Exeter has long been the heart of Devon, this charming city has a historical and political timeline that dates right back to the Roman era. These days you will find there is a ‘history meets modern’ vibe in this fancy town, with remnants of history next to shopping centres, swish bars and a multitude of eateries. The city’s population is largely student-based and you will often find throngs of young academics in various states of hipster dress milling about town.
It is easy to overlook Exeter when choosing a UK city break, given it’s proximity to popular Bristol and Bath and to the Welsh Capital of Cardiff, so I thought it was high time this city had its fair shake and see what it has to offer a girl-about-town such as myself. I have therefore created a handy Exeter guide to help you plan a fabulous weekend away in this city of historic charms.There's a 'history meets modern' vibe in Exeter, with remnants of history next to shopping centres, swish bars and a multitude of eateries Click To Tweet
Where to stay in Exeter
There is a range of accommodation options in this fair city, choose from luxury hotels, independent b&b’s, quirky hostels, Boutique guesthouses, Air BnB properties or a rural escape in the nearby countryside. I find sites such Booking.com or Expedia are great resources for finding hotels to match your requirements and budget.
Husband Luke and I stayed at the magnificent Two Bridges Hotel, a rather swanky country hotel located in nearby Dartmoor National Park. With its grand oak-panelled interior, fine dining and four-poster beds, there is a definite ‘Downtown Abbey’ vibe here.
Two Bridges delivers exactly what you might expect from a country hotel. There is an array of antique looking decor including grandfather clocks, old paintings and various lampshades, the occasional brass jug, as well as well worn, padded chairs to sink into with a large scotch next to a cosy open fireplace.
Before we went through to dinner I was having the usual ‘what to wear’ crisis. How does one dress for dinner at a country hotel? The bar area was awash with hunter wellies, walking poles and gilets, lord knows how these people dress for dining? It could be anything from a ball gown, to full hunting season get up. In the end, I settled for a vintage tea dress and what my mother would describe as ‘occasion shoes’.
We were treated to some serious upscale dining with rather lovely countryside views. We were lucky enough to be seated by the window, this meant that we had a view of the lovely scenery and ‘the correct lighting for food photography’ as I informed the bemused waitress. Dinner was exactly what I would expect from a country manor venue, with a range of classic dishes using local and seasonal produce. The staff were extremely knowledgeable as to where produce had originated from and they were also very understanding of my need to rearrange the table, to take ‘an Instagram worthy shot’.
What to do in Exeter
Exeter has everything you might expect from a British city, bustling high street, modern shopping centres, coffee shops, restaurants and bars. The real charm of this city is that these amenities are interwoven with a rich tapestry of historic buildings, gothic architecture, a magnificent cathedral and even a 2000-year-old Roman city wall, of which around 70% of it still remains.
Exeter has everything you might expect from a British city, bustling high street, modern shopping centres, coffee shops, restaurants and bars. Click To Tweet
Surely the first activity on an Exter itinerary has to be a trip to the iconic Exeter Cathedral ? This medieval cathedral dates back 900 years and is decorated with stunning Gothic architecture and carvings. Aside from its architectural delights, it’s a very vibrant and active cathedral with several services a day. As we were wandering around silently snapping away, we were asked by friendly staff if we would like to attend Choral Evensong?
‘Oh yes that would be lovely’, was my enthusiastic response, before realising I didn’t really know what a Choral Evensong was? My Secular upbringing has resulted in relatively little knowledge of religion, churches, or even what to expect from a service. Perhaps sensing my bewilderment, the kindly Clergyman explained that it was a service sung by the Cathedral Choir and include prayers, a sermon and an anthem. He went on to say that whilst he did agree that pictures of the service would be great ‘for the gram’, perhaps we might get more out of it if we joined in and set the camera aside?
I imagined it might be a strange sensation attending a service as an agnostic, I fretted that I would feel like a fraudster, my outsider status radiating across the congregation. A brief conversation with me would reveal that as a kid I genuinely thought Christmas was about the birth of Santa. In reality, it was a lovely, immersive experience, with beautiful singing from the choir and just the right level of both solemnity and warmth. Also, an important lesson learnt for this travel blogger that perhaps it’s not always necessary to experience everything through the lens?
Coming out of the cathedral, you will find yourself on the pretty Cathedral Close, with impressive architecture, a cute coffee shop and the historic Royal Clarence Hotel, which is currently being rebuilt and restored after a fire in 2016. With cobbled streets, climbing vines and beautiful listed buildings, this whole area looks like a Pinterest account. It is definitely worth spending some time relaxing on the green and admiring the scenery.
