Things to do in Exeter Quay: Nature, History and Food!

Exeter Quay or Quayside in early morning light. Devon, England, UK.

Are you looking for things to do in Exeter quay? This guide has all the information you need about the best attractions, restaurants and nature spots.

As far as I’m concerned, the best part of a city is usually by the water. Here, you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre, enjoy the serenity of nature and usually find a restaurant or pub with some gorgeous waterfront views.

Exeter’s no exception. While Devon’s second-largest city isn’t right by the ocean, it has a glorious quayside which is lined with historic buildings dating back centuries.

The quay is part of the River Exe, which eventually leads into the Exeter Canal and through Countess Weir. 

Some of Exeter’s best attractions are in Exeter quay, but it’s an area that some tourists don’t even make it to.

But as it’s just a ten-minute walk from Exeter Cathedral, there’s really no excuse to not visit while you’re in town!

Here’s everything you need to know about Exeter quay.

About Exeter quay

Exeter, Devon, England, UK - March 25, 2016: Footbridge crossing the river Exe at the Historic Quayside in the centre of the city

Exeter’s historic quayside dates back centuries, although it’s not quite as old as nearby Topsham. 

The Romans, who settled in Exeter until the 4th century, actually used Topsham as their port, although at that point the River Exe was navigable all the way up to Exeter.

However, Exeter gradually started to be used as a port during the Medieval period, mainly thanks to the rise of the woollen cloth industry. 

Countess Weir

In 1284, Countess Isabella de Fortibus ordered a weir to be constructed at Topsham. She was part of the wealthy and prestigious Courtenay family, who are still around today and live at nearby Powderham Castle.

Isabella left a gap in the middle of her weirs but she wanted to use their power to run her mills at Topsham. 

In the early 14th century, Hugh de Courtenay decided to build across the river, thus blocking access to the port at Exeter. This meant that boats had to unload in Topsham, bringing wealth into the town. 

For a few centuries, Exeter wasn’t used as a port, with everything being unloaded into Topsham and then transported into the city. 

However, the Courtenay family eventually fell out of the king’s favour, particularly as Henry Courtenay was executed in 1538. This mean that Exeter was given permission to open up the weir and have access to the sea once again. 

But centuries of being blocked off meant that the rivers had silted up and it wasn’t possible to connect the river to the sea naturally.

Exeter Canal

So an architect called John Trew was hired to link the quay up with Countess Weir. He quickly found the rock on this side too hard, so instead built what is now Exeter Canal to the west, which eventually links up with the river. 

This meant that Exeter once again had a connection with the sea, and from the 16th century onwards, the port thrived. 

The larger quay

Many of the buildings that you’ll see around Exeter quay, including the Custom House, date back to the 17th century, at the height of the woollen cloth industry.

The buildings that line the quay were used to store products before export and after import and for customs. 

 In the 17th Century, Exeter was one of the largest cities in England, and its port was very important to the nation. Therefore, it was deepened, lengthened and new locks were built.

The depth meant that ocean ships could now travel to the city centre, enabling the city to trade with ports as far as Southern Europe. 

Looking across the water at Exeter's Historic Quay on the south coast of England.

Today’s quay

The canal was used for ocean-faring ships until the rise of the railway when it lost much of its trade (as the train routes were quicker and more reliable!). It was used for some international vessels until the late 1960s, and the last ship to sail on Exeter Canal was in the early 1970s.

Nowadays, it remains a historic quay and place for tourism and recreation! 

Where is Exeter quay?

Exeter quay is located about 15 minute walk from Exeter Cathedral, south of the city centre. 

It’s easy to get to by foot or you can take a taxi. Uber is operational in Exeter or you could try Apple Cabs.

If you’re driving, I recommend parking at the Haven Banks 2 Car Park, which is close to Exeter quay and has some of the cheapest rates in the city.

Things to do at Exeter quay

Walk around and admire the old buildings

Exeter is one of the most beautiful cities in the UK, and part of that is thanks to its wonderful quayside.

One of the best spots for walks in Exeter City Centre, Exeter quay’s unique architecture and history make it an ideal place for a stroll. 

You can simply walk up and down the side of the quay for a short amount of time, or go even further – see below for more information! 

Walk from Exeter quay to Topsham (or further!)

