The city of Colchester in Essex has a long history dating back to its time as Camulodunum, the Roman capital of Britain. There are many wonderful things to do in Colchester from exploring its Norman castle to parks, shopping, eating and drinking.
Until recently Colchester was a town (the oldest recorded town in England). However, in 2022 it was granted city status as part of the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. If you are wondering what to do in Colchester, this guide has you covered.
I was born in Colchester and lived in the town for almost 20 years before moving to China, so know a thing or two about the place. I’ll tell you about the best places to visit in Colchester and some nearby attractions and places of interest.
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Best Things to Do in Colchester
There are lots of things to do in and around Colchester and below you’ll find some of the top picks including museums, country parks, galleries, the theatre and traditional pubs. I’ve also included some hidden gems that only a local would know about.
1. Colchester Castle (One of the Top Things to Do in Colchester)
One of the best things to do in Colchester for first-time visitors is to visit the historic Norman Castle. The castle is situated atop the former Roman Temple of Claudius (the largest Roman temple in Britain) so has a history dating back over 2,000 years.
The castle as seen today dates from the 11th Century and has one of the largest castle keeps in Europe. Inside is the Castle Museum which has been running since 1860 and houses a large collection of Roman finds, interactive displays and other exhibitions.
I’ve visited the Castle many times over the years from school trips to more recent visits. As someone with a keen interest in history, it’s one of my favourite places to visit in Colchester.
Address: Colchester Castle Museum, Castle Park, Colchester, CO1 1TJ. Click here for directions.
Entrance price: £12.50 ault, £6.95 child
Opening hours: 10 am to 5 pm Mon-Sat, 11 am to 5 pm, Sun
2. Castle Park (One of the Best Places to Visit in Colchester)
One of the best free things to do in Colchester is to visit the beautiful Castle Park. The park is made up of the upper park, which includes a fish pond, colourful flower displays, a bandstand, a children’s play area, and a cafe.
The lower park is a large meadow that runs along the river and hosts many events throughout the year from the annual Medieval Festival to food festivals and concerts. The views from the upper castle park are fantastic and you can see all the way to Highwoods Country Park.
This is somewhere I have spent countless hours and still pop into the park to eat a sandwich when I’m in Colchester. Castle Park is a great place for a picnic, sunbathing on sunny days, and generally relaxing. You can also take a tour of the grounds for just 10. Click here to find out more and book.
3. Take a Walking Tour of the City
Taking a walking tour is one of the top things to do in Colchester to see all the major tourist attractions. There are many excellent 90-minute walking tours costing only £10 each. Choose from Ghosts and Witches, Roman Colchester, Victorian Colchester, Castle Grounds, Seige of Colchester and more.
This is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the town while learning something of the history from a knowledgeable guide. Tours depart from the War Memorial in front of Colchester Castle at the bottom of the High Street. Click here to book your tour today.
4. Step Back in Time at Hollytrees Museum
The Hollytrees Museum is a beautifully preserved Georgian townhouse located in the heart of Colchester. The museum offers visitors a fascinating insight into the lives of the families who lived there during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The rooms have been carefully restored to reflect the different periods, and include original features such as fireplaces, furniture and wallpaper. Visitors can explore the various rooms of the house, including the elegant drawing room, the cozy nursery and the Victorian kitchen.
The museum also hosts a range of events throughout the year, from children’s activities to historical reenactments, making it a great destination for visitors of all ages. This is definitely on of the best things to do in Colchester for families and is free to visit.
5. Get Creative at Firstsite
Firstsite is a contemporary visual arts organization located in Colchester, Essex. The organization is housed in a stunning, purpose-built building designed by renowned architect Rafael Viñoly.
The gallery hosts a wide range of exhibitions, events, and activities throughout the year, showcasing the work of both established and emerging artists from around the world. The exhibitions cover a diverse range of themes and media, from painting and sculpture to film and digital art.
In addition to the galleries, the building also houses a cafe, shop, and education spaces, making it a hub for creative activity in the local community. I saw a film in the cinema here a few months ago and it’s a great place for an evening out.
