Romans, Normans And Jolly Good Museums: Why You Should Visit Colchester

Romans, Normans And Jolly Good Museums: Why You Should Visit Colchester
The brick exterior of Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle is built above a Roman temple. Photo: Sannse

First major city in Roman Britain. Former capital of Britain. Oldest town in Britain. And now, a city once again. In May 2022 it was announced that Colchester was to be granted city status to mark the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, so to celebrate, we thought we'd show you some of our favourite parts of this Essex city.

History in Colchester

The ruins of St Botolph's Priory, set among trees and grass
St Botolph's Priory. Photo: Felvalen

First, a quick history lesson. Though it was the Roman capital of Britain, there was a settlement in what we know now as Colchester as far back as the Iron Age. But it was the Roman invasion in AD43 which really put this place on the map, as they named it as the capital of Britannia. Despite Colchester being one of the main focuses of the Boudican revolt which led to large-scale destruction, buildings from the period still remain today.

Colchester's fortunes declined during Saxon and Viking times, but were revived after the Norman invasion, when Colchester Castle was built. Important religious buildings were constructed during the medieval and Tudor periods, and its fortunes continued to rise.

Head to Castle Park to see an obelisk in memorial to the Siege of Colchester in the English Civil War. Look out for sections of the Roman Wall strewn about the town — Balkerne Gate (by the Mercury Theatre) and Duncan's Gate (on the eastern edge of Castle Park) survive. The Scheregate (or Sheregate) Steps remain from another former gate into the town (though not one of the six official Roman gates). Find them in an alleyway between St John's Walk and Eld Lane.

Parts of the town centre aren't always that accessible to those with limited mobility, though where possible, adaptations have been made, such as the lift between Vineyard Street Car Park, and the Lion Walk shopping area.

Interested in getting a few pretty snaps? Head to where North Station Road crosses the River Colne and look north-east for the trio of pastel-hued riverside cottages, their shading reminiscent of the Suffolk pink houses you'll find a bit further north of here. West Stockwell Street in the Dutch Quarter is also well-endowed with colourful, Instagram-friendly houses.

That's just a tiny amount of the history in Colchester — hours could be whiled away admiring the listed buildings on Historic England's website (and they're not all that old — that tower you see as you pull into Colchester station is the 'Jumbo' water tower). But if you're game for visiting Colchester in person (and it's easy to get to by train from London), read on.

Things to see and do in Colchester

The interior of Colchester Castle, set out as an open plan museum. The exterior walls are left exposed.
The castle building is used as a museum. Image: Colchester Museums

As we've established, a rich seam of history runs through Colchester, and is the basis for many of its most visited attractions. Take Colchester Castle, built in Norman times over the top of a ruined Roman temple — quite literally, layers of history. The largest Norman keep in Europe is open to the public (it's one of our favourite castles in Essex), with interactive technology showing the well, chapel and prisons as they would have been — and those Roman vaults can be visited on a tour too.

The castle doubles up as a museum of the area's history, with Celtic coin hoards, Roman statues and mosaics, medieval paintings and civil war armour also on display. It's something of a looker too, coming into its own during wisteria season in the neighbouring Castle Park — itself an excellent picnic spot, and somewhere for the kids to let off steam. And if you're into more unusual history, look out for the Essex Witch Hunt Memorial.

Hungry for more history? The Hollytrees Museum, located in a Georgian Townhouse in Castle Park, tackles the more recent end of Colchester's past. It's a family-friendly museum, offering an insight into the day-to-day life of previous Colchester residents, both rich and poor, though toys, art and costumes. There's also a miniature version of the house, a collection of clocks made locally, and an insight into how nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was written in Colchester.

Just across the road is the Colchester Natural History Museum, located in a former church. There's plenty to fascinate all ages, from the hippos and mammoths that used to roam these parts, to geology such as the 4.6 magnitude earthquake which hit the town in 1884. Interactive displays and a compact size mean the museum's great for easily bored kids.

English Heritage manages both St Botolph's Priory, the ruins of a religious order built in about 1100; and St John's Abbey Gate, built around 1400 (and in rather good nick). Both are free to visit, though the latter can only be viewed from outside, except for occasional heritage open days.

All history-ed out? Colchester Zoo is one of the town's biggest attractions, about four miles from the town centre, accessible by car or local bus.  African elephants, white rhinos, African lions, chimpanzees and Malayan sun bears are some of the many species to be seen. A word of warning if you're with a pushchair or wheelchair user — parts of the zoo are built on a hill so paths are extremely steep, with one path marked as not suitable for wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Heed the warnings and all will be well.

Culture in Colchester

The modern FirstSite building, alongside an historic structure
Photo: Firstsite Colchester

Firstsite is a free-to-visit contemporary art gallery in a very modern building in Lewis Park. Exhibitions, film screenings, talks and events are all on the regular programme.

Colchester Arts Centre — another former church, repurposed — does a great job at bringing big name comedians, musicians and entertainers to Essex, as well as hosting beer festivals, tribute acts and plenty more. Similarly, the Mercury Theatre runs the gamut from family-friendly panto at Christmas to drag workshops, magic shows and celeb guests (Michael Portillo, Stewart Lee and Andy Hamilton are on the upcoming schedule at time of writing). Plus, perhaps unexpectedly, Colchester Football Club does a decent sideline in entertainment on non-match days.

Where to eat and drink in Colchester

A three tiered stand with various cupcakes, and a sign saying "Easter cupcakes £2.65"
Reasons to visit No 10 Museum Street

No. 10 Museum Street is an indy cafe close to all those museums, ideal for kickstarting flagging day trippers with cakes, sausage rolls and other light bites. Similarly, Sip & Tuck is a cafe-bistro running through breakfast, brunch and lunch, from club sandwiches and quiche to fish and chips, and burgers. There's a decent line in vegan and gluten-free cakes, and they offer takeaway (though the interior is bigger than it first appears), so you can hop across the road to Castle Park and tuck in there, if the weather's on your side.

