The Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote about the town of Colchester in the 1st century AD. Camulodunum, as it was known at the time, was once the capital of Roman Britain and the oldest town in England.
The place to delve into the history of Camulodunum is a remarkable monument in itself: Colchester Castle is a rare surviving castle from the Norman Conquest in the 1160s.
Inside are priceless Roman artifacts, and you can head to the vaults of the Roman temples.
The castle is surrounded by a Victorian town park separated by the northern wall of Camulodunum, which still stands 2000 years later.
For younger members of the family, Colchester Zoo is one of the best nearby zoos, while you can head to the countryside to visit the display gardens, tea rooms and sample fresh oysters on the nearby island of Mersea.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Colchester:
1. Colchester Castle Museum
Beginning during the Norman Conquest, Colchester Castle has the largest Norman castle in Europe, approximately 1.5 times the size of the White Tower of the Tower of London.
It’s built on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius, and you can explore the building’s massive vault on a guided tour.
The superb Castle Museum combines stunning exhibits from excavations such as mosaics, Roman Colchester vases and the Colchester Mercury figurine, with captivating experiences for children such as excavating Roman tombs and building Norman arches And drive a chariot at a newfound circus in Colchester.
Don’t leave without seeing Fewnwick Treasure, a trove of Roman jewels found under a department store on Colchester’s High Street, or the panoramic view from the castle’s roof.
2. Castle Park
A million people visit the surrounding Castle Park each year.
It was divided by the northern block of the Roman wall, between the upper and lower parks, and adopted its current design during the Victorian era.
On this 27-acre property, there is an amusement park, cafe, boating lake, crazy golf course and a bandstand wrapped in formal patios and flower beds.
During the summer, events take place every weekend in Castle Park, which may be concerts and tribute shows by major touring artists, a food festival at the end of June, a medieval festival and an oyster festival, and outdoor film screenings.
3. The Roman Wall
In the second half of the 1st century AD, Camulodunum was fortified with towering walls on a rough rectangular plane.
These consist of diaphragm mudstone boulders covered with alternating layers of tiles and more diaphragms.
That’s how perpetual they are, so much so that two long sections still exist today, running along the north side through Castle Park and the west side down a whopping 6 meters.
You can trace the entire wall, and even the missing sections, along the two-mile trail, but perhaps the best part is heading west along Balkern Mountain.
There, you will pass by Balkern Gate, the oldest and most complete Roman city gate in the UK.
This once majestic city entrance is on the road in London with four entrances and unusually wide lanes.
4. Colchester Zoo
Colchester Zoo is home to more than 260 species from all corners of the globe in a world of carefully designed themed habitats.
These could be crowd-pleasing animals such as African elephants, giraffes, African lions and Humboldt penguins, or species less common on these shores such as fennec foxes, sun bears and Colombian black spider monkeys.
Just to give you an idea of the diversity, themed areas include orangutan forests, huge wild kingdoms (rhinos and giraffes), the edge of Africa (mandrills and cheetahs), chimpanzee lookouts, aardvarks caves, wallaby Walkabaout, and more.
There is a daily “encounter schedule” for showing and feeding anything from orangutans to sea lions, red pandas, komodo dragons, meerkats and bald eagles.
At the “Sensation Station”, kids can handle rabbits and lizards, while the zoo’s farm raises sheep, llamas and goats.
5. Holly Museum
This free local history museum is housed in a beautiful early Georgian townhouse in Castle Park.
The museum shares the building with Colchester’s Visitor Information Centre and houses a collection of decorative arts, clothing and toys spanning three centuries.
Most intriguing is a collection of clocks made by Colchester, many in working condition, in an exhibition named after its collector Bernard Mason.
The earliest lantern clocks were produced by local watchmakers such as Nathaniel Hedge, John Smorthwait and William Bacon, dating back to the mid-17th century, along with a fine selection of long case clocks from the 1700s and 1800s.
Many of them still click, and you’ll hear them chime when you visit.
The museum is surrounded by sensory gardens and children’s play areas.
6. Beth Chatto Gardens
Acclaimed gardener Beth Chatto created this informal garden next to her home in 1960. The five acres had been vacant for decades due to poor gravel soil and swampy depressions.
Gardens are textbook examples of how to choose the right plants in the right conditions, make the most of the soil and low annual rainfall, and grow a variety of drought-resistant plants.
With gravel gardens, gravel gardens, long tree-lined walks, woodland gardens and clay-rich water gardens, it’s like stepping into another world.
You can also visit the nursery that grows plants in the garden, and the tea room is a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon.
7. Mercury Theater
Colchester’s highly regarded performing arts venue is known for its series of original homegrown productions each season, and is named “Made in Colchester”. These can be screenplays for new scripts or family-friendly adaptations of fairy tales like Peter Pan, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The high quality of these shows has made Mercury Theatre one of the UK’s top production theatres.
