10 Dorset towns you really must visit

A stretch of sand leads to Lyme Regis on the coast

Lyme Regis is a popular town on the Jurassic Coast - Credit: Herry Lawford, Flicr

From cool coastal resorts to bustling market hubs, Andy Greeves chooses ten towns whose history, ambience and busy events diary make them ‘must visit’ destinations.  

1. Poole & Sandbanks

Take yourself on a self-guided walk of Poole's Old Town by picking up a leaflet for The Cockle Trail from the Poole Welcome Centre on the Quayside. Make sure you visit Poole Museum, also on the waterfront. From the quay you can admire the natural harbour dotted with islands.

Nearby, the arts centre - Lighthouse, Poole - offers world class theatre, dance, music, entertainment and exhibitions. It is also home to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

There are five beaches in Poole, including Sandbanks - winner of more Blue Flags than any other UK beach resort. This sandy peninsula is renowned for its millionaire mansions, but you can still get a taste of Sandbanks without breaking the bank. Enjoy a coffee or light lunch at the Sandbanks Yacht Company; for stylish sundowners try one of the waterside hotels like Harbour Heights. Love seafood? Pop into Rick Stein on Banks Road. In July, watch high drama unfold on the golden sands at the annual British Beach Polo Championships, which are held here.

From Sandbanks take a ferry across to Shell Bay and the National Trust-owned beach of Studland or take a boat to Brownsea Island, the inspiration for Enid Blyton's Whispering Island.

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2. Bridport & West Bay

The towering golden cliffs of West Bay provided the distinctive backdrop for award-winning ITV drama, Broadchurch. Nearby Bridport has in the past been dubbed Dorset's 'Notting Hill-on-Sea', but it is so much more. Situated a mile inland from the harbour at West Bay, Bridport has an exciting and lively art scene; the Electric Palace, Bridport Arts Centre and The Lyric all host live events, exhibitions and workshops.

The annual From Page to Screen film festival is hosted in Bridport every April and celebrates the art of the screen adaptation. It regularly attracts big name authors, screenwriters, directors and film academics. Continuing on a cultural theme, the town also lends its name to the Bridport Prize and there is always a stellar line-up of writers at the Bridport Literary Festival in November.

The area has a long history of rope and net-making, ranging from tennis nets for Wimbledon to the infamous 'Bridport Dagger' or hangman's noose, find out more at Bridport Museum on South Street.

Also worth exploring is Bridport's Art & Vintage Quarter on the St Michael's Trading Estate. Housed in the old rope making works, it's a great place to find the unique and the unusual and is home to many local artists. And for foodies the town also boasts an award-winning farmer's market.

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3. Bournemouth

What's not to love about Bournemouth? It has seven miles of golden sandy beaches and a local football team in the Premier League. Add to that world class entertainment at the BIC, great shopping for both high street brands and independent labels, a wonderful art collection at the Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery, a host of award-winning free family events such as the legendary Bournemouth Air Festival, and you can see why this cosmopolitan town is one of the UK's top holiday destinations.

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Head out to Bournemouth's 'coastal villages' and you will discover that these suburbs each have their own unique personality. Westbourne is renowned for its wealth of independent shops and at its heart is a magnificent Victorian arcade. You will be spoilt for choice here and you will always get a warm welcome from the shop keepers. Find out more.

Southbourne is another coastal village worth exploring and amongst its highlights is The Larder House.

For quirky and vintage, head to Boscombe where you will find some delightful retro shops and great coffee bars. Nearby is Boscombe Beach with its surfer vibe, pier and funky beach pods. Meander your way to the Urban Reef and chill out with your toes in the sand and cocktail in hand as the sun sets over the bay.

4. Wimborne Minster

The magnificent Minster, from which Wimborne gains its full name, has been at the heart of this lovely Dorset town for over 1,300 years.

It is home to a rare chained library, which is open to the public.

To discover more about the area visit the Priest's House Museum on the High Street then visit Wimborne's Model Town, a delightful scale replica of Wimborne Minster in the 1950s.

In early June the streets are filled with colourful dancers and musicians who come from all over the country for the Folk Festival.

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5. Lyme Regis

Found at the westerly point of Dorset's Jurassic Coastline, Lyme Regis is often called 'The Pearl of Dorset'. It is renowned for its fossils and local geologist Paddy Howe runs regular Fossil Walks. The Lyme Regis Museum on Bridge Street is also where you can learn about legendary local fossil hunter Mary Anning.

The town's famous landmark is 'The Cobb'. This thick cobbled harbour wall featured in Jane Austen's novel Persuasion and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. 

Local eateries include the Hix Oyster and Fish House, which offers locally sourced seasonal dishes, all accompanied by a magnificent harbour view. Seeking something tasty and vegetarian? Then check out Tierra Kitchen on Coombe Street, its location is by the Town Mill a foodie and arty hub.

