Chester is one of the best cities to visit in England, indeed Great Britain. It’s one of the most captivating cities in the country, with a wealth of medieval (and medieval-inspired) architecture.
There’s nowhere else in the world like the Chester Rows, a warren of centuries-old walkways among the black-and-white half-timbered houses. You can shop, stop at cafes and pubs or simply wander back into the mists of time.
You can also walk its ancient city walls or if you’re travelling with kids it has one of the best zoos in Europe on the edge of town.
Our guide to the best things to do in Chester covers all options. We show you all the historic sites, from Roman to medieval to Victorian, some of the best places to stay and eat, and Chester Zoo. We also suggest the best places to go near Chester, including across the border in North Wales and Liverpool. Enjoy!
Why Visit Chester
Chester is one of the most beautiful cities in England, with a wealth of medieval architecture and half-timbered houses around the city.
It has one of the finest cathedrals in northern England, with parts of the church around a thousand years old.
Chester is renowned for its Rows, a series of unique covered walkways with shops and cafes above street level.
It’s also rich in Roman history, and was the largest city in this part of Britain when the Romans conquered it 2,000 years ago.
There are also plenty of fun things to do in Chester with kids, with the excellent Chester Zoo on the outskirts of the city, and the Deva Roman Experience for those with an interest in history.
Chester is on the border with North Wales, and an excellent base for venturing into this wonderful part of the world. The gorgeous Snowdonia National Park and some of the great Castles of North Wales are little more than an hour away, as are some of the best beaches in North Wales.
Chester is also very close to Liverpool or Manchester, within easy reach by train, bus or car.
Things To Do In Chester
Chester Cathedral is one of the best cathedrals in the North of England. It was originally the Abbey of St Werburgh – the patron saint of the church – which was unusually spared destruction in the aftermath of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. It has been a Cathedral since 1541, but all the surrounding monastic buildings, including the cloister and refectory have survived.
The dark red sandstone cathedral was built over 500 years, beginning with the foundation of the Abey in 1093. Some arches from this Romanesque period survive in the north transept, and much of the body of the church – including the Gothic chancel and Lady Chapel – were completed in the 14th century.
Further work was completed in the 16th century, including the intricate great west window, a superb example of the English Perpendicular style. The Victorians also left their traces in their restorations, and there are also some 20th century additions including the modern west window.
While visiting the Cathedral, take time to explore the monastic buildings, particularly the lovely cloister garden, and its fine Water of Life sculpture. The Refectory café is also a spectacular setting for an afternoon coffee and slice of cake.
Chester’s architecture is outstanding, one of the finest of any city in England. It’s easily one of the most beautiful cities in England, its central streets lined with black-and-white half-timbered houses. The oldest buildings are from the 13th century, and many date from the late 16th and 17th centuries.
Many were also added 200 years later by the Victorians. You can tell some of their buildings apart from their medieval counterparts by the inscriptions on the facades, and some of the painted figures are also a bit of a giveaway.
Explore the unique Chester Rows
Wandering the famous Chester Rows is one of our favourite things to do in Chester city centre. They are the main reason many people visit Chester, and are unique in Europe.
The rows are a series of covered passageways one storey above ground level, running along four streets in the centre of Chester. Shop, café or restaurant premises occupy the buildings at street level, and there are walkways above, accessed via flights of steps at intervals. At this level there are more shops and businesses – some of which are connected to the premises on the ground floor, and some are entirely separate.
The shops in these walkways are set back a few metres from the street. The passageways are covered, with most of the buildings between two and four storeys higher. These passageways – along Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate and Bridge Streets – are the Chester Rows.
Nobody knows how the Chester Rows came into being. There are various theories. One is that they were built on the rubble of ruined Roman buildings; writer George Borrow (best-known for his travelogue Wild Wales) suggested that they were built so shopkeepers could defend their wares from raiding Welsh robbers!
