Colchester is a market town in Essex, and is the first city in Britain that was founded by the Romans. For a period of time it became the capital of Roman Britain, and is part of the Most Ancient European Towns Network. Right on the banks of the River Colne, Colchester is situated in an ideal location, which makes it popular with commuters. It’s 50 miles northeast of London, and is less than 30 miles from London Stansted Airport and Harwich port. With a history dating back over 2,000 years, Colchester is a thriving place with plenty of things to do. From impressive visitor attractions to a great choice of shopping and places to eat and drink, Colchester is the perfect place for a short getaway.
A Roman History of Colchester
Back when it was founded by the Romans, Colchester was called Camulodunum, meaning The Fortress of the War God Camulos. Although the Emperor Claudius was only in Britain for 16 days, it was long enough for him to establish his rule, building a fortress on the highest ground, which is now the town centre. The Roman Wall was built to defend Colchester, and today is the oldest and longest remaining town wall in Britain. You can walk the entire wall on a two mile path. Look out for the Balkerne Gate, which was the original entrance to the town.
Colchester was also home to the only known Roman chariot-racing Circus in Britain, and you can visit the excavated foundations of this once monumental structure. There are many other Roman remains to be seen, from houses and churches, to a Roman theatre in the Dutch Quarter – all which will give you an insight into their everyday life.
Things To Do in Colchester
East Anglian Railway Museum
The East Anglian Railway Museum is a must for those with an interest in steam engines. There are plenty of areas to explore on a day out, from hands-on exhibitions at the Heritage Centre, to discovering the behind-the-scenes work that goes on inside the Restoration Shed. The museum is family friendly, with events taking place throughout the year, as well as regular rides on the miniature railway. Adults can also learn to operate a full size steam locomotive by booking a Driver Experience day.
With over 260 species of animals, Colchester Zoo is one of the best zoos in the country. There are a wide range of habitats and zones, including the Orangutan Forest and the Kingdom of the Wild, where you can encounter rhinos, giraffes, ostrich and zebra. The zoo is very interactive, offering you the opportunity to feed the elephants and giraffes, and walk through a glade of exotic butterflies and plants. Colchester Zoo is also home to a number of species rarely seen in the UK, including sun bears and the Colombian black spider monkey.
FSC Flatford Mill
Not far from Colchester, the Field Studies Centre at FSC Flatford Mill provides practical courses in subjects such as Local History, Wildlife, The Arts, Crafts, and Photography. Offering both day courses and residential courses, this is an inspiring place to learn new skills, surrounded by the same picturesque countryside that inspired Constable’s paintings.
When visiting Colchester, you should definitely make a stop at Colchester Castle. The largest Norman keep in Europe, it was built on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius. The castle offers special guided tours where you can venture down to see the huge vaults and climb to the castle roof and take in the panoramic views. The Castle Museum exhibits some of the best finds in Britain, such as the Roman Colchester Vase, Celtic coin hoards, mosaics and medieval paintings and war armour.
A short walk away from the Castle grounds is Firstsite, a contemporary visual arts organisation. The impressively designed building is home to a varied programme of exhibitions, commissions, residencies and screenings from a range of national and international artists. Firstsite also has a wide range of creative events and activities for the whole family, including art and craft courses, live theatre, opera and ballet and workshops and talks.
The Dutch Quarter can be found just north of Colchester High Street. This area was home to Flemish Protestant refugees in the 16th century, who had escaped persecution after their defeat in the rebellion against Catholic Spain. The Dutch Quarter is a great place to walk around and admire the architecture, as the area is filled with beautiful black and white timber framed houses. You’ll also find the home of Jane and Anne Taylor, who wrote the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
A half hour drive to the southeast of Colchester will take you to Mersea Island. Joined to the mainland by a causeway, the island has long attracted holidaymakers to its sandy shores and colourful beach huts. Mersea Island is well-known for its seafood, which is caught fresh off the coast. The oysters are particularly sought out, and were a staple for the Romans. Watersports such as sailing, kitesurfing and stand up paddling are a popular activity here, as the waters are calm and shallow.
Shopping in Colchester
Colchester is a fantastic place to shop. For big name brands, head to Culver Square and Lion Walk, the town’s two largest indoor shopping centres. For fresh local produce, meats and cheese, fashion, jewellery and lots more, visit Colchester Market, held every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. If you prefer something a little different, Colchester is the place to be. Find handmade candles and bath products, unique gifts, retro buys, traditional toys, home decor and antique goods at the many independent shops dotted around the town.
Places to Stay
St Nicholas Hotel
If you’re hoping to stay somewhere central whilst you explore Colchester, St Nicholas Hotel is ideal. Set right on the high street, you will be in prime position for exploring local attractions on foot. Just a stones throw away from historical sites such as Colchester Castle and Hollytrees Museum, and shopping centres Lion Walk and Culver Square, you’ll be all set to experience Colchester with minimal travel required.
Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa
If you’re looking for a relaxing place to stay with generous leisure facilities, nearby Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa is the perfect choice. Set in 300 acres of tranquil countryside, it is a four star resort complete with two championship golf courses, a luxurious spa, and a two AA Rosette restaurant. Stay in one of the 80 bedrooms, or for a little more privacy, opt for one of the self catered lodges.
Dragonfly Hotel Colchester
For an affordable, family friendly option, Dragonfly Hotel Colchester is just what you need. Rooms are comfortable and modern, with Hypnos beds to help promote restful sleep. Families can request interconnecting rooms, and there is an on-site restaurant which is perfect for a relaxed meal after a day out.
Wivenhoe House is an elegant, grade II listed four star hotel. Set in tranquil parkland and decorated with opulent furnishings, it is a restful and refined place to stay. Just minutes from Colchester, you can be exploring in no time.
Idle Waters is an excellent dog friendly option. This riverside cottage is located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so there are plenty of places to take your dog for a walk and discover the surrounding area.
Maison Talbooth is a beautiful Victorian country house hotel. With features such as an outdoor swimming pool, hot tub, day spa, restaurant, and log fire, Maison Talbooth is a comfortable and relaxing place to stay at any time of year.
Prested Hall Hotel
Set in 75 acres of parkland, Prested Hall Hotel is the perfect place to stay for some peace and quiet. Unwind and relax at the health club and spa, which includes a pool, sauna, steam room, spa and holistic treatment rooms. This 15th century part-moated manor house is only 30 minutes from Stansted Airport and a 13 minute drive from Colchester town centre.
For something a little more central, GreyFriars is an excellent choice. Located on the High Street, you’ll have the comfort of luxurious rooms with all the main attractions on your doorstep. The Michelin recommended restaurant has a wide range of dining options, including afternoon tea and a terrace bar.
No. 1 Fenwick Cottages
If you want more privacy or you’re travelling with family, a holiday home may be a better choice. No. 1 Fenwick Cottages is a 20 minute drive out of Colchester, set in the Dedham Vale AONB. The 17th century thatched cottage was featured in a painting by John Constable, and comes with two king sized bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, and access to 15 acres of private parkland.
In & Around Colchester
Peake Spa at Stoke by Nayland Resort
Stoke by Nayland Resort, Keepers Lane, Colchester, Essex, CO6 4PZ
Stoke by Nayland Golf
Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa, Keepers Lane, Leavenheath, Colchester, Essex, CO6
Waldegraves Holiday Park | Essex
Waldegraves Holiday Park, Waldegraves lane, Colchester, Essex, CO5 8SE