The south west coast has a string of pretty beaches with soft sands and traditional seaside charm. At seven miles long, Brean Beach is rated among the best beaches in Somerset. The main beach at Burnham-on-Sea is huge, too, as is the wilder Sand Bay with lovely views across to South Wales.
Somerset is affectionately known as the jewel of the South West, all shiny and bright with emerald green fields and a golden beach scene.
The rolling open space between coast and countryside has its own brand of sparkle, too. We’re talking apple orchards famous for their production of traditional cider, plus castles, abbeys and tors forever tied to the magic and myth of the Arthurian legends. Vintage treasures like Glastonbury and Cheddar Gorge have earnt their place on not just the national but the world stage.
Other Somerset attractions like palaces and abbeys dot the landscape and come with a rich pedigree and hundreds of years of stories. The south of the county borders Dorset and Devon, two other counties in South West England with equally shining collections of jewels. These regions major on the heritage coastline which stretches 95 miles from Exmouth in the west to Studland Bay in Dorset further east.
Places to discover in Somerset and Dorset
Looking for things to see and do while spending a few days in Somerset and Dorset? Across the whole region, you’ll be able to unlock the door to a wide selection of attractions.
West Somerset Railway. There are more than 20 miles of heritage track at West Somerset Railway with 10 restored stations along the line. Polished steam-hauled coaches and wagons chuff through the Somerset countryside, taking in Minehead’s seafront, Dunster Castle, the Quantock hills, historic villages, and Exmoor in the distance.
Taunton racecourse. Located in deep Somerset with views over the Blackdown Hills, Taunton Racecourse attracts the racing elite for its 15 or so fixtures every season, from Ladies Day in spring through to a Christmas meeting in December.
Wincanton racecourse. The Wincanton Racecourse track is for thoroughbred horse racing with big races and large steeplechase fences making for exciting finishes. Midweek jumps and themed events like Ladies Night and Cheese and Cider Night are mainly scattered through the winter months.
East Somerset railway. Trundling for two and half miles, the preserved East Somerset Railway cuts through the Mendip countryside between Cranmore and Mendip Vale. It’s one of only a handful of steam railways that also opens up its engine shed and workshop to visitors.
Fleet Air Arm Museum. The biggest collection of Royal Navy aircraft in Europe is housed at Fleet Air Arm Museum. Throughout the halls and galleries there are photos, documents and medals to view as well. Exhibitions take visitors from the development of the early bi-planes through to the part aircraft played in World War 2 and on to Concorde and the story of the Falklands conflict.
Chard Museum. Set within a 16th century building, Chard Museum pays homage to the town’s local history. It’s like a little time capsule with displays on rural tools and farm carts. Famous past residents, among them John Stringfellow who pioneered steam-powered flight and James Gillingham who introduced artificial limbs, also feature.
Explore the best beaches in Somerset and Dorset
The main coastal towns, among them Weston-super-Mare and Minehead, offer traditional seaside fun. Alternatively, the likes of Dunster and Watchet are the places to visit for sleepier bays, perfect for sitting back and watching the world go by.
The beaches of East Devon and Dorset are just as close to south Somerset for some day tripping. Lyme Regis is the heart of fossil hunting territory on the Jurassic Coast with medieval streets muddling their way down to the 13th century harbour and a sand and pebble shoreline. Just a few minutes further west, Monmouth Beach stretches from the famous Cobb towards Pinhay where the rock turns to shingle on the Devon border.
From some sand, Charmouth Beach is obliging, plus it has a heritage centre, cafes and independent shops lending some old-world charm. As for West Bay, it might look familiar because of the part it played in Broadchurch. This shingle, sand and pebble beach backed by yellow limestone cliffs is where David Tennant and Olivia Colman made new footprints while filming the TV drama.
10 historic sites to explore in Somerset and Dorset
Somerset is no stranger to history. The county owns more than 11,000 listed buildings, counting the World Heritage Site of Bath, Glastonbury and the cathedral city of Wells among its trophies. Other Somerset points of interest include age-old castles and manor houses. Many of the cider farms in the area, passed down from generation and generation, offer tours and free tastings, while tors and ruins pepper the ancient landscape.
Further south, medieval castles and Neolithic stone circles are some of the places to visit in Dorset. More than anything though, the Jurassic Coast is the headline act. Few other places in the world can lay claim to 185 million years of history with the rocks and headlands along the coastline riddled with fossils that tell the story of civilisation’s past.
