Are you looking for things to do in Exeter, Devon? From the historic quayside to the cathedral in the city centre, this is a city brimming with culture. Here are all of Exeter’s best attractions!
Standing in Exeter’s Cathedral Close, you’ll feel like you’ve gone a few centuries back in time.
Exeter Cathedral, an impressive gothic structure, stands tall amongst the collection of Medieval terraced row houses. Its ornate exterior is bedecked in carvings, all of which tell a part of the fascinating story that is the historic city of Exeter.
Likewise, the row of Medieval buildings is a row of historical treasures, each boasting an impressive curiosity.
Back from Cathedral Close sits the modern building, largely rebuilt in the 1960s after the Exeter Blitz. But even here, ancient buildings sit between (sometimes even inside) modern shops and you’re never far from a preserved section of the ancient city wall.
Walk ten minutes in the other direction, and you’ll reach Exeter quay, a beautiful, natural area of the city that’s famous for watersports and peaceful places to eat and drink. Plus, the sound of seagulls in the air will remind you that you’re never too far from the sea.
Whether you’re after nature, adventure, history or gastronomy, there are so many things to do in Exeter.
The Best Things to do in Exeter
Here’s what to do in Exeter, whether you’re visiting for a day, a weekend, or a week, and whatever your travel style is!
Be Awed at Exeter Cathedral
No trip to Exeter is complete without visiting the imposing Exeter Cathedral.
One of the only buildings fully decorated in Gothic style in the world, and with the globe’s longest uninterrupted Medieval Gothic vaulting, it’s a sight to behold inside and out.
Religious or not, this building will enthral you.
There has been a cathedral here for a long time.
The first one was built in Norman times in 1113 AD. It was then torn down and rebuilt in 1342, for no real reason other than the fact that Salisbury Cathedral was better and Exeter was jealous.
They were right to do so in my opinion – the cathedral still stands today and remains one of the grandest in the country, and it’s still top of most people’s lists of things to do in Exeter to this day.
There are so many interesting features to look out for in and outside Exeter Cathedral. Here are some in particular:
- Be sure to look out for the figures of people, saints, and angels on the outside. These were carved over 200 years – it took so long because the Black Death kept sweeping through Exeter and interrupting work!
- There are also grotesques on the outside. These are similar to gargoyles, but grotesques do not spit water whereas gargoyles do. These have been carved over the centuries, with some only dating back to the 20th century.
- Inside, there is a minstrel’s gallery, various chapels, an astronomical clock and some tombs of notable figures of the city.
Exeter Cathedral costs £7.50 for adult entry (although seniors and students pay £6.00 and it’s free for residents and under 18s!), and it is open from 11 am – 3 pm Monday to Saturday. Of course, you can enjoy the exterior any time within daylight hours.
Take in History on a Red Coat Tour
I wish every city had Red Coat Tours.
These free tours leave from either Exeter Cathedral or the quayside every day at 11am and tour around the historic points of the city centre. There are a few tours on offer on different days, so if you’re in Exeter for a while, you can choose which interests you most!
- Historic Exeter, a general overview of the city.
- Georgian Exeter, as this is when the city made a turn from an industrial settlement to a fashionable one. There is still a lot of Georgian heritage throughout the city.
- Medieval Exeter, exploring Exeter’s growth in the woollen cloth industry, including some of the surviving buildings from this period.
- Forgotten Exeter, the hidden corners of the city that not many people speak about.
- Exeter Old & New, a tour of ancient and modern Exeter, featuring what is expected to be the country’s oldest Norman building.
I’ve taken all of these tours, and Forgotten Exeter was my favourite.
You can book your free tickets here.
There are some instructions about picking tickets up, but I’ve always just turned up at the meeting point and the guide had my name.
The tours are completely free and are organised by the council and run by volunteers.
Stroll around the historic Exeter quayside
Exeter’s history doesn’t stop at the Cathedral. A ten-minute stroll away sits Exeter quay, which was historically where many of Devon’s goods were exported.