Another option is to walk all the way to the pretty town of Topsham. There’s a trail that connects the two areas, spanning past Countess Weir and with plenty of stops to look out for birdlife along the way. 

It takes about an hour and a half to walk to Topsham, and you can take a train back to Exeter St David’s.

If you want to walk further, follow the entire Exe Estuary trail that spans the scenic river and leads all the way down to Exmouth, stopping at a few country pubs, including the Puffing Billy, on the way down. 

This will take you about four hours (pub stops excluded!), and you can take a bus or train back to Exeter (make sure you leave enough time to check out all of Exmouth’s best attractions though!). 

Or, if you have someone who can give you a lift, it’s about a 20-minute drive back to the city (depending on traffic). 

This is a popular walk with locals, but not that many tourists know about it!

You can also hike the other side of the Exe Estuary, through Exminster and Starcross, eventually finishing at Dawlish Warren Beach. 

Rent out a bike and cycle the Exe Estuary Cycle Trail to Topsham

Autumn sunshine over the river Exe

Saddles & Paddles is an Exeter quay institution.

As the name suggests, they rent out bikes and watersports equipment! 

If you don’t fancy walking to Topsham or beyond, you can cycle the whole way. Rent out a bike at Saddles & Paddles and the friendly staff will detail the cycle route. 

Cycling should take you about half an hour, leaving you time to head to the pub (I love The Globe in Topsham) and look around the town, perhaps visiting the interesting Topsham museum, before heading back. 

Or, if you want to rent out bikes for the whole day you could cycle all the way down the Exe Estuary Trail. 

The River Exe is lined by one of the best cycling trails in East Devon, the Exe Estuary Cycle Trail, which terminates at the beautiful Exmouth beach, one of the closest beaches to Exeter

It’ll take about an hour and a half to cycle from Exeter quay to Exmouth. 

Go canoeing at Saddles & Paddles

Do you prefer water to dry land? Saddles & Paddles have you covered there too. 

You can rent out canoes, kayaks or stand up paddleboards to explore the quay and canal from another angle. 

I went canoeing with Saddles & Paddles recently, paddling from their rental office on Exeter quay to the Double Locks Pub. It was a wonderful way to see the canal and get a bit of exercise on a warm spring day!

You can read more about it in my blog post.

Sample gins at Exeter Quayside Distillery

Exeter Quayside Distillery is a new establishment for 2022 on the historic quay. 

It’s a gin and vodka distillery and cocktail bar and restaurant.

Whether you want to learn more about the spirits, make your own gin or just kick back with some great Mediterranean-style tapas and cocktails, this is one of the coolest spots in Exeter to hang out! 

Learn about history at The Custom House Visitor Centre

The Custom House Visitor Centre is one of the best places to learn about Exeter quay’s fascinating history.

Dating back to 1680 and with two of Catherine the Great’s cannons outside (yes, really!) it was, as the name implies, the customs house for goods coming in and out of Exeter’s harbour. 

21 June 2017: Exeter, Devon, England, UK - The Custom House, one of the historic buildings at Exeter Quay on a fine summer day.

Exeter was one of the richest cities in the UK at this time due to the woollen cloth trade, so this is a place that’s well worth learning about!

Nowadays, it’s a visitor centre and has a free exhibition about the 2000 years of Exeter’s rich history. 

Exeter Boat Trips 

Photo credit Stuart Line Cruises

Stuart Line Cruises are based in nearby Exmouth, but they offer a boat trip that travels up the entire estuary and through Exeter Canal.

You can either board the boat in Exmouth or Exeter.

These river cruises are a fantastic way to learn more about the city’s history, as you’ll venture through some of the oldest areas of the canal, learn about the significance of the Double Locks pub and see some wildlife on the way. 

If you end up in Exmouth, you can easily travel back to Exeter by rail or bus. 

Side note: it’s also worth doing the Jurassic Coast cruise or various day trips with Stuart Line Cruises. They also do themed events throughout the year! 

Tackle the indoor climbing wall

If you’re looking for indoor attractions near Exeter quay, look no further than the Quay Climbing Centre! 

Devon is renowned for its outdoor climbing, but this activity is weather dependent and not as accessible as the Quay Climbing Centre. 

Whether you fancy climbing with ropes or bouldering, there’s an array of different climbing routes at the South West’s largest climbing centre. 

