Exeter is the second largest city 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 – and, 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. Here are the best things to do in Exeter city; there are tons of other things to do in the surrounding area too, but we’ll cover that in a separate post!
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!
The Best Things to do in Exeter
Be Awed at Exeter Cathedral
Exeter Cathedral is one of the country’s most famous. It’s a great spot for religious tourists, but non-religious people will love it as well – I found the architecture magnificent and the stories it holds inside fascinating. It has the longest uninterrupted Medieval Gothic vaulting in the world, as well as plenty of other notable features, inside and out.
There has been a cathedral here for a long time – the first one was built in Norman times in 1113 AD. Exeter cathedral was 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 is one of the grandest in the country, and it’s still great for Exeter tourism to this day.
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! There are also grotesques on the outside – 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.
There are lots of points of interest in Exeter Cathedral itself. In addition to its spectacular architecture, there is a minstrel’s gallery, various chapels, and some tombs of notable figures of the city. It costs £5 to enter, and it is open from 11am-3pm Monday to Saturday.
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 everyday at 11am, and tour around the historic points of the city centre. There are a few tours, depending on what day of the week it is:
- Monday and Friday: Historic Exeter, a general overview of the city.
- Tuesday: Georgian Exeter, as this is when the city made a turn from an industrial settlement to a fashionable one. There is still lots of Georgian heritage throughout the city.
- Wednesday and Saturday: Medieval Exeter, exploring Exeter’s growth in the woolen cloth industry, including some of the surviving buildings from this period.
- Thursday: Forgotten Exeter, the hidden corners of the city that not many people speak about.
- Sunday: Exeter Old & New, a tour of ancient and modern Exeter, featuring what is expected to be the country’s oldest Norman building.
You can book your free tickets here. There are some instructions about picking tickets up, but I just turned up to the meeting point and the guide had my name. The tours are completely free, and are organised by the council and ran by volunteers. You can tip, and guides appreciate it, but it is not expected.
Stroll around the historic Exeter Quayside
Exeter’s Quayside is a lovely place for a walk; there are lots of bars and restaurants that you can stop in too.
It’s also a very historical area. The quay has been around since Roman times, but it was blocked in the late 1200 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
And for this trade, Exeter needed a customs house! One of the best free things to do in Exeter, the Customs House is nowadays a Visitors Centre with some interesting attractions. Located right by the quayside, it was built in 1680 to control the trade coming in via the River Exe. There are items 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 10am-5pm.
Learn the story of the House That Moved
The House That Moved is a little-known Exeter attraction, but I found it absolutely fascinating. It’s a Tudor building that was located on what is now the main road. Because of protests that it couldn’t be torn down (being a historic building and all), it was moved instead.
Engineers used rails 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. It’s at the bottom of Stepcote Hill, which is a beautiful road with lots of historic houses.
Walk down the narrowest street in the country, Parliament Street
This was a bit of an underwhelming Exeter attraction for me, but it’s worth mentioning anway! It is the supposed narrowest street in the country and potentially the world. I’m not sure what makes a street and what makes an alleyway (and what makes a gap in between two buildings), but Parliament Street is apparently a street.
It’s basically walking in between two buildings with a sign at the end saying it’s record breaking. But, if you’re a fan of the Guiness Book of Records, you might want to check it out.
Explore the Exeter City Walls
The Romans first built these, but they have been built on by various groups throughout the centuries. You may have seen these 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 had entered them 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 played it safe and didn’t touch either way.
Traverse the Exeter Tunnels
Exeter’s underground passages are the only of their kind in Britain; they were used to source 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 must be booked – you can click here for more information. They cost £7.00 for adults, £4.50 for children, and £20.00 for a family for 4. Small children may find them scary, and they are unsuitable for people who suffer with claustrophobia.
Learn a new skill and SUP Exeter Quay
Stand up paddle boarding has dramatically increased in popularity in the last few years. You can rent an SUP in Exeter and take to the quay; alternatively, you can take a lesson. This is obviously one of the best things to do in Exeter in the summer, but you’ll see some brave souls trying their luck in winter too.
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!
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. It is 600 years old and has a love of Civil War history. You can learn all about this on a guided tour of the castle; also, check out the beautiful landscaped gardens, which are the perfect place for a picnic.
Here is my video about how to spend a day in Exeter!
Where to stay in Exeter
I’ve written a full blog post on where to stay in Exeter – you can read it by clicking here.
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.
What to do in Exeter
These are the best things to do in 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.