Colchester was the first capital of Roman Britain and is the oldest recorded town in Britain. While it may no longer be quite the powerful city it once was, it still has plenty to offer visitors.
If you are planning to visit Colchester, you are in for a treat. Let me share the best things to do in Colchester so that you can make the most of your time there.
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- History of Colchester
- Things to Do in Colchester
- #1 Go Inside Colchester Castle
- #2 Enjoy Castle Park
- #3 Visit the Roman Circus
- #4 Discover the Ruins of St. Botolph’s Priory
- #5 See the Roman Wall at Balkerne Hill or Do the 2-Mile Circular Walk
- #6 Stop by the Roman Church
- #7 See a Roman Theatre
- #8 Visit Firstsite
- #9 Go to the Natural History Museum
- #10 Visit the Holytrees Museum
- #11 Go to East Anglian Railway Museum
- #12 Relax in the Beth Chatto Gardens
- #13 Have Fun at the Colchester Zoo
- How long should you spend in Colchester?
- Is Colchester good for kids?
- How do you get to Colchester from London?
- Where to Stay in Colchester
- Is visiting Colchester worth it?
- Expert Tips for Visiting Colchester
History of Colchester
The history of Colchester goes back further than Roman times. Artifacts dating back to the Mesolithic period have been found in the area. Over 2,000 years ago, the Iron Age fortress called Camulodunon was established.
When the Romans conquered the area, many people in Colchester were forced to work to build the Roman town, which caused resentment. This fueled the rebellion in AD60 led by Boudica which burned Colchester to the ground.
The Romans reoccupied the area after the revolt and rebuilt the town, but this time with a town wall to protect against future attacks. While Colchester was no longer the capital of Roman Britain, it was the religious center.
By AD 370, things had changed and the Roman Empire was fading. The town was smaller and visibly decayed. In the 5th century, Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived. Then, in 869, King Edmund of East Anglia was defeated and killed by the Danes and the area fell under Viking control. Colchester was finally recaptured by English armies under Edward the Elder in 917.
In 1066 the Normans invaded and they put the town under the protection of Eudo the Steward. Work began on Colchester Castle and a number of significant religious buildings including St. Botolph’s Priory and St John’s Abbey.
During the Second English Civil War in 1648, a large Royalist army entered Colchester, which was a largely Parliamentarian town. They besieged the town for 76 days and damaged many of the town’s most ancient monuments like St. Mary’s Church and the Gate of St. John’s Abbey. When the Royalists surrendered in the late summer, their leaders Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were shot in the grounds of Colchester Castle.
Colchester was also hard hit during the plague, losing about half its people. Incredibly, within ten years of the plague the population was more or less back to what it had been. A new golden age was ahead with the local cloth industry booming.
During the 18th century, the cloth trade in Colchester declined because of the competition from the North of England. Colchester dwindled to being a market town where agricultural produce was bought and sold.
In the late 19th century, Colchester became known for engineering because the town made machines such as steam engines. There was also some brewing and a boot and shoemaking industry. While the harbor at the Hythe faced competition from the railway, it continued to be important because much of the trade was coastal.
In more recent years, there has been a lot of archeological work done in the town and several Roman sites have been discovered. Since Colchester Castle was converted into a museum in 1860, many other museums and historical sites have opened to the public. It’s again a thriving town with lots to offer visitors.
Things to Do in Colchester
Colchester has many attractions to check out, especially those that are interested in history and culture. It’s also ideal for families as many attractions are child-friendly and affordable. If it’s your first time visiting or you are looking for more ideas, here are my suggestions for the best things to do in Colchester. Conveniently, most are located within walking distance of the train station.
#1 Go Inside Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle is the biggest Norman keep in Europe. It was built over 900 years ago by William the Conqueror over the foundations of a Roman Temple of Cladius which had been destroyed by Queen Boudica in 50 AD. Inside it’s now a museum with interactive exhibits that are interesting for both kids and adults.
