Last Updated on 25th January 2022 by Sophie Nadeau
Exeter is a small and ancient university city and the capital of Devon. So historic, that it’s one of the oldest settlements in the entirety of England. Of course, this also means that there are plenty of fun and exciting activities on offer for every age and budget. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best things to do in Exeter.
Perfect for a weekend getaway, once visiting Exeter you’ll soon discover plenty of history to uncover, an excellent food scene inspired by all of the local produce made in the South West, and a great gateway to the rest of Devon. Whether you’re looking to spend a week or simply a weekend in Exeter, there’s always plenty going on throughout the year.
- What is Exeter known for?
- Best things to do in Exeter
- Visit RAMM
- Discover Harry Potter inspiration
- Watch a film at Exeter Picture House
- Experience Coffee culture
- Go shopping in Princesshay Shopping Centre
- Relax at the historic Exeter Quay
- Eat a pizza in the old firehouse
- Enjoy some beautiful gardens
- Visit the Exeter Food Festival
- Enjoy the Exeter Christmas Market
- Exeter’s Roman history
- See ‘The House that Moved’
- Visit Exeter Cathedral
- Stroll beneath the city in Exeter Underground Tunnels
- Wander down Gandy Street
- Squeeze through Parliament Street
- Take a free guided walking tour
- Take a day trip from Exeter
- How to visit Exeter
- When is the best time to visit Exeter?
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What is Exeter known for?
Exeter is the capital city of the county of Devon and is most famous for its Norman Cathedral which is constructed in the Gothic style and its beautiful canal, which leads out to the sea. Exeter is also very famous for its rich history, which dates back to before the Romans. Today remnants of the past can be found all over the city, including lots of historic Roman ruins and medieval buildings.
Best things to do in Exeter
Hands down, if you’re in search of one of the best cultural things to do in Exeter, then you need to look no further than RAMM (The Royal Albert Memorial Museum).
Free to visit and fun for all ages (meaning it’s the perfect Exeter activity for kids), a few years ago the museum underwent intense renovations, to make it the great cultural hub that it is today. Highlights include exhibitions about the history of Exeter and rotating photography exhibits.
Discover Harry Potter inspiration
JK Rowling actually studied during her time as an undergraduate at Exeter University and so throughout the city, there are traces of the Harry Potter inspiration she used to create her novels.
For example, Gandy Street is not only well worth a wander along because it’s full of quirky and unique shops, but also because it’s thought to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the books.
Elsewhere in the city, a door on the Cathedral Green is thought to be the inspiration for the Room of Requirement Door, while the Firehouse at the other end of town may well be the basis for the ‘Leakey Cauldron’ in the books. Either way, head to the Firehouse and you can expect to find some of the very best (and largest) pizzas in Devon!
Watch a film at Exeter Picture House
Exeter’s best independent cinema is the Exeter Picture House, which showcases new, fun, and innovative films. Check out the latest schedule here.
Experience Coffee culture
Over the past decade or so, coffee culture in Exeter has really come into its own. Throughout the city, there are various independent cafés and coffee houses, each with its own ambiance and vibe.
Some of my personal favourites in the city when you’re looking to visit Exeter include the Glorious Arthouse (120 Fore Street), Camper Coffee Co. (McCoys Arcade), and The Exploding Bakery (Central Station Buildings).
Go shopping in Princesshay Shopping Centre
If you want to make some purchases while visiting the Devonian capital, then Exeter is the place to go as it has some of the best shopping experiences in the South West. One of the biggest shopping centres in Exeter is that of Princesshay. Come winter, the entire area is illuminated with festive lights and Christmas trees.
Relax at the historic Exeter Quay
First used as a port during prehistoric times, Exeter Quay is also often referred to as ‘Exeter quayside’. Located alongside the River Exe, the waterway from which Exeter gets its name, commercial shipping had largely subsisded here by the 19th-century in favour of rail.
A hand operated ferry known as ‘Butts Ferry’ is one of the last of its kind to still be in operation in the UK to this day. Today, the ancient quayside lies just a ten-minute downhill walk from the city centre.
Once there, it feels like you’ve left the city entirely and are instead in an oasis of calm populated by offbeat cafés and antique shops. Come night time and the place is teeming with bars, clubs, and is the perfect place to enjoy dinner with friends by the water’s edge.
Dragon boat and canoe races are also held here at certain points during the year. If you’re looking for one of the most relaxing things to do in Exeter, it doesn’t get much better than strolling alongside the beautiful river, which eventually wends its way out to the sea.
Eat a pizza in the old firehouse
Said by many to have been JK Rowling’s inspiration for the Leakey Cauldron, one thing is sure: the best, tastiest, and most definitely the biggest, pizzas in town can be found at the Old Firehouse (honestly, they’re some of the largest pizzas I’ve ever ordered)! Find out opening times and the menu here.
