Exeter is one of England’s ancient cities, with its roots beginning in around 50AD. However, some parts of the city date back 2000 years to the times of the Romans. The city streets are dotted with an amalgamation of different architectural styles, reflecting different periods in Exeter’s rich history. There are numerous examples of incredible gothic architecture, including its famous cathedral, one of the most visited locations in the West Country.
Aside from its historical lure, there are many natural activities to do and explore in Exeter. The city is a short drive from the stark beauty of Dartmoor National Park and is close to stunning beaches. If staying closer to the city is more appealing, Exeter has lots to offer despite its small size. There are numerous independent bars and restaurants and many museums, galleries and shops. Here are 20 things to do in Exeter.
- Exeter, UK
- 20 Things To Do In Exeter
- 1- Watch The Fishing Boats At Beer Beach
- 2- Explore Rockpools At Exmouth Beach
- 3- Wander Around Bitcon Botanical Gardens
- 4- Step Back Into History At Exeter Cathedral
- 5- Enjoy Art At Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery
- 6- Learn The History Of Cinema At Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
- 7- Visit The Exeter Historic Guildhall
- 8- Stretch Your Legs Around The Historic Quayside
- 9- Wander Around Cathedral Close
- 10- Explore Underground Passages
- 11- Step Back Into History At Rougemont Gardens
- 12- Get Active At Haldon Forest Park
- 13- Admire Gothic Architecture At Powderham Castle
- 14- Visit The Donkey Sanctuary
- 15- Learn About Shipbuilding At Topsham Museum
- 16- Go Wine Tasting At Pebblebed Wines
- 17- Tour Exeter’s City Walls
- 18- Cycle The Exe Estuary Cycle Trail
- 19- Explore Killerton Estate
- 20- Custom House
- 20 Things To Do In Exeter
20 Things To Do In Exeter
1- Watch The Fishing Boats At Beer Beach
Overlooked by the famous white chalk cliffs that cover the south coast of England is Beer Beach, a beautiful pebbled beach.
Beer is a tranquil fishing village offering delicious fish and chips, cosy pub gardens and relaxing walks along the cliffs.
Beer Beach used to be a smuggler’s cove and some of the relics from its past, including slowly eroding pathways and passages leading from the beach, are still visible.
Today, the cove is dotted with boats specially designed for the fisherman who fish the waters for mackerel.
There is a small car park close to the beach with a larger one in Beer, a 15-minute stroll away.
Beer Beach is at Fore Street, Beer, Seaton, Devon, EX12 3EQ.
2- Explore Rockpools At Exmouth Beach
Another of Exeter’s famous beaches is Exmouth Beach, famous for its vast two-mile (3.22 km) stretch of golden sand.
This beach is a favourite place in Exeter for families to spend the day playing on the sand or in the sea and exploring its rock pools that make for a world of discovery.
Exmouth Beach is the gateway to the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Heading further towards the Jurassic Coast offers visitors with a keen eye a chance to spot fossils and other fascinating geological finds.
Exmouth Beach is also part of the South West Coast Path providing visitors with pleasant walks along its beaches and cliffs and strolls heading further inland into the countryside.
Head to the promenade to play in the arcades or for a game of crazy golf, before stopping for dinner at one of many fish and chip shops.
Exmouth Beach is at Exmouth, Devon, EX8 1NZ.
3- Wander Around Bitcon Botanical Gardens
Exeter is home to many exquisitely designed gardens dotted across the city.
In total, there are 300 acres (121 ha) of botanical gardens waiting to be explored.
Bitcon Botanical Gardens offers more than 300 years of horticultural history in a Grade 1 listed setting.
This beautifully landscaped garden is a 20-minute drive from the city centre in the Otter Valley.
The botanical gardens include an Italian Garden, many historical glasshouses and a woodland railway, making it a perfect afternoon out for the whole family.
Bitcon Gardens is at Bitcon, East Budleigh Salterton, Budleigh Salterton, EX9 7BJ.
4- Step Back Into History At Exeter Cathedral
Building works began on Exeter Cathedral at the turn of the 13th century and was completed 300 years later.
The oldest areas of the cathedral are the Norman Romanesque on either side of the nave.
Additions were built onto the cathedral over the years, and this cathedral, unlike most, does not have a central tower.
Without this tower, it boasts the longest unbroken Medieval vaulted ceiling in the world, measuring just under 100m (328ft) in length.
Exeter Cathedral is at 1 The Cloisters, Exeter, EX1 1HS.
5- Enjoy Art At Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery
John Hayward, an influential Gothic Revival architect, won a competition to design the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, with work beginning in 1865.
The museum is a grand building that was completed in 1868 and designed as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s late husband.