The Castle contains one of the finest collections of Iron Age and Roman archaeology in Europe. Some of the highlights include:
- The Sheepen Cauldron which is the earliest known bronze cauldron from Britain and the first-known example of sheet metal used to create a working object rather than something decorative like jewelry.
- The Middleborough Mosaic, created in the middle of the 2nd century, which uses shading to create a three-dimensional effect.
- The Colchester Vase, the most famous pot from Roman Britain. It dates to sometime between 175 AD to 200 AD and is decorated with scenes of a fight between two gladiators.
You can also visit the dungeon. The first record of Colchester Castle being used as a prison dates from 1226 and it was closed in 1835 because it was unfit for purpose. Thousands of convicted criminals, prisoners of war, and martyrs were held here. It was also used as a base to interrogate women accused of witchcraft during the English Civil War.
#2 Enjoy Castle Park
The area around Colchester Castle deserves a separate mention because you will want to allocate some time to enjoy it. The Grade II listed park covers 11 hectares and is divided into two sections (the Upper Park and the Lower Park) by the Roman Wall.
When the weather is nice, bring along a picnic and some outdoor games and find a spot in the grass in the lower park. Kids can also enjoy the playground, bouncy castle, crazy golf, and boating lake. There is also a bandstand, several gardens, and a café.
It hosts special events throughout the year. When we visited, the Colchester Food Festival was taking place and parts of the park were closed.
#3 Visit the Roman Circus
Colchester’s Roman Circus is the only known Roman chariot racing track in Britain. It was only discovered in late 2004 during excavation work in advance of redevelopment of land formerly owned by Colchester Garrison. All the remnants of the Roman Circus are underground.
The Circus was built in the second century AD and extends over a quarter of a mile long. It’s the longest and largest Roman building known in Britain. More than 8,000 people would have been able to watch the chariot races here.
When you visit the site, you can see replica remains of the bases of the starting gates and some of the foundations of the stands. There is a small museum which has some exhibits about the history of Colchester, more archeological work in the area, and other Roman Circuses around the world. They also offer guided tours and a small café.
It’s about a 30-minute walk from the Colchester (North) train station to the Roman Circus (or 15-minute walk from the Colchester Town Station). Admission to the Visitor Center is £3 or £6 with a guided tour. If you would like to do the guided tour, it’s best to book online in advance here. Children under 11 are free. Get more information here.
#4 Discover the Ruins of St. Botolph’s Priory
Founded in 1099, St. Botolph’s Priory (officially called the priory of St Julian and St Botolph) was the first priory in England. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 and the land and its buildings were given to the King’s Lord Chancellor.
The church remained in use until the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War in 1648 when it was badly damaged. For the next 200 years, the congregations worshipped at All-Saints Church (now the Natural History Museum).
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the cloister of the priory was laid out as a garden and the nave was used for burials. Amongst those buried here are a Waterloo veteran, Colchester’s first hospital doctor, and a railway builder. Then in 1837, the church you see standing next to the ruins was built using architecture that complements the Norman Priory.
Seeing the ruins of St. Botolph’s Priory next to the more “modern” church is quite striking. The massive round columns and rounded arches are imposing, but since most of the priory was completely destroyed, these ruins only give you a glimpse of what the site may have looked like. You can tell that the old priory was made using some Roman materials as the stone is similar to what you see in the Roman Wall.
It is free to visit the St. Botolph’s Priory ruins and it is open during reasonable daylight hours.
#5 See the Roman Wall at Balkerne Hill or Do the 2-Mile Circular Walk
Balkerne Hill is the best place to see Colchester’s Roman Walls, which were built from 65 to 80 AD after the town was destroyed by Queen Boudica’s revolt. The Roman Town Walls are the oldest and best preserved in Britain. Running almost 2 miles in length, it is also one of longest.
Back in Roman times, the wall had six gates but Balkerne Gate is one of only two that remain above ground today. The Balkerne Gate, located next to the present day Hole in the Wall pub, was the original entrance to the town on the main road to London.
