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9 places to visit in Exeter

Discover the best things to do in Exeter

Devon’s unofficial capital is a vibrant and historically industrious city on the shores of the famous River Exe – the perfect place for an alfresco meal or even a spot of kayaking.

From its striking Gothic cathedral to its picture-perfect Tudor and Victorian architecture, this 2,000-year-old Devonshire city has plenty of stories to tell and endless nooks and crannies to explore. If that’s piqued your interest, read on for more reasons why Exeter is one of the best places to visit in Devon.

1

Free things to do in Exeter: Guided tours

Exeter

Man in red uniform leading a group of tourists

With such an eclectic past, there’s so much more to Exeter than meets the eye and one of the easiest ways to get insider knowledge is on an Exeter Red Coat Guided Tour – one of the best free things to do in Devon. Choose from daily tours exploring Exeter’s strange and unusual facts on an Oddities & Curiosities tour, Medieval Exeter or discover spooky facts about the city on a Ghosts and Legends tour. Stopping by many of Exeter’s historic buildings, you’ll hear chilling stories about one of the most haunted cities in the country.

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Another free tour is the self-guided Exe Estuary Trail – a purpose-built 26-mile walking and cycling route that passes through towns and villages steeped in maritime history, idyllic countryside and scenic coastal views. If you fancy exploring it on two wheels, bicycle hire is available through Co-Bikes. For a deeper insight into the city, pay for a tour of Exeter’s Underground Passages. Built back in medieval times to house the pipes that brought clean water into the city, they are the only passages of this kind now open to the public in Britain. Donning a hard hat, you’ll wander through these narrow, dark tunnels to hear stories of war, sieges, plague and pestilence and even see centuries-old masons’ marks and graffiti.

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2

Places to visit in Exeter: Admire an icon

Cathedral Green

External view of Exeter Cathedral under a cloudy blue sky

Exeter Cathedral is the most visited landmark in the West Country, brimming with 900 years of history. Adorned with grotesques, the cathedral – that took around 300 years to build – sports the longest unbroken medieval vaulted ceiling in the world, which is decorated in historical scenes like the murder of Thomas Becket. It’s also famous for its two Norman towers, and 15th-century Astronomical Clock. You can admire the decadent interiors of the cathedral for a small price and, if you plan your timings right, catch the heavenly voices of the Cathedral Choir’s Evensong. Afterwards, take a stroll down neighbouring Cathedral Close – the heart of the city since the Roman era – to see some beautiful Grade I-listed buildings that date back to the Medieval and Early Modern Ages.

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Keep an eye out for The House That Moved – a timber-framed Tudor House that was literally moved to save it from being destroyed – and discover how the Tudors lived in St Nicholas Priory, Exeter’s oldest building, founded by William the Conqueror in 1087. Now a living museum, you can have a nose around a medieval kitchen, a Tudor bed chamber and much more. Or escape to Powderham Castle, owned by the same family since it was founded in 1391 and admire the 18th-century Marble Hall, peruse the permanent art gallery and potter around the landscaped gardens.

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3

Places to stay in Exeter: Sleep in a former hospital

Hotel Du Vin

Outdoor pool, garden and exterior of Hotel Du Vin

It’s not every day that you go on holiday, so why not treat yourself to a stay that’s a little bit out of the ordinary? The luxury Hotel Du Vin, in the heart of Exeter, used to be an Eye Infirmary, and the heritage is still reflected in its historic walled gardens and 19th-century architecture. Each bedroom has its own unique personality, and comes with indulgent touches like Egyptian cotton sheets, original artworks and a roll-top bath. Take some time to yourself in the hotel library or unwind in the modern REN Spa, complete with an indoor-outdoor pool and spa treatments that use ingredients sourced locally from Devon.

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Another luxury bolthole in central Exeter, Southernhay House, is home to one of the city’s swankiest hotel bars. Located in a beautiful Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse, this hotel nods to its East India Company past with room names like Silk, Cotton, Ivory and Spice. For something a bit more upbeat (and to keep the kids entertained), book a stay at the Crealy Theme Park & Resort. While known for its rides and amusements, the resort is also one of the best campsites near Exeter. Choose from five-star hot tub lodges, glamping safari cabins and over 100 camping and touring pitches.