If you’re visiting with children, Clip ‘N Climb Exeter is also located here. These are climbing walls with an auto-belay function, perfect for anyone over 4 years (including adults!). 

Learn about Countess Weir and the Paper Mill

If you walk from Exeter quay to Topsham, you’ll eventually walk through the actual Countess Weir (which is in a suburb of Exeter called Countess Wear, confusingly!). 

This is where Isabella de Fortibus constructed her edifice to power all of her mills in Topsham!

You can walk around and admire the weir, and there’s a small plaque with a bit of historical information about the weir and the paper mill.

Taste some of Devon’s most sustainable seafood at Rockfish

Back in Exeter quay itself, Rockfish is worth a visit if you’re a seafood fan. 

This is a chain restaurant, but it only has branches in Devon and Dorset and its fish comes fresh from Brixham Harbour, 30 miles from Exeter, every day. 

Taste their catch of the day, which changes on a regular basis, or try some classics like their calamari or prawns. 

They serve branded booze and tasty desserts too!

You can see my full review of Rockfish here.

Eat some of the best pizza at At The Waterfront

Another of my favourite restaurants is located in the quay area – and it’s appropriately called “On The Waterfront”.

It’s primarily a cocktail bar and pizzeria, although it also serves food like burgers and salads. 

However, I’d strongly recommend getting the pizza there – I think it’s the best pizza in Exeter, if not the whole of Devon.

Their bases are doughy yet light, and you can opt for a range of veggies, meats and cheeses on top.

They also offer vegan cheese! 

Other things to do in Exeter

As Exeter quay is so close to the rest of the city, it’s easy to visit it as a side trip as part of your few days in the city. Here are some other things to do:

Exeter Cathedral Outside, Devon
  • Exeter Cathedral: Built between the 12th century and 15th century, Exeter Cathedral is an imposing Gothic Revival building and is widely regarded as one of the best cathedrals in the UK. 
  • Royal Albert Memorial Museum: Located in Exeter’s City Centre, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery has a range of exhibitions all about local and international history. It’s free to enter too! 
  • Medieval Passages: Exeter is the only UK city to have this type of underground passages that were used to transport water. Guided tours of them have taken place since the 1930s. 
  • Powderham Castle: One of the most popular day trips from Exeter, this is based on the west side of the River Exe and is a 600-year-old family home – it has been the home of the Courtenay Family for centuries. 
  • Red Coat Guided Tour: These city tours take you all over Exeter (there’s even a Cathedral to Quay tour!). They’re run by knowledgeable local guides and will tell you fascinating stories about the city, visiting both popular hangouts and hidden spots. 
  • Gandy Street: Home to lots of independent shops, this street is said to be part of the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley. 
  • You can also go shopping on Sidwell Street and Fore Street, two of Exeter city centre’s busiest streets. 
  • St Sidwell’s Point spa: This is the first Passivhaus spa in the UK and offers a fun spa day for any visitors to Exeter!
  • Exeter Chiefs RugbyExeter has two fantastic rugby teams (male and female) and seeing one play is a fantastic thing to do in. the city! 

Places to stay near Exeter quay

The White Hart

This is an awesome budget pub to stay in the city. A traditional British inn with en-suite bedrooms, The White Hart is very close to the quay. Enjoy free parking, a friendly atmosphere and delicious food. Click here for rates and to read more.

Hotel du Vin

The Hotel Du Vin has an outdoor pool, large en-suite rooms with various luxurious features including a monsoon shower. There’s also a library, spa and bar on-site. Click here for more information.

Headweir Mill House Hotel 

 Situated by the water, the Headweir Mill House Hotel  dates back 200 years – it used to be a mill house but has recently changed to a hotel. This means that it retains plenty of its historical character and charm! The boutique rooms are historic, but have all the mod-cons you’ll need. Click here for more information.

The Jury’s Inn

The Jury’s Inn is a bit of a walk from Exeter quay, but I stayed here during my last trip to Exeter and can wholeheartedly recommend it. A great mid-range option, it has comfy beds, powerful showers, clean rooms and serves a great breakfast buffet! Click here for more information.

See all of the best places to stay in Exeter here.

Exeter’s Quayside packs a punch when it comes to attractions, nature and dining options. Escape the busy city centre and take a stroll down here when you’re next in the city – you’ll see why I and so many other people rave about it!

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