Ultimately this is all guesswork. We do know that the Rows had come into being by the late 13th century but that the walkways we see today are later, most likely from the 17th to 19th centuries. They are a fantastic warren of passages, with a vast range of shops, many of which are small and independent. There are also many great cafes and a few 17th-century pubs to be discovered. A wonderful way to spend a day in Chester.
Take a walk under the ornate late Victorian Eastgate Clock
The famous Eastgate Clock stands on the site of the main Roman gateway to the city of Deva Victrix. It is frequently said to be the second most photographed clock in England after Big Ben in London. I certainly can’t think of one to rival it, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most famous landmarks in England.
The ornate clock was built on the 18th century sandstone bridge which forms part of the city walls of Chester. It was completed in 1899 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee (60 years) of Queen Victoria’s reign two years earlier. You can walk below it at street level, or climb the stairs and walk right underneath the clock. It’s only a minute’s walk from a beautiful view of Chester Cathedral.
Enjoy the circuit of Chester City Walls
The city walls of Chester are the most complete circuit of ancient town walls in the UK. They were begun by the Romans to fortify the garrison town of Deva Victrix, and were built in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They should in anyone’s what to do in Chester plans as they are such an amazing way to see the city. And you can comfortably complete the circuit in a couple of hours or so.
Some original sections of the walls remain, but they didn’t comprise a complete circuit – this was probably finished the best part of a thousand years later after the Norman Conquest.
The walls – or at least sections of them – fulfilled a defensive function as late as the English Civil War (1642 to 1647). However, after this they gradually became more appreciated as somewhere to visit and explore.
You can almost walk the complete circuit of Chester Walls, save for sections currently being restored. I particularly recommend the section between Chester Cathedral and the River Dee, which offers superb views over the streets and rooftops of Chester.
Seek out a few of the many medieval Chester pubs
One of my favourite Chester things to do is exploring some of Chester’s centuries-old pubs. Many of them are in 17th-century half-timbered buildings around the city centre.
It’s amazing how many of them have survived, especially given the recent economic downturn, but most street corners seem to have one. The buildings are wonderfully evocative, intimate watering holes serving superb beer.
One of my favourites is Ye Olde King’s Head, near the bottom of Bridge Street and the river, and I also recommend Ye Olde Boot Inn (there are quite a few Ye Oldes around the city!) upstairs in The Rows on Eastgate Street.
Take a boat trip on the River Dee
The River Dee around Chester is gorgeous, and a great way to see it is on a short river cruise. Chester boat tours depart from The Groves, on the right bank (north side) of the river, near the Old Dee Bridge.
Shorter cruises run beyond the suspension bridge upstream to the Earl’s Eye meadow on the outskirts of the city. Longer cruises (2 hours) run through the Duke of Westminster’s estate nearby, running as far as the elegant Aldford iron bridge. One of the best things to do around Chester if you’re in the area for a few days.
Lunch at Chester Market
Chester Market – just behind the City Hall and Storyhouse (see below) – is a great place to spend an hour or two. I met up there with some old friends from North Wales for a few hours, and the place was buzzing the whole time.
There are various food stalls, cafes and eateries around the central seating (and eating) area. It’s open all day and into the evening. And if you’re driving into the city, one of the main car parks is next door.
Visit the Art Deco Storyhouse, One Of The Best Arts Centres in the North of England
The Storyhouse is a fantastic arts centre in an Art Deco cinema a two-minute walk from Chester Cathedral.
It comprises an excellent library (with a superb children’s section), a restaurant, theatres and an independent cinema. We spent most of our time in the kids’ library with Our Little Man, and we loved the innovative reading spaces created for them.
We were also impressed by the inclusivity of the place, including the message on the floor inside one of the entrances. It read, ’Come Inside, keep war, you’re safe now.’ Very touching. I also liked the numerous Benjamin Zephaniah (a British poet) quotes around the walls
Treat the kids to a day out at Chester Zoo
Chester Zoo is the largest zoo in the UK, with an astonishing collection of animals from around the world. I visited a few times on day trips from North Wales during childhood holidays, and again with Faye more recently.