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4

Attractions in Exeter: Visit an award-winning museum

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Family looking at animal models at Royal Albert Memorial Museum

In need of rainy day activities? The award-winning Royal Albert Memorial Museum should be top of your list. With 16 galleries and collections exploring the likes of natural history, zoology and the local history of Exeter, there’s more than enough to keep you and the kids captivated for a few hours. Inspect cabinets from Victorian biologist Percy Sladen who amassed one of the largest collections of echinoderms (starfish and sea urchins to us normal folk), admire Japanese samurai armour and see war clubs and tools from Captain Cook’s voyages up close.

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Film fanatics will love a peek around The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, full of cinematic wonders and all sorts of memorabilia that spans the history of the moving image. Based on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus, you’ll come across shadow puppets, posters, cameras, flip books and more, chronicling the development of entertainment from Charlie Chaplin to Buzz Lightyear. Maritime enthusiasts may prefer a trip down to Topsham Museum, housed inside a 17th-century merchant’s house by the River Exe. Celebrating the area’s shipbuilding history, the museum has a collection of smaller vessels as well as a number of rooms furnished in a period style and even features the dress worn by Vivien Leigh in the film Gone With The Wind.

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5

Restaurants in Exeter: Try Devon on a plate

Topsham

Surrounded by fertile farmland and close to miles of coastline, it’s no wonder that Exeter is lauded as one of Britain’s foodie capitals and has an abundance of tasty experiences up its sleeve. Tuck into ‘Devon on a plate’ at The Galley in Topsham, which serves up the freshest fish and seafood from Devon’s shores in a simple yet stylish manner. Opt for a teriyaki mackerel starter before indulging in a prosecco-battered plaice fillet with a side of triple-cooked chips. If you prefer trying a bit of everything, book a seat at one of the top-notch supper clubs at The Oddfellows. This quirky pub has a zero-waste ethos and hosts a seven-course supper club packed with locally sourced ingredients to showcase the best Exeter has to offer.

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Indulge in the flavours of this Devonshire city on the Exeter Food and Drink Trail, which celebrates fantastic native suppliers. This colourful, easy-to-use map gives you a route to follow to find tasty treats like cheese, mussels and honey. Or find a new addition to your Christmas cheese board at Quicke’s Cheese. Take a tour of Home Farm and watch expert cheese makers craft each truckle by hand before treating your taste buds to a tutored cheese tasting and a two-course seasonal lunch.

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6

Bars in Exeter: Sample home-brewed hops

The Exeter Brewery

Pint, tap and bottle at the Exeter Brewery

After a day of exploring, there’s no better way to relax than with a crisp pint – especially when you can savour it in the place it’s been made. If you fancy yourself a bit of a hops connoisseur, don’t head home before taking a tour of the Exeter Brewery to see how they brew all their ales in the ‘engine room’, before you settle in for a drink or two at the Tap Room. Choose from the likes of ales, ciders and lagers like Darkness, Ferryman and Fraid Not or, for the non-beer drinkers, a range of wines and spirits. Be sure to accompany your tipple with an award-winning savoury pastry from Tom’s Pies – they’re pretty popular.

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Continue your booze-infused education at Kenton Park Estate, where you can indulge in a spot of wine tasting. The experience includes a tour of the plantations as well as a meet-and-greet with the estate’s furry residents. In addition to the sparkling wines, you’ll get to try some cider or a bespoke G&T in the estate’s herb garden, depending on the tour you pick. For more of the West Country’s staple drink, cider, head to Ventons Devon Cyder or Sandford Orchards, both just outside of Exeter. The latter is family-owned business based in the oldest working cider mill in the UK and you can nab a behind-the-scenes look at the Cider Works before rounding off your visit with a cider tasting and a side of pizza.

