As you may have seen from our Facebook and Instagram updates, Keri and I recently went on a short trip up to the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate.
As I’m originally from the north east and grew up in Scotland, I’m always glad of the chance to head back up north and our trip to Harrogate didn’t disappoint. We managed to squeeze a lot into our 36 hour stay, so here are our favourite Harrogate attractions…
Unlike its southern spa counterpart Bath, which has been a destination since Roman times, Harrogate didn’t actually exist as a town at all until well after its famous mineral springs were discovered in 1571.
And although the heyday of visiting Harrogate to take the waters has now passed, the town remains a popular tourist destination– it’s been voted the happiest place to live in the UK and also the third most romantic destination in the world.
Harrogate’s compact town centre is easy to get around and we found there was plenty to do to fill a two-to-three day trip. Here’s a quick roundup of some of my favourite attractions in this historic town.
Walk the spa trail
Walking the heritage spa trail was the first thing we did when we arrived – it was a great way to familiarise ourselves with the town’s layout and architecture.
The area around Low Harrogate is stuffed full of gorgeous Georgian and Victorian buildings, built to house and entertain members of high society at the height of the spa’s popularity. The town was a popular stopping off point for wealthy southerners on their way to Scotland for the shooting season – they would spend time at the spa on the way up to detox after all the rich living they had indulged in beforehand. And although you can’t really stop off there to cure your hangover anymore, the beautiful spa buildings have now all been entirely repurposed, housing everything from a museum and the tourist information centre to a Chinese restaurant.
The circular spa trail takes you around 13 buildings and another 7 locations in the adjacent Valley Gardens, including the Turkish Baths, Royal Hall and Hales Bar. A leaflet outlining the route is available from the Tourist Information Centre.
Have tea at Betty’s tea rooms
Whenever I mentioned to anyone at all that I was visiting Harrogate, I was told I must visit Betty’s. A trip to the original Bettyâ’s in the town centre is pretty much obligatory when visiting the town.
And as well as having a pot of tea there, we also managed to sneak in another visit to the Betty’s at Harlow Carr Gardens (and OK, and I may have also stocked up on biscuits in the shop before we left).
Betty’s first opened nearly 100 years ago and its cakes, meals and legendary afternoon teas, all served in traditional but relaxed setting means it remains a Harrogate must-visit. Be warned though – it gets very busy and it’s definitely worth booking a table to make sure you aren’t disappointed when you get there.
The Royal Pump Room Museum
The Royal Pump Room Museum is small but perfectly formed. The octagonal building hosts an eclectic range of exhibits including those on the history of Harrogate, interesting, and sometimes odd, items from the spa days (anyone for an electrified peat bath?) and an impressive range of Egyptian artefacts donated by local collectors.
The pump room was built in the 1840s on top of the sulphur wells – the strongest ones in Europe – and we were lucky enough to be allowed down to see the wells themselves. People were prescribed water from the wells to cure a range of medical ailments including digestive problems and skin complaints. Unfortunately, recent legislation changes meant we weren’t allowed to try a sample, but judging from the smell coming the well, that was perhaps not a bad thing.
Visit the gardens
The buildings aren’t the only beautiful part of Harrogate. The parks and gardens are lovely and a lot of care and attention is obviously spent on them.
In Low Harrogate, grade II listed Valley Gardens cover 17 acres and is home to buildings such as the Sun Pavilion and the Colonnades. Walking the well-paved route through the shrub, herbaceous and floral beds is a great way to spend a peaceful few hours, particularly, as we did, in the early evening.
Also in Harrogate is the Royal Horticultural Society’s famous Harlow Carr Gardens. Set up in 1950 with the aim of finding suitable plants for the chilly northern climate, the gardens stand on what was once part of the ancient Forest of Knaresborough before being developed as part of the spa facilities by the Victorians.
Since being acquired by RHS, developments have included teaching gardens, redesigned main borders and a regenerated woodland. Misty weather on our visit nonwithstanding, the vast gardens were great fun to explore, with the woodland area and the unusual plants of the alpine house particular highlights.
Explore Ripley Castle
If you like a good castle, you definitely need to visit Ripley. A short bus ride from the town centre brings you to Ripley village – a quintessentially English place with pretty cottages, pubs and an ice cream shop. And an absolutely massive castle.
The castle has been owned by the Ingilby family for over 700 years, which is quite impressive given the number of wars and political changes that have happened over that time. So, of course, the building has an extremely rich history which we were introduced to by one of the castle’s knowledgeable guides. We were treated to an up-close view of some amazing artefacts including a tudor medicine book (and yes, most things were fixed with leeches), a priest hole, bullet-pocked masonry, civil war weapons and a rather heavy 17th century shoe, all with a family story behind them.
And what would a castle be without its grounds? The ones at Ripley are particularly impressive, having being designed by Capability Brown, with lakes added in the early 19th century. We spent an age wondering round exploring the paths, formal gardens and apiary before deciding our favourite part was the impressive kitchen gardens where it seemed every herb or vegetable we could think of was growing.
Relax in the Turkish Baths
Originally opened back in 1896, the Royal Turkish Baths was just one many places that the well-to-do would visit during their time in Harrogate. Renovations back in 2004 have brought it back to its full Victorian splendour and both lovers of spas and architecture will adore a trip here.
Back then you could come for anything from a mud bath to a plombiere douche (don’t ask!), but those days of weird and wonderful treatments are no more. Nowadays a visit to the Baths involves taking part in heating, cooling and cleansing ritual that sees you disappear into a sauna, enter a chilly plunge pool and then lounge in the hot room chambers. Invigorating as well as relaxing, with its traditional tiles and moorish dome its a truly stunning setting in which to unwind.
I was completely relaxed after my two hour stay, but if you’re after some further pampering, then you’ll be happy to know the Baths also offers a number of wonderful spa treatments and massages.
The Montpellier Quarter is the heart of Harrogate’s independent shopping experience with more than 80 shops, galleries and restaurants lining the pretty cobbled streets that stretch downhill from the main shopping area. The area is well worth a wander and you’re sure to find a unique momento of your time in the town.
Beyond Betty’s, thereâ’s a huge number of restaurants to choose from. In fact, one of taxi drivers claimed that Harrogate has one of the highest restaurant-to-resident ratios in the world. I’ve not managed to work out whether that’s true or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if this turned out to be correct.
The streets are filled with everything from Japanese to Italian tapas, many of them independently owned. Obviously we were only able to try out a tiny proportion of them on our short trip but if the quality of our meal in the popular Thai restaurant Sukothai is anything to go by, Harrogate definitely deserves its reputation as a top food destination.
We were the guests of Visit Harrogate during our trip to Yorkshire with accommodation provided by the Alamah Guest House and travel courtesy of Virgin East Coast and Northern Rail. As ever, all opinions are our own.