In addition to this show, there’s always something going on in the theater’s two auditoriums, whether it’s celebrity talks, stand-up comedy, musicals, dance, variety shows, or live music.
Digby Gallery also hosts short-term exhibitions of local art.
8. Roman Circus Center
The only known Roman circus in the UK was discovered in 2005 and dates back to the early 2nd century AD. During spring, summer and fall, the center of the site is open Tuesday through Saturday, inviting people to learn more about the once-giant landmark.
About 8,000 spectators came to watch the chariot race, and you could see the excavated starting gate foundation.
The visitor center explains how the discovery was made and displays a timeline of the structure, as well as artifacts unearthed during the excavation, such as the remains of one of the three steering columns.
9. High Woods Country Park
Just half a mile from Colchester Railway Station, High Woods Country Park is a Green Flag award winning meadow, woodland, bushland, meadows and lakes.
The park is within the confines of the town, but on the signposted walking trails, it’s hard to believe you’re not in the country.
Much of this land once belonged to the medieval Kingswood Forest, revered for its timber, and countless sweet chestnuts have been grown over the past 200 years.
The lake is teeming with roaches, carp, salmon and dingo and is the most popular rough fishery outside of spring.
There’s a café in the visitor center, and there’s no shortage of picnic tables if you bring your own lunch.
10. St. Botolph Monastery
St Botolph’s Priory is an English Heritage site just a short walk from the train station and is England’s first and most famous Augustinian monastery.
The abbey was built in the early 12th century, and early Norman architecture is evident in the semicircular and zigzag arches on the main west door or the door of pardon.
The massive columns of the former nave have alternating bands of local flint and red brick reused from the Roman Monument in Colchester.
Botolph’s was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536, and most of its losses were suffered during the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War in the summer of 1648.
11. Natural History Museum
Since 1958, Colchester’s Natural History Museum has been housed in the defunct All Saints Church, which has existed in some form since Norman times.
There’s a lot of fun to uncover, like the story of the earthquake that rocked Colchester in 1884, and information on some unusual creatures that once inhabited this part of Europe, such as hippos and mammoths.
You can also see an exhibit dedicated to the stag beetle, mostly found only in Kent and Essex, learn about climate change and learn more about Essex’s geology.
For the young, there’s a recreated badger cat to crawl through, and an interactive microscope.
12. The first site
Firstsite, a bright, curved building designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, is an art museum a short walk from the castle gardens.
The attraction gained attention when it opened in 2011 for its unique design and construction costs. During this period, Firstsite exhibited works by László Moholy-Nagy, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nam June Paik, Barbara Hepworth, Grayson Perry, Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol.
The only permanent exhibit is a Roman mosaic found on site during construction.
There are four concurrent exhibitions in summer 2018, the most prominent of which is the satirical “Bronze Age c.
3500-AD 2018”, first shown in 2017 by Hauser & Wirth London for Frieze London, and created by Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti.
13. Munnings Art Gallery
Just a short drive from Dedham, eight miles northeast, the Munnings Museum of Art is dedicated to one of England’s most prized equestrian painters.
Sir Alfred Munnings lived at Castle House for 40 years until his death in 1959 and was known for his vibrant racing scene.
The building itself is noteworthy, with elements dating back to Tudor times.
It’s a fitting location for the world’s largest collection of Monnings’ work, with a new exhibition of 150 of these paintings on display each year.
An exhibition was also held in 2018 to celebrate Munnings’ partnership with the Royal Academy to mark the institution’s 250th anniversary.
14. Isle of Mersey
10 miles southeast of Colchester lies an island at the mouth of the Colne and Blackwater estuaries.
The island is connected to the mainland by Strood, a causeway that floods at high tide.
West Mersea has long attracted summer holidaymakers, with a stretch of sand and gravel beaches flanked by colourful beach huts.
The island has military relics such as cute weatherboard huts and WWII-era bunkers.
But Mersea is known for its fish and seafood, and oysters have been fished on the mudflats since Roman times.
Company Shed is an unassuming restaurant in a wooden building serving super fresh crab, prawns, eel, oysters and mussels that has earned rave reviews over the past decade.
15. Tiptree Tearoom, Museum and Jam Shop
Most people who have had cream tea or stayed in hotels across England will know the Wilkin & Sons brand, which has been making preserves, jams and jams in Tiptree Village since 1885. Queen Elizabeth II visited the factory when the company celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2010. Take a short drive from Colchester for lunch and refreshments.
The Factory Store has special treats like strawberry and champagne jam or salted caramel sauce.
The on-site Jam Museum features vintage machinery, historical documents and photographs that the company has accumulated over 130 years.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Colchester, England
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