The hub of North East heritage, Sunderland’s mix of city, coast and countryside means there’s always something to see and do. With a wealth of year-round attractions, the city boasts wide sandy beaches and a vibrant music scene.
Sunderland is a forward-thinking city with an historic past, having been at the heart of the shipping industry. L.S. Lowry even confessed that he was once passing by when he realised that Sunderland was what he had always been waiting for. Now, its venues bring the world’s best entertainment to the area and the Metro system means it’s all easily accessible. Here are 14 places you need to visit in Sunderland:
1. Museum and Winter Gardens
Situated in the heart of Sunderland, the Museum and Winter Gardens showcase the city’s proud history. The museum, established in 1846, features an array of peculiar displays, including a stuffed lion, the remains of a Siberian walrus and even skeletal remains of a human! The Winter Gardens add more colour, with a climb to the top allowing you to observe the tropical plants and wonderful water features.
2. Stadium of Light
The home of Sunderland AFC, the Stadium of Light is home to so much more than Premium League football. Having hosted bands like the Foo Fighters and events like North East Live, the stadium is accustomed to providing first-class experiences in entertainment. Equally exciting is that the football ground is the University of Sunderland graduation venue!
3. National Glass Centre
Partly funded by the University of Sunderland when it opened in 1998, the National Glass Centre is pretty much what you’d expect – but more interesting. With its roof made from 3,250 square metres of glass (unsurprisingly), the building is free to visit and holds daily exhibitions on the history of glass (again, unsurprisingly). There are also artists on site and regular hot glass demonstrations.
4. Sunderland Empire Theatre
With a capacity of 2,200, the Sunderland Empire is widely considered as one of the best theatres in the UK. Formerly the venue for University of Sunderland graduation ceremonies, the theatre brings the biggest musicals, operas and other productions to the area. Only one of a few UK auditoriums with four tiers, the venue saw Helen Mirren in her stage debut and the Beatles in their first full UK tour. It hosts West End productions like The Lion King and War Horse – but is, more infamously, where Sid James died on stage.
5. Mowbray Park
Voted the best British park in 2008, Mowbray Park neighbours the aforementioned Museum and Winter Gardens. Formerly known as the People’s Park, it’s one of the oldest parks in the North East and its statues signal the area’s history. The park is often described as ‘the jewel in the crown of the city centre’, stretching just less than two miles in length and boasting open spaces. It’s also the home of a walrus sculpture – built to commemorate author Lewis Carroll who is believed to have drawn influence from the city.
6. Penshaw Monument
Built in 1844 and modelled on the Temple of Theseus in Hephaestus, the Penshaw Monument towers over the immediate area. Officially titled ‘The Earl of Durham’s Monument’ – because it’s dedicated to the the first Earl of Durham, John Lambton – the structure is a true landmark of Sunderland. The National Trust open up a secret staircase in one of the pillars during the summer, and it’s floodlit during the night. It’s also worth mentioning that the monument is adjacent to the beautiful Herrington Country Park!
7. The beach
This is vaguely titled, but only because we couldn’t choose between the beaches! Seaburn and Roker both have stretches of sandy shorelines, housing arcades, restaurants and a range of activities. Particularly charming in the summer, the beaches epitomise the beauty of Sunderland; a perfect blend of city and coast. If you do opt for Roker, be sure to take a stroll down the pier and towards the impressive lighthouse.
8. Sunderland International Airshow
Although it only takes place over the course of three days a year, the International Airshow brings around one million spectators to the beaches of Sunderland. Originally planned to be a one-off event, it is now the biggest free annual airshow in Europe! With food counters, stalls, fairground games and planes, the Sunderland International Airshow is not to be missed.
9. Karting North East
Touted on their website as ‘the UK’s leading karting experience’, Karting North East (KNE) has one of the largest circuits in the country. But with paintballing, buggies, archery, tomahawk throwing and more, there’s an activity to suit every thrill-seeker. The facility caters for large groups and most ages, so it’s an ideal place to get some people together and have a good time.
10. Washington Old Hall
Washington Old Hall was the ancestral home of George Washington, the first president of the United States. No, really. A 17th century manor house, it is now owned by the National Trust and celebrates key American events – such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving – throughout the year. Predictably popular with overseas visitors, the site is furnished as it would have been while Washington lived there, with a collection of oil paintings, delftware and carved oak furniture.
11. The riverside
Often the final leg of the coast-to-coast cycle route, the riverside is sprinkled with Sunderland’s heritage. Stretching north of the River Wear, from St Peter’s Church to the National Glass Centre, is the Riverside Sculpture Walk – which reflects both the city’s past and present. It was designed between 1991 and 2001 by sculptor Colin Wilbourn, writer Chaz Brenchley and the residents of Sunderland, while plaques were created in workshops by blind and partially sighted people.
Independent promotes itself as a club and Sunderland’s only dedicated live music venue – but it’s so much more than that. When their original site was demolished, they literally took the bricks and timber and renovated a derelict building across the road. The new Holmeside venue opened within months and quickly became the place to be basically every night. Having hosted The View, Kasabian and countless upcoming acts, Independent is not only an indie hotbed, but also a haven for anyone who loves music.
13. MFA Bowl
A great place to go with some friends, MFA Bowl is located on High Street West between Nando’s and the Traveldoge. The bowling alley always runs a variety of offers, including student deals such as a drink and unlimited games on Mondays and Thursdays. You can have a pint and a few games of pool if bowling isn’t your thing, or you can join a league if it is your thing – so there’s something for everyone!
14. Pop Recs Ltd
Having originally opened on a temporary basis, Pop Recs quickly became a permanent fixture and a cornerstone for local music. It came about when Sunderland band Frankie and the Heartstrings were releasing their second album and noticed the lack of record shops – so they simply opened their own. Although the Fawcett Street venue closed two years later – having hosted the likes of James Bay, Franz Ferdinand and The Vaccines – Pop Recs most recently resided on Olive Street and will surely continue to operate in one form or another.