Colchester has been around for a long time. It was Britain’s first Roman capital and reminders of its ancient past are scattered throughout the town. Museums, restaurants, shops, pubs, and contemporary art venues sit within the longest-surviving town walls in England. The big attraction is the Norman castle and its beautiful park. Meanwhile, the university attracts international students and brings the town bang up to date. Just an hour from London by train, Colchester’s real charm lies in the countryside and villages that surround it.
Discover Colchester's Roman Heritage
In 61 A.D., Boudica invaded Colchester, burning it to the ground and putting an end to its days as the capital. The jury’s still out on whether she was a terrorist or hero, but the legendary warrior queen is an integral part of Colchester’s history. The Romans quickly rebuilt the town, enclosing it in the walls that still stand today, almost 2,000 years later. You can visit the U.K.’s only Roman Circus (a chariot track) in town from April to September. Although barely anything remains of the original arena, an information center helps paint a picture of its former glory.
Explore Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle is the largest Norman keep in Europe, predating the Tower of London. Now a museum, it charts the town’s fortunes through the ages, starting with Cunobelin “King of the Britons” who ruled before the Romans, Vikings, Normans, and Saxons put in an appearance. The castle was built on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius, but you’ll need to take a tour to see the ancient vaults and roof of the castle. The rooftop sycamore tree was planted to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat 200 years ago. The interactive displays and large-scale projection show will keep kids interested.
Hang Out in a Victorian Park
Colchester Castle has an award-winning Victorian Park as its garden. Castle Park stretches downhill and is bisected by the northern Roman Wall and the River Colne. The park hosts a program of events including summer open-air movie nights, concerts, Guy Fawkes fireworks, and festivals.
At the eastern entrance to the park, Hollytrees Museum houses the town’s tourist information center. It’s also free to visit the museum’s collection of toys, clocks, and household memorabilia that belonged to Colchester’s wealthy Georgian residents and their servants. Don’t miss the small section devoted to Jane Taylor of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” fame.
The medieval lanes of the Dutch Quarter form Colchester’s prettiest neighborhood. Although it’s named after the Flemish Protestant refugees who settled here, it had previously been home to other European immigrants. The Dutch lived and worked as weavers in the timber-framed houses, which are still residences today. Wander the streets to see a tiny section of a Roman amphitheater, the Greek Orthodox Church, a Quaker burial ground, and Tudor houses with distinctive red and green Flanders-style doors.
Discover Colchester's Great, Good, and Infamous
Follow one of several Blue Plaque Trails and discover the town’s illustrious past residents and important sites. Notable people include John Ball who inspired the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) and the children’s writers Jane and Ann Taylor, who lived on West Stockwell Street in the Dutch Quarter. Ghost hunters will be thrilled to know that the nearby 15th-century coaching inn The Red Lion is home to a notorious trio of ghosts: a murdered chambermaid, a monk, and a small boy.
Colchester also played a significant part in the English Civil War when the town was besieged in 1648. The siege left scars like the imposing ruins of St. Botolph’s Priory or the bullet-riddled Old Siege House, which is now a restaurant. The siege didn’t end so well for the defending Royalist commanders, who were executed behind the castle, now marked by a memorial. Themed guided tours are available from the Visitor Information Centre.
Indulge at Independent Cafes and Bars
Forgo the ubiquitous chain coffee shops in favor of Colchester’s independent cafes and bars. Boardgame fans will geek out when they set their eyes on Dice and Slice’s 400-item collection of games that you can play for 2 to 5 pounds per day. Just a few steps away, sample locally sourced cask beers and an ever-changing selection of European lagers, ales, and ciders at Queen Street Brewhouse. The 600-year-old building regularly hosts live music beneath its wooden beams. The buzzing Three Wise Monkeys is a local taproom with a difference; not only does it serve 20 beers including its own brew, but it also hides a gin bar in the basement.
Visit the South Lanes
The South Lanes comprise a stretch of pedestrian streets a couple of minutes from Colchester’s High Street. Independent specialty shops line the lanes with art stores, boutiques, and small businesses. Trinity Street has a small hidden garden in the grounds of a building where Elizabeth I’s physician William Gilberd once lived. Now a tea room called Tymperleys, the grand Tudor building is a relaxing place for a midday pitstop. The bookshop at the entrance to the courtyard is part of the same building and has three characterful and creaky floors of second-hand tomes.
Check Out the Arts and Entertainment Scene
The Firstsite gallery has secured the town’s reputation as a contemporary cultural hub. While visiting exhibitions center on contemporary art, the building is on the site of a carefully preserved Roman mosaic that comprises its only permanent exhibition. The Minories gallery occupies a Georgian building and a tranquil tea garden while Colchester Arts Centre is an old church converted into an entertainment venue that hosts everything from a monthly farmers’ market to comedy nights. The Arts Centre is the place to spot emerging talent, and it promoted The Killers, Graham Norton, Eddie Izzard, and Coldplay before they hit the big time.
Sample Nepalese Food
Colchester’s community of Gurkhas has established restaurants like the justifiably popular Britannia Gurkha Restaurant & Bar. This cozy restaurant provides a daily set menu of various Nepalese appetizers, curries, and desserts, including plenty of veggie options that pair well with a refreshing Gurkha Beer. If you insist on choosing your own dishes, try the Yak & Yeti or Quayside Bar & Gurkha Restaurant, which is a couple of miles from the town center.
Go Wild at the Zoo
As one of the U.K.’s largest and most popular zoos, Colchester Zoo has 260 species including critically endangered animals. It makes a good family day out with a packed program of events and encounters with the animals. Kids will love walking among and feeding the Pygmy goats and Cameron sheep in the "Familiar Friends" area. There’s also a good chance you’ll spot cubs and baby animals, which range from cute to super adorable. People with mobility issues should be aware that it’s quite hilly in places, but the zoo has easier routes marked out on a map.
Eat World-Famous Oysters
The Romans couldn’t get enough of Colchester Native oysters, and they remain some of the most sought-after oysters in the world. Distinguished by their rich, salty taste, Colchester Natives are harvested 9 miles away off the coast of Mersea Island.
It’s best to catch the number 67 bus to eat them fresh at The Company Shed or West Mersea Oyster Bar right by the sea they came from. You might get lucky and find them in Colchester at GreyFriars Restaurant or the Church Street Tavern, but check first. Native oysters are only available between September and April, but Mersea Rock Oysters are available all year.
Head to the Essex Countryside
Just north of Colchester, Dedham Vale welcomes visitors with landscapes immortalized in John Constable’s famous paintings. You can follow in his footsteps and visit Flatford Mill, row a boat along the River Stour, or explore picturesque Dedham. This area continues to inspire artists so check out the local galleries and studios, such as the Munnings Art Museum.