When I first started looking for things to do in Harrogate, it was out of a dull sense of duty: I had to go there for work. But then I uncovered a world of intrigue, relaxation and reinvention in this pretty Yorkshire town.
Harrogate hit the headlines in the 19th century with its strong subterranean sulphur springs and attracted everyone from Agatha Christie on the run to the Tsars of Russia a mere fortnight before their assassination.
Today, the wealth of the era shines through in the shape of honeyed stone and grand buildings, with echoes of the Cotswolds and Bath.
But make no mistake. This is Yorkshire, the beating heart of northern England, with a character quite distinct from those genteel southern soft spots.
Let me introduce you to some of the best things to do in Harrogate to relax and recharge.
Recommended reading: A Luxurious Rural Retreat in the Forest of Dean with Plenty of Things to Do
Turning 100 in 2019, Betty’s is a landmark eatery and experience in Harrogate.
In a place where Russian royalty spent the equivalent of a month’s salary every single day, Harrogate built its fortunes on the splendours of the past.
And Betty’s offers a return ticket to those halcyon days through fresh clotted cream and rich raisin scones.
The traditional afternoon tea comes with four triangular sandwiches (cucumber, salmon, coronation chicken and a mystery surprise), the scone and three small sweets. For me, this involved a chocolate cake, glazed fruit tart and lemon and orange zested macaron.
You have a choice of tea (of course!) but also coffee and other drinks, with Moutard Rosé Prestige champagne available for an extra cost. With a whimsical hint of The Titanic, I chose Chinese Rose with a slice of lemon. Floral, light, but not too different from regular tea after all.
But it’s the presentation that brings the experience alive.
Muted walls and artfully placed greenery. Mirror-lighted teapots and exquisite table service. Silver tea strainers, expertly cut lemon and a cake stand that stacks up the goodies in a way you’d never do at home.
You’re also surrounded by people having a good time.
People getting together before the theatre. People celebrating a birthday. Mothers and daughters and grandchildren and grandparents and close friends arranging a special treat.
It’s the jam and scones version of the Heathrow sequence at the start and end of Love Actually.
If you don’t fancy the traditional option, there’s a shop and standard café upstairs. (Although, by standard, think gleaming gold-embossed glass, wooden stands and sweet treats to rival the food hall at Harrods.)
Betty’s also serves “normal” food beyond the tea so bear that in mind if you fancy something more substantial.
Bear in mind that the tea is already substantial. I couldn’t finish mine and didn’t want to eat again for about a decade.
You can book tables at Betty’s between Thursday and Sunday, but on other days just turn up and feel lucky. I walked straight in at 5 on a weekday but others report queues stretching around the block. Just factor it into your plans and be prepared.
Another signature thing to do in Harrogate is to unrobe and get hot and steamy.
If it was good enough for Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, it’s good enough for you, right?
These beautiful historic buildings recently received a 21st century face lift, providing a modern light atrium before the traditional steam, soak and cold plunge.
The dark wooden changing rooms resemble old hospital wards at sanatoriums but once you’re into the bath proper it’s as though you’ve stepped into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It makes sense to book a session in advance as places fill up fast. Fresh white towels and a hairdryer are provided but you’ll need a towel for the locker and most other toiletries.
Other treatments are also available but two hours of steam and soaking is relaxing in and of itself.
Related: 7 of the Best Spas in the World
Free to wander in, the single storey Mercer houses an ever-changing menu of exhibits sandwiched beneath glass chandeliers and a polished wooden floor from a purpose built spa building constructed in 1805.
Now, here’s a story I’d never heard before. Renowned crime writer Agatha Christie once went missing from her home in Berkshire, her car found abandoned at a train station.
At the time, she was thick in the midst of marital trouble and grief following the death of her mother and her disappearance caused a nationwide manhunt.
After 11 days, she was spotted: relaxing and having a good time in The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate.
Apparently, she’d seen a poster at Waterloo in London and decided to head on down and enjoy herself. And frankly? Who could blame her!
Fittingly located inside the former public baths, this small but charming museum forms an essential part of understanding Harrogate – and then failing to understand it again.
Memorabilia and a brief tour held on the hour explain how the world’s ultra wealthy would head here to drink the water. Regimens were strict and involved a mixture of steaming, drinking water, listening to bands play and going for a promenade.
In a time when drinking water wasn’t always up to scratch, it’s possible to see why this would be beneficial.
When you see the salty, sludgy, stinking water held in the subterranean vaults, you wonder if they hadn’t all lost their minds.
Far, far more pleasant fluid can be found at the Little Ale House on Cheltenham Crescent.
This independent mini pub specialises in craft ales and blends its style of hipster cool with old traditions, hanging hops from the ceiling and making the most of the exposed wooden beams and doors.
Dining at an Italian restaurant? Is that really the way to spend your precious time in Harrogate?!
I love Italian food but, let’s face it, it’s usually oh so much better in, ahem, Italy.
But, it came so highly recommended that into the October rain I went.
Small and run by well-informed young staff, Stuzzi aims to turn the British idea of Italian food on its head (which, let’s face it, is probably what needs to be done.)
A deli counter and freshly prepared dishes like ‘Uova alla Diavola’ (devilled baked eggs with fiery nduja salami) and potato and pecorino hash brown topped with mortadella, fried egg and white Alba truffle oil allow you to move beyond the pasta and pizza repertoire and learn more about each region as you go.
It is nothing like Harrogate’s iconic Betty’s and everything like it: small dishes full of flavour that transport you to another time or place.
Part Gothic Horror House, part Opium Den, part Swinging Sixties and part, well, bafflement, one thing’s for sure: a night at The Chapel is never dull.
So named because it’s a renovated chapel, this B&B is the passion project of Mark Hinchliffe and has been picked up by Channel Four’s television programme Four in a Bed, as well as Restoration Man.
Taking photos is one thing but this place has to be seen to be believed.
You’ll find numerous boutiques, jewellers, booksellers, shoe shops, delicatessen/chocolatiers and even a department store on the ever popular James Street.
Related: Exploring Places to Visit in England
This beautiful 17-acre English Heritage Grade II listed garden is well worth a visit. Historical buildings such as the Sun Pavilion and the colonnades are framed by pretty flowers, shrubs and manicured lawns. The grounds have benefitted from the expertise of award-winning garden designer Paul Hervey-Brookes.
You’ll also find a paddling pool, skate park, playground and café here.
Compact, walkable, green and fairly steep, Harrogate is pretty well connected to major cities in the north.
It’s 40 mins by train from Leeds and York and it’s easy to walk from the station into town. If you drive, park on the outskirts of town and walk in. The closest airport is Leeds (Bradford.)
Disclosure – This trip was made up of some self-funded aspects and a mixture of paid/unpaid partnerships. As ever, all opinions remain my own. Otherwise, what is the point?!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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