countless days out and things to do in Dorset, offering something for everyone. Another captivating and popular south-west holiday and tourist destination, this beautiful county is perfect for exploring, discovering, and falling in love with.

Days out in Dorset

With almost half of the Dorset landscape designated to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the signs all point towards a stunning county to explore and enjoy. The county town of Dorchester is just as well known as many others spread across the county including, Poole, Weymouth, and Sherborne, with each offering fun days out, culture, and history for visitors and locals alike.

For kids and family days out, some of the best Dorset attractions include Monkey World near Dorchester, home to hundreds of rescued Monkeys, Chimps, Orangutangs and their friends in 65-acres of natural parkland. And, surrounded by 18 acres of woodland, Dorset Adventure Park, near Corfe Castle, features mud trails, assault courses, and an outdoor inflatable sports aqua park. But if the weather’s right, a visit to Bournemouth and its stunning sandy beach is a must.

But there’s plenty of cultural history to explore too. Dorset is full of pretty villages and delightful market towns that are worth stopping to visit and soak up the idyllic charm of places like Milton Abbas, Evershot, or Abbotsbury. Or check out the Cerne Giant, carved into the chalky hillside at Cerne Abbas, and the picturesque, ancient cobbles of Gold Hill in Shaftsbury.

Don’t miss the iconic, natural limestone arch at Durdle Door along the Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural world heritage site. And you can even follow the Thomas Hardy Trail and visit the cottage in Higher Bockhampton where he lived and wrote some of his best-known novels.

Topography, geology, and climate

As an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Dorset countryside is a rich landscape of open countryside, hills, valleys, and coastline. Together, they combine to be one of the most diverse counties that provides a distinctive mix of land qualities and soil types.

Generally, the county can be divided into three areas, each providing very different soilscapes and textures. With a broad swathe of mildly fertile and acidic, seasonally wet but base-rich soils, the north of Dorset heavily features both loam and clay. From west to east, central Dorset consists of loamy, lime-rich soils skimming over the chalk and limestone ridges the county is famous for.

And flanking the River Frome in the south, very wet, acidic soils stretch from almost as far west as Dorchester across the county to Bournemouth and down to Corfe Castle. While predominantly sandy and loamy and of low fertility, there are pockets of wet, peaty soils and heavy clay soils.

Due to its position as one of England’s most southerly counties, and being less affected by the weather fronts coming in off the Atlantic, Dorset enjoys warmer temperatures in summer and milder winters too. Averaging at around 5ºC (41ºF) in the winter and average highs of up to 22ºC (71ºF) during the summer, Dorset often boasts consistently warmer temperatures than its south-west neighbours.

Annual rainfall across the county is variable due to Dorset’s mix of exposed coastal and areas and averages around 964mm (38”) in general, with an average of around 1,150mm (45”) over higher grounds.

Dorset’s parks and gardens

With its mild climate, Dorset is the perfect place to discover and explore a rich array of beautiful, award-winning gardens and grounds, particularly in the south and east of the county. While ideal places for family days out, the diverse display of plants and flowers on show will prove irresistible to gardeners and horticulturalists alike.

North and West Dorset

With 42-acres of Grade I listed gardens and pleasure grounds to enjoy, Sherborne Castle and Gardens is not to be missed. Originally designed by Capability Brown, these lush and landscaped gardens enjoy colour across every season with vivid herbaceous borders, champion trees around the sweeping 50-acre lake, and an abundant spring display of bulbs and daffodils.

Just outside Dorchester, the Grade II listed gardens at Kingston Maurward are a genuine pleasure for gardeners. Its 35-acres enjoy a mix of Renaissance, Edwardian, and Japanese-inspired formal gardens, alongside abundantly filled herbaceous borders, terrace gardens filled with hardy and tender perennials, and decorative walled gardens. There’s also a family-friendly animal park where kids can meet and feed the local residents.

Tucked away in the Dorset hills in Cerne Abbas, also near Dorchester, you’ll find Minterne House and Gardens. The 100-year-old stately home sits in 20-acres of gardens featuring tranquil landscapes and a trail taking in lakes, waterfalls, and streams. Along the way, you’ll discover the unique Himalayan rhododendrons and azaleas, alongside seasonal plants and flowers, giving interest and colour all year round.

If you’re visiting Lyme Regis on Dorset’s border with Devon, be sure to take in the Langmoor and Lister Gardens. Overlooking the town’s fabulous beach, harbour, and wider bay, the gently sloping, elevated gardens feature a fine blend of meadow banks, trees, shrubs, and planted borders. With plenty of benches along the winding paths to sit and admire the surroundings, look out for some of the town’s contemporary sculptures.

South and East Dorset

Near Weymouth, Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens are set in beautiful woodland overlooking Chesil beach along the West Dorset Heritage Coast. Perfect for a 3-4 hour visit, Abbotsbury is noted for its mix of formal and informal gardens and its sheltered location is home to camellia and magnolia blooms and exotic flowers, alongside rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and specimen trees.

Overlooking the harbour in Poole, Compton Acres Gardens provide almost 10-acres of ornamental gardens with over 3,000 different plant species. The collection of shrubs and bushes alongside formal terraces, natural woodland, and rare and unusual plants and trees provide a beautiful backdrop to the house which dates back to the 19th-century.

National Trust property, Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne, is home to 300-acres of beautiful formal gardens and parkland, surrounding the palatial Italian-styled, 17th-century house. Enjoy long walks exploring the woodland or discover the Japanese and kitchen gardens, together with the vast lawns and their magnificent cedar trees, blossoming cherry trees, flowering rhododendron, and springtime displays of over 40 varieties of snowdrop.

And if you’re visiting Bournemouth, be sure to take a 5-minute detour from the town centre to visit the historical Lower, Central, and Upper Gardens. Grade II listed with English Heritage, they’re an oasis of colourful, landscaped displays of seasonal flowers, shrubs, trees, and rockeries, featuring a coy pond, stream and water features, and aviary.