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A historic market town with some of Britain’s best surviving Roman architecture and over 2,000 years of tales to tell, Colchester in Essex is a beautiful area to visit and less than an hour away from London by train.
From the peaceful and perfectly preserved laneways of the Dutch Quarter to the hustle and bustle of North Hill’s bar and restaurants, here is our guide to the top things to do in Colchester, Essex:
Getting to Colchester / Walking to the town centre
Colchester is just a 45 minute, direct train ride from London Liverpool Street station with Greater Anglia. Be aware that there are actually two train stations in Colchester – Colchester Town station is closer to the centre but the trains to Colchester station are more frequent and faster.
We visited via the main Colchester station. One you arrive at Colchester station, turn left out of the exit and then right, following the main road all the way into town, approximately a 20 minute walk in total. To make it easier for visitors, the council have installed a trail of yellow banners that lead you all the way to the town centre – or follow the various elephant statues and motifs.
Things to do in Colchester
1. Riverside Walk / River Colne
If you’re walking from the station, the first historic and pretty part of Colchester you’ll come across is the river walk, along the River Colne with historic houses and cottages lining its banks and pathways either side of the river. Whilst it may not be on the scale of South Bank London, it is a pleasant stroll with several pubs nearby including one directly overlooking the water.
2. North Hill
Just up from the River Colne, the first stretch of shops and cafes you’ll discover is North Hill, with the famous water tower just jutting out over the horizon of Colchester’s skyline. North Hill is is a curious combination of black and white / Tudor buildings mainly converted into bars, restaurants and offices as well as the ubiquitous chain pubs and late night takeaways – very popular with students (given one of the main campuses is in North HIll). This is a charming way to commence your uphill walk into Colchester.
3. The Dutch Quarter
The most beautiful part of Colchester, full of narrow lanes, old timbered buildings and cute colourful cottages (think Mermaid Lane in Rye). Colchester’s Dutch Quarter gets its name from the fact that Flemish weavers set up in Colchester after escaping religious persecution in the 1560s.
Using workshops in the ‘Dutch Quarter’ area, they produced high quality cloth that was much sought after in its time, and Colchester became renowned for its textile industry. Allow a good 30 mins to 1 hour to fully appreciate and explore the Dutch Quarter.
4. Colchester Jumbo Water Tower
Looming large over the Colchester skyline, Colchester’s Jumbo Water Tower is easily identifiable from almost any spot in town (it makes it hard to get lost as you can always see it). It was nicknamed after a London Zoo elephant in the 1880s, as it towered over the rest of the town’s buildings and is a heritage icon, although alas at the time of writing it wasn’t open to the general public – attempts are underway to open it as a heritage attraction.
5. Visit Balkerne Gate (and have a pint)
Balkerne Gate is the West Gate of Roman Colchester, dating back from 200 AD. Incredibly, it is the largest surviving gateway from Roman Britain (and is free to visit).
If you like to combine hops with your history, handily there is a pub, The Hole in the Wall – which is directly next door to the Balkerne Gate and which also has a beer garden terrace which directly overlooks it – cheers!
6. Enjoy Live Performances at the Mercury Theatre and Colchester Arts Centre
On rainy days or if you are a culture vulture or theatre lover, there are a couple of live performance and arts venues in Colchester to enjoy. The larger of the two is the Mercury Theatre, with two auditoriums and a cafe towards the rear of the building is incredibly popular (its outdoor area has views of the Balkerne Gate).
Just across from the Mercury Theatre is the Colchester Arts Centre, located in a former church with an eclectic schedule of live music, comedy and other performances in a unique and intimate setting.
7. Colchester Town Hall
In the heart of the Colchester town centre, Colchester Town Hall was built over a period of four years, opening in 1902 and has a beautifully ornate and intricate exterior. Now used as a conference, wedding and event centre, the baroque building can be seen from all around due to its 160ft Victorian tower. Look towards the top and you’ll see a figure of St Helena, the patron saint of Colchester.
8. Colchester Shopping
Given Colchester’s Roman amazing architecture and charming lane ways, your primary reason to visit Colchester may not be shopping but it does have a large town centre with a good mix of the usual chain stores, independent and artisan stores plus a whole heap of bars and restaurants (although we aren’t sure why there is an Italian restaurant called Al Pacino!).
