England is full of vibrant cities, charming towns, and quaint villages. On my most recent visit to Northwest England, I finally had the chance to explore the town of Chester properly. I’d visited Chester, in the county of Cheshire, previously for just a couple of hours, and it definitely wasn’t enough time. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Cheshire, mainly because it’s where my partner is from! And Chester should definitely be at the top of any to-do list in Cheshire.
Chester is all too often overshadowed by the larger, industrial type cities of Manchester and Liverpool, which both merit a few days exploring. But even though it’s much smaller, if you’re looking for a more historic and charming town in the Northwest, look no farther than Chester. It reminds me a lot of York (but with slightly less tourists): old and historic, settled by the Romans, a beautiful cathedral and city walls, and picturesque cobblestone streets. Even in the rain, it didn’t disappoint! Heading to Chester? Here are my top picks for what you can’t miss in Northwest England’s hidden gem!
Originally an abbey but made into a cathedral in 1541 after the dissolution of the monasteries, this showstopper is one of the finest cathedrals in Northwest England.
Not only are the nave and choir magnificent (don’t miss the Chester Imp, a stone carving of the devil, high up in the nave), but the cloisters are stunningly beautiful, and the chapter house dates from 1225. Don’t miss the consistory court, the most complete example of an ecclesiastical court in the country. The cathedral is free to visit, but donations are appreciated.
Probably the most picturesque part of Chester is the Rows, a street of double-decker shops. Many of the stores are in Tudor style buildings, with the classic black-and-white storefront features. The Rows fan out from the Central Cross, with most of the buildings on Eastgate Street and Bridge Street.
I could have stayed here taking photos all day!
I’d also recommend popping into the Grosvenor Shopping Center, just to see the beautiful arcades inside.
Chester was once home to the largest Roman fortress in Britain, and the city walls were originally built in 70 AD. Most of the walls today date from about 1200, and walking the 2-mile circuit is one thing I absolutely recommend. You can also see the Chester Racecourse and Chester Castle from the wall walk. There are information plaques dotted around to tell you more.
One of the most notable features on the city walls is Eastgate, where you can see the famous clock (and get a great view overlooking the Rows). The clock was built in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
River Dee and Old Dee Bridge
The main river snaking around Chester’s city center is the River Dee, which you can best see along The Groves and Lower Bridge Street when walking the city walls. The Old Dee Bridge is the oldest in the city, and dates from 1387 (although it was built on the site of a former Roman bridge). It used to formally be the main traffic crossing for those leaving to or coming from North Wales.
My favorite discovery of my most recent trip was by far the Roman Amphitheater. Not much remains today, but you can see part of the area that this massive structure used to cover—the amphitheater here was the largest in Britain, seating 7000 people. There are plenty of information boards around explaining the ruins, and plaques marking certain areas of the former arena. The Roman amphitheater is located right next to the city walls.
Right around the corner from the amphitheater and following along the city walls are the Roman Gardens, is another one of my favorite spots from this visit. The gardens were created in the 1950s in the Roman style, and have the remains of a Roman legionary bathhouse (although none of the ruins displayed originated from the site of the gardens—they were brought from elsewhere around the city). The gardens run from the street level all the way down to the river and are well worth a stroll.
St. John’s Church
Located behind the amphitheater is the stunning St. John’s Church. While the exterior is mainly Victorian from many renovations, the interior is mostly Norman, and it’s meant to be some of the best 11th-12th century church architecture in Cheshire. The huge, round pillars inside are the best examples of the Norman architecture, and the organ was used at Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.
There are still a few things I’d like to go back and see in Chester: the Dewa Roman Experience (you can walk along a reconstructed Roman street), the Grosvenor Museum (for exhibits on life in Chester, both Roman and more modern), and the Chester Zoo.
Chester is easily connected to the bigger cities of Manchester and Liverpool by train, which takes about 1 hour to either city (although you might have to switch trains at Birkenhead to get to Liverpool). Chester is only about 2 hours away from London (by train). It’s also a great stopping point if you’re heading to or from North Wales.
Chester was such a nice town to visit, and definitely worth a visit when you’re in Northwest England. Don’t miss out on this hidden gem!
Have you ever been to Chester or Cheshire? Or discovered another underrated destination?!