Originally, there would have been two large archways for wheeled vehicles, two smaller archways for pedestrians, and a guardroom at Balkerne Gate. Today, only the southern pedestrian archway and some of the guardroom remain.
If you want to see more of the Roman Wall, there is a two-mile circular walk (get the map here). If you have time, it’s definitely worthwhile as you get to see more of the town as well. There are information boards along the route to help you learn more about the Roman wall.
Note: When I did the walk (end of June 2021), a section was closed due to construction, but even with the detour, I enjoyed it.
#6 Stop by the Roman Church
On the side of a busy roundabout, you will find some Roman ruins called the Butt Road Roman Church and Cemeteries, although archeologists are divided about the purpose of the building. Dating from the 4th century, the ‘church’ and over 700 graves were uncovered in the 1970s and 1980s.
Originally the ruins were thought to be a Christian church because of the design and presence of graves. More recently, an alternative theory emerged that it might be a mithraeum, a temple built for the worship of the god Mithras, because of its size, lack of windows, and evidence of feasting.
The remains of the ‘church’ were laid out for the public to see in 1988. They added blocks of oak to show the position of the internal posts and strips of concrete to signify missing parts of the foundation.
To walk to the Roman Church, you have to take a bit of a weird route because you can’t cross at the roundabout. There is an underpass to cross Southway from Headgate. It is free to visit the remains of the Roman Church.
#7 See a Roman Theatre
Roman Colchester was home to three theatres. You can see the underground remains of one under a house on Maidenburgh Street in the Dutch Quarter. On the street, the darker paving shows the outline of the theatre’s walls, which would have seated 3,000 spectators.
It was excavated in 1981-2 and dates back to the 2nd – 3rd centuries. They have removed the floor in the house so that you can see the Roman foundations. Experts believe that it was the theatre mentioned in Tacitus‘ account of the Boudican attack on Colchester.
During my visit the house was closed, but I could look in through the window. When it is open, there is a pathway you can walk on to get a closer look. It is free to see the Roman Theatre.
#8 Visit Firstsite
Firstsite is a contemporary art gallery with some thought-provoking exhibits. It was just named Art Fund Museum of the Year.
When I visited they had some pandemic-inspired artwork, an exhibit on Essex girls, and more. Throughout the year, the installations change and they also show films and have special events.
It’s all set in a unique crescent-shaped building that was designed by Rafael Vinoly from Uruguay. There is a café with a nice outdoor seating area and a shop with some interesting local products.
It is open everyday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and admission is free. See what is currently on here.
#9 Go to the Natural History Museum
Colchester’s Natural History Museum is located inside the former All Saints Church just outside Castle Park. It’s not a very big museum but it does have some interesting exhibits that focus on Britain and north-east Essex in particular.
Their exhibit on climate change in Britain was especially noteworthy. It explained what climate change would look like when it comes to temperature and precipitation, and the effect of the changing climate on plants and animals. It also has suggestions for things that you can do to reduce your impact on the environment.
It is free to visit the Natural History Museum. Get more information here.
#10 Visit the Holytrees Museum
Another attraction inside Castle Park is the Holytrees Museum. It’s housed in a Georgian building, dating to 1718, that originally was the home to Charles Gray, an attorney, a Justice of the Peace and a Member of Parliament for Colchester.
Hollytrees Museum houses a range of collections, including toys, art, domestic items, and Bernard Mason’s collection of clocks made in Colchester. One of the galleries holds temporary exhibits, so there is always something new to see every time you visit.
It is free to visit the Hollytrees Museum and you don’t need to book in advance. Unfortunately, when we visited in June 2021 it was closed. Get more information here.
#11 Go to East Anglian Railway Museum
You can learn about the unique history of the region’s railways at the East Anglian Railway Museum. It’s not your typical museum, it covers over 10 acres.
