Exeter’s colourful history has seen it survive Roman rule and bombing in the Blitz.
Today the city is celebrated as a hub for culture and the arts from across South West England. Away from the bars of the city centre, the wilds of Dartmoor lie waiting to be explored.
It’s easy to visit several of the city centre’s main attractions in one morning or afternoon. The best place to begin is the city’s most-visited site, lovely Exeter Cathedral. Guided tours are included in the admission charge and really help you get a feel for the cathedral’s long history. Tours are also available of the cathedral’s famous roof, which sits above the longest vaulted ceiling in England.
Next, make the short walk down Queen Street to RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum), Exeter’s flagship cultural institution. Collections here include World Cultures, which houses artefacts from all corners of the globe, from Africa to the Pacific, and archaeological exhibits from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The museum really comes into its own in the local-history collections, which include finds from Exeter and beyond dating back thousands of years.
Another few minutes’ stroll from RAMM are Exeter’s underground passages, a series of tunnels built in medieval times to transport clean drinking water to the city. Today, the tunnels are an atmospheric tourist attraction, possible to explore on a guided tour. Stories abound about the ghosts that haunt the tunnels, alongside more verifiable history about their use as a wartime shelter during the Blitz.
Round off your half-day exploration of Exeter’s history with a visit to the oldest relic of all, the ancient city wall. Around 70% of the wall remains; it dates back to Roman times and parts of it are 2,000 years old.
Begin with a visit to the RAMM, Exeter’s finest museum and a great place to get a feel for the history of Exeter and Devon, with collections ranging from prehistory to the modern day. While the local exhibits are superb, you’ll also find collections spanning thousands of years from across the globe, including mummies from ancient Egypt and Aztec pottery.
In the afternoon, make for the town of Topsham, a few miles south of Exeter city centre on the banks of the River Exe, for one of the region’s finest concentrations of restaurants, bars and pubs. For lunch, take your pick of Michelin-starred cuisine or simple pub grub, then browse the Matthews Hall Saturday market for some of the South West’s finest artisan food produce.
The next day, pay a visit to Exeter’s busiest tourist attraction, its fine cathedral. As a place of worship, this dates back almost 1,000 years, although the present building was finished in the early 1400s. Admission remains free for worshippers, while other visitors are welcome outside service times. The entry fee includes a guided tour of the cathedral, while audio tours are also available if you’d rather explore by yourself. For lunch, head to its café, where you can enjoy the atmospheric experience of eating beneath a grand vaulted ceiling.
Finish your weekend with a short trip to the Exe Estuary and Powderham Castle, a grand manor house dating back more than 600 years. Still a family home, it’s partly open to the public, with guided tours on offer through a selection of grand rooms. Just as impressive are the grounds, which include a deer park with 600 fallow deer among other creatures; you can explore this on a tractor-pulled safari. Also in the grounds is the American Woodland Garden, home to exotic trees and a Gothic summerhouse, and the wisteria-filled Rose Garden. At the on-site forge, watch a local blacksmith working in a centuries-old tradition. Wood-carving demonstrations are also held regularly.
A full week in Exeter will allow you to take in both the sights of the city centre and the unspoilt beauty of the Devon countryside. Kick things off with a walk around the ancient city wall, which will help you get your bearings in the city centre while getting a feel for Exeter’s millennia-old history.
Next, head for another historic Exeter landmark, the famous cathedral. Guided tours are available to teach you more about this remarkable building, whose notable features include the longest vaulted ceiling in the country.
Days two and three
Just a short car journey away lies Dartmoor, where you can easily spend a couple of days experiencing Devon’s famously picturesque countryside. This wilderness covers almost 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometres) and can be explored in a variety of ways, from hiking to horse- and pony-riding. One great option is the Dartmoor Artisan Trail, which connects some of the area’s finest traditional craftspeople and producers, from cider makers to upholsterers.
No week in Exeter is complete without at least one visit to Topsham, a quiet fishing village south of the city centre that has garnered a reputation for its fantastic food and drink scene. The town is home to several historic pubs overlooking the River Exe, and counts Michelin-star holders among its restaurants. Topsham Museum, housed in a 17th-century merchant house, tells the story of the town’s rich maritime history, and also houses a collection of historic boats from the River Exe.
Begin the fifth day by journeying underground, into the city’s mysterious subterranean passages. Originally built in the medieval period to transport clean drinking water to citizens, the tunnels were later used as shelters during the Blitz. Naturally, they’re said to be haunted, and a guided tour will let you in on their spooky history.
In the afternoon, make the short walk to the RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum), home to fantastic exhibits on local history as well as international archaeological collections.
Days six and seven
Before your time in Devon comes to an end, venture out to nearby Sidmouth and the Donkey Sanctuary, home to hundreds of donkeys, hinnies and mules. Admission to the sanctuary is free, although donations are appreciated, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet the donkeys, learn more about them and even adopt an animal.
Returning to Exeter city centre, don’t miss the opportunity to spend time on the Quayside, the most picturesque part of town. It’s the logical starting point for a relaxing stroll along the River Exe, or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, the place to rent a canoe or kayak and ride down the canal. An evening of dinner and drinks at one of the Quayside’s many waterfront restaurants and bars is a fantastic way to round off your week in Exeter.