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Exeter travel guide, tours & things to do

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Guest contributor Claire Toze checks in from historic Exeter in South West England...

Founded by the Romans in AD 55, the city of Exeter has a long and rich history, evident in its period architecture and attractions.

Located in the heart of Devon at the head of the River Exe estuary, and surrounded by gentle, rolling countryside, it’s easy to see why the Romans chose the site for their most south-westerly fortified settlement in Britain.

Fast-forward to today, and you’ll discover a progressive, relaxed city that successfully fuses culture and heritage with a fabulous dining scene.

Enjoy this Exeter travel guide.

Exeter travel guide
Exeter travel guide: Cathedral Green

Exeter for history lovers

As you’d expect from a city with a 2,000-year backstory, Exeter has plenty to show off to history buffs.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) is a good place to start. Housed in a beautiful Victorian building, the museum takes visitors on a journey of discovery from the city’s pre-history to the present day.

Famous Exeter Cathedral, whose twin Norman towers dominate the city skyline, is another historic must-see. Cathedral Yard is dotted with cafes and restaurants in which to sit and admire the cathedral’s impressive West Front. Then head inside to marvel at the longest stretch of unbroken Gothic-style vaulting in the world.

Exeter travel guide
Exeter travel guide: Exeter Cathedral. Image courtesy of Visit Exeter

In medieval times, the citizens of Exeter enjoyed access to fresh drinking water brought into the city through lead pipes from springs outside the city walls. A remarkable network of subterranean passages survives largely intact and can be visited on a guided tour. It’s not for the claustrophobic!

Exeter’s position on the River Exe led to great wealth in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely due to the woollen cloth trade. Custom House, a beautiful building renowned for its sweeping staircase and ornate plaster ceilings, was constructed on the city’s Quayside in 1680. Today it’s a visitor centre and brings the history of the Quayside to life.

Top cultural experiences in Exeter

Whatever your taste in art, music and theatre, Exeter will have something to offer.

RAMM has an exquisite collection of fine art and antiquities from West Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific region. You’ll also find plenty of information on how the gallery came to hold such a diverse global collection.

Catch professional touring productions at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, and quirky underground performances at the Bike Shed Theatre. Large scale festivals and music events are staged at nearby Powderham Castle.

Exeter travel guide
Exeter travel guide. Image courtesy of Bike Shed Theatre

The city has a year-round calendar of vibrant events. Highlights include the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink in April, the Exeter Craft Festival in July, and a very atmospheric annual Christmas Market on Cathedral Green in December.

Great places to eat in Exeter

Surrounded by lush farmland and close to many miles of glorious Devon coastline, Exeter’s top chefs create gastronomic delights from local produce and fresh seafood.

The choice of eateries is vast, putting the city firmly on the map as one of the foodie capitals of South West England.

A weekly farmers’ market sells field-fresh produce, while the Exeter street food market is the perfect option for a relaxed lunch or dinner. Check the website for upcoming dates and locations.

You have to enjoy a world-famous Devonshire cream tea of freshly baked scones, clotted cream and homemade jam during your stay in Exeter. Try the quaint, and very English, Tea on the Green.

Exeter travel guide
Exeter travel guide: Ship Inn. Image: Bigstock

Many Exeter pubs have been serving hungry and thirsty locals for hundreds of years, and offer good value pub grub. The atmospheric Tudor-era Ship Inn in Martins Lane is a popular option. You’ll also find smart wine bars tucked away in the city’s nooks and crannies, such as cobbled Gandy Street.

Where to shop in Exeter

Exeter’s compact size makes it the perfect shopping destination and there’s a fantastic choice of shops within easy walking distance.

Large department stores in the main shopping areas of High Street and Princesshay are complemented by independent, vintage, and downright quirky stores in the West Quarter.

Head to the Quayside to watch local craftspeople at work in historic bonded warehouses. It’s an opportunity to buy a unique, handcrafted souvenir of your visit to the city.

Exeter travel guide
Exeter travel guide: Shop for artisanal products at the Quayside.

Ways to relax in Exeter

Just off Exeter’s High Street lie the glorious gardens of Northernhay and Rougemont.

They provide an oasis of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of the city.

Watch the world go by from one of the Quayside waterfront pubs or cafes, or hire a bike or canoe and explore the Exeter Canal. Here you’ll also find the Quay Climbing Centre, which is home to the South West region’s largest climbing wall.

Exeter travel guide
Exeter travel guide: Travel along the Exe Estuary by train.

Exeter is located just 16 kilometres from the English Channel coastline. The train journey along the Exe Estuary to the coast is one of Britain’s most scenic rail journeys. In places, the train almost seems to float on the water. The beautiful Devon countryside and the rugged landscapes of Dartmoor National Park are also within easy reach of the city.

Do you have any tips to add to our Exeter travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

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