Two of Colchester’s more popular shopping areas are Culver Square and Lion Walk Shopping Centre, where you’ll find your main chain stores like Marks and Spencer, T K Maxx, H&M etc.
9. Colchester Castle Park
An oasis of green lawns and colourful flower beds, Colchester’s Castle Park dates back to the 1890s and is a popular meeting and recreation area (particularly with students and school kids on their lunch break).
As well as a bandstand that sometimes hosts live music and orchestras in the summer months, there is a well-visited cafe called ‘Cafe in the Park’ with lots of indoor and outdoor seating (just watch out for those pesky pigeons).
10. Colchester Castle
Located in Castle Park towards the top of the hill, Colchester Castle is a well preserved Norman castle that originally dated back to the 11th century (possible because it was built on the remains of a Roman temple). Visitors can go on the roof, explore the Roman vaults or interact with the exhibits – you can dress up as a Roman gladiator too (kinky!). Admission fees apply, with adult entry costing from £10.95pp.
11. Hollytrees Museum and Colchester Tourist information office
Located on the edge of Castle Park and near to the Minories, Hollytrees Museum is a free admission museum in the heart of Colchester, set up in an eighteenth-century house which explores 300 years of history, from vintage dolls houses to life as a servant (very ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’).
The exterior of Hollytrees museum is exquisite particularly when the ivy and foliage is in full bloom, and the Colchester Tourist Office which is packed full of helpful leaflets and maps, can be found here.
12. East Hill, Colchester
A small stroll away from Hollytrees Museum and Castle Park brings you the East Hill area of Colchester, best known for its Saint James the Great grade II listed church, an impressive and imposing place of worship located at the upper end of East Hill.
Tired of walking or simply want a treat? East Hill also is home to Greyfriars, a luxury, Michelin recommended hotel that is said to have one of the best afternoon teas in Colchester, served in an immaculate black and white china tea-set.
Colchester’s newest arts and exhibition space, Firstsite opened in 2011 and was recently announced as the Arts Fund Museum of the Year in 2021 (not a bad accolade to achieve after just a decade). Home to a cinema, exhibition gallery and cafe, Firstsite is a popular arts hub with a focus on the local community. The foyer also often opens temporary, free-to-visit installations.
14. Colchester Natural History Museum
Not to be confused with the one in London (we bet it has happened!), Colchester Natural History Museum is located in the former All Saints Church, with several permanent collections, interactive displays and a gift shop. Detailing local history and stories like the Colchester earthquake of 1884, Colchester Natural History Museum describes itself as ‘cosy’ and can be visited in a short amount of time – free admission.
15. Colchester Street Art
Colchester has a burgeoning arts scene and nowhere more can this be clearly seen by the amount of street art and statues you stumble across as you explore downtown.
Perhaps the best known (and possibly most controversial) street art installations are the recent bronze statue additions Walking Woman and Man with Cup, outside Fenwick, sculpted by Sean Henry. Based on recent local newspaper articles, not all residents of Colchester are smitten. Murals can also be discovered in various streets including Church Lane.
16. Go to the Cinema – Colchester Odeon / Colchester Curzon.
Similar to shopping, you may not come to Colchester to go to the movies but having two cinemas in town can be handy if you are staying for several days or get caught out by the rain. The Odeon Colchester has 8 screens showing all the standard Hollywood fare whilst the newer Curzon cinema located just across from Firstsite has a super cool interior and shows a combination of blockbusters and independent films.
As you explore Colchester, you’ll start to think you are being followed by elephants – various elephant motifs, installations or statues greet you at every corner (ish). For instance, you are greeted by a metal elephant at Colchester train station, a straw / floral elephant in Castle Park, by the main entrance to Colchester Castle as well as ‘directional’ elephants at the top of North Hill – so where does Colchester’s elephant obsession come from?
There are various suggestions with everything from it stemming from elephants parading around in Roman times, the pre-mentioned Jumbo Water Tower nickname from the 1880s, as well as a picture from the late 19th century of 18 elephants parading through Colchester.
18. Colchester Zoo
Finally, talking of elephants, one last entry on the Colchester things to do list is Colchester Zoo. although unlike everything else on this list, it isn’t really walkable from Colchester town centre or the train station so you would need to use public transport or have access to a car.
With over 200 species of animals from big cats to bats, this is a fun day out for the family and is likely best done as a separate or side trip.
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