Boasting one of the prettiest town centers in the country, the walled cathedral city of Chester can be found in the North West of England, right on the border with Wales. As it was founded as a Roman fort in 79 AD, it has a rich history and heritage, with ancient archaeological sites lying alongside centuries-old buildings and monuments.
Due to its strategic setting, and the trade and prosperity the River Dee brought, the city was often fought over. Everyone, from the Scots and Saxons to the Danes and Vikings, ruled it at one point or another. While most of its tourist attractions relate to its two millennia of history, there are also cultural and child-friendly things to do in Chester.
With fabulous shops and restaurants to be found in the historic heart of town and pretty parks, gardens, and riverside walks to enjoy, Chester is certainly well worth visiting if you have the chance.
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Set in the historic heart of town is the Storyhouse building which houses, not only a library and restaurant but a theater and cinema too. A very popular place, it puts on lots of excellent plays and performances with countless cultural events and films also shown during the year.
Since its opening in 1936 as an Odeon cinema, the Art Deco building has been at the center of cultural life in the city. While some people come to use its library, others take arts and crafts classes, enjoy a meal in its restaurant or attend community events. In addition, the fabled Storyhouse makes for a great evening out thanks to its fun Open Mic nights, film screenings, and fantastic theater shows.
11. Grosvenor Museum
Just a short stroll from Storyhouse is another of Chester’s top attractions; the engrossing Grosvenor Museum. In its exquisite Renaissance Revival building, you can find an extensive array of artifacts, artworks and archaeological findings with most of its collection focusing on the Roman period.
Inside are interesting exhibitions on life in the city during Roman times and the empire’s expansion in Britain, with displays looking at its legions and fortifications. Besides boasting some remarkable Roman antiquities and tombstones, there are also watercolor paintings, old toys, and a well-preserved Georgian house replete with period pieces.
The museum is named after Hugh Grosvenor, the First Duke of Westminster, who supported and sponsored its opening in 1886 and has their family’s coat of arms above its entrance.
10. Roman Amphitheatre
Also located in the center of town is the Roman Amphitheatre believed to be the largest of its kind in the UK. As its ruins were discovered as recently as 1929, only half of the ancient arena has been exposed so far. Ongoing excavations reveal ever-older finds and foundations each year.
The amphitheatre dates to the first century, and each discovery generates more discussion and debate as to its use. Most people now accept that it hosted both entertainment and military exercises.
Although much more of the massive stone structure is still to be unearthed, visitors can wander around its weathered walls and learn about its millennia of history from the informative displays that are dotted about.
9. St John the Baptist Church
Right next to the Roman Amphitheatre is St John the Baptist Church – a more recent, yet still centuries-old, addition to the center of the city. While it is thought to have first been founded in the seventh century by the Anglo Saxons, much of the current church and its astounding architecture dates from the eleventh century.
Once the Chester’s main cathedral, it fell into disrepair and ruin following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s. While the current church and its chapels and sturdy stone columns already make for a striking sight, wandering around its grounds is an even more amazing experience. This is because the remains of even older cloisters, towers, and arches lie scattered about its green spaces.
8. Chester Racecourse
If you’re after an exciting and adrenaline-filled day out, then you can’t beat watching a horse race at the Chester Racecourse. The oldest racecourse still operating in the world, it hosts numerous races and polo games throughout the year, as well as vintage fairs and black tie balls, among other events.
Impressively races have been held here since the sixteenth century with 1539 often cited as the year it all began. Although ‘the Roodee’ as it is known is one of the smallest courses in the UK, at just 1.8 kilometers in length, this makes races even more exhilarating as the jockeys have less time to jostle for first place.
Add in its grandiose grandstands, electrifying atmosphere, and action-packed races and the Chester Racecourse is certainly not to be missed.
7. Eastgate Clock
Widely claimed to be the second most photographed clock in the UK after Big Ben, the attractive Eastgate Clock was erected in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. One of Chester’s most recognized and renowned landmarks, it lies in the city center at what was once the original entrance to the Roman fort of Deva.
Perched atop of a sandstone arch that dates to 1768, the wrought iron clock makes for a superb sight with lovely old timber-framed buildings lying to either side of it. Besides its elegant ironwork, the clock is also adorned with glittering gold lettering, a copper-clad cupola and the Queen’s initials ‘VR’. Designed by architect John Douglas, it remarkably had to be hand-wound once a week right up until 1974.
6. Chester Zoo
One of the biggest and best zoos in the UK, Chester Zoo has an incredible array of animals from all around the world. The sprawling site with its enormous outdoor enclosures and exhibits can be found just a short bus ride to the north of the city center.
