Exeter guide: 10 top things to do

Bursting with history and culture, surrounded by exhilarating coast and countryside and with a lively city centre, Devon is rightly proud of its county town. Our Exeter guide to the top 10 things you must do while you’re in this fantastic city (plus tips for where’s best to eat and stay) will help you get the most from your visit.

Exeter Guide Exeter Cathedral Tony Howell

Find out more about where to stay, what to eat and what to do in Exeter and the surrounding area

1. Get to know Exeter inside and out
Exeter has a colourful past, and the evidence of this can be seen in architecture, buildings, monuments and sights that still stand. Take a tour with a professional company and as well as being guided round the best sights you’ll also hear the fascinating stories behind them. Exeter Red Coat Guided Tours offers a variety of on-foot tours, each based on a different aspect of the city’s history. Exeter’s Underground Passages takes groups on a tour of Medieval tunnels under the city’s streets – a unique experience for both visitors and Exeter residents.
Official Devon tip: There’s also a collection of themed self-guided tours around Exeter available as leaflets from Exeter Visitor Information or downloadable pdfs: see the Wall Trail, Woollen Trail, Medieval Trail and University Sculpture Trail. You could hire a bike to take you round via the Brompton Dock scheme

Exeter Guide Exeter Underground passages

2. Visit Exeter’s award-winning museum
Interactive family exhibitions, innovative collections and imaginative events have won The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) a clutch of awards. It beat national competition to be named 2012 Museum of the Year, and also won the Visitor Attraction of the Year award at the 2012 Devon Tourism Awards. Its collections include one of the largest natural history collections in the country (children love the butterflies, beetles and bugs almost as much as the snarling stuffed tiger), as well as local artefacts and lace. Upcoming exhibitions include Dartmoor landscapes by father and son artists William and FJ Widgery, and thought-provoking clothes from the World Cultures collection.
Official Devon tip: the RAMM holds excellent events for children, and this half term’s programme includes Crafty Tudors and Elizabethan dressing up.

3. Get wet in the city
Exeter’s canal and quayside offer opportunities to go kayaking or canoeing – another way to explore the area as well as being great fun. Saddles and Paddles on the quayside offer kayaks and canoes as well as bike hire, or try Haven Banks Outdoor Education Centre which also has kayaking and canoeing plus a range of other activities including archery and climbing (see below for more)
Official Devon tip: For a great afternoon out, you could paddle from Exeter Quay to two nearby waterside pubs: Double Locks and The Turf.

Exeter Guide kayakingTony Howell

4. Be enthralled by Exeter Cathedral (of course)
It would be impossible to miss Exeter Cathedral on a visit to the city – and you wouldn’t want to. As you’d expect, there are tours both guided and self-guided, but it’s more than just an awe-inspiring near-1,000 year-old cathedral. There’s always something going on in addition to the beautiful architecture, and events throughout the year include workshops suitable for all ages, various recitals, as well as normal services and Christmas concerts.
Official Devon tip: Go now and you’ll see Exeter Cathedral’s stonework at its best, as a five year renovation project was completed in September 2013.

5. Take your seats for showtime
There’s a lively arts scene in Exeter, and a number of theatres staging entertainment to suit all tastes. Exeter Corn Exchange‘s offering varies from comedy club nights to live bands to panto, and it attracts some of the bigger names that come to the area, including Sarah Millican  (Oct 24) and Lee Nelson (Nov 13). Or try Exeter Northcott Theatre, which stages dance, drama and family theatre (Annie is on from Oct 29-Nov 2), plus comedy, music and personal appearances. Then there’s the Bike Shed Theatre, a 60 seat subterranean auditorium (with adjacent vintage cocktail tavern) that champions new work such as the upcoming play The Man in the Moone (Nov 5-23).

6. Shop your heart out
Exeter offers one of the newest and best city centre shopping experiences in the South West. Princesshay and the High Street have most of the big name favourites that you’d hope to find, while the Castle Quarter has lovely independent shops. John Lewis recently opened in Exeter with six floors of upmarket loveliness, and if you don’t mind a short trip out of town go to Darts Farm: an award-winning farm shop/shopping village on a very large, very good scale, with just about every excellent local product you could wish for.
Official Devon tip: Buy gifts at Exeter’s Christmas Markets, which will be at various locations around the city in the weeks leading up to Christmas: see here for Exeter Christmas Market details.

7. Cheer on an Exeter team
With so much surrounding space and countryside they’re a sporty lot in Exeter- and you’re very welcome to go and cheer them on! RFU Premiership side Exeter Chiefs play the highest level of rugby in the region, and watching them take on sides such as Saracens and Leicester in the great atmosphere of Sandy Park is not to be missed. Prefer football? Exeter City are a League Two club with a hugely loyal local following, and watching from the stands (there’s a family area if you want to bring children) and hearing the roars is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. And for even more great atmosphere, go to the races: Exeter Racecourse at Kennford holds regular meets.

8. Go to University
The University of Exeter is one of the oldest and most respected in the country, and its influence is one of the things that makes Exeter such a vibrant city. Its arts and culture offering is particularly attractive to visitors and includes: the Exeter Northcott Theatre (see above), The Great Hall for music, The Forum Piazzas and Auditorium, Kay House Duryard Music Facility, The Bill Douglas Film Museum, a Sculpture and Fine Art Collection and a number of gallery spaces.
Official Devon tip: the university offers good-value holiday accommodation during the Easter and summer holidays.

9. Climb the walls 
With Dartmoor and rugged coasts nearby, it’s no surprise that climbing’s popular with Exeter’s residents, and there are a few indoor climbing centres in the city. Try Haven BanksClip ‘n Climb (particularly good for those with young children) or Quay Climbing Centre (the South West’s largest indoor climbing wall), all good places to try climbing for the first time with the help of instructors.

10. And very nearby …
We know this is an Exeter guide … but you’d be mad not to get out into the beautiful countryside that surrounds the city. Just a few miles away is Haldon Forest Park, which has walking and cycling trails and the Go Ape! high ropes climbing facility, all in wonderful natural surroundings. Or cycle the Exe Estuary Trail, a 26 mile cycle and walkway which is near completion (the Exmouth, Lympstone and Exton section is finished), and will soon run around the entire Exe Estuary linking Exmouth, Exeter and Dawlish.

Where to stay and eat
Exeter has some great hotels, b&bs and guesthouses. Two of its top-end offerings, which also have very good bars and restaurants open to non-residents, are The Magdalen Chapter, a beautifully furnished boutique hotel in a large, quirky building just off the city centre; and ABode Exeter, Michael Caines’ (he of the two-Michelin starred Gidleigh Park on Dartmoor) elegant and historic hotel that overlooks Exeter Cathedral.
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