Forde Abbey and Gardens. This is a real treasure in the south west. Forde Abbey has been around now for 900 years, once as a home for Cistercian monks – much of the medieval monastery still stands – and now owned by the Kennard family. Such a beautiful place is complemented by wonderful gardens, including an arboretum and woods. There’s even a pick-your-own fruit farm on the estate.
Barrington Court. National Trust-owned Barrington Court is a sympathetically restored Tudor manor set in the beautiful Somerset countryside. The rooms are refreshingly empty to allow the architecture to do most of the talking. The grounds also take centre stage, thanks to vast lawns, orchards, an abundance of seasonal flowers, and tucked-away corners.
Dunster Castle. Ancient Dunster Castle has an elevated position on a wooded tor with dramatic views from the battlements over both moorland and sea. The drama continues behind the stronghold’s massive oak doors with a carved staircase, crypts and towers. The garden dates from Victorian times and is home to some rare species, as well as a working watermill.
Wells Cathedral. All paths lead to Wells Cathedral in the historic city of the same name. It’s hard to miss, as it looms large and magnificent in all its Gothic glory. Highlights include the West Front adorned with medieval statues and the 14th century stained glass Jesse Window.
Montacute House. Grade I listed Montacute House was built with local ham stone at the end of the 16th century and has scarcely altered over the past 400 years. The seasonally changing gardens, Tudor tapestries, towering walls, portraits and the longest gallery in the whole of England are set out to impress.
Glastonbury Tor. One of Somerset’s most iconic landmarks, Glastonbury Tor stands head and shoulders above the surrounding countryside. The walk to the top of the hill takes about 30 minutes and is rewarded with fabulous views, as far reaching as Dorset, Wiltshire and Wales on a clear day.
Clevedon Court. A National Trust-owned treasure, Clevedon Court is a manor house with 500 years of history in its walls. It’s still a family home with an interesting collection of glassware and pottery. Both the terraced garden and building are listed, with their medieval roots impeccably preserved.
Nunney Castle. Originally built by a local knight in the 14th century and then added to 300 years later, the site is now a ruin, but a picturesque one no less. Nunney Castle still has a great tower standing and external walls, reached across a wooden bridge over the moat.
Muchelney Abbey. What’s left of Muchelney Abbey is fascinating to see. The Tudor house with impressive stained glass and grand fireplaces is still intact, as is a thatched monks’ lavatory – the only complete one of its kind in England! There are intricate stone carvings, painted tiles and a cloister walk, too.
South Cadbury Castle Hill Fort. Legend has it that South Cadbury Castle Hill Fort is where King Arthur founded Camelot. There’s still evidence of a great feasting hall but today the hillfort site is mainly climbed for the views and the walks around the ramparts.
Explore the natural attractions of Somerset and Dorset
Beautiful places in Somerset capture the quiet and peacefulness of rural England. Here, things move at a drowsy pace. Gardens to visit in Somerset change gently with the seasons and historic houses and castles gradually reveal their stories of old. Otherwise, walks around Cheddar Gorge and the Quantock Hills are intended to be leisurely to allow time to soak up the views, far from the madding crowd.
Wookey Hole Caves and Attractions
The underground network of show caves, rated among the most spectacular in Europe, is nestled beneath the Mendip Hills. A wander through the chambers reveals rare rock formations, witch markings and look-at-me stalactites and stalagmites. More to see above ground comes in the shape of a circus show on selected dates, plus animatronic dinosaurs and a 4D cinema.
Hestercombe House and Gardens
There are 50 acres to amble here, with temples, waterfalls, lakes, woods and formal terraces dotted around the Edwardian gardens. Hestercombe House itself is a historic country mansion, now home to a contemporary art gallery with changing exhibitions.
This is the deepest natural canyon in England, with the limestone cliffs at Cheddar Gorge hiding squirrelled-away caves, once inhabited by our prehistoric ancestors and now atmospherically lit. Out in the open, a three-mile circular clifftop walk is accompanied by commanding views of England at its finest.
A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Blackdown Hills straddle the Somerset and Devon border. Because they’re not on the busy tourist trail, they offer plenty of space for cycling and walking, always with wonderful views of forest, farmland, rivers and valleys.