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7

Animal attractions in Exeter: Walk with wolves

Wildwood Escot, Ottery Saint Mary

Family stroking donkey at The Donkey Sanctuary

If you’re on an Exeter city break with the kids, don’t miss the chance to visit to Wildwood Escot. Chock-a-block with family-friendly activities, playgrounds and friendly animals, you’ll have a tough time getting the little ones to leave. Start your day by navigating the maze, then zoom down the 40-metre zipline before crafting your own Saxon jewellery in the Saxon Village Forge. After a quick snack break, take a walk through tranquil woodland where you’ll get to spot wolves, lynx, and even Mish and Lucy, two European brown bear cubs. Round off your day at the wildlife conservation park by challenging the kids on the Traversing Wall. They’ll sleep well, that’s for sure.

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For more animal adventures, take a short drive out of the city to The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth. As well as the visitor centre and the Understanding Donkeys Zone, the site also has a maze, walking trails, donkey grooming sessions and a restaurant with scenic views over the paddocks. Or take to the waters on an Exeter Canal Cruise with Stuart Line Cruises. You’ll travel along the oldest working shipping canal in Europe, witnessing the locks come to life and the swing bridge open before docking in Exmouth where you can grab a well-deserved ice cream.

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8

Things to do in Exeter: Scale new heights

The Quay Climbing Centre

Man and woman on indoor climbing wall

Put your skills to the test on the South West’s largest indoor climbing wall. Based at Exeter’s Quay Centre, this all-weather activity will certainly make up for all those extra holiday calories. If you’re a newbie to climbing, you can book a taster session that’ll guide you through the basics, while committed climbers can tackle routes for all levels on roped and lead walls reaching up to 14 metres high. In the same building you’ll find the Clip’n’Climb Centre, the ultimate vertical playground for the young and young at heart. This colourful climbing wall has 25 different routes to try, from the Big Cheese to the Spaghetti Junction, the Stairway to Heaven to the Twister. Will you be able to conquer them all?

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If that doesn’t scratch your itch for adventure, why not get behind the wheel of a 4x4 on a Land Rover Westcountry Driving Experience? Choose between half or full-day courses and navigate 35 acres of rugged off-road terrain, tackling demanding obstacles and pushing your skills to the limit. The flagship Land Rover Experience centre in the UK also offers junior experiences for 11 to 17-year-olds and heritage drives that use vehicles from the past 70 years. Alternatively, take it down a notch and explore Exeter and its surroundings on foot. Within easy reach of Dartmoor National Park, the Jurassic Coast and the Blackdown Hills, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to glorious scenery and endless walking paths.

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9

Theatres in Exeter: Get your performing arts fix

Exeter Phoenix

Exterior of the Exeter Phoenix theatre

Once you’re all explored out, settle down for an evening of entertainment at one of Exeter’s thriving theatres. The Exeter Phoenix is the home of creativity in the city, hosting all sorts of art forms from gigs to galleries, cinema to comedy and even creative courses. If you can’t nab tickets for a show, have a wander around the free contemporary visual art gallery or catch a film in the solar-panelled cinema, Studio 74. Pre-show drinks and snacks are also available in the Phoenix Café Bar, if you really want to make a night of it.

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Over at the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus you’ll find Exeter Northcott Theatre, the first performing arts centre to be built on university land. Famous for fostering new talent, from the likes of Robert Lindsay to Imelda Staunton, this theatre also hosts touring West End shows, stand-up comedy, live music and much more. For the chance to see more emerging talent, head to Cygnet Theatre, just above the city’s quayside. This training theatre has been coaching actors since 1980 and puts on a range of classic, modern and musical performances.

Find out more about Exeter’s nightlife
22 Sep 2021(last updated)

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  • 1

    Exeter

  • 2

    Cathedral Green

  • 3

    Hotel Du Vin

  • 4

    Royal Albert Memorial Museum

  • 5

    Topsham

  • 6

    The Exeter Brewery

  • 7

    Wildwood Escot, Ottery Saint Mary

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    The Quay Climbing Centre

  • 9

    Exeter Phoenix

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