City guide: Attractions in Chester

The rows in Chester. Credit: Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy

With its own historic racecourse and a unique shopping experience, the Roman city of Chester is packed with pastimes both ancient and modern. Here’s our city guide to help you make the best of a trip

Illustration: Liz Kay

Despite, or perhaps as a result of, being well and truly outgrown by neighbouring Liverpool and Manchester, Chester arguably retains far more history and charm than both. Its claims to fame are so numerous that on several counts it puts even the capital to shame.

Chester’s history extends almost two millennia, beginning life as a Roman fort known as Deva and named after the River Dee at its heart. Thanks to a large harbour and imposing city walls, it was one of the most important settlements of the time, until the Dark Ages, when Viking raiders sailed up the river in their longships and attacked.

Following the Norman invasion in 1066, William I created the first Earl of Chester, who constructed Chester Castle. While the city thrived as a trading port, the Rows were built – streets of galleried shops that today makes Chester one of the most compact shopping destinations in the UK. The English Civil War starved the city’s population until they surrendered, whereupon geological rather than societal evolution became the governing power in the remapping of Chester. 

The rows in Chester. Credit: Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy

The harbour gradually silted up and the port was virtually gone by the Georgian
era. Elegant new houses were built to house wealthy merchants, and the county town
of Chester bloomed in the Victorian period.

Now, though rich with history, Chester also attracts rowdy racegoers and shrewd shoppers to enjoy its modern-day entertainment, cultivating a lively yet leisurely atmosphere. Its array of architecture makes it one of the prettiest cities in Europe,
as voted by readers of USA Today.

1 Roman city walls

Chester’s Roman walls alone are reason enough to come to the city. Not only are they the most complete in Britain – Chester retains the full circuit of its ancient defences – they are also the longest and oldest in Britain, dating back almost 2000 years in some parts. With panoramic views over the city and Cheshire, once enabling Roman soldier patrols and medieval archers to spot threats from afar, today the walls can be freely accessed at Northgate, Eastgate, Watergate and Bridgegate.

2 The Roodee

During the Roman occupation, most of the present-day racecourse was underwater, part of the harbour that supplied the garrison of Deva. Centuries after the Romans left, an island developed where a cross was built, hence the name, which means “Island of the Cross”. In 1539, the mayor introduced an annual horse race here and the racecourse was born.

3 The Rows

700 years old and half-timbered, the Rows in Chester are not only unmatched around the world but they contain a bounty of distinguished boutiques and engender a bustling café culture. These high galleries can be reached via steps at street level and though some are Victorian copies, look out for original facades such as the Three Old Arches on Bridge Street.

4 Chester Cathedral

Credit: Mark Sandbach/Alamy

Climbing 216 steps up the 125-ft Central Tower will give you the best view in Chester: one city, two countries and five counties. Originally a Saxon Minster, the cathedral’s award-winning tours take you in the footsteps of the monks who founded a Benedictine Abbey here in 1092, as well as into the Victorian bell tower. The church was rebuilt from 1250 onwards in the Gothic style, making it an interesting architectural patchwork. 

5 The Eastgate Clock

Britain’s second most photographed clock after Big Ben, the Eastgate Clock is built on a gateway first constructed in the second century, though the existing structure dates back to the Georgian period. The four-faced timepiece itself was added in 1899 to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria two years earlier.

6 Chester Castle

Founded by William the Conqueror and originally built as a motte-and-bailey castle in 1070, Chester Castle was the administrative centre of the earldom. Admire the                     13th-century wall paintings hidden within the Chapel of St Mary de Castro on the first floor of the Agricola Tower. 

7 Grosvenor Park

Dating back to 1867, this Grade II*-listed ornamental park is a haven for residents and visitors alike, with its own miniature railway, café and open-air theatre. At the western edge, Chester Roman Gardens features excavated fragments from the former fortress.

8 Old Dee Bridge

Credit: Steve Gill/Alamy

The oldest bridge in the city was first built out of wood in 922. It is rumoured that when King Edward I crossed it on the way to battle with the Welsh he promised that he would sack the city if it wasn’t upgraded to stone before his next visit. Luckily, by 1280 and his return, the current bridge was in its place. Cross over onto the south side and the district of Handbridge to visit the riverside Ship Inn or Cheshire Farm Ice Cream.

9 Chester Zoo

The second most-visited UK attraction outside London, Chester Zoo is home to 27,000 animals. From the aardvark to the zebra, the colourful array promises a day of discovery. If flora is more your thing, don’t miss the award-winning gardens, including the Orchids National Plant Collection, the Bee Garden and The Botanist’s Lab.

10 Chester Roman Amphitheatre

Used for entertainment and military training, Chester’s amphitheatre was the largest in Britain. Both amphitheatres built on this site differed from other British designs, highlighting the importance of Roman Chester. Time your visit to coincide with
one of the city’s fierce re-enactment events.


Getting there

Direct trains from London Euston to Chester run hourly and take 2hrs. 

Where to stay

Oddfellows is a boutique hotel slightly on the quirkier side. Its design style
is rooted in the building’s previous life as a meeting place for the Oddfellows society of misfits and creatives. Located in the Georgian Oddfellows Hall, rooms are filled with fun and functional accessories and the promise of a good night’s sleep, while the walled garden is the cherry on top.

Where to eat and drink

A traditional afternoon tea in the decadent surroundings of The Chester Grosvenor allows you to indulge in French pastries, scones and hand-made sandwiches made by award-winning chefs.

The Albion Inn offers something a little different. The last remaining Victorian street-corner pub within the city walls, it recreates the ambience of the First World War through its collection of memorabilia.;

READ MORE: City guide: Attractions in Totnes