The city of Chester in England is 2,000 years old and stands out with its Roman ruins, medieval cathedral, the second most photographed clock in England (after Big Ben) and a lovely bunch of black and white Tudor houses.
All this history and yet, the city feels very modern and vibrant.
Chester is a pleasure to explore and makes for a great day trip from London which is about two hours away by train.
I have to admit that my visit to Chester this summer happened completely by chance.
The city had never been on my travel wishlist. Spending a day there though left me grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. For, yes, Chester happens to be Cheshire’s county town.
It all happened like this:
On a grey August day during our yearly visit to England this summer, I was busy looking at the map musing over the stopovers for our road trip to North Wales. This is when the name of Chester jumped out at me. We were to drive past it right before crossing from England into Wales. Spontaneously, a decision was made to stop at Chester for a couple of hours at most.
I didn’t even do a search for sights or other things of interest that we could potentially do there. The city’s name sounded really cool, it had a certain ring to it and, I thought, even if we didn’t like it that much, we could simply jump back in the car and continue to the island of Anglesey – our final destination for that day.
I am happy to report that Chester turned out to be an amazing destination all in itself.
The time that we had originally planned to spend there quickly tripled in length. We filled it with (among many other things):
- gawking at Chester’s stunning black-and-white Tudor houses,
- wandering in its cavernous cathedral,
- window shopping in the city’s unique Rows,
- taking selfies with Chester’s Eastgate Clock (which happens to be the second most photographed clock in the UK after Big Ben!);
- and even meeting Chester’s town crier which turned out to be the highlight of our day.
So, just in case you are looking for ideas for a great day out in England, may I wholeheartedly recommend Chester?! It’s an exciting, multilayered city built on the foundations of several historical periods to create something new and quite unique.
You can easily get to Chester not only from London but also from Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, to mention but a few of the many possible departure points.
If you are wondering what to do once in Chester, England, fear not! There are many things to get up to, see, and enjoy there. And to make it easy for you, I have prepared this very handy shortlist giving you first-hand tried and tested tips and details about the best sights in Chester to enjoy in one perfect day.
Let’s start! Here they are:
8 Best Things to Do in Chester, England Or What to See in Chester in One Perfect Day
1. Chester Cathedral
A thousand years old, Chester Cathedral is an unmissable sight in the city of Chester. If you don’t have time to do anything else there, head straight to the cathedral for a substantial introduction to the medieval and modern history of Chester in archaeological, religious, and art terms.
Plus, Chester Cathedral – which is dedicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary – is a centre of musical excellence and has the longest-serving volunteer choir in England. You can listen to it six days a week during the choral evensong.
If you are spending a whole day in Chester, then put at least an hour (even better two) aside to spend in and around Chester Cathedral taking in its stunning architecture, beautiful gardens and myriad of curious details that make it such an unmissable sight.
For example, did you know that the cathedral’s nave was started in 1360 but it took over 130 years to build? The reason was the lack of workmen as the local population had been decimated by the Black Death.
Chester Cathedral is free to visit. While there, I was stunned to read that keeping the cathedral open for the public costs £5,500 per day! As such donations are much appreciated.
Complimentary guided tours of the Cathedral are held Monday to Saturday. Plus, you can take a Height Tour (paid for) to the top of the cathedral’s central tower. At a height of 125 feet (just over 38 metres), you will see both England and Wales.
What I particularly loved seeing in Chester Cathedral was its Victorian mosaics. Made between 1883 and 1886, they depict four Old Testament characters.
These huge mosaic panels reminded me of the stunning mosaics in Ravenna and at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, although, of course, they all are very different in style.
Some interesting spots and sights to see inside and outside Chester Cathedral are:
- Consistory Court (c.1590) – the most complete example of a church court in England;
- Chester Imp – a carving of the devil in chains to scare the evil spirits away;
- Medieval Quire Stalls (1380) – made of oak, they represent the finest medieval woodcarving in England;
- Lego model of Chester Cathedral – made of 350,000 Lego bricks. Plus, during our visit, huge sea creatures recreated with Lego bricks were displayed in the cathedral. Called ‘The Deep’ the exhibition highlighted the diversity of ocean life and the environmental threats it faces. It was quite unusual, to say the least, to see the Lego models positioned in the large medieval body of the cathedral. Great contrast of colours, shapes, and aesthetics!
2. Chester’s Tudor and Mock Tudor Buildings
The first thing that will grab your imagination when you find yourself in Chester are the city’s black and white Tudor buildings. There is an abundance of these stunning timber-framed old houses. You will feel like you have found yourself in an English historical tale.