Within the museum and art gallery is an eclectic mix of exhibitions, including collections focusing on world cultures, natural history, antiquities, zoology and art.
Housed inside the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery are works from Thomas Gainsborough and Barbara Hepworth.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery is at Queen Street, Exeter.
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6- Learn The History Of Cinema At Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, which is part of the Streatham Campus of the University of Exeter, is focused on the history of cinema and the moving image.
The museum is named after and dedicated to a Scottish director named Bill Douglas.
Inside the museum is a wide range of exhibitions and collections from the world of cinema.
On display are early forms of moving images such as magic lanterns and shadow puppets, to posters from the age of silent film.
Vintage cinema signs, flipbooks and other historical items are also on display.
The cinema also houses objects and curiosities from the more recent age of cinema, including memorabilia from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buzz Lightyear.
Bill Douglas Cinema Museum makes for a great afternoon out for fans of cinema and those who enjoy watching movies.
Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is at Prince of Wales Road, Exeter, EX4 4SB.
7- Visit The Exeter Historic Guildhall
Since medieval times, Exeter Historic Guildhall has been an important part of trade and civic life within the city.
It’s unclear who designed the guildhall that is still used today for the cities council meetings.
The main building was completed in 1470, with further additions in the late 1500s.
The Italian Renaissance-style guildhall has ornate Corinthian columns and a large carved oak door.
Inside the are portraits of former mayors of the city that predate the guildhall, a practice resumed during the Victorian era.
The interior walls are wood-panelled and bear the coats of arms of many council members.
Exeter Historic Guildhall is at 203 High Street, Exeter, ECX4 3EB.
8- Stretch Your Legs Around The Historic Quayside
Located on the River Exe is Exeter’s Historic Quayside, the canal is one of the prettiest scenes to see in the city and offers moments of tranquillity.
During the summer, the quayside is filled with tourists and locals who come to watch the annual 10k runs or attend festivals.
The pathways along the canal outside of pubs are dotted with picnic benches and umbrellas during these warmer days.
Many of the buildings along the Historic Quayside date from the 17th and 18th century, however, the area had been an important port for centuries before they were built.
Look out for Custom House, the oldest brick building in the city.
Historic Quayside is at Haven Banks, The Quay, Exeter, EX2 8GY.
9- Wander Around Cathedral Close
To the north and east of the cathedral lies Cathedral Close, a beautiful street filled with Grade 1-listed buildings dating from the medieval period to the early modern age.
The clergy from the cathedral resides within the buildings alongside other officials such as cannons and chancellors.
The houses are quaint and feature exposed wooden beams set against bright white plaster, a key feature from this period.
Head to Mol’s Coffee House, which dates from 1596, to see the best example of this style of building.
Cathedral Close is at Exeter, EX1 1EZ.
10- Explore Underground Passages
During medieval times, many passages were dug underneath Exeter to transport drinking water across the city.
The water travelled through lead pipes kept in large vaults.
Today the pipes are long gone, however, the vaults that housed them are accessible and are part of a tour offering an alternative view of this historical city.
Alongside a tour guide, small groups of tourists don hardhats and brave the cooler temperatures of the passages.
Look out for the centuries-old graffiti carved into some of the vaults by masons.
Underground Passages is at 2 Paris Street, Exeter, EX1 1GA.
11- Step Back Into History At Rougemont Gardens
Rougemont Gardens sits in the 950-year-old ditch defences of Rougemont Castle.
This beautiful park is filled with lush green grass, plenty of trees, picnic benches and pathways.
The park borders a piece of the city wall, which would have once ran alongside the castle.
Rougemont Castle was built during 1068 and the Norman Conquest.
The castle is notably written about in Shakespeare’s Richard III and was the site of England’s last witchcraft executions in 1682.
Despite its grizzly history, the park today is peaceful and the perfect location to while away the afternoon.
Rougemont Gardens is at Castle Street, Exeter, EX4 3PU.
12- Get Active At Haldon Forest Park
Haldon Forest Park is south of Exeter, stretching for 8600 acres (3500 ha) between the River Teign and the Exe estuary.
The Forestry Commission runs and maintains the forest and has several walking and cycling trails, with bicycles available to hire.
Other activities include high ropes courses, orienteering and activity trails.
Haldon Forest Park is at King’s Road, Exeter, EX6 7XR.
13- Admire Gothic Architecture At Powderham Castle
Powderham Castle is another of Exeter’s examples of Gothic Revival architecture.
Powderham Castle is a magnificent Grade I-listed building and has been in the care of the Courtenays since it was founded.
Although the castle was written about in the Domesday Book, Britain’s earliest public record containing a record of landholding, the current iteration was not designed until 1391.
