19 Best Things to Do in Colchester (Essex) England

The best things to do in Colchester, England, are memorable, accessible, and unique. If your time in England is short, consider a day trip from London. Have a few extra days in your travel itinerary? Colchester and the surrounding Essex countryside have more than enough attractions to keep you busy. Filled with quaint charm and intriguing stories, Colchester, England history makes this location a history buff’s dream destination. Never heard of Colchester before? You’re in the right place to learn about it. Get insider tips for getting around and seeing the Colchester, England points of interest right here!

The Colchester Visit Backstory

When my parents invited me to accompany them on their 50th wedding anniversary tour of Europe, I didn’t realize I would be visiting the oldest city in Britain. What is Colchester famous for? It was noted as early as 77 AD by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. That makes Colchester older than London. Colchester boasts ancient Roman walls and remnants of a famous English Civil War battle fought during the 1600s. Despite its rich history, we were drawn to Colchester, England and the surrounding Essex area for an entirely different reason. The fascinating history of Colchester was a bonus. Here are some amazing things we found there.

best things to do in colchester essex england

***Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, which means I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.*** Already know what you’d like to get from Amazon? Here’s a handy way to get to the website, linked to one of my favorite books about Colchester. Just click on the link, then browse around and do your shopping.

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Why Colchester?

My dad is a huge fan of the British painter John Constable, an artist who depicted life in and around Dedham Vale, a rural region near the Essex-Suffolk border, during the early 1800s. One of his most famous works, The Hay Wain, was painted in a tiny village called Flatford Mill.

colchester england the hay wain
The Hay Wain, 1821, courtesy of The National Gallery, London

Flatford Mill was our true destination, and Colchester just happened to be the nearest city. My dad had always dreamed of paying a visit to Flatford Mill, and the time had finally arrived.

Getting to Colchester, England

Colchester was to be our first overnight stay after arriving in England on the train from Paris. We disembarked at St. Pancras station, then took the subway to the Liverpool Street Station. From there, we journeyed northeast by train through Wivenhoe to the Colchester Town rail station. Just a short distance away was our lodging for the next two nights.

1. The Historic Red Lion

My dad (travel planner extraordinaire) had made reservations at a place called the Red Lion. This historic inn was located in the middle of the oldest part of the city.

Colchester England Red Lion

Built in 1465, it was the most interesting hotel I had ever stayed in. Where I come from, the west coast of the United States, anything 200 years old is rare. I even got to stay in my own cozy little room. That first evening, I snuggled up in bed with a cup of tea and a biscuit. I watched lovely British television shows (Call the Midwife was on) to my heart’s content. In the hotel lobby the next morning, I read that Oliver Cromwell’s body had been stored in the hotel cellar for a few days after his death in 1658. Amazing! Kudos to my dad for choosing such an interesting place for us to stay. No room at the Red Lion? Here are some other Colchester, England hotels to consider:

There are also a number of bed and breakfast establishments in Colchester, including:

2. Hop on the Hopper Bus to Tour John Constable Country

We were up early the next morning to venture out into John Constable country. We took a taxi to the Manningtree train station so we could board the Dedham Vale Hopper bus. What a fun experience that was! Everyone was so friendly and informative. After giving us helpful details about the local area, the taxi driver promised to be available to pick us up later in the day. Colchester, England tourism seems to be thriving, and the friendly folks we encountered seemed eager to show us around.

Manningtree Station Colchester England

The bus driver was a wealth of information. There was only one other passenger, so the driver asked some friendly questions. I shared my anxiety about driving on the left side of the road, which I knew I would be doing in a few days when we rented a car. (If you would like to see a photo of the enormous Vauxhall station wagon I ended up driving, check out the post about my visit to Downton Abbey.)  The driver was very reassuring as she patiently answered my queries about British road signs and symbols. Before we knew it, we arrived at Flatford Mill. It was so tucked away in the countryside, we would have had difficulty locating it on our own.

3. Flatford Mill

Flatford Mill was surprisingly quiet. The sky was overcast, which was perfect for the pictures my dad wanted to take.

Colchester England Flatford Mill
Photo taken from the same vantage point as The Hay Wain

After walking around the village, I meandered along some marked trails, climbing over stiles, venturing around the countryside.