From Cathedral Close, you can easily take yourself on a self-guided walk of Exeter’s City Wall, about 70% of this 2000-year-old wall remains. I recommend that you pick up a free leaflet from Exeter Visitor Information centre, that will explain the history of the wall as you stroll around.
As well as wandering around the city, you can also explore underneath it by visiting Exeter’s Underground Passages. This medieval subterranean passageway used to transport water right underneath Exeter city centre. “So, we’re going to look at some sewers?” asked my puzzled husband. No darling, a medieval vaulted passageway, there is definitely a difference, right?
Our cheerful tour guide informs us that these are the only passages of this kind open to the public in Britain and are a major part of Exter’s rich history. As we shuffled through small passageways adorning hard hats, you can actually hear the city life above you, cars rumbling, traffic lights sounding and the faint murmur of human activity. It’s a rather unusual experience, meandering through dimly lit tunnels, listening to tales from our chipper tour guide “We thought we found a homeless man down here once, turns out, it was just a hipster.”
A short stroll from the passages is Exeter’s Historic Quayside, this vibrant area has a fabulous mix of historic and modern design. There are cafes, restaurants, pubs and a range of boutique shops to explore as you amble about this pretty area. You can soak up the scenery with a glass of wine or if you are feeling adventurous, hire a bike or kayak to explore the waterfront.
If you are feeling especially cultured, I recommend a lovely cup of tea at the riverside cafe at the Antiques and Collectables Centre. You can even have a little browse through their retro offerings including books, maps and vinyl records. Imagine how envious your friends will be when you return home with an antique globe “Oh this old thing? We got it at an adorable little antique place in Exeter darling.” Set smug level to 100%.
There are also a plethora of retail options in Exeter for the shopping fans amongst you. I’ll admit, I hate shopping, my idea of a successful shop is to get in and get out fast, like a successful military incursion. However, if retail therapy is your thing, the main shopping centre of Exeter is extensively pedestrianised and has modern shopping centres such as Guildhall, Princesshay and Harlequins Shopping on offer. There are also several quaint little shopping streets, with boutique and independent retailers to choose from.
What to Eat and Drink in Exeter
There are some rather excellent places to dine in Exeter with all manner of cuisines on offer, ranging from cheap eats, pub grub to fancy dining. Depending on your budget there are many places you can visit on your weekend break.There are some rather excellent places to dine in Exeter with all manner of cuisines on offer, ranging from cheap eats, pub grub to fancy dining. Click To Tweet
Harry’s is a firm favourite of Exeter residents, serving up honest and reasonably priced food since 1993. There’s over 75 menu dishes to choose from in this charming red brick bistro, as well as an impressive selection of wine and cocktails. Typical menu choices include Devon crab linguini, ribs, Butternut squash risotto, rib eye steak and sweet potato & bean chilli.
A definite winner for a relaxing lunch is Rendezvous, located near the cathedral this cosy wine bar stocks local and international wines that are paired beautifully with their tempting menu. Soak up the sun in their picturesque garden and feast upon a selection of dishes including Cajun-spiced pork loin, pumpkin and sage ravioli and roast fillet of salmon with harissa polenta.
Boston Tea Party
The popular South West coffee shop chain serves up a smashing selection of brunch, lunch and tea. The food in this uber cool hangout is homemade and deliciously moreish as well as being high;y Instagrammable. Brunch options include chorizo hash, scotch pancakes and eggs florentine with avocado.
Doctor Ink’s Curiosities
Doctor Ink’s is an award-winning, slick, prohibition era style bar that shakes up a selection of inventive, Victorian-influenced cocktails. There is an incredible amount of thoughts and detail gone into this quirky bar, from the decor to the menus to the whimsical and expertly crafted drinks.
The Old Firehouse
This popular bar is frequented by students, locals and Harry Potter fans, who are convinced this bar served as the inspiration for the Leaky Cauldron in the Harry Potter series. The Old Firehouse is certainly an atmospheric venue, serving a selection of local ales and ciders by candlelight as well as a hearty menu of burgers, baguettes and baked potatoes.
Exeter’s surrounding areas
If you have time, there are some gorgeous areas near Exeter to visit. Nearby Topsham on the Exe Estuary, is technically now a part of Exeter but has it’s own distinctive, maritime feel. Grab a pint and a bowl of hot chips on one of the harbourside bars and catch the sun setting over the water.
Exter is also in the middle of some stunning landscapes including Blackdown Hills and Dartmoor national park. Why not bike or hike the wild moorlands of Dartmoor? There are also many awesome sots for a bit of photography, especially if like me, you are rather fond of posing for the camera.
Have you been to Exeter before, what did you enjoy? What did you think of My Exeter guide? Let me know in the comments below!