Enjoy some beautiful gardens
For another slice of tranquillity in the city, then you simply must head to Northernhay and Rougemont Gardens. Situated in an elevated position above the city, these green space are perfect for spending time with friends or enjoying a picnic during the summer months. For another amazing green space in the city, you must head to the Cathedral Green.
Visit the Exeter Food Festival
If you’re a fan of food, music, or local brews, then Exeter has you covered. Throughout the year, countless festivals celebrating local life are held in various places across the Devonian capital. Of all the reasons to visit Exeter, its many fairs are a good one!
For example, in the spring each year, the Exeter Food Festival is home to plenty of live demonstrations from top chefs, as well as two pavilions bursting with stands from local producers. Once there, you can purchase almost anything food related- from ice cold sorbets to scrumptious ciders, and even some locally distilled vodkas!
Enjoy the Exeter Christmas Market
At the same time as the food festival, a local music festival is held in the Rougemont Gardens, just by the castle. Now named ‘Beats Exeter,’ this annual celebration showcases plenty of local artists, musicians, singers, and songwriters. Towards the end of the year, and annual Exeter Christmas market sells all sorts of food and gifts!
Exeter’s Roman history
For those interested in history, that of Exeter’s is as rich and varied as the rest of the Devonian landscape (i.e. considering that Devon is home to stretches of moorland and rugged coastline, very varied!)
Although some people believe that the Romans never came this West in England, that is most certainly not the case! Instead, traces of Roman life can still be found in Exeter today in the ancient town walls, or other Roman ruins dotted throughout the city.
See ‘The House that Moved’
At the edge of Exeter historic city centre ‘the House that Moved‘ is a Tudor home which was quite literally carted down a hill! The structure may well look as if it has been here for centuries…
And in a way, I guess it has. Just not in the way that you’d suppose! For, during the 1960s, the ‘Merchant House’ of number 16 Edmund Street was scheduled for demolition. However, a local campaign was started and the house was saved from demolition by literally moving it down the hill!
Visit Exeter Cathedral
The city’s cathedral was first constructed in the 15th-century and escaped much of the devastation that WWII bombing caused in the rest of the city (displays on what life in Exeter was like can be found in its award-winning museum, RAMM). Key highlights of the cathedral include an astronomical clock and beautiful vaulted ceilings.
Stroll beneath the city in Exeter Underground Tunnels
Nearby, the 14th-century Underground Passageways are not to be missed on any visit to the city. Unique and once used to transport water throughout the city via underground pipes, today they provide a glimpse into a fantastic piece of medieval engineering.
Wander down Gandy Street
Turn around a corner just past the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM for short) and you’ll soon stumble upon a postcard-perfect time warp of independent stores and more bunting than you’d have thought possible on Gandy Street.
Often alleged to be one of the inspirations for Diagon Alley, Gandy Street is a tiny and narrow road which is located right in the heart of Exeter. This little hidden gem of Exeter is a must-visit while in the Devonian capital.
Squeeze through Parliament Street
50 metres long (160 foot) and just 64 centimetres (25 inches) wide at its narrowest point, you could easily miss this little lane. Somewhere along the High Street, be sure not to miss the narrowest street in England in the form of Parliament Street. If you’re looking for one of Exeter’s best hidden gems, then Parliament Street it is.
Take a free guided walking tour
If you’re looking to learn even more about the history of Exeter, then I highly recommend embarking on a Red Coat tour. These free walking guides take you through the city’s history, showing you Exeter’s major and main attractions along the way. City highlights such as the Norman-built Rougemont Castle and the City Walls are included in the tours run by the City Council.
Take a day trip from Exeter
As the capital city of Devon, Exeter is a pretty city filled with plenty of Medieval churches and constructed on Roman foundations, the vestiges of which can still be spied throughout the Devonian settlement today.
Thanks to its transport and road links to the rest of the county and beyond, Exeter also makes a great base for exploring the wider region. Check out this guide for the best day trips from Exeter.
How to visit Exeter
Exeter is located at the end of the M5 (the last motorway in the South West- Cornwall has no motorways at all), has links to major railways lines and is home to its very own international airport, which serves a variety of European destinations and beyond. As a result, it couldn’t be easier to pay the city a visit!
Whether you want to plan a weekend break or week-long getaway, it couldn’t be easier to reach Exeter. You can even catch a bus to Exeter from London if you so prefer (this also being the most budget friendly option).
When is the best time to visit Exeter?
Though Exeter is much quieter than cities like Bath or Bristol, the Cathedral destination still receives its fair share of tourists throughout the year. As such, the best time to visit (when you’ll get the best weather, as well as the best prices) is in the late spring or early autumn. In order to secure the best accommodation prices, I recommend booking well in advance. Check the best accommodation rates for Exeter here.