Back in the 17th century, when the woollen cloth industry made Exeter a very wealthy city, the quayside was right at the heart of all the action!
So, as you might expect, there are tonnes of historical buildings here.
Exeter’s quayside is a lovely place for a walk; there are lots of bars and restaurants that you can stop in too. I love Rockfish, At the Waterfront and Exeter quayside Distillery, all of which are located in the quay area.
A history of Exeter quay
It’s also a very historic area. The quay has been around since Roman times, but it was blocked in the 13th century because the Countess of Devon, Isabella de Fortibus, built a weir.
Why? She had mills in Topsham, which is just down the river, and didn’t like the competition!
Her cousin reinforced this in 1317, and essentially the city was blocked for 250 years.
Eventually, the infamous King Henry VIII came to the rescue (although it was actually Edward VI, his son, who acted on it). They had bad blood with the Fortibus predecessors, which worked well for the people of Exeter.
The river couldn’t regain its natural flow, as it had been blocked for so long.
Therefore, canals were built linking the quay to the River Exe.
This resulted in Exeter becoming a prosperous trading site, regained for its links to the sea.
Hear the stories of the Customs House
For all this woolen cloth trade, Exeter needed a customs house!
One of the best free things to do in Exeter, the Customs House is nowadays a Visitors Centre.
Located right by the quayside, it was built in 1680 to control the trade coming in via the River Exe.
It’s now a visitor centre, but there are items on display from the woollen cloth industry and an exhibition about 2000 years of Exeter’s history.
Shop til you drop in Gandy Street and Fore Street
Exeter has some of the best independent stores in the South West, and Gandy Street and Fore Street are where you’ll find them!
Gandy Street is reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley – it was actually said to be part of the inspiration for it (J.K. Rowling went to university in Exeter).
Fore Street is part of the Independent Quarter of Exeter. There are also the boutique shops of the Cathedral Quarter and the hidden gems of the Castle Quarter!
Visit the fascinating Royal Albert Memorial Museum
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum has exhibitions about Exeter, Devon, Britain, and the world!
It’s a fantastic place to start learning about the city and is one of the best things to do in Exeter with kids.
It is free entry and it is open from Tuesday to Sunday 10 am – 5 pm.
Learn the story of the House That Moved
The House That Moved is a little-known Exeter attraction, but I find it absolutely fascinating.
It’s a Medieval building, constructed with a larger first and second floor than ground floor, as was typical at the time due to land space issues.
It’s current position is on West Street, at the bottom of Stepcote Hill, but it’s original position was at the corner of Edmund Street and Frog Street.
In the 1960s, a new road was built, projected to go right through where the property was. However, Exeter had already lost so many of its important buildings in World War Two, and protests from archaeologists and citizens meant that another solution had to be found.
So it was moved.
Engineers used a system of iron rails and wheels to transport it to its location now. It’s still standing, a little crooked, and you can find it through this Google maps location – the bottom is now a bridal shop.
Stepcote Hill is a beautiful building with lots of historic houses, and is also well worth a stroll down (or hike up!).
Walk down the narrowest street in the country, Parliament Street
This is a bit of a contentious Exeter attraction, but it’s worth mentioning!
It is believed to be the narrowest street in the world.
Parliament Street is apparently a street and not an alleyway because it has houses and streetlights.
It’s basically a gap between two buildings with a sign at the end saying it’s record-breaking. But, if you’re a fan of the Guinness Book of Records, you might want to check it out.
Explore the Exeter City Walls
The Romans first built Exeter’s city walls, and they used to stretch over a mile around the city.
They aren’t complete any more, but a lot of them still remains. In fact, they were adapted by historic groups throughout the centuries.
You may have seen the walls on your Red Coat Tour, but they are worth checking out if you didn’t (and you might want to go back to see another bit of them too!).
Look out for the different brickwork and a few markings in the stone that suggest the year that individual parts were created and improved.
