School holidays can be an expensive time for families, so we’ve compiled a list of FREE or very cheap places to visit in the North East. Our list of attractions includes indoor and outdoor activities so the weather never needs to stop play. All you need is a picnic, sun cream, an umbrella, transport and you’re off.
***Due to Covid 19, facilities such as car parks, play parks and visitor centres might be closed. Some venues may have limited opening hours, reduced numbers or require advance booking so please check with the venue before travelling.***
A – Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields
Just a short walk from the seafront, Arbeia was the home of the Roman garrison that guarded the River Tyne. On display are child-friendly display boards, excavated remains and reconstructed buildings that help you imagine what Roman life at the fort would have been like. This UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 160AD is the most extensively excavated military supply base in the Roman Empire and includes the remains of the headquarters, barracks, granaries, gateways and latrines.
B – Beautiful Beaches
We are so incredibly lucky to have such a huge choice of beaches on our doorstep. Whether you prefer miles of uninterrupted white sand, small craggy beaches with caves and rockpools to explore or a popular sandy strip with all the amenities a family could need, you will find your perfect beach in the North East. Ok, the weather might not always be perfect but at least you get the beach to yourself! The Durham Heritage Coast between Hartlepool and Seaham has a rugged coastline of Magnesian Limestone cliffs and rocky bays whilst the Northumberland coastline is characterised by vast white sandy beaches, castles and unspoilt countryside. Alternatively, the former Victorian seaside resorts of Saltburn, South Shields and Whitley Bay have shops, cafes and amusements that will keep the whole family entertained.
C – Cowpen Bewley Woodland Park, Billingham
An attractive park with large areas of woodland, colourful meadows, streams, wetlands and areas of open water made from the site of a former clay pit. Today, there is little sign of the site’s industrial past and it’s now a haven for wildlife with over 80 species of bird plus toads, newts, dragonflies, hares, foxes and small mammals in the grassland. There is an extensive network of footpaths including routes up onto two mounds, one of which offers a spectacular panorama with views to the coast and Cleveland Hills.
D - Derwent Reservoir, County Durham
Discover the wildlife and history of Derwent Reservoir along the multi-user trail (3.5 miles from Pow Hill Country Park to Millshield picnic site) while taking in the breath-taking views of the reservoir. It’s an easy walk suitable for cyclists, walkers, wheelchairs and pushchairs. Along the trail you can also spot many wildlife gems including swooping birds, red squirrels, rabbits and butterflies. Derwent reservoir is also a great place to cycle, enjoy a picnic or take part in water sports.
E – Embleton, Northumberland
The pretty village of Embleton makes a great base to explore the Northumberland coast. The beach at Embleton is picture postcard pretty with a sweeping stretch of sand and a backdrop of Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s the perfect spot for paddling in the shallow waters, rock pooling or building sandcastles. If you want to stretch your legs then head south past Dunstanburgh Castle and onto Craster. For a longer walk, head north to Beadnell and you can even extend your walk to Seahouses.
F - Finchale Priory, Durham
Open daily between 10am – 5pm (4pm winter), Finchale Priory sits on the banks of the River Wear, in a beautiful woodland setting. Founded in 1196 as an outpost of Durham Cathedral, the priory operated as a holiday retreat for the monks of Durham. Today, you can explore the impressive ruins of the priory, then enjoy the extensive garden and countryside walks nearby.
G – Glass
Discover the area’s glass-making heritage at National Glass Centre, Sunderland. Learn how glass is made, watch craftsmen making glassware and take part in children’s activities and workshops. At low-tide, hunt for glass on the banks of the River Wear (just outside the Glass Centre). Alternatively, head down the coast to Seaham Hall Beach where children can search for sea glass – glass that has been shaped by the sea over many years before returning to the shore. Thanks to Victorian and Edwardian glass factories throwing their waste into the North Sea, you can find lots of colourful gems.
H - Hadrian's Wall
Stretching 73 miles from coast to coast, Hadrian’s Wall was built to guard the wild north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. Discover the remains of the forts, towers, turrets and towns that once kept watch over the Wall and take in spectacular views of the rugged landscape. One of our favourite walks is to park at Steel Rigg and walk to Sycamore Gap and then on to Crag Lough. There are two routes to choose from; a more challenging one follows the wall or an easier route just south of the wall is suitable for young children.
I – Ingram Valley, Northumberland
With tumbling waterfalls, wide open moorland and panoramic views, Breamish and Ingram Valley is a great place to explore. Pack a picnic and take a walk through Northumberland’s heather clad moorland to Linhope Spout, a 60ft chute of water tumbling into a plunge pool below. You might even spot red squirrels or find Scots pinecones that they’ve been feeding on. Finish the day with a paddle in the River Breamish.
J - Jesmond Dene, Newcastle
As suburban parks go, they don’t get much better than the historic Jesmond Dene. There are miles of cycle and scooting paths, numerous routes for a family walk, opportunities to see wildlife, plenty of picnic spots and open spaces for ball games. There’s even a Pets Corner where you can learn about and interact with animals, a café, gift shop and toilets.
K – Kielder, Northumberland
The Lakeside Way at Kielder is a uniquely beautiful spot and one of Northumberland’s best visitor attractions. If your family loves the outdoors - walking, cycling, water sports, horse riding and exploring nature - then this 26-mile purpose-built track is the place to visit. The track circling the reservoir is accessible to all, plus there are trails to follow into the forest and dedicated mountain bike tracks. For nature lovers, there are red squirrels, birds, insects, flowers and trees to spot plus some amazing works of contemporary art including a futuristic shelter, bridge and Minotaur maze.