People eating outside in a courtyard, overlooked by a Tudor-style white building exterior with wooden beams
The garden at Tymperleys

Tucked away behind the Natural History Museum, Level Best Art Cafe is somewhere to linger a little longer, indulging in soups, salads, sandwiches and cakes as you ogle the ever-changing artworks on the walls.

Need something a little more filling? Tea at The George is our favourite place for afternoon tea in Colchester — and one of the best in the whole of Essex — but be warned, it's very pink. If you're lucky, you'll time your visit with one of their seasonal themed afternoon teas.

Image: Three Wise Monkeys

For beautiful surroundings, try Tymperleys, a tea room/restaurant secreted away down an alley off Trinity Street. Inside, it's a beautiful Tudor building, all wooden beams and brick fireplaces, and there's a rose garden with tables out the back. It's often booked out for weddings, so check ahead before making a special trip.

Pan-Pacific cuisine is the speciality at Pavilion Restaurant, one to bookmark for a special occasion, with a menu that dives through sushi, maki, salads, tacos, a charcoal grill, and wok dishes. Six- and eight-course tasting menus are available, and the cocktail menu is decent — plus, there's a whiskey and cigar menu for post-dinner indulgence.

A burger and metal bucket of chips served on a plate, on a wooden table with maroon leather seating behind.
Image: Three Wise Monkeys

Speaking of drinks, Colchester's not short of a pub or two. Other Monkey Brewing opens its taproom three days a week, pairing its latest brews with plates of food. Alternatively head to Three Wise Monkeys on the High Street, part of the same company, serving the same beer, but in a gastropub setting, specialising in barbecue food, with regular live music nights. The Victoria Inn comes highly recommended, and is ideally placed for a tipple on the way back to Colchester station.

There's also The Playhouse, a pub located in the former Playhouse Theatre on St John's Street, decent looking on the outside but seriously impressive inside. Drinks and food are very reasonably priced and... alright, it's a Wetherspoons, but don't hold that against it. Inside, it's not unlike The Opera House, the Wetherspoons in Tunbridge Wells, with circle seating still in situ above the main bar and playbills still lining the walls.

Shopping in Colchester

The interior of Best Days Vintage, with racks of vintage clothes, a single table in the middle, and a coffee counter over to the right
Photo: Best Days Vintage

Culver Square is the main shopping centre in Colchester, along with Lion Walk, an open-air, pedestrianised precinct, largely populated with the chain shops you'd find in any town in the country — though it does have its more unique corners too. Up on the High Street, department store Fenwick is the main draw, and the culinary-inclined will find its Food & Wine Market worth a visit for picking up unusual, high-end ingredients and foods, from oils and preserves to spirits and fancy chocolates.

For something a bit more unique, try the South Lanes — the collective name for Sir Isaac's Walk, Trinity Street and Eld Lane — narrow historic streets home to a mixture of chain and indy businesses. Bill & Bert's is a homeware/gift store named after the owner and his dog — think cards, candles, cushions and novelty gifts.  Similarly, Frippery is a 'lifestyle boutique' selling clothing, accessories and homewares with a feminine slant.

The interior of Frippery - racks of women's clothes along the walls,  and wooden crates stocked with candles, make-up bags and other products in the centre
Photo: Frippery

For new togs, try out Best Days Vintage, packed with racks of vintage clothing, also selling vinyl records, and with a small coffee bar in the corner on the shop to boot.

Trinity Street is worth a visit as much for the aesthetics as the shopping. Historic buildings and pastel houses line a narrow street, dripping with hanging shops signs, and looked over by two different towers — Holy Trinity Church and Colchester Town Hall — making it one of the most photographed streets in town. If you can put your camera down for a second, venture into The Colchester Bookshop for a rummage around the second hand tomes.

Getting to Colchester

The city has two railway stations. Colchester is about a 20-minute walk from the town station, with direct trains to Liverpool Street taking around 50 minutes. Colchester Town is closer to the town centre, but with fewer direct trains, and those which are direct take around 70 minutes — otherwise it's a case of changing trains at Colchester anyway.

For drivers, it's around 50 minutes from Junction 28 of the M25, via the A12, or around an hour from Junction 30 via the A13, A130 and A12. There are various pay and display car parks in the centre, but your best bet is the Park and Ride, located right by Junction 28 of the A12, with regular buses into the centre.

Places to visit near Colchester

A row of pastel coloured beach huts on a sandy beach at Mersea Island
Mersea Island isn't far from Colchester. Image: Londonist

Done all that Colchester has to offer, and looking for other entertainment nearby? Let us help you out.

Mersea Island is a great summer day trip destination, best visited by car (though do check tide times to avoid getting cut off on the causeway — no, seriously). Beautiful beaches, photogenic beach huts and charming British countryside, all on a small spit of land just a few miles wide. If that inspires you, check out these other seaside towns and islands to visit along the Essex coast, including Clacton-on-Sea, which is around a 30-minute drive from Colchester, or a direct train ride.

Back inland, the Tiptree Jam Museum & Factory is about a 30-minute drive in the other direction through the Essex countryside, with a fantastic tea room on site too.

The East Anglia Railway Museum is one of the biggest visitor attractions in the area, centred around a Victorian-era goods shed with original railway memorabilia, restoration work taking place on site, and a heritage centre with lifesized replica shopfronts — 0h, and a miniature railway to ride on, too.

Last Updated 28 June 2022

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