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One day in Colchester: what to do and see in Britain's first city - an itinerary

Colchester is a brilliant and easy day trip from London - founded by the Romans not long after their conquest of Britain in AD43, Colchester (or Camulodunum) was Britain's first city and the capital of Roman Britannia until it was burned to the ground by Boudicca and the Iceni in AD61. Following this attack, Colchester was rebuilt with new defensive walls and the British capital was moved to Londinium. Today Colchester remains a treasure trove of historic sites, from its Norman Castle to Britain's only Roman chariot racing circus.

This one day itinerary will be a little bit whistle stop with quite a bit of walking in order to fit in all of the city's top things to do and see. So put on your comfy walking shoes and let's explore Colchester!

How to get to Colchester

By train: Colchester is in Essex, in the east of England. Fast trains from London Liverpool Street will get you to Colchester in around 49 minutes (other trains take up to 1 hour and 2 minutes, depending on number of stops). However, the main station is a half hour walk out of town via some very busy main roads, so we'd advise staying on one stop more to Colchester Town which is far more central - only 2 minutes walk from St Botolph's Priory and 8 minutes walk from Colchester Castle. Double check when booking your train ticket as not all routes go on to Colchester Town, you might need to change trains at Colchester.

By car: If you're driving to Colchester, you'll be coming in on the A12. We parked in the Britannia car park (CO2 7EF), a big open air car park right behind Colchester Town station. It's only £1.50 all day on Sundays, or £9.60 for up to £12 hours Monday - Saturday.

How to spend one day in Colchester- your itinerary:

1. Start your day at St Botolph's Priory -

Just behind the Britannia car park are the dramatic ruins of St Botolph's Priory. Built by the Normans in around 1100, St Botolph's was one of the first Augustinian priories in England! While much of the building was destroyed in the English Civil War of 1648, you can still appreciate the nave's magnificent round columns and arches, and the beautiful west front. The orange bricks that you can see throughout the building are all Roman, repurposed by the builders.

St Botolph's Priory, Colchester

2. Spend a couple of hours at Colchester Castle Museum -

Visiting Colchester Castle was one of the highlights of our Colchester city break - the impressive building is the largest Norman Keep in Europe, built on the site of Camulodunum's mighty Temple of Claudius. Inside, the outstanding museum covers 2500 years of local history and contains some internationally renowned archaeological finds like the Colchester Vase, the Fenwick Treasure, the Colchester Mercury and the tombstone of the centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis. Head down into the prisons, used by the infamous 17th century Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, to hold and interrogate hundreds of women and men accused of witchcraft in squalid conditions before their trials. For a small additional fee you can join a guided tour which includes the castle's roof and the Roman vaults.

The museum is brilliant for children- very hands on. As well as numerous opportunities to dress up, you can play in a reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse, try your hand at driving a chariot around the Colchester Roman Circus and until the end of June, there is a puppetry exhibition featuring numerous characters from Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet! Great fun for big and small kids alike.

Opening times: Monday - Saturday 10:00 - 17:00, Sunday 11:00 - 17:00

Tickets: Adult : £12.75

Child (aged 4-16): £7.50 (first child then £3.75 for each additional child)

Student: £8.50


Related Content: Why not explore another stunning Essex destination: Top things to do in Saffron Walden, Essex


3. Take a stroll around Castle Park -

Directly behind the Castle Museum is Castle Park, a huge green space with a cafe, playground, a small boating pond, flower beds and a Putt in the Park mini-golf course. Divided in two by a Roman wall, this is the ideal space for a relaxing stroll with an ice cream, a sunbathe or a picnic!

4. Instead of a picnic: lunch at Firstsite or Roots and Grooves -

We have two lunch recommendations for you to choose from (if you're in Colchester for two days you could try both):

  • Option A. Firstsite is Colchester and the East of England's contemporary visual arts gallery, a community hub with free art exhibitions, a cinema and a lovely cafe with a sunny terrace balcony. We can vouch for their delicious jacket potatoes! Firstsite also runs regular art workshops and classes, from toddler messy play to Drag still life drawing - check the website to see if anything coincides with your visit! N.B. Firstsite is always closed on Mondays

  • Option B. Roots and Grooves Cafe is 2 minutes away from Colchester Castle, just off the high street on St Nicholas Passage. This fabulously eclectic cafe sells exquisite toasties and great coffee as well as vinyl records and plants! They also have takeaway boxes so you could always pop here to grab a sandwich to eat in Castle Park...