Colchester England Public Footpath

When it was time to depart, we boarded the Hopper with the same driver, and headed to the town of Dedham.

4. The Village of Dedham

In Dedham, we wandered around the village high street, peeking into shops. We ate a picnic lunch in front of Dedham Parish Church, which is featured in a number of Constable paintings. While there, we encountered two energetic ladies from the Netherlands who were biking around England. I think they were both grandmothers. It was inspiring to hear of their adventures.

5. Colchester Castle Museum

Located just a short distance from the Red Lion Inn, Colchester Castle, sight of the largest castle keep in all of England, is filled with interesting exhibits. Tours and interactive exhibits help history to come alive in this treasure trove of marvels. Visit ancient Roman vaults below the castle, view stunning displays of precious metal unearthed nearby, and be amazed by incredible historical finds.

Colchester Castle Colchester England

6. Castle Park

The lovely gardens around Colchester Castle are worth a visit all on their own. There is a boating lake, cricket ground, play area, and bandstand. The 27-acre park is a hub of activity in a variety of seasons, extending downward to the River Colne.

7. Hollytrees Museum

Within Castle Park lies Hollytrees Museum, a Georgian townhouse that was once home to a member of Parliament. Inside you will find clock exhibits and toy displays. Visitors are encouraged to try on costumes to experience what life was like during the days before electricity and modern conveniences.

8. The Oldest Remaining Roman Gate in England

I explored the castle gardens, then walked to the ancient Balkerne Gate, built in the first century. (The first century!) It’s the largest remaining Roman gate in England from that era, and I was the only one there visiting it at the time.

Colchester England Balkerne Gate

I touched the stones and wondered about the many people who had walked through the gate all those centuries ago. Feeling thirsty? Grab some refreshment at the nearby, appropriately-named Hole in the Wall pub.

9. St. Mary’s by the Wall and the Real Story of Humpty Dumpty

St. Mary’s by the Wall, an old church, was my next destination. I wanted to visit this particular edifice, built in the 15th century, because of a nursery rhyme. Many people associate the Humpty Dumpty rhyme with an egg, but Humpty Dumpty was actually a large cannon. Yes! During the Battle of Colchester in 1648, the cannon was sitting on top of the church tower, ready to defend the city. After a devastating blow to the tower from opposing cannon fire, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and tumbled down, irreparably damaged. Here is a picture showing the tower today. If you look closely, you can see the difference in the brick color showing where the tower was rebuilt.

Colchester England church tower

10. The Historic Taylor Residence

Humpty Dumpty is not the only nursery rhyme associated with Colchester. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was written by a young lady named Jane Taylor in 1806.

Colchester England Taylor house

I read the plaque on the building where she lived and composed the song. It was one of my many discoveries as I traversed the streets of the old part of town. What else would I find?

11. St. Botolph’s Priory

Located just a short distance from the Colchester Town train station, St. Botolph’s Priory dates back to approximately 1100. Like many other ancient buildings in old town Colchester, the structure bears scars from the English Civil War of 1648. One of the first Augustinian religious houses in England, it is an impressive example of Norman architecture, even in its ruined state. It is FREE to visit this lovely location.

12. Roman Circus

Colchester was once the site of an ancient Roman chariot racecourse. Although the track is no longer visible, there is a visitor’s center with mock-ups and artists’ renditions of what the area looked like when it was a hub of racing activity during the second century. Indoor exhibits, a cafe, and outdoor walking tours are available.

13. Beth Chatto Gardens

Located about 5 miles east of Colchester Castle, the Beth Chatto Gardens are a 7.5 acre wonder of inspirational transformation. What once was a boggy wasteland has now become five distinctive garden areas. Visit each to gain an appreciation for what can be done with the right plants in the correct location. The gardens are also a horticultural education center, with a tearoom and nursery on site as well.

14. Colchester Zoo

Over 180 species of animals reside in the Colchester Zoo, which is also a center for conserving endangered species through breeding programs.

Colchester england zoo

In addition to regular park admission, the facility also offers educational opportunities such as keeper shadowing. Located about 4 miles from the Colchester town center, the zoo may be reached by bus or car.