6. See the Stunning St Botolph’s Priory
One of my favourite Colchester attractions is the gorgeous St Botolph’s Priory. The Priory of St Julien and St Botolph was founded in 1100 and was the first Augustine priory in Britain. The surviving walls date from the 12th Century and although now a ruins, this is one of the town’s hidden gems.
Address: St Botolph’s Church Walk, Colchester, CO2 7EE. Click here for directions.
Entrance price: Free
Opening hours: Daylight hours
7. Get Cultured at the Mercury Theatre
The Mercury is Colchester’s best-loved theatre and I’ve been here to watch everything from pantomime to Shakespeare over the years. The theatre is located at Balkerne Gate next to the Roman wall and across from the Hole in the Wall Pub.
The theatre recently underwent a large renovation and now features a cafe bar that serves a selection of meals from pizza to fish and chips, burgers and light bites, cream teas and sandwiches. The licensed bar sells a selection of beers and wines.
As well as theatre, the Mercury also holds regular events from pilates and yoga to a monthly farmers’ market, comedy nights and more. This is definitely one of the best things to do in Colchester at night. Check the website to see what’s currently going on.
8. Have a Pint at the Hole in the Wall
The Hole in the Wall was once my “local” and where I had my first legal pint of beer at the age of 18. The historic pub is located on Balkerne Gate next to the actual “hole in the wall”. It’s actually built into the wall itself and this can be seen inside the pub.
There is a pleasant beer garden/terrace with wooden decking out the back with views across to the Mercury Theatre and out towards Highwooods. If you’re looking for things to do in Colchester at night, dropping in for a pint is an excellent option.
Address: Balkerne Hill, CO3 3AA. Click here for directions.
Opening hours: 1 pm to 11 pm Sun-Thu, 1 pm to 12 am Sat-Sun
9. See the Roman Wall at Balkerne Gate
Balkerne Gate is the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain and is believed to have been constructed in the 1st century AD. The gate was once part of the town’s original Roman walls, which were built to protect the important settlement of Camulodunum, as Colchester was known during the Roman era.
The Balkerne Gate is made of local flint and Roman brick and stands at a height of approximately 15 meters. Visitors can explore the gate and its surrounding area, which includes a park and a Roman cemetery. The gate is an important symbol of Colchester’s rich history and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Address: Balkerne Passage, CO3 3AA. Click here for directions.
Entrance price: Free
Opening hours: 24 hours, 365 days a year
10. See the Only Roman Circus Found Outside of Italy
The Roman Circus is an important historical site and one of the top attractions in Colchester for history lovers. It was discovered in 2004 during the construction of a housing development and is the only known example of a Roman circus in Britain.
The circus was built in the 2nd century AD and was used for chariot racing and other forms of entertainment. It is believed to have been one of the largest circuses in the Roman Empire, measuring over 400 meters in length.
The site includes a visitor’s centre where you can learn more about the history of the circus and its importance in the Roman era. The discovery of the Roman Circus has shed new light on Colchester’s rich Roman history and has become an important cultural attraction in the area.
11. See the Holy Trinity Church
Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful Saxon church located in the centre of the city. It dates back to the 11th century and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Colchester. The church has undergone numerous renovations and extensions over the centuries, resulting in a unique blend of architectural styles that reflect its rich history.
This church features a beautiful Norman doorway, a stunning 15th-century stained glass window, and a distinctive tower dating to around 1050 that dominates the town’s skyline. Trinity is no longer an active place of worship and is used as an arts space and cafe.
Holy Trinity Church is an important symbol of Colchester’s long and fascinating history and a must-see destination for anyone interested in the town’s cultural heritage.
12. Town Hall
The Town Hall is an iconic building and one of the major landmarks of Colchester. The building was completed in 1902 and is an excellent example of Victorian architecture. It features an impressive clock tower that rises above the town, a grand entrance hall, and a beautiful council chamber with ornate decoration.
The town hall is home to the Colchester Borough Council, and many important civic events, including weddings and receptions, are held there.
Visitors can explore the building’s public spaces and view the numerous works of art and historical artifacts on display, including a statue of Queen Victoria and a ceremonial mace dating back to the 16th century.