Since opening in 1931, the zoo has educated countless generations about the animals, their natural habitats, and behaviors. Visitors can enjoy exploring exhibits such as Fruit Bat Forest and Spirit of the Jaguar, as well as Bears of the Cloud Forest and Dragons in Danger.
Besides its more than 700 species of invertebrates, birds, mammals, and reptiles, the zoo has playgrounds and cafes to stop by, all serviced by its massive monorail.
5. Roman Gardens
Not far from both the Roman Amphitheatre and Chester City Walls you can find the resplendent Roman Gardens. Dotted about its pretty flowerbeds and lush green spaces are fragments and ruins of Roman buildings, with crumbling columns and ancient stone pavings wherever you look.
A very pleasant and picturesque place to spend some time, the gardens were established in 1949 to preserve the city’s Roman past. Besides seeing the weathered remains of a bathhouse and its hypocaust heating system, you will also come across parts of the Roman fortress at Deva alongside other archaeological excavations.
In addition, visitors can also stroll along part of the city wall and see some magnificent modern mosaics.
4. Boating on the River Dee
Winding its way through the center of the city is the peaceful River Dee, which lends itself perfectly to all kinds of recreational activities. While the thriving maritime trade along the river once brought commercial and cultural prosperity to Chester, it is now instead kayaks, pedalos, and boat cruises that make their way up and down its tranquil waters.
As it meanders its way past many of Chester’s tourist attractions, as well as local wildlife spots and quaint countryside, it is well worth renting a boat so you can explore the River Dee. Although some companies run cruises that have a commentary on the city’s skyline, nature, and tourist sites, others rent you a private boat which you can paddle about in ‘til your heart’s content.
3. Chester Rows
One of the most popular places to see, shop, and spend time in Chester are The Rows – a series of striking structures that line the city’s four main streets. The only two-tiered shopping galleries of their kind in the world, the fascinating timber-framed buildings make for some fantastic photos, with the oldest of them said to date from the fourteenth century.
While the origin of the unique galleries is still subject to speculation, it is widely believed that the two-storeys of shops and their covered walkways were designed to maximize space in the packed historic heart of the town. Besides enjoying their astonishing architecture, visitors can stop off at any of The Row’s cosy cafes and traditional pubs with countless shops and restaurants also on offer.
2. Chester City Walls
Encircling the old town are the Chester City Walls, which are the oldest and longest city walls in the country and the best-preserved. First built out of earth, turf and wood by the Romans, the sandstone fortifications stretch over three kilometers in length and are remarkably more than two thousand years old in places.
The sturdy walls once protected the city and its inhabitants from attackers, but their ramparts are now, instead, used as a public pathway. As they loop around the center of town and reach up to five meters in height, the walls offer up some phenomenal views over the city’s tower-studded skyline.
While ambling along the parapet you’ll also come across informative displays explaining the history of the walls and the city.
1. Chester Cathedral
Set in the heart of the city is the spectacular Chester Cathedral, which exhibits some exquisite architecture. As it was built over several hundred years, its facade and towers showcase a range of styles, with Romanesque and Georgian elements on show alongside gorgeous Gothic features.
Erected atop a much older church, the colossal cathedral was constructed between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, with splendid stained glass windows lining its red sandstone walls. While its pinnacles, battlements, and buttresses make for a striking sight, the undoubted highlight is its finely carved choirs. With elegant arches and refined religious artworks found alongside charming cloisters and chapels, it is no wonder that Chester Cathedral is the city’s standout tourist attraction.
Best Time to Visit Chester
As the weather is warm and pleasant, Chester sees by far the most visitors in both July and August. While temperatures average 20°C (68°F), there is still a pretty high chance of rain!
Besides being the busiest months, they are also among the most expensive. Summer is the best time, however, to walk or boat along the scenic River Dee. Events like its Summer Music Festival and Chester Heritage Festival do somewhat make up for the high prices. The famed Chester Racecourse also has exhilarating races to watch from May through October.
April, May and June also see a lot of visitors while average temperatures remain about 12 to 19°C (53 to 66°F). Prices rise again around Easter although there are generally fewer crowds than summer.
In contrast to spring’s blooming flowers, beautiful autumnal colours coat Chester’s riverside promenade and parks in September and October. These are great months to visit thanks to the mild temperatures and more affordable prices.
Apart from December, when its historic centre is delightfully decorated, relatively few people visit between November and March as Chester is colder, wetter and greyer.