The array of animals is staggering. Our favourite Chester Zoo experience was a face-to-face encounter with a beautiful female orangutan who took a great interest in our camera and the images in the back of it.
Other stars of the show include the giraffes, black rhinos, Asian elephants and the elusive aye-aye, a fascinating nocturnal lemur from Madagascar.
The Zoo is easily one of the best things to do in Chester with kids, but I suggest trying to pick a dry day if you do visit. Entry for a family of four works out at over £100 without a donation, and from experience it’s far better without the rain!
Take a walk over the Old Dee Bridge
The Old Dee Bridge is one of the most picturesque places to visit in Chester. It’s on the original site of the first crossing of the river in the city, built by the Romans.
The present structure – a series of seven red sandstone pointed arches – dates from the 14th century. The construction was ordered by Edward, the Black Prince, and a local levy was introduced to cover the costs of its upkeep.
It’s a quirky bridge, with seven arches of irregular length. You can cross the Bridge on foot or by car, but if you’re driving, you may have to wait. The bridge is narrow, only wide enough for one lane of traffic. So you may be stuck waiting behind a red light for a couple of minutes before you can cross. Do what I did and walk!
Discover the only intact in situ Roman Shrine in Britain at Handbridge
The ancient Roman shrine of Minerva isn’t one of the most obvious things to see in Chester. But if you head as far south as the Old Dee Bridge it’s only a few more minutes’ walk to this remarkable ancient survival in the park in Handbridge, just across the river.
The entrance to the park, known as Edgar’s Field, is just beyond The Ship Inn as you walk south from the Old Dee Bridge. It’s around 150 metres from the entrance, beyond the playground, and just to the left of the main pathway.
It consists of a stone carving of Minerva, the Roman goddess of war. The figure is carved onto the sandstone rock face, which is believed to have been part of a small quarry. As you’ll see, the carving is quite worn, and partly protected by a hood framing it.
Delve further into Chester History at the Grosvenor Museum
The Grosvenor Museum is Chester’s local museum, covering the city and Cheshire’s history. There is a great section on the Romans, and I also recommend the Period House, a series of rooms decorated and fitted out in the styles of different eras from the 16th to early 19th centuries.
Travel 900 years back in time to Chester Castle
Chester Castle was founded a few years after the Norman Conquest in 1070, and later expanded and rebuilt in the 12th century. Towards the end of the 13th century it served as King Edward I’s headquarters for his invasion and occupation of North Wales. The outer bailey – pictured above – was added around this time.
You enter through the Neoclassical gateway, and follow the signs right to the Castle. The 12th-century Agricola Tower has a fine chapel (St Mary de Castro) with rare 13th-century wall paintings.
It’s one of the most intriguing Chester tourist attractions, but opening hours can be limited, especially in the off-season.
Indulge in afternoon tea at Katie’s Tea Rooms
Your visit to olde worlde Chester wouldn’t be complete without a little traditional indulgence. The best place we found was Katie’s Tea Rooms on Watergate Street, a couple of minutes’ walk from Chester Cross.
They do the classic English afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones and cake, and also English breakfast, sandwiches and light meals.
Watch horse racing at the Roodee, the oldest racecourse in the world still in operation
I confess that we are not followers of horse racing. However, those of you who are may well be intrigued by the prospect of visiting Chester Racecourse. It is believed to have been founded in 1539, and is recognised as the oldest racecourse in the world which is still in use.
Also known as the Roodee, the racecourse is relatively small, at just over a mile in length. It’s located on a bend of the River Dee, with a section of the Chester City Walls also running along part of it.
Places To Visit Near Chester
Chester is only a mile or two from the Welsh border, and has its own Welsh name, Caer. It’s an ideal base for day trips to North Wales, whether you’re heading for the coast, Anglesey, the mountains of Snowdonia or the World Heritage Castles in North Wales. Here are a few top suggestions for day trips from Chester.