There is a Victorian station, goods shed, and signal boxes so you can get an idea of how passengers and freight were transported in the past. They also have steam and diesel locomotives, vintage carriages and wagons, and smaller artifacts too.
In the heritage centre you get behind the scenes insight on running the railways. There is also the working restoration shed where volunteers strive to bring historic engines and rolling stock back to life.
Kids will love it here since many of the exhibits are interactive. There is also a railway themed children’s playground, picnic area, and an ex-London bus that has been converted into a children’s play bus.
When you get hungry, there is the Platform 2 Café which serves homemade cakes, afternoon teas, lunches and coffee. The museum shop features Thomas the Tank Engine gear and a range of railway-related books.
The East Anglian Railway Museum is located at the Chappel and Wakes Colne Station about a 20 minute drive from Colchester. Book online here and save 5%.
#12 Relax in the Beth Chatto Gardens
Beth Chatto was a garden designer and author who was known for growing plants in difficult places. She has been called the most influential gardener of our time and believed that you just needed “the right plant for the right place.”
Just a 15-minute drive from the Colchester town center, you can visit her gardens. There are six different themed-areas, a specialist plant nursery, giftshop, and tearoom. Throughout the year, they offer courses, workshops, and events.
Get more information about visiting the Beth Chatto Gardens here.
#13 Have Fun at the Colchester Zoo
I appreciate that not everyone approves of zoos, but if you do enjoy them, you’ll find that Colchester Zoo is one of the best in the UK.. It’s a family-friendly attraction that is so big, you’ll want to spend a whole day.
You can see all kinds of animals including elephants, lions, giraffes, pygmy hippos, rhinos, wolves, penguins, monkeys, and more in different themed-zones. There are a few sections where you can get up close and feed the animals (although there is an additional charge for the food).
The zoo also has several children’s play and activity areas. Plus, there’s a fun train ride called Lost Madagascar Express which you can ride at no extra cost.
Colchester Zoo is just 10 minutes drive from the town (parking is free) or can be reached by the number 75 bus. Get more information about visiting Colchester Zoo here.
Buy your tickets in advance here.
How long should you spend in Colchester?
It depends on how much you would like to see. Colchester could be an easy day trip from Cambridge, Norwich, or London, but it has enough to keep you busy for a few days too.
Is Colchester good for kids?
Yes. Most Colchester attractions are family-friendly, but I think kids will especially enjoy Colchester Castle and Castle Park.
How do you get to Colchester from London?
There are direct trains from London Liverpool Street Station to the Colchester North Station, which is about a 15-minute walk from the town center. The train ride is only an hour. Check the train schedule and prices here. Be sure to book in advance for the most affordable options.
Where to Stay in Colchester
I think it’s best to stay in the city center if possible so that you can easily walk to the main attractions. The only issue is that if you want a luxurious hotel, you will have to stay a bit further away.
Here are my top choices for hotels in Colchester:
Colchester Boutique Hotel
The George Hotel
The George Hotel has proudly stood on Colchester High Street for over 500 years. All rooms are full of designer touches and the period features you would expect from a hotel of this age along with free WiFi, comfortable beds, and smart TVs. There is also a stylish bar, lounge, restaurant, and new tea room.
Prested Hall Hotel
Stay at an historic listed country house partly surrounded by a moat on 75 acres of Essex parkland. It offers 15th and 18th century interiors, stunning Art Nouveau decor, and elegant 1930s extensions. You will find fresh flowers throughout the house, along with books to browse through, DVDs to borrow, and real coffee in the rooms. Prested Hall is a popular wedding venue. It’s situated just off the A12, a 15 minute drive from Colchester.
Is visiting Colchester worth it?
Yes. I think Colchester is definitely an underrated English town. As the oldest city in Britain, it has plenty of history and things to see.
It’s a fantastic option for those traveling with kids as most of the attractions are family-friendly. There are also a lot of interesting free things to do so it’s budget-friendly too.
Have you been to Colchester? I would love to hear about your experience.
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Last Updated on December 5, 2021