If you thought Devon was nothing but cream teas and surfer dudes, think again. Visit Exeter, Devon’s county town, and you’ll find a captivating, cultural city with a rich historical heritage just 10 miles from the Jurassic Coast.
Boasting a thriving independent arts scene, outdoor activities aplenty and a vast range of upmarket eateries that have made it the South West’s destination of choice for foodies, this unique cathedral city offers a remarkable location for day trippers as well as those wishing to stay for a little longer.
History buffs can tour Roman remains and delve into the medieval tunnels under the city, while culture vultures can enjoy the crammed festival and events calendar at Powderham Castle. Exeter has something for all tastes.
Sweep seamlessly from train to tourist trail thanks to the excellent transport links at Exeter St Davids station. A taxi rank is right at the station entrance, a couple of nearby bus stops serve the entire city, and there’s covered cycle storage at Platform 1. You can also hire a neat electric bike from the Co-Bike Electric kiosk near the station for a great way to see this spectacular city.
Exeter is a fascinating place to explore, both above and below ground. It’s the only city in Britain where you can take a tour of the dark, narrow underground passages that used to carry water around the town, while your guides will tell you rivetting tales of their use during wars, sieges and plagues.
Topside, Exeter Cathedral is simply staggering, with its Norman towers and the world’s longest Gothic arching. Pop inside and try to make sense of the Anglo-Saxon verse in the famous Exeter Book on your way to see the 2,000-year-old City Wall, which has survived Roman occupation, Norman invasion, civil war sieges, WWII bombings and the curious fingers of thousands of toddlers.
Delve further back in time at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, where 16 galleries trace Exeter’s story from the dinosaurs to the present day. You could also head to the breathtaking Jurassic Coast, stuffed with fossils – that incredible, infamous Broadchurch scenery is just a short jaunt east to West Bay.
Alternatively, stay in town and take in a show at the Barnfield Theatre, the Northcott or the Exeter Phoenix. Or go people-watching at the smart, contemporary bars and restaurants at the picturesque Quayside. Antique fairs, Dragon Boat races, night markets and canoe shows – this is where Exeter’s maddest magic happens.
Credit card feeling neglected? Take it on a tour of Devon’s shopper’s paradise Princesshay, an open-air complex of 70 high street stores, designer fashion emporiums and chain restaurants where street performers and children’s play events help fend off the browsing fatigue.
For quirkier bargains head to Fore Street in West Quarter, a colourful community of independent shops, arcades and coffee shops where you can pick up quality retro and vintage clothing at The Real McCoy or a custom-made axe at Manson’s Guitars, where rock heroes in the know get their guitars designed.
Fast becoming a major force on the British culinary scene, Exeter’s independent restaurants offer classy cuisine at any budget. Be sure to hunt out @Angela’s on New Bridge Street, Exeter’s hidden seafood secret, and chow down at Harry’s Restaurant on Longbrook Street, a family-run bistro driving the city’s farm-to-fork ethos.
Acclaimed gastropub Five Bells Inn in Clyst Hydon was awarded a prestigious ‘bib gourmand’ rating by Michelin for its fantastic, fine-dining versions of pub classics served in a gorgeous 16th century thatched building. Exeter is a city of exquisite tastes – dig in!
Besides being a top-class restaurant serving stunning roast pigeons and spiced mackerel, Southernhay House is also a trendy boutique hotel in the style of a colonial townhouse – the electric blue cocktail bar, sophisticated drawing rooms and tranquil veranda make for one of Exeter’s best places to indulge your inner Gatsby.
More boutique elegance abounds at the charming 200-year-old Headweir Mill House, a riverside retreat on the banks of the Exe where guests can feed breakfast toast to the resident ducks and geese.
Over on Magdalen Street, Hotel Du Vin cleverly plays on its past as an Eye Infirmary with cool, clinical décor and a sophisticated dark wood library and lounge.