15. Chappel Railway Viaduct

Take a scenic walk near the Victorian-era Chappel Viaduct, which is still in use today by a local railway line. Its 32 arches span an impressive 1,135 feet. If you get parched, there is a pub located conveniently nearby.

The middle section of the Chappel Viaduct near Colchester England

16. East Anglian Railway Museum

At one end of the Chappel Viaduct, for train fans young and old, the East Anglian Railway Museum offers visitors an opportunity to learn about vintage trains and model trains. Staffed by volunteers, the museum hosts special events throughout the year in addition to its regular admission days. The “Day Out with Thomas” events (of Thomas the Tank Engine fame) are quite popular and need to be reserved in advance if you hope to attend. Both the Chappel Viaduct and the museum are located about 9 miles northwest of the center of Colchester. The museum, a working train station, may be reached by train or car.

17. Firstsite Gallery

Winner of the Art Fund Museum Award for 2021, the Firstsite Gallery has rotating exhibits showcasing modern artists. The location also includes a cinema and an outdoor sculpture garden. A cafe and shop are located on the premises, and admission is FREE.

18. Colchester Community Stadium

Visit the Colchester Community Stadium to watch the Colchester United Football Club play. Just to clarify, British football is commonly known as soccer in the United States. Founded 84 years ago, Colchester United is a professional team that plays during the months of August through February. The stadium is located north of the main part of town.

Colchester england community stadium

19. Second-Hand Shops and Other Hidden Gems

I was on my way back to our hotel when I chanced upon a second-hand shop. I love visiting second-hand shops when I am traveling. It’s a way to acquire some unique souvenirs. I peeked in the window of a shop after hours, and I saw something surprising. There, beside a photograph to prove its authenticity, was a lovely outfit which had been worn by Sarah Ferguson, former wife of Prince Andrew. The formal photograph looked like a christening picture with one of her daughters. Fun! Other hidden gems include the Lion Walk shopping area just off high street, near the historic Red Lion Inn.

Another Colchester Favorite

One other thing I enjoyed about Colchester was the ketchup. Maybe all of the ketchup in England has the same delicious, tangy-sweet flavor I tasted in Colchester. It was a familiar brand, one which we have in the States, but there was something different about it. I almost brought a bottle back home with me in my suitcase. What a disaster that might have been. Crazy American tourist moment!

Colchester England ketchup

The Essential Handbag

If I had decided to buy some special ketchup, it most likely would have ended up in my trusty, roomy travel handbag. I take it with me on trips everywhere. When traveling in cities, train stations, bus stations, airports, or wherever there are crowds, a secure handbag that will confound would-be thieves is a must. My favorite travel handbag has been with me inside Buckingham Palace, the Vatican, the Louvre, and to Colchester, England. It’s the Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bucket Bag, and I have witnessed firsthand its effectiveness.

When traveling to Colchester, I wasn’t as worried about theft. I did appreciate the expandable side pockets for water bottles. This amazing handbag has traveled to more places than I have, as it has been borrowed. My mom has the same handbag in brown, and her bag was put to the test while traveling on the Paris Metro, where she thwarted some would-be thieves.

Did the pickpockets give up because of the security features such as the locking zippers or the slash-resistant cable inside the shoulder strap? Theft happens, and the Travelon bag is the best way I know to be prepared. The main compartment is quite spacious (I fit an iPad in it) and the side mesh pockets are perfect for an umbrella or, as previously noted, a water bottle or two. A small compartment has RFID-blocking organization spots for credit cards and a passport. I could go on and on. It’s a phenomenal bag, and I hope to take many more trips with it.

Might Colchester, England Make it Onto Your Bucket List?

Has this made you want to pay a visit to Colchester, England? Do you have your own tales of British tourism to share? I’d love to learn about your experience or any other fabulous travel experiences you have had. I have many fond memories of my visit to Colchester, Flatford Mill, and Dedham Vale. If you like what you’ve read today, you might also like reading about the scenic northern Oregon coast or my visit to Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey). For some simple travel wardrobe ideas, you can check out my post listing Wardrobe Essentials for the Savvy Traveler.