Don’t touch the touchstone
There is a touchstone by the city walls close to the cathedral (here’s the Google Maps location).
Medieval travellers used to touch this stone as they entered the city, and it was said to absorb the evil spirits that they met as they travelled through the nearby towns and villages.
Don’t touch it on the way out – if you do that, legend has it that you bring all the bad spirits that are stored in the stone.
I always play it safe and don’t touch either way.
Head to the Exeter priory
Exeter Priory is the oldest building in the city; it was founded in 1087 by William the Conqueror. It was the home of Benedictine monks, but was closed in 1536 due to the dissolution of the monastries. It was then a Tudor home.
You can visit Exeter Priory on Sundays and Mondays, or they do special events including plays and Tudor re-enactments at other times of the year.
Traverse the Exeter Underground Passages
Exeter’s underground passages are the only of their kind in Britain; they were used to source clean drinking water in Medieval times, and can now be explored on a guided tour!
The tour details some of Medieval Exeter’s history and guides groups around the underground network of the city.
Tours of the Exeter Underground Passages must be booked in advance. They cost £7.50 for adults, £5.00 for children, and £22.00 for a family of 4.
Small children may find them scary, and they are unsuitable for people who suffer from claustrophobia.
See Exeter’s other historical curiosities
History buffs should be in their element when walking around Exeter.
It used to be one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful historic cities in the UK. It still is in parts, but sadly, the Exeter Blitz caused a lot of the city to be destroyed.
Now, you’ll find Medieval houses amongst 1960s buildings – there are so many historical treasures that are really easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for!
Here are some parts of Exeter to watch out for.
- Look above Lakeland: this historic building dates back to the mid 17th century and has historic coats of arms on the front. Next door, there’s a Tudor house that dates back to 1567.
- St Catherine’s Chapel and Almshouses: This building dated back to 1458 as accommodation for impoverished men. There was also a chapel on-site. It was sadly destroyed in the 1942 bombings, but the ruins stand as a memorial.
- St Stephen’s Church: Situated near to Exeter Cathedral, this church is over 1,000 years old and was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
- Medieval Exe Bridge: This is a real Exeter hidden gem! One of the oldest brick bridges in the country, it dates back to 1190 and nowadays sits amongst Exeter’s busiest roads.
Go back in time at Powderham Castle
Powderham Castle is a 20 minute drive out of Exeter, but it’s an easy trip out of the city.
Still occupied by the Courtenay family, the castle’s history spans 600 years, and it was one of the most important places in Devon in the Civil War.
You can learn all about this on a guided tour; also, check out the beautifully landscaped gardens, which are the perfect place for a picnic.
An ancient Roman port, Topsham is one of the most historically significant places in Exeter.
The petite but quaint high street welcomes you with beautiful buildings, independent shops and historic pubs.
Plus, you can learn all about the town in the Topsham Museum!
There are wonderful estuary views too.
One of the best ways to visit Topsham is by hiring a bike from Saddles & Paddles and journeying down the Exe Estuary Cycle Trail. More on that below!
Cycle down the Exe Estuary
The Exe Estuary Cycle trail is one of the best in Devon.
Sprawling down the river, it’s a beautiful place to enjoy wonderful riverside scenery.
The estuary trail encompasses villages like Topsham, Exton and Lympstone on the east, and Exminster, Starcross and Dawlish Warren on the west.
You can either hike, cycle or drive the estuary trail, stopping at various points along the way and taking in its history and nature.
If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one from Saddles & Paddles.
Go canoeing in Exeter Canal
As well as incredible cycling trails, Exeter quay, canal and estuary area also offer a playground for watersports enthusiasts.
Although Exeter is 10 miles from the coast, its beautiful quay means that it’s very much a waterfront city.
One of the best ways to enjoy this is by taking a stand-up paddleboard or canoe out onto the quay and paddling to the Double Locks Pub, which is situated on the other side of Exeter Canal.