13. Walk Around the Gorgeous Dutch Quarter
The Dutch Quarter is a charming and picturesque area located in the heart of Colchester between the High Street and Castle Park. It gets its name from the Dutch artisans who settled there in the 16th and 17th centuries and left their mark on the area with their distinctive architecture and design.
The buildings in the Dutch Quarter feature characteristic Dutch gables, colourful brickwork, and unique ornamental features. Today, the area is home to a variety of independent shops, cafes, and galleries, making it a popular destination for visitors looking to explore the town’s cultural offerings.
The Dutch Quarter is also home to several important historical sites, including the oldest surviving timber-framed house in Colchester. The area’s unique blend of history and contemporary culture makes it a must-see destination for anyone visiting Colchester.
14. Lion Walk Shopping
Red Lion Walk is a short, covered passageway that leads from the High Street to the pedestrian shopping area around Culver Street and Culver Square. Here you’ll find independent, boutique shops and cafes as well as popular High Street brands.
If you’re looking for a bit of retail therapy then head to Red Lion Walk and Culver Square. You’ll also find Colchester’s public library, the Holy Trinity Church and other top Colchester attractions in this part of town.
15. Visit the Medieval Oyster Fayre
The annual Oyster Fayre medieval festival is held every June in Lower Castle Park. Here you’ll find a host of displays, reenactments, craft and jewelry stalls and plenty of food and drink from mead and hog roast to beer and burgers.
I’ve been going to the Oyster Fayre for many years and it’s always one of the top days out in Colchester (thankfully most years it’s been dry). It’s the biggest medieval festival in Europe and attracts people from far and wide.
Address: Lower Castle Park, St Peters Street entrance (Ryegate), CO1 1HL. Click here for directions.
Entrance price: £8 for adults and £4 for children.
Opening hours: First weekend of June (3rd and 4th June 2023)
16. Catch a Show at The Arts Centre
Colchester’s Arts Centre is one of the most famous venues in the region and is housed in a converted church behind the Mercury Theatre. They host a wide range of events from gigs and club nights to comedy, theatre, beer festivals and more.
I’ve been visiting the Arts Centre regularly since I was a teenager and was there recently to see Peter Hook and the Light (Joy Division/New Order). The sound is always spot on and it’s one of my favorite venues anywhere thanks to the great ambience.
One of the biggest shows of 2023 took place on 19th May when local boys Blur returned to their hometown to play a warm-up gig at the Arts Centre.
Even if you don’t intend to visit the venue for a performance, the church and churchyard are well worth a visit and offer a slice of sanctuary away from the busy town centre. Check the website to see what’s currently going on.
Address: Church Street, CO1 1NF. Click here for directions.
Entrance price: Ticket price depends on the event
Opening hours: First weekend of June (3rd and 4th June 2023)
17. Visit the Natural History Museum
18. Highwoods Country Park
Just to the north of Colchester’s main railway station is the beautiful Highwoods Country Park. I used to live a five-minute walk from this Colchester beauty spot and spent many a summer’s day and long evening relaxing with friends, playing football or enjoying a picnic (mainly liquid).
I also used to work at the country park as a volunteer landscape gardener with the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers. Inside the park you’ll find ancient woodland, rolling meadows, wildflower gardens and a large fishing lake, all within walking distance of the town centre.
There is a visitors centre, a children’s play area and information boards about the local flora and fauna. If you’re lucky you might even spot the odd monkjack deer which I’ve seen on a few occasions. This really is one of the best places to visit in Colchester if you want to escape into nature.
19. Watch a Colchester United Match
I must confess that I’m not a football fan, however, the only real match I ever went to with my Dad was Colchester United (at their old ground on Layer Road). That must have been in the 1980s or early 1990s, and since then the club has moved to a shiny new stadium called the JobServe Community Stadium.
As well as the obvious football matches, the stadium also hosts live music and other events throughout the year.
20. Go for a Swim at Brightlingsea
Brightlingsea is a coastal town on the estuary of the River Colne. There is a pleasant promenade, a few small sandy beaches, a paddling pool and a lido (outdoor swimming pool). This is the perfect place to come for a dip in the warmer summer months.
