Cracking Things to Do in Colchester

Norman, George and Roman might sound like a bunch of lads down the pub, but they also sum up the eclectic architecture in this Essex town

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Field in Colchester, UK

OK, maybe Roman isn’t that common of a name today. But the centre of Colchester is a treat for architecture geeks, with its array of Georgian, Norman and Roman vestiges. It really brings the history of the city to life (cliché writing trope alert). Colchester Castle is among the highlights of the old-world layout, its keep keeping with the medieval theme. 

Bengali Tiger at Colchester Zoo, England

Bengali Tiger at Colchester Zoo, England

If you’re not crazy for architecture and you're not a history buff, there’s plenty more to keep you entertained in this town just northeast of London. Colchester Zoo is one of the most famous animal parks in the country, and the market is also rather lovely. The town is also a proud member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network, which is a pretty groovy club to be part of. What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? You haven’t lived. They get together and discuss archaeology and such. You’re missing out. Here's the Plum Guide's synopsis of the best things to do in Colchester.

Visit Colchester Castle

A list of things to do in Colchester would be incomplete without its namesake castle. Dating back to the 11th century, the Norman castle is still standing, with guided tours taking you through its crumbling ramparts. Bring the kids for the family-fun activities, including dressing up as an Iron Age Briton (cue the jokes about mum or dad’s fashion sense) and steering a Roman chariot (cue jokes about mum or dad’s driving). Descend into the Roman vaults or climb as high as the castle roof and imagine bearing down on an approaching army from whoever was attacking the Normans at that time. What? We’re travel experts, not historians. OK, OK, it would have been the French. Wait, but I thought the Normans were French? 

Relax in the castle park

Ah screw it, just enjoy the views, inspect the exhibits and wander through the Colchester Castle Park, which, as it happens, contains Colchester Castle. Set up a picnic on the green meadow and let the little ones frolic in the play area. There's a bandstand, a café and even crazy golf to entertain the whole family. It’s certainly easier on the brain than worrying about whether the Normans and the French were attacking themselves.

Colchester Castle, England, UK

Colchester Castle, England, UK

Explore the market

Colchester is one of those places that is known as a market town. We suspect it’d be known as such even if the market ceased to exist. It just seems to have 'market town' inscribed in its very being. Maybe it’s the quaint town centre, with the cobbled lanes and old architecture. Anyway, the market certainly hasn’t ceased to exist, and is on seven days a week in Culver Street East and West. On Friday and Saturdays, the stalls swarm across the High Street, conquering the town like the Normans and French...or like a scene from Oliver Twist. Who will buy my sweet red roses? Two blooms for a penny, and all that…

Visit Colchester Zoo

Finally, we’ve arrived at the pièce de résistance; one of the most important things to do in Colchester; the site known as one of the best zoos in the world. Here’s why. There are real-life dragons (the Komodo kind; they don’t breathe fire, obviously), as well as elephants, bears, cheetahs and more. You can even feed the animals and take a cute train through the complex. Bring a packed lunch and set up a picnic in view of the zebras and tigers. It has a face-painting station, so you know you car’s gonna be lined with paint later on. But these are prices you’ll happily pay for a day hanging out with chimpanzees and elephants. (In addition to the ticket prices, of course.)

Flamingos at Colchester Zoo, England

Flamingos at Colchester Zoo, England

Delve into the museums

When it comes to things to do in England, it’d be wise to come up with some rainy day activities. Browse the exhibits at the Hollytrees Museum, a Georgian townhouse that takes us through what life was like for people here over the last few centuries. Learn about the servants, the dolly pegs and all kinds of old-world antiques, including Colchester clocks. Find out about the origins of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, which was composed in the town. Another indoor highlight is the Munnings Art Museum, which has a shop, a café and an activities booklet for your kids to fill out. Examine the works on display by Sir Alfred Munnings, including 650 oil paintings and 50 watercolours. He apparently loved to paint horses, so… expect to see lots of horses. 

Attend a performance

Old meets new in Colchester's pre-eminent arenas for the visual arts. Head to the Colchester Arts Centre for all sorts of live music and comedy shows. It’s based in an old church, which is a bit of a weird and cool British tradition (clubs and pubs taking over ecclesiastical treasures) – but the cheap beer undermines the piety somewhat. For something a little more modern and elegant, there’s the Firstsite complex, whose glassy exterior definitely conjures up images of Bond villains’ hidden lairs. It has a cinema and all sorts of exhibitions and classes.  

While Plum Guide has always focused on big global cities, international jetsetting seems a little way off for now. So our fastidious homes critics have been busy hunting for the perfect country boltholes and properties in laidback little towns that are perfectly placed for outdoorsy staycations. If you want to keep reading about them, take a look at our guide to things to do in Chelmsford next.

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