In fact, canoeing in Exeter is one of the best ways to see the city from another angle and get out into nature with very minimal effort!
You can rent a canoe (or a stand-up paddleboard or kayak!) from Saddles & Paddles. The staff will then direct you the best route, and you can take to the water independently.
If you’re visiting Exeter in the warmer months, it’s a glorious activity!
The most popular route is an out-and-back trip to the Double Locks Pub, where you can grab a coffee before making the journey back!
Another nearby spot for SUPing is Exmouth, at the other end of the estuary.
Watersports like these are among the best things to do in Exmouth, as it’s where the river and beach meet!
Visit Exeter quayside distillery
One of my favourite things to do when I visit different UK cities is trying the local tipples.
Exeter’s drinks scene is constantly evolving, and its most recent addition is the Exeter quayside Distillery.
Here, business partners Dan and George create gins and vodkas, infused with unusual flavours.
You can learn all about the process (and how they are quite different to other gin distilleries!) through a guided tour.
Alternatively, they also offer make-your-own gin experiences.
Soak in St Sidwell’s Point spa
There’s something very relaxing about a spa session while you’re on a weekend away.
Now, Exeter has a fantastic option. For £20, you can enjoy two hours of relaxation at the St Sidwell’s Point Health Centre. Its spa has a steam room, sauna, sanorium and hot tub.
The UK’s first Passivhaus spa (a German concept), St Sidwell’s Point spa uses environmentally friendly methods to keep heat and energy in, saving them a huge amount of money and being more environmentally friendly in the process!
It’s a fascinating concept and a wonderful place to relax and unwind for a few hours.
You can also pay a bit extra and use the gym and pool facilities.
Head to an Exeter Chiefs rugby game
Exeter has not one, but two incredible rugby teams – a men’s rugby league team and a women’s premier 15s team.
The woman’s team has won the Allianz Cup and come second in the Premier 15s team after just two seasons!
The rugby stadium is located at Digby & Sowton, a short train ride from Exeter Central. Tickets are usually affordable and a great atmosphere is guaranteed!
It’s worth the trip, even if you aren’t usually a live sports fan – I’m not and had a great time on my recent visit. You can read more about what to expect here!
Tackle the quay climbing centre
If you’re looking for something to do in Exeter in the rain, check out the quay climbing centre!
This is the biggest claiming centre in South West England and incorporates bouldering, climbing walls with ropes and clip N climb, which is perfect for kids age 4+.
Where to eat in Exeter
Exeter is one of the best cities in South West England for gastronomy. Here are some of my favourite restaurants in the city!
- Margoux: A luxury restaurant in central Exeter, Margoux serves up British and European classics with a wide range of cocktails and wine.
- The Terrace: Famous as the best rooftop bar in Exeter, The Terrace serves fruity cocktails and has an extensive food menu with burgers, steaks and curries.
- Rockfish: Fish is on the menu here, with a fresh order coming daily from Brixham Harbour (just 30 miles away). There are some veggie/ meat options too.
- The Turk’s Head: A must visit for history buffs, this restaurant is one of the oldest in Devon and serves up delicious pizza!
- On the waterfront: Another pizza place with views of the quay, this restaurant serves possibly my favourite pizza ever. If you’re visiting as a group, try one of their extra-large bases!
- Eat on the Green: Sitting in a prime position in front of Exeter Cathedral, this tea room dishes up delicious British pub food.
Where to stay in Exeter
I’ve written a full blog post on where to stay in Exeter, but here are some of my recommendations!
However, if you want to check some places out quickly, here are my recommendations:
Budget Hotel: Check out The White Hart pub, which is a friendly establishment with cosy rooms, right in the heart of the city. Click here for more information.
Mid-Range Hotel: The Jury’s Inn is a modern hotel, with good value rooms, right in the heart of the city. Click here for more information.
Boutique Hotel: Headweir Mill House Hotel is situated in a converted Mill House, with unique, individually styled rooms. Click here for more information.