Take your time walking up and down Chester’s central streets and just feast your eyes on the shapes and decorations of its Tudor buildings. Watergate Street, Eastgate Street, Northgate Street, St. Werburgh Street and Bridge Street are particularly rich in timber-framed jettied houses but feel free to stray further afield for more black and white gems in the city’s historic centre.
You will soon notice that while some of these Tudor buildings look rather flash and gleaming, others seem to be a bit more battered by the hands of time. Thus the black colour of their timber-framing has paled under the elements and their walls and floors look quite warped.
This is because Chester has both original Tudor buildings built as early as 1603 and mock Tudor buildings erected in the second half of the 19th century during the Tudor Revival in English architecture. It’s interesting to note that the Tudor Revival incorporated not only original Tudor elements but also several medieval ones. As a result, the 19th-century mock Tudor buildings look even more stunning than the original Tudor ones.
Original or mock, the Tudor buildings in Chester are simply beautiful. Each comes with its own decorative details which make you want to stand there for hours trying to spot and decipher them all.
I particularly loved seeing the Art Gallery building on Bridge Street with its Biblical scenes carved out of black wood on blue background.
Some of the most notable Tudor and mock Tudor buildings to see around Chester are: Stanley Palace on Watergate Street, the Tudor House on Lower Bridge Street, as well as the iconic building known as 1 Bridge Street.
Many of Chester’s Tudor and mock Tudor buildings nowadays are used as shops and cafes so you can enjoy some retail therapy or a cup of coffee surrounded by stunning architecture.
3. Chester’s Rows
700 years old, Chester’s Rows are a feature unique to this multilayered city where different cultures and building practices existed in close succession to one another.
The Rows are long galleries that run through several buildings in the historic centre of Chester. Unlike galleries (or porticoes) in Italian cities, for example, though, Chester’s Rows are on the first floor of the buildings. It may be difficult to visualise, so let me use some photos here.
Basically, you have large buildings which are stuck next to one another. On their ground floors, there are shops, bars, and eateries. The unusual thing is that every now and then there is an outside flight of steps which allows you to go from the ground up to the first floor of the buildings. This first floor is like a large terrace giving you a lovely view of the street below.
All these terraces are connected with a long walkway – it’s like a street inside the buildings. At this level, there are shops, cafes, and bars, too. Plus there are also doors to the upper residential floors.
This way, you can walk from one end of the street to the other completely ensconced inside the long line of buildings. You can also shop on two levels or sit to have a nice cup of coffee with a great view of the street hubbub below.
Chester’s Rows are a great sight to explore. They are also unique to the city and can be seen on all four main streets of Chester. Traversing the walkways makes you feel close to the city and its secrets. It’s quite magical, really.
While the origin of the Rows is not precisely established, there are several theories. One is that the Rows were built on the rubble left over from the Roman period. Another is that due to a devastating fire in the 13th century, the houses had to be rebuilt with stone undercrofts which gave rise to the two-storey design of the local shops.
4. Eastgate Clock
Eastgate Clock is a very elegant and eye-catching timepiece which adorns the three-arched 18th-century gateway over Chester’s central Eastgate Street.
Shaped like a turret, this colourful clock was placed there in 1899 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee which had been celebrated two years prior to that.
The locals claim that Eastgate Clock is the second most photographed clock in the UK. It’s topped only by London’s Big Ben. I happily contributed to Eastgate Clock’s photo fame by snapping it from several different angles. It posed like a true star!
It’s curious to point that Eastgate Clock stands on the spot where the original gateway into the Roman town of Deva Victrix (Chester’s Roman name) had once stood. As such, the clock serves as a nice link between the past and the present, reminding us all that time flies but memories stay with us.
There are steps that lead all the way to the top of the gateway on which the clock stands. From there you can enjoy lovely views over Chester’s historical centre and then walk on the Roman walls which surround the city to this day.
5. Chester’s Town Crier at Chester Cross
Who would have thought that our very best experience in Chester would be meeting the town crier?!
Traditionally, a town crier was the person with a loud and clear voice who was employed to make public announcements in the streets or the marketplace of a town. In other words, he was like a walking newspaper or an old-fashioned podcast, if you like, telling people of yore what were the news of the day. Like, who was about to be beheaded for stealing a hen or how much new tax the king was levying on his subordinates. You get the drift!
And then, obviously, newspapers, radio, TV, and, of course, the internet sprung on us leaving town criers jobless Europe-wide. Thus, the profession fell into oblivion like so many other honest professions of the past like scribes, for example, or hangmen, if you wish.