Annual events include the Fossil Festival and the Food Rocks festival.

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6. Sherborne

Sherborne has had a starring role in a number of recent feature films and TV series, including the 2015 adaption of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, which used the Abbey, Castleton Church and Abbey Close. Sherborne School provided a backdrop for the BBC adaption of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, and also The Imitation Game about code breaker and former pupil Alan Turing.

The Sherborne Abbey Festival attracts renowned musicians from across the globe, while the Sherborne Literary Festival features major names from the world of literature. Other historic attractions include Sherborne Castle (old and new) which also hosts the annual Sherborne Country Fair.

The town centre is blessed with a wonderful range of shops and galleries including the Jerram Gallery and the Melbury Gallery. Winstone's Book Shop on Cheap Street has twice been named South West Independent Bookseller of the Year.

Alongside this are a wealth of great cafes, bakeries and restaurants including Oliver's Coffee House which serves a legendary almond and cherry cake.

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7. Dorchester & Poundbury

Dorchester has been the county town since 1305 and offers a wealth of great things to see and do, whatever the weather. The town has five museums: Dorset County Museum, The Keep Military Museum; Tutankhamen Exhibition; Terracotta Warriors Exhibition, a Dinosaur Museum and, for little ones, the Teddy Bear Museum. There is also the remains of a fine Roman Town House to explore next to County Hall. All are open year round.

Dorchester is associated with the writer and poet Thomas Hardy, and there is plenty about this novelist at Dorset County Museum. You can also visit the home Hardy built in Dorchester, Max Gate, and the cottage where he was born, just a few miles outside Dorchester, at Lower Bockhampton.

Brewery Square offers a great mix of shops, restaurants and a multi-screen cinema. There is a thriving local arts scene with Dorchester Arts, based at the Corn Exchange, at its heart. Local events include the multi-cultural One Love Festival in summer and Dorchester Literary Festival in the autumn.

Poundbury is an interesting 'urban extension' to the west of the town which was established by HRH Prince of Wales on his Duchy estate back in the mid-1990s. The architectural style may have divided opinion but without doubt it offers some great shops.

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8. Weymouth & Portland

Weymouth has been a popular seaside resort for over 250 years and many traditional aspects that have appealed to visitors over the decades remain - from donkey rides on the beach to a stroll along the pier. But this is not simply a place for bucket and spade fun - far from it. When Weymouth & Portland was selected as a host venue for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games sailing events, the area underwent a major transformation.

It is the proud home of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy at Osprey Quay, which hosted the sailing events during the games. The centre continues to be a major facility for the local community and a home to the British Olympic sailing team it also offers sailing and windsurfing lessons for all levels and abilities.

A great way to explore this area is via the 3.5k Rodwell Trail. Connecting Ferrybridge to Weymouth, this section of the former Weymouth and Portland Railway offers great views across the harbour. Historical gems to explore nearby include Sandsfoot Castle, Portland Museum and Nothe Fort.

One of the jewels in Weymouth's crown is the multi award-winning Pommery Dorset Seafood Festival, which is held every July on the quay at Weymouth Harbour. It's a free event and a delicious celebration of the areas fishing traditions.

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9. Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury's steep, cobbled Gold Hill was immortalised by Ridley Scott's (Gladiator) 1973 commercial 'Boy on Bike' for Hovis. Gold Hill Museum is set in a traditional sandstone cottage at the top of this famous hill, and reveals the town's history.

The excavated foundations of Shaftesbury Abbey are another of the town's must-see sights.

The Benedictine nunnery was founded by King Alfred in 888AD, but it was destroyed during the Dissolution. The onsite museum brings the Abbey's past to life.

The town has a lovely collection of independent shops and regular markets while the surrounding Blackmore Vale is a walkers' paradise.

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10. Christchurch

Situated at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Stour, this East Dorset town has a lovely laid back vibe. It also offers easy access to the coast and the New Forest. For more on local history visit the Red House Museum and Gardens on Quay Raoad, housed in a former parish workhouse dating from 1764.

Christchurch Harbour offers sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. If you want to explore further afield Adventure Voyages operate boat trips from Christchurch Harbour to the Needles.

The town boasts a number of very stylish hotels including the Christchurch Harbour Hotel & Spa, which has two delightful waterside dining venues The Jetty and The Upper Deck. It also owns the nearby Kings Arms. All offer a locally sourced food and drink menu. If you're heading to the New Forest, pop into Highcliffe Castle on the way. The Grade I listed castle (once home to shop owner Mr Selfridge), is open daily in summer and the tea rooms and gardens are open all year round.

Local events include Christchurch Food & Wine Festival (May) and the smooth jazz festival Stompin' on the Quomps (August).

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