A delicious looking toasted sandwich with salad, taken at Roots and Grooves, Colchester

5. Visit and learn about the only Roman chariot racing stadium in Britain -

In the year 2000 a unique archaeological find was uncovered, identified 4 years later as the only Roman Circus ever to have been discovered in Britain.

Like a smaller version on Rome's Circus Maximus, this stadium would have seated as many as 8000 spectators to enjoy thrilling chariot races as well as gladiator fights.

Built around the same time as Colchester's walls following Boudicca's devastating 61 CE rebellion.

A map of Colchester's Roman Circus

If you walk 15 minutes from Roots and Grooves, south of the city centre is the Roman Circus Visitor Centre, a small museum with informative displays, a scale model of the circus and video footage about Roman chariot racing and the Colchester Archaeological Trust's excavations on site. While little can be seen of the epic building itself as much of the stone was taken in Medieval times, outside you can see the exposed foundations of one of the spectator stands protected by a glass walkway, and across the path, above ground, are the bases of the starting gates where the race began. If you don't want to visit the museum, the starting gates can be seen through the fence.

The starting gates of Colchester's Roman Circus

The visitor centre is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00 -16:00 April to September and Tuesday to Friday, 11:00 -15:00 October to March.

Tickets are £8, under 11s go free!

6. The first Christian Church in Britain

Walk for 7 minutes up Butt Road to the police station on Southway - out front you'll find two information boards and the stone wall foundations of the oldest Christian church in Britain - believed to date from the early 4th century, right around when Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the country.

7. Visit a local legend -

7 more minutes walking brings you to a Colchester icon, Jumbo, the Victorian water tower. Built in 1883, Jumbo is the largest Victorian municipal water tower in Britain and was built to provide clean drinking water (cholera and other waterborne diseases were a real issue in Victorian England) and to supply water in the case of fires. Decommissioned in the 1980s, the tower stands 40m tall and can hold 230,000 gallons of water. Its nickname, Jumbo, comes from an enormous elephant who lived in London Zoo at the time of its construction.

8. All roads lead to Roman stuff -

With Jumbo behind you, continue past the Mercury Theatre and through a large red brick double arch - this is the Balkerne Gate, part of a Roman entrance into the city on the road from Londinium. Although today only a fragment remains, it's still the largest surviving Roman gateway in Britain, about 2000 years old and is Grade I listed. Follow main road around to the right along a fantastic tall stretch of Roman wall, built along with the Balkerne Gate as part of Colchester's upgraded defences after Boudicca and the Iceni destroyed the city.

9. Going Dutch -

Leaving the main road, re-enter the city centre through where the Northgate and take a stroll around the pretty Dutch Quarter, formerly the home of Protestants fleeing persecution from 16th century Europe, now a quiet residential area . You'll find lots of beautiful timbered houses here, and take a peek at the excavated remains of a Roman Theatre through the window on Maidenburgh Street, one of only 5 found in Britain!

10. Dinner -

You'll be spoiled for choice in Colchester, the city has a huge range of cafes, restaurants and pubs. While it has every chain you can think of, it's always good to patronise the local independent places, so here are a few dinner recommendations to help inspire you:

  • Al Pacino Italy: nothing to do with the film star, but this authentic Italian restaurant will certainly make you an offer you can't refuse with its extensive menu of delicious pasta, pizza and seafood.

  • Love Thy Burger: a family owned burger joint serving locally sourced beef with toppings like red onion marmalade, Turkish garlic sausage and falafel, along with rosemary or truffle parmesan fries, milkshakes, craft beer and a seriously naughty dessert menu!

  • Cuckoo Dough: If you've got a sunny evening, you can't go wrong with decadent pizzas and cocktails on the roof terrace!


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