Well, guess what! Chester has revived the lovely town crier’s tradition and claims to be the only place in Britain with regular midday proclamations at a fixed day and time (Tuesday to Saturday, June to August). We came across one of the two town criers of Chester at Chester Cross. Dressed in historical garb, he was getting ready for his proclamation and soon a large crowd of tourists and other curious people had gathered around him.
Chester’s town crier – David Mitchell – put on a real show for all of us. It was fun, it was entertaining, there was lots of historical information weaved in, too. Above all, David was a real-life embodiment of English humour – dry, sarcastic, a bit self-deprecating and with lots of play-on-words. He got us to cheer, laugh, and generally made us feel very welcome to Chester.
Curiously enough, Chester’s other town crier – Julie Mitchell (who is also a historical costume maker among many other things) – happens to be David’s wife. We didn’t have a chance to see her perform her town crier’s duties on the day we were in Chester. Maybe next time!
Click here to find out when you can see the Chester’s Town Criers perform. On the right day and at the right time, you will find him or her at Chester Cross – the intersection of the former main Roman roads, presently Chester’s main streets. A cross – known as Chester High Cross – has been standing at this spot since the 14th century. The current one was placed there in 1476 but then it got badly damaged in the following centuries before being restored a few decades ago.
6. Chester’s Roman Heritage
Chester is a city founded in 79 AD by the Romans. Vestiges of their presence here survive even though almost 2,000 years have passed. The Roman castrum (town and fortress) established at this place was called Deva Victrix. Chester’s four main streets – Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate, and Bridgegate – follow exactly the main roads that were built by the Romans.
In addition, don’t miss the following sights in Chester in order to feel the Roman spirit of centuries long past:
- Roman Walls – these are the most complete Roman city walls preserved in England. You can walk on them in order to see the city of Chester from above and gain a better understanding of its history and heritage – from its Roman days to our present times.
- Roman Amphitheatre – the largest Roman amphitheatre in England. In comparison with the one in Verona, Italy, for example, not much has survived the test of times. Still, you can see the outline of the amphitheatre and sit where once 8,000 to 10,000 Roman soldiers and civilians used to sit to enjoy the spectacles. Only the northern half of Chester’s Roman Amphitheatre is uncovered. The rest remains underneath nearby buildings.
- Roman Gardens – for more Roman remains and artifacts head to the charming Roman Gardens which run parallel to the city walls down to the River Dee.
- Grosvenor Museum’s Roman collection – immerse yourself in Roman history in the Roman archaeology collection of Chester’s unmissable Grosvenor Museum.
- Roman Tours – alternatively, you can join a tour of Chester led by a Roman soldier who also happens to be a skilled guide. Ask at the local Visitors’ Centre about times and prices.
7. Chester’s Landmarks
Beyond its Roman heritage and Tudor black-and-white buildings, Chester has many more sights which are worth it of your time. Here is a handy shortlist to get you started:
- Town Hall – Built in the Gothic Revival style, Chester’s Town Hall stands out with its 160-foot (almost 49 metres) tall spire. You will find it right opposite the main entrance of Chester Cathedral. Chester’s Visitors’ Centre is on the ground floor of the Town Hall. Head there if you need any information about the city and its sights and/or if you want to book tickets for tours.
- Chester Castle – It looked stunning but this mighty castle was closed for repair works on the day we made it to Chester. Our loss! The castle stands on a small hill overlooking the River Dee. Next to it are some impressive Neoclassical buildings which serve as Chester’s Town Court and Military Museum. Nearby you will also find the Roodee (see next bullet point).
- Chester Racecourse, known as the Roodee – officially, this is the oldest racecourse still in use in England. It stands at a place which used to be a bustling Roman port (before the River Dee silted). Apparently, you can watch the races for free from the adjacent Roman walls. There were no races at the time we passed by the Roodee so we admired its green expanse and tried to imagine what it must have looked like many centuries ago when boats instead of horses had the run of the land.
- Chester Market – a large covered hall with dozens of stalls. From books and vinyl to fish, meat, spices, and nuts, the market is a great place to get some locally produced food. Chester Market was our first experience in the city. You will find it inside the centrally located Forum Shopping Centre where we parked our rental car during our exploration of Chester.
8. Chester’s Grosvenor Buildings
Everywhere you go in Chester, you will keep coming across one name – Grosvenor!
From Chester’s posh shopping centre called the Grosvenor to the local fab museum called the same, the name of Grosvenor is all over this beautiful English city.
