Town criers, Roman ruins and medieval cafés add atmosphere to this historic northern English city
Chester is a city in which history is inescapable. From the Jacobean-style high streets to the ancient Roman ruins visible at major traffic junctions, countless generations have succeeded in developing a modern city around the many well-preserved treasures.
Following the Roman conquest of Britain, Chester was established on a bend in the River Dee as the fort of Deva Victrix in AD 79. It served as a major port during the Middle Ages and thrived again, like much of the northwest of England, during the Industrial Revolution. Today, the abundant historic sites, gorgeous shopping streets and proximity to the north Wales coast and Snowdonia mountains make it an appealing destination for a day trip or weekend stay.
Go wild at dawn
Chester Zoo is Britain’s most popular wildlife attraction, thanks in part to founder George Mottershead’s innovative decision to forgo Victorian-style cages in favour of moats, ditches and glass walls. Visitors to the 125-acre site are able to feel closer to some 500 species, including rare black rhinos and Asian elephants – the first to be bred in British captivity. Book online for guided walking or Segway tours that begin before the zoo officially opens for the day.
Uncover military history
William the Conqueror founded Chester Castle in 1070, re-establishing the then-town’s national credentials in the Middle Ages. The castle was besieged during the English Civil War and refortified during the Jacobite rebellions. Combine a visit with a trip to the adjacent Cheshire Military Museum for a complete picture of Chester’s history at arms.
Take shopping to a new level
Every shopper loves a good offer and here you get two high streets for the price of one – the ground-level shops and The Rows, a series of half-timbered first-floor galleries along Watergate Street, Eastgate Street and beyond. Listen out during the summer for David Mitchell, the Chester Town Crier, as he makes midday proclamations at High Cross, a tradition dating back 500 years.
Enjoy a contemplative lunch
Founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1092, the current Chester Cathedral was built a mere 750 years ago. Open for morning prayers and contemporary art displays, the real find is the Refectory Café set in the original monk’s dining hall. Grab a sandwich or cake and while away an afternoon admiring heraldic paintings, stained-glass windows and a 17th-century tapestry based on a Raphael cartoon.
Spend a day at the races
We have a rather violent Goteddsday football match to thank for Chester Racecourse. When the Shrove Tuesday fixture was banned in 1533, it was replaced six years later with horse racing on the same River Dee site. The 2018 season at England’s oldest surviving racecourse opens on 9 May with the three-day May Festival.
Explore Roman heritage
Had you visited Chester in the first few centuries AD, you could have watched wrestling, cockfights and military training in a vast Roman amphitheatre almost 100 metres wide. A series of 20th-century excavations uncovered the long derelict site, which can be explored together with a stroll around the city’s Roman walls. Finish with a brew at the Tea on the Wall café.
Satisfy your cultural craving
After the closure of the Gateway Theatre a decade ago, Chester’s residents were eager for a cultural fix when the £37 million Storyhouse venue finally opened in May. Adapted from the city’s old 1930s Odeon cinema, the stylish Art Deco entrance was retained, yet elsewhere it is decidedly modern with a cinema, a vast library, and a dramatic auditorium set to stage five local productions each year alongside touring shows.
Drink in the local history
On 24 September 1645, King Charles I stayed at Chester’s Gamul House en route to defeat at the Battle of Rowton Heath during the English Civil War. This Jacobean hall was extensively renovated in recent years and reopened as the Brewery Tap Ale House, serving cask ales from the Spitting Feathers brewery.
Fine dine with wine
It is rare to find a restaurant that is regularly name-checked in the Michelin Guide but can also be relied upon for a wholesome yet affordable sandwich at lunchtime, but Joseph Benjamin is just that. Owners Joe and Ben Wright mix British, Mediterranean and Eastern flavours in a seasonal menu paired with excellent wines.
Lap up the luxury
For a rather decadent stay in the heart of the city, look no further than the five-star Chester Grosvenor. From the Corinthian columns that support the black-and-white timbered façade to the 28,000-piece chandelier in the stairwell, this 1865 institution exudes ostentatious glamour. The Simon Radley-helmed restaurant has held a prestigious Michelin star for 27 years.
Sleep on the clock
The Macdonald New Blossoms Hotel opened as The Blossoms back in 1650. It is now a fabulous four-star establishment in a redbrick Victorian building on St John Street, just around the corner from Chester’s famous Eastgate Clock.
Channel eccentric style
Founded in 18th-century England, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was a fraternal organisation for professionals who didn’t fit in elsewhere. The boutique Oddfellows hotel is housed in the former HQ of the Chester branch and the décor pays tribute to its eccentric spirit. Vintage typewriters line the walls, one dining room has a table on the ceiling, and individually styled rooms variously feature circular beds and twin roll-top baths.