Harrogate – a town of entertainment

Whatever you want you're likely to find it here in Harrogate, Paul Mackenzie reports on the spa town preparing for festival season

Harrogate at its best

There are many surprises to be found in Harrogate but perhaps the biggest surprise is just how much there is here. This is a compact town with as many attractions as some cities many times larger.Whatever you look for in a town, you’re likely to find it in Harrogate. Beautiful buildings and pretty parks? Check. Super shops and classy cafes? Check. Great galleries and magnificent museums? You bet.And that’s not all. If it’s history you’re after, Harrogate’s your place. The first springs were discovered in the last 16th century and for the next 350 years the town hosted visitors from across Britain and Europe who came to take the recuperative waters.In the last century or so that flood of visitors has dried to a trickle but they have been replaced by hordes eager to sample the other attractions Harrogate has on tap.

Places to visitOne upside of the recession was the boost given to the British tourism industry by ‘stay-cations’. Yorkshire as a whole has benefited from the growing trend and Harrogate has been better placed than many towns to cash in. With a concentration of attractions historic and contemporary all over the town, there is no excuse for boredom.It would be easy to spend half a day at Harrogate’s Tourist Information Centre (itself housed in a lovely old building). But once you’ve collected the leaflets about the museums, galleries, parks, gardens, shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes, get out and explore them. Unless you’re planning a long stay you’re unlikely to manage everything but be sure to include the Royal Pump Room, the Mercer Art Gallery and the shops, cafes and bars in the classy Montpellier Quarter.Things to doNo visit to Harrogate is complete without a taste of the sulphuric waters and something much more pleasant from Bettys tearooms. For more than 90 years Bettys has been a Harrogate institution and has remained true to founder Frederick Belmont’s aim for everything to be ‘fresh and dainty’. Today more than a million people enjoy the treats on offer in the six branches of Bettys – two of which are in Harrogate. While you’re walking the hilly streets and winding lanes you’ll be able to read up on the town’s history on a series of plaques around the town. And those streets house a glittering collection of shops, with big name high street stores and scores of delightful independent shops and once you and your credit card need a break, head for the Turkish Baths. The baths have been revitalising visitors since they opened their grand halls and chambers in 1877.One of the many joys of Harrogate is the closeness of green open spaces and none is more beautiful than the RHS garden Harlow Carr which is 60 years old this year.Just a few moments drive from the town centre is some of Yorkshire’s finest countryside with plenty of perfect picnic spots and traditional inns.

Shows and eventsFew towns in Britain can boast an events calendar as packed or varied as Harrogate’s. From the packed showground of the Yorkshire Show to an intimate gathering at the Crime Writing Festival, there are scores of events in Harrogate all year round.Harrogate Festival began in 1966 as a festival of the arts. These days the summer music festival is one of the highlights of the cultural calendar and has attracted many of the biggest names, including Van Morrison, Wynton Marsalis and Leslie Garrett, whose first professional concert was at Harrogate. Events are held at venues large and small around the town and regularly attract visitors from Britain and further afield. The Crime Writing festival began in 2003 and is now the world’s largest crime fiction festival and it too boasts a stellar line-up of big names. Harrogate Theatre, which is marking its 110th anniversary has a year-round programme of drama, comedy and children’s shows.Getting thereHarrogate is easy to reach wherever you’re coming from. The town stands on the A59, about five miles west of the A1M and about 10 miles north of Leeds. Trains run regularly between Harrogate, Leeds and York and there are good bus connections with surrounding towns and villages.

Where to stay and eatWhen Agatha Christie apparently disappeared for ten days in 1926, she chose the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate as her refuge. These days she’d have a little more choice, but the ivy-clad Old Swan is still a popular destination. There are now hotels to suit every budget and taste, from the budget to the uber-stylish, and a wealth of guest houses and B&Bs.

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