I was curious to find out why and it turns out that all the Grosvenors in town are named after the Duke of Westminster whose family name is Grosvenor. The Grosvenor is an English aristocratic landowning family. Many of their properties are in Chester where in the 19th century many iconic for the city buildings were erected thanks to the investments of the Grosvenor Family. Among them are:
- Grosvenor Museum – a very well-organised museum with a rich collection split into several thematic sections – from Chester’s Roman past to the city’s silver heritage and art. It’s free to visit (a small donation of £3.00 is appreciated) and there is lots to see and admire there, so put some time aside to enjoy it fully.
- Grosvenor Bridge – this was the longest single-span stone arch bridge in the world when it was opened by Princess Victoria (later Queen Victoria) in 1832.
- Grosvenor Shopping Centre – a very nice place to indulge in a spot of retail therapy while in Chester.
- Grosvenor Club and North and South Wales Bank – a historical building nowadays occupied by the HSBC Bank. You will find it next to Eastgate Clock. I particularly loved the shields which decorate its facade. The arms are of the twelve former shires of Wales.
- Grosvenor Park – a fine Victorian park with a miniature railway.
What I Loved the Most about Chester, England
I had a great time in the city of Chester in England.
The city felt very vibrant, clean, and friendly. It could be because we really lucked out with the weather. It was a gorgeous sunny day, one of those that make historical English buildings really stand out against the blue sky and Chester was taking full advantage of this to showcase its best sights. Plus, there were lots of people on the streets, the coffee shops and the eateries were bustling and street musicians were singing and playing their heart out in the historical city centre.
I found Chester’s central part very easy to orientate myself in and to explore. The main streets were wide and filled with light and all sights we managed to squeeze in were very close to one another thus making the city very walkable even with a small child.
What I loved the most about Chester were the original Tudor buildings and their mock counterparts. They were stunning to look at and I couldn’t help it but wonder how people – so many centuries ago – had managed to manipulate wood in so many swirly intricate designs. What tools and the wood from which trees did they use?! I would definitely love to learn more about it.
Chester is a city rich in details and everywhere you look try to spot as many beautiful details as you can. From floral patterns…
and ladies’ breasts on mock Tudor buildings…
to stone demons and scribes on Chester Cathedral…
the more you look, the more curious images you will come across. They definitely had my imagination fired and, if I had had the time, I would have spent hours just chasing them up and down Chester’s streets to take endless photos of them.
What We Missed in Chester, England
It was amazing that we managed to see so much of Chester in such a short amount of time, considering that (and as I mentioned above) I didn’t do any research in advance. The city is very easy to walk around and navigate, organically coming across its most important sights as you take your time to explore its walled central part.
Had we had more time though, I wish we could have seen and done the following activities, too:
- River Cruise – the picturesque River Dee flows through Chester and it is inextricably linked to the city’s ancient past. River cruises run regularly taking you on a lovely journey past important historical buildings and sights. We couldn’t squeeze a river cruise in our day in Chester but it would have been nice to have the river angle when getting to know this beautiful city in England up close and personal.
- The Ice Cream Farm – a free to enter kids’ amusement park which boasts the world’s largest ice cream shop where 50 different flavours of ice cream are sold. It sounds quite exciting, especially, if you travel with a child. In any case, this place is about half an hour away by car from Chester Cathedral so we wouldn’t have had time for it no matter what but it’s something I would like to see if I am ever in that area again.
- Chester Zoo – this happens to be the most visited zoo in the UK and the third best zoo in the world. There are 27,000 animals there and the zoo spreads over 125 acres. They say you need a whole day to see and explore it all, so plan accordingly.
Chester is an exciting city to visit in the county of Cheshire in England.
With a rich multilayered history starting when Britannia was a Roman province, nowadays Chester is a great destination for a day trip from many larger English cities as well as from the British capital London.
Chester is very walkable and its many sights and landmarks are close to one another making it easy to see lots in a short amount of time with or without kids in tow. Don’t miss the 1,000-years old Chester Cathedral, the Roman walls, the Grosvenor Museum and the many Tudor and mock Tudor black and white buildings which make a visit to Chester so unique and memorable.
The above blog post gives you detailed first-hand tried and tested information about the best places to see and experience in Chester, England. Logically organised, this list of the eight best things to do in Chester will give you plenty of ideas about how to spend one perfect day there.
Enjoy spending a day exploring the sights of Chester, England!
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Have you been to Chester before? Which sights from the above list did you enjoy seeing the most? Which other sights in Chester would you recommend that I see next time that I find myself there? Which are your favourite day trips in England and the UK?
Let me know in the Comments section below.
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