I went to high school in Brightlingsea and lived in the town for many years. I still have family here and it acts as my base when I’m briefly home from my trips. As well as the seafront there are lots of scenic walks, good restaurants and some excellent traditional pubs in the town.
Bus 87 departs Colchester North Station and High Street for Brightlingsea hourly, 7 days a week. The journey time is around 45 minutes. It’s also possible to walk or cycle following the River Colne. The trail starts near Tesco at the Hythe.
If you’re looking for more cool places to visit, check out this guide to the most beautiful cities in England.
Where to Stay in Colchester
Budget: The Railway Sleeper Lodge
This small studio apartment next to Colchester’s North Station sleeps up to three people. It’s just a ten-minute walk from the town centre and comes with everything you need for a comfortable stay for an excellent price. Click here to book.
Mid-range: The George Hotel
The George is a charming hotel, restaurant and bar on the High Street. This is where I used to meet my grandfather for lunch (RIP) and is still one of my favourite spots in the town. Rooms come with an en-suite bathroom, flatscreen TV and kettle. Click here to book.
Milsoms is a four-star hotel located in Dedham a short drive from Colchester. It is famed for its excellent restaurants, beautiful rural location and excellent service. Rooms are tastefully decorated to a high standard and come with en-suite, minibar and air conditioning. Click here to book.
Places to Eat and Drink in Colchester
Colchester city centre is packed with places to eat with cuisines from all over the world. You’ll find all the usual brands around the High Street plus lots of independent cafes and eateries. Below are a few of my top picks.
Three Wise Monkeys: This hipster chain of craft beer pubs is an excellent option for a pint and a tasty bite to eat, located at the bottom of the High Street. With a huge range of real ales, ciders, gins, and an excellent menu, this is somewhere I go time and again. Click here for directions.
China Chef: Having lived in China for six years I know something about the cuisine, and this is definitely the best place in town for authentic Cantonese and other Chinese dishes. It’s both a restaurant and takeaway and somewhere I’ve been eating for years. Click here for directions.
The Kings Arms: Also known locally as the Hogs Head, the Kings Arms on Crouch Street is one of my favourite pubs in Colchester. I’ve been eating and drinking here since I was 18. It’s a proper pub with a great selection of ales, a rustic interior and a large beer garden out the back. Click here for directions.
German Doner: This brand of German kebab restaurant is relatively new to Colchester and one of the best places in town for cheap eats. Conveniently located halfway down the High Street, and with lots of great deals, this is a good option before hitting the town. Click here for directions.
The Playhouse: JD Wetherspoon is a British institution and the best place to go for a cheap pint (under £2) and a meal of no-nonsense pub grub. The Playhouse is classic Colchester venue that I’ve frequented for many years and you can’t really go wrong here. Click here for directions.
Getting to Colchester
The city is conveniently located on the main Norwich to London train line with the journey time from the capital under one hour. Stansted Airport is just 33 miles away with hourly buses, and Harwich International Port is 19 miles away.
Things to do in Colchester FAQs
Colchester is definitely worth visiting for its history stretching back over 2,000 years to Roman times. There’s tons to see and do from visiting the medieval castle to walking through beautiful Highwoods Country Park or enjoying a pint and a nice meal in town.
Colchester is famous for many things including its Roman history, Queen Boudica, the Norman Castle, Civil War history, the band Blur, and Colchester United Football Club.
The Dutch Quarter is arguably the nicest part of Colchester thanks to its colourful, pastel-painted houses and narrow streets. The area leads from the High Street down to Lower Castle Park and is a must-visit.
Colchester is definitely a nice place to live (I lived there for 20 years). It’s in a great location wiith easy access to the coast, London, Ipswich and Norwich. There’s lots to do, plenty of great pubs, restaurants and cafes.
Now you know what to do in Colchester, my hometown and somewhere I still enjoy returning to on my rare visits back to England. At only one hour by train from London, Colchester should definitely be high on the list of every traveller to the UK.
Check out my other Essex guides:
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