How to Spend a Weekend in Harrogate: Spa Town of the North

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Retrace Agatha Christie’s footsteps with this perfect weekend in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Things to do in Harrogate

A Weekend in Harrogate: Amazing Things to do in Harrogate

A weekend in Harrogate is a decadent voyage to Yorkshire’s luxurious past. The Spa Town hit the headlines in the 19th century when its sulphur springs became the height of fashion. Anyone who was anyone paid a visit, from Agatha Christie to the Tsars of Russia.

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. Plus, a plan to make the most of Harrogate in two days.

The Best Things to do in Harrogate

Things to do in Harrogate, Inside Betty's Tea Rooms Harrogate
One of the delights on offer at Betty’s Tea Rooms

Betty’s Tea Rooms: The Start to a Perfect Weekend in Harrogate

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.

Vintage Afternoon Tea

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.

Betty’s: The Harrods Food Hall of the North

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.

England - Yorkshire - Weekend in Harrogate visit Turkish Baths
Harrogate’s Turkish Baths are beautifully ornate

Saturday Morning: Steam in the Turkish Baths

Another signature thing to do on a weekend 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

Feel Cultured at the Mercer Art Museum

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.

Things to do in Harrogate, the Turkish Baths
The Old Swan is a must-visit

Pop into the Agatha Christie Hotel at the Old Swan

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!

Things to do in Harrogate
No trip to Harrogate is complete without a box of Farrah’s Original Toffee

Brush up on History at the Royal Pump Room Museum

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.

Things to do in Harrogate - The Little Ale House
The Little Ale House specialises in craft ales

Nightlife: The Little Ale House

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.

Related: Unusual Things To Do in Bristol; England’s Sassy City

Try Italian Tapas at Stuzzi

Dining at an Italian restaurant? Is that really the way to spend your precious weekend 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.

Shopping on James Street

You’ll find numerous boutiques, jewellers, booksellers, shoe shops, delicatessen/chocolatiers and even a department store on the ever popular James Street.

Walking in Valley Gardens

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.

Unusual Things to Know About Harrogate

  • Harrogate topped the ‘Happiest Places to Live in the UK’ poll for three years in a row.
  • It’s only a day trip away from a UNESCO world heritage site: Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
  • It’s the self-styled Gateway to the Dales and Jewel of the North (the Dales are thousands of square miles of hills, moors, valleys and villages).
  • The Harrogate Flower Shows are the biggest exhibitions of flower arranging and floristry in Britain, attracting over 40 000 visitors.
  • The world’s biggest celebration of the crime genre, the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, takes place at the Old Swan Hotel, as a nod to its Agatha Christie Heritage.
Things to do in Harrogate - The Chapel
The Chapel is a truly unique hotel

Where to Stay in Harrogate for a Weekend

Part Gothic Horror House, part Opium Den, 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.

A Weekend in Harrogate at a Glance

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.)

More on Travel in  England

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