Places to visit near Exeter
There are plenty of incredible day trips around Exeter that you can either take the train, bus or drive to. Here’s a list of some of the best places around Exeter City to visit:
- Exmouth Beach: this is one of the best beaches near Exeter, with long sands expanding down the East Devon coastline. It’s famous for being a watersports hub and for boat trips with Stuart Line Cruises. Exmouth Beach is also the start of the Jurassic Coast! There are plenty of cafes and restaurants in the town centre.
- Killerton House: one of the most popular National Trust properties near Exeter, this estate has a rich history and is perfect for a family day out.
- Castle Drogo: this is another wonderful National Trust property near Exeter and was the last castle to be built in England. It sits on the edge of Dartmoor, so you can enjoy the moorland on the same day trip.
- Dartmoor National Park: there are so many incredible places to visit in Dartmoor National Park. From the beautiful Lydford Gorge to the many tors (Hound Tor and Saddle Tor are two of the best!), parts of Dartmoor are only a short drive from Exeter.
- Dawlish Warren: Dawlish Warren is another popular beach close to Exeter City. It’s well-connected to the city by rail, with train journeys only taking 15 minutes. This is one of the most scenic railways in England too.
- The South West Coast Path: While Exeter isn’t on the South West Coast Path, Dawlish and Exmouth are. You can take a train from Exeter to either location and hike east (towards Sidmouth and Beer Beach) or west (toward Teignmouth and Torbay). Exeter’s excellent location and position as a transport hub mean that it’s fairly easy to get back to at the end of the day.
How to get to Exeter
You can reach Exeter City centre by taking the train, coach or driving. Here are some instructions:
- You can take the train from London Paddington, which takes just over two hours. There are also train services from Plymouth, Bristol, Birmingham and other cities. You can read my GWR first class train review here.
- The coach takes a lot more time but is generally substantially cheaper. You can book tickets through Megabus or National Express.
- You can reach Exeter by driving on the M5 or taking the M3 and A303.
How to get around Exeter
Exeter city centre is very walkable. To get to the suburbs, you can take regional trains or buses.
Uber also operates in Exeter, although there aren’t as many cabs as in other destinations.
What is Exeter famous for?
The historical city of Exeter is famous for its beautiful 900-year-old Cathedral and historic quayside.
In fact, history is everywhere in Exeter, with restored buildings dating from anywhere between the 11th and 19th centuries.
Nowadays, it’s quite well known as a city with plenty of outdoor activities on offer, due to its lovely position in the countryside of South West England.
Is Exeter worth visiting?
Yes, the beautiful city of Exeter is definitely worth visiting!
There are plenty of reasons to plan a trip here, including its fascinating history spanning back hundreds of years and its range of contemporary, outdoorsy and family friendly activities.
Exeter also has a wonderful food scene, plenty of cocktails and wine bars, and unique hotels.
With a mild climate and some of the prettiest scenes of any city in the UK, it’s ideal for a weekend break!
These are the best things to do in Exeter!
Exeter is the second-largest settlement in Devon and one of the most historic cities in the UK.
First settled by a Celtic community, then populated by Romans, it is steeped in tales.
While it is nowadays quite a laidback city with a population of around 130,000, you can see the historical significance anywhere.
There are plenty of other reasons to visit Exeter, too. It’s located at the start of the Exe Estuary, only around 12 miles from the coast and near to epic moorland – nature is never far away.
In the city, there are a plethora of independent shops, cafes and restaurants to enjoy!
If you’re going on a Devon holiday, it’s a great base.
Or, if you just want a city break, especially if you love history and chilled-out places, it’s a perfect option.
So, are you ready to visit Exeter?
You could tick these off in two days (check out my weekend in Exeter itinerary to see how they all tie together), or you could take your time and see a few attractions in and around the city.
It all depends on what kind of trip you want!
One thing’s for sure though – there’s plenty to do in this fascinating city, and whatever your travel style, you’ll find something to love in Exeter.