L – Lady of the North, Northumberlandia
Rising 100 feet high and measuring a quarter of a mile long, the female figure of Northumberlandia dominates the landscape. This unique piece of public art made of rock, soil and grass lies in 46 acres of parkland and has four miles of walking paths around and over the huge sculpture of a reclining lady. There is a visitors’ centre, toilets and a carpark nearby.
M – MIMA Middlesbrough
MIMA or Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art is a contemporary art gallery right in the centre of the city. The impressive building hosts exhibitions of fine art and craft from 1900 to the present day and features work from internationally renowned artists. The gallery also runs events for families to help children develop their love of art.
N – North Tyneside
Tynemouth is the perfect destination for a day out. Children can let off steam with ball games or a dip in the sea at Longsands beach or King Edwards Bay. Take a stroll along Tynemouth Pier to the lighthouse, head along the cliffs to the priory (£ charge to enter) or explore Northumberland Park with its scooter-friendly paths, sculptures and play park. Alternatively, head to St Mary’s Island and cross the short causeway to explore the rockpools, clifftops and wetland habitat.
O – Ouseburn Farm, Byker
My children have always loved being able to meet and interact with animals and Ouseburn has long since been a favourite place of ours to visit. It’s a working farm with pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, lizards and tortoises to meet and meadows, ponds and woodlands to explore. There’s even an onsite café serving fresh food which has been produced on the farm.
P - Plessey Woods, Bedlington
Plessey Wood Country Park offers 100 acres of woodland, meadows and riversides with nature trails, picnic areas and a visitor centre. The woodland is home to many birds, such as the great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch and tree creeper, as well as animals including the red squirrel, roe deer and fox.
Q – Quayside, Newcastle
With the iconic structures of the Newcastle bridges, Sage Gateshead and the Baltic, Newcastle Quayside makes for a spectacular day out. Cross the Millennium Bridge on foot and if you time it right, you might get to see it tilting to let a boat pass underneath. Visit the Baltic with its regularly changing exhibitions, children’s area and great views over the river. If you are lucky, you might catch a free musical performance at the Sage.
R - Roseberry Topping
Roseberry Topping and the nearby Guisborough Forest and Walkway are a great day out for families that enjoy being outdoors. There are two play areas, a trim trail to challenge you, a sculpture trail, circular marked walks and bike trails, and a permanent orienteering course. A dipping platform provides access into the wetland area and there is a visitors’ centre with cafe. If you’ve still got bags of energy after a walk through the forest, then climb the nearby Roseberry Topping for stunning views over the surrounding area.
S - South Shields
As a child, South Shields was one of my favourite places to visit. Fortunately, some things don’t change and my children love a trip to South Shields with its beautiful beach and numerous family-friendly attractions. Marine Park is the place to start with its boating lake, swans to feed, two play parks and if you are lucky, live music in the band stand. Of course, a trip to Marine Park is not complete without at least two rides on the train! Next, there are sand dunes to explore, a pier to stroll along or use up your change at the slot machines at Ocean Beach Pleasure Park. Don’t forget Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields Museum and The Word all hold themed events for the whole family.
T - Transport
Planes, trains, metros and boats! Ok, this one technically isn’t free (unless you have a travel pass) but for the price of a day ticket you can keep transport loving children entertained for a full day. Take the metro around Newcastle – stop off at Central Station to see the ‘big’ trains and Newcastle Airport to watch the planes taking off. Then, back on the metro to South Shields and take the ferry over the Tyne.
U - Umbrella
We’ve cheated with this one but anyone who lives in the North East is used to our changeable weather and knows the importance of always keeping a brolly handy! Even in wet weather, our coastal, forest and countryside walks are still accessible (and much quieter) and can be lots of fun. Just don’t forget the wellies for puddle jumping!
V - Venerable Bede
Trace the routes of Britain’s best-known scholar-monk the Venerable Bede who dedicated his life to study. From the age of 7, he lived at the twin monasteries of St Peters, Wearmouth and St Pauls, Jarrow, both of which can be visited today. To learn more about the history of Bede visit Jarrow Hall (£ charge) and then finally visit his resting place in Durham Cathedral.
W – Waterfalls, Middleton-in-Teesdale
The waterfalls of High Force and low Force in the North Pennines are a bit of a drive but are well worth the effort. At a height of 70ft, High Force is the largest waterfall in England and it’s a spectacular sight. Our favourite route is to park at Bowlees Visitor Centre then walk the 4-mile round trip to High Force via Low Force. There are lots of picnics spots and places to paddle on the way.
X – eXhibition Park, Newcastle
The lovely Exhibition Park isn’t as well know as the nearby Jesmond Dene but it’s a beautiful park complete with Victorian bandstand and a small lake with swans and ducks and stretches to the Town Moor (look out for cows grazing!). Children can burn off energy in the children's playground or take part in a sporting activity; there are tennis courts, a basketball court and croquet lawns or whizz around the popular skatepark near the main entrance.
Y – Yachts (and harbours!)
With such an impressive stretch of coastline, it’s no wonder that we have lots of bustling harbours full of yachts and boats. There’s nothing better than sitting by the sea watching the boats coming and going whilst eating freshly cooked fish and chips. Two of our favourites places to boat watch are Craster and Amble Marinas.
Z – Zzzzz
Hopefully, lots of fun-filled days, fresh air and exercise will have the desired effect of tiring out the youngest (and oldest) members of the family!