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Avoid Overpacking

Whether you travel to Colchester or some other location, it’s always nice to be organized. Do you want to avoid overpacking on your next trip? Never check a bag again when you use this Capsule Wardrobe Packing List. It’s digital, customizable, printable, and FREE!

Capsule Wardrobe Packing List

I need this list in my life!

Have a fantastic week, and may you have many happy travel experiences, in person or vicariously through reliving the experiences of others. Wherever your journeys take you, I hope you make wonderful memories.  Happy travels!

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26 thoughts on “19 Best Things to Do in Colchester (Essex) England”

  1. Thanks for sharing The Best Things to do in Colchester, England. Those are awesome activities. I am sure there would never be a dull moment.

    Reply
    • No. there wasn’t. I wish we could have extended our stay!

      Reply
  2. So many great sites to visit and things to do in Colchester. I would love to be able to go and see the remains of the Roman gate. England is a place I have wanted to visit for a while now because I love the history and castles. Really appreciate you highlighting the best things to do in Colchester, England. Hopefully, I can go there one day and experience some of these.

    Reply
    • I hope you can go there as well. It was an unforgettable experience!

      Reply
  3. Thank you for sharing the best thing to do in Colchester, England. I want to do a visit to England for genealogy.

    Reply
  4. I love your list of the best things to do in Colchester, England! I have never been there and I am really amazed that there are so many possibilities! I think I would enjoy the museums and the gardens. Thanks for sharing and for the lovely photos!

    Reply
    • You are most welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed traveling virtually with me!

      Reply
  5. England is definitely on the bucket-list. Thank you for sharing a travel post during these crazy times!!!

    Reply
    • Sandra,

      My pleasure! I love to travel and find interesting tidbits to share. Thanks for joining me on my journey to Colchester, and thanks for your kind words.

      Lisa

      Reply
  6. Great pics, hopefully I will have the chance to visit there someday! ♥️

    Reply
    • Amber,

      I’m glad you like the pictures, and I do hope you get to visit Colchester one day!

      Lisa

      Reply
  7. Beautiful architecture! Absolutely breathtaking.

    Reply
    • Teri,

      I loved how old everything was. It was mind-blowing for me to touch stone walls so ancient. Thanks for commenting!

      Lisa

      Reply
  8. I have never heard of this place before but that Mill looks really cool!!!

    Reply
    • Ashli,

      It was surprising to me as well, and I’m glad my dad put it on our radar. I’d love to return!

      Lisa

      Reply
  9. Beautiful place. I love the history.

    Reply
    • Gabi,

      The history was a highlight for me as well. I’m glad you liked the post!

      Lisa

      Reply
  10. I really need to go out more and have wonderful adventures. I would love to visit hopefully after the covid 19 virus has been contained.

    Reply
    • Francis,

      I hope you do get to visit many places and have wonderful adventures someday. So many places to see and things to do!

      Lisa

      Reply
  11. After all this corona outbreak I really wish to visit there someday. Thanksgiving for the history part. I enjoyed reading about humpty dumpty during my childhood. Today I learnt something new. 😊

    Reply
    • Nilakshi,

      I think that was one of my favorite parts of the visit, learning something I had never known before about that Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. Who knew? Thanks so much for taking the time to join me on my virtual visit!

      Lisa

      Reply
  12. Fun post, Lisa! I enjoyed the Humpty Dumpty tidbit! On trips up North, we’ve always thought Canadian ketchup was sweeter, too. We’ve also brought home jars of Kraft peanut butter. It’s really yummy and unfortunately not sold here.

    Reply
    • Jenny,

      Great idea to bring some back from the North! I’ll have to check the peanut butter out. Thanks so much for reading and commenting with your positive words and ideas!

      Lisa

      Reply
  13. What an awesome thing to do in celebration of their anniversary! I’ve actually had that tangy ketchup other places, too! Not a fan. I’ve also noticed that ranch dressing tastes bad when I travel over seas 😆

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Jessi,

      Hmmm…I’ll have to be on the lookout for oddly-flavored ranch dressing on my travels. Thanks for the tip, and thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I always enjoy your travel posts.

      Lisa

      Reply

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