Sir Philip Courtenay designed much of the castle in a typically medieval style with a long hall and six towers, but only one still stands today.
Within the castle are many priceless items from its history, including a 17th century Brussels tapestry.
Powderham Castle is south of the city at Powderham Estate, Exeter, EX5 8JQ.
14- Visit The Donkey Sanctuary
Exeter’s Donkey Sanctuary is in Sidmouth, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Donkey Sanctuary is home to many rescued donkeys helped by the charity.
When visiting the Donkey Sanctuary, visitors can meet its loveable inhabitants, learn more about donkeys and the charity, and the work that is done by the sanctuary.
Visit Dr Svendsen’s hut, where the story of Dr Elizabeth Svendsen, the founder of the Donkey Sanctuary is told.
The Donkey Sanctuary also holds grooming sessions and has walking trails through the spectacular landscape.
Following your time with the donkeys, stop for a bite to eat in the restaurant for delicious locally sourced food and views over the donkey’s paddocks and to the sea beyond.
Donkey Sanctuary is free to enter, however, as a charity there are many ways to donate to this good cause to allow them to continue rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming these beautiful animals.
Donkey Sanctuary is at Slade House Farm, Sidmouth, EX10 0NU.
15- Learn About Shipbuilding At Topsham Museum
Topsham Museum is formed from a row of 17th-century merchants’ houses along the River Exe.
The museum is a short drive away from the city centre in a once-a bustling shipbuilder’s yard and docks, where HMS Terror and HMS Cyan were built.
The museum holds many tools and drawings from its shipbuilding heyday and some smaller examples of boats within its walls.
There are also smaller rooms decorated in the style of the period.
Topsham Museum is at 25 The Strand, Topsham, Exeter, EX3 0AX.
16- Go Wine Tasting At Pebblebed Wines
For a more grown-up day out, look no further than Pebblebed Wines.
Thanks to the mild climate that much of the south of England experiences and its rich sandstone soils, Exeter based winemaker Pebblebed has thrived.
Pebblebed grows grapes to produce various wines, including merlot and pinot noir.
The vineyard is open from May to September for tours, tastings and conversations with the owners and winemakers.
Stop by the cellar in the village nearby to sample some of the vineyard’s wines and tapas made from locally sourced ingredients.
Pebblebed Vineyard is at Marianne Pool Farm, Clyst St George, Exeter, EX3 0NZ.
17- Tour Exeter’s City Walls
During the Roman occupation of England, many city walls were built to strengthen areas of particular importance, and Exeter was one of them.
The Romans built the walls originally however, many additions and changes have been made to the walls over the centuries.
These changes are particularly noticeable in the brickwork used as the colours, sizes and markings of the bricks and stone all have a story to tell.
The walls can be taken in as part of a tour or independently on a self-guided tour (leaflets are available from Custom House).
Exeter City walls is at Little Castle Street, Exeter. Look out for the information boards to signal the start of the trail.
18- Cycle The Exe Estuary Cycle Trail
The Exe Estuary is a scenic section of Exeter’s coastline, and one that has in recent years become increasingly popular with cyclists.
Whilst it is possible to walk the trail, cycling allows a different vantage point of the coastline and villages such as Exminster, Starcross and Dawlish Warren.
If you are cycling the trail, make sure to stop into one of many local pubs along the route for a cold drink and a bite to eat.
Exe Estuary Cycle Trail is at EX8 1DG.
19- Explore Killerton Estate
Killerton and its surrounding estate cover 6400 acres (2500 ha) of stunning parkland with the 18th-century house in the centre.
Killerton is owned by the National Trust that was gifted the property in 1944.
The Georgian house is surrounded by working farmland, woods, cottages and orchards.
The gardens are a favourite of visitors as they offer natural beauty year-round.
The house itself reflects the 1920s and 30s style of when the house was originally taken over and is a museum in its own right, with many rooms to explore.
However, temporary and permanent exhibitions also fill the walls, including one on fashion from Victorian times to the 1940s.
Inside the vast parkland are an extinct volcano that you can climb and an Iron Age hill fort with views towards Dartmoor.
Entry is free for National Trust members or £13 for adults. Family tickets are available.
Killerton is at Broadclyst, Exeter, Devon, EX5 3LE.
20- Custom House
Located in the Historic Quay is the 1680 Customs House, which was built to control and monitor trade entering the country through the River Exe.
Customs House today is a museum and visitor centre dedicated to the trades passing through, focusing on wooden textiles.
The exhibitions cover more than 2000 years of the city’s history.
Custom House is at 46 The Quay, Exeter, EX2 4AN.