The country town of Llangollen is thirty miles or so up the Dee Valley from Chester, in the heart of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
There are enough things to do in Llangollen to warrant a couple of days’ stay, from the haunting ruins of Dinas Bran Castle and Valle Crucis Abbey to Plas Newydd, the home of the famous Ladies of Llangollen in the late 18th century.
This remarkable bridge carries the Llangollen Canal 36 metres (138 feet) above the Dee Valley a few miles downstream from Llangollen. It’s one of the greatest landmarks in Wales, and one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, completed in the early 19th century by master engineer Thomas Telford.
You can walk across the Aqueduct, or take a trip in a horse-drawn narrowboat. But you’ll need a head for heights as one side is open to the elements with no railings.
It’s in the county of Wrexham, one of Cheshire’s Welsh cross-border neighbours.
Snowdonia National Park
Also known by its Welsh name Eryri, this spectacular mountain range is one of the most beautiful landscapes in Wales and the UK. This tour from Chester takes you to the stunning Llyn Ogwen lake below the mighty Tryfan peak, also calling at the popular village of Betws-y-Coed and the seaside town of Llandudno.
Another tour from Chester follows a different route, taking you into the heart of Snowdonia, while also stopping at the gorgeous riverside town of Conwy, home to one of the finest Castles in North Wales.
The Clwydian Hills are part of the same Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as the Dee Valley around Llangollen. The long-distance Offa’s Dyke Path follows the upper ridge of this series of hills, which command superb views over the patchwork of fields of the Vale of Clwyd below.
Beyond these, on a clear day, you’ll be treated to the breathtaking sight of the distant peaks of Snowdonia. The walk between the hillforts of Moel Famau and Moel Arthur offers some of the best views.
Where To Stay In Chester
There are plenty of great hotels in Chester, both in the city centre and in the countryside around the city.
The Chester Grosvenor is the best luxury option in the city, and the location is as central as you can get. It’s within a few metres of the Eastgate Clock, with the Rows and Cathedral both a couple of minutes’ walk away.
Hotel Indigo is another fabulous Chester hotel, only five minutes’ walk away from the main Chester sights. It’s also right next to beautiful Grosvenor Park and a short stroll from the River Dee and city walls.
The Mill Hotel Chester is a great choice between the station and city centre, housed in a red brick converted mill next to the Shropshire Union Canal. The Queen at Chester Hotel BW is a gorgeous grand hotel across the street from the train station, ideal if you’re travelling by public transport.
There are also several options in the villages around Chester. I once stayed at the splendid Rossett Hall Hotel, a fine Georgian country house with gardens a short drive just across the border in Wales.
How To Get To Chester
The city of Chester is easy to reach from wherever you’re travelling.
The closest international airports are Manchester and Liverpool, both of which are around an hour and a half away by public transport. Each journey entails a change of train or bus en route.
Chester is well connected by rail and is on the main line between North and South Wales (which runs along the English side of the border with Wales. There are direct trains from Liverpool Lime Street (47 minutes) and Manchester Piccadilly (1 hour 10 minutes and upwards). If you’re travelling from Ireland, the direct train from Holyhead Port to Chester takes between 1 hour 36 minutes and 2 hours.
If you’re travelling from London to Chester by train, direct services from London Euston take as little as two hours.
If you’re driving, Chester is very close to the A55 North Wales Expressway, so has great connections to the west. The M53 connects Chester with Liverpool via the Wirral peninsula, and the M56 links Chester with Manchester.
Things To Do In Chester – Final Words
We had a wonderful time revisiting Chester, somewhere I had visited many times in the past. We stayed for five days on this visit, which was enough to see everything in the city and also explore beyond.
Chester makes a great base for travelling around the northwest of England and North Wales. It’s much smaller, more intimate (and beautiful!) than Liverpool or Manchester. It’s somewhere we’d happily return to as a couple or family.