Located close to the Welsh border in North West England, Chester is one of Englands most historic cities. The city was founded as a Roman fortress in the 1st century A.D and is well known for its extensive Roman walls and historic architecture. Throughout the city you will find countless Tudor style buildings as well as many remnants of its Roman history such as its Roman amphitheatre and gardens.
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Living only a 20 minute drive away from Chester has meant I have spent many days and nights exploring and enjoying this beautiful city over the years. This place is truly only of the most fascinating cities in the North West and probably the rest of the UK. There are so many things to do in and around the city but for those of you wanting to keep to a tight budget, here’s my pick of the best free things to do in Chester!
1. Take a walk along the Roman City walls
Chester city walls are the oldest, longest and most complete in Britain dating back almost 2000 years. In fact, Chester is the only city in Britain that retains the full circuit of its ancient defensive walls. Follow in the footsteps of the Roman soldier patrols and enjoy a leisurely stroll along the 2 mile circuit offering a unique perspective of Chester with panoramic views to both sides.
You can access onto the walls at each of the cities four main gateways; Northgate, Eastgate, Watergate and Bridgegate as well as many other steps around the circuit. I recommend staring at the Eastgate Clock located next to the Grosvenor Hotel and walking in an anticlockwise direction taking you past the cathedral, castle, River Dee and Roman Gardens before finishing back at the clock.
Please note: In some parts of the circuit, work is being carried out to strengthen and preserve the walls so some parts may be closed and a small diversion in place.
2. Visit Chester Cathedral
One of my favourite free things to do in Chester is taking a walk in and around Chester Cathedral.
Chester Cathedral sits boldly in the centre of the city located just a short walk from the Eastgate Clock. This magnificent Cathedral dates back to 1093 when its original structure was a Benedictine Abbey. The building was extensively rebuilt in gothic style during the 13th and 14th centuries and in 1541 became the Cathedral of the Church of England. Built in local red sandstone it may not be one of the biggest cathedrals in Britain but its up there with some of the most impressive!
This cathedral is not only fabulous to look at, its even more impressive inside! One of my favourite parts of the cathedral is the mosaic wall on the left hand-side as you enter the main part of the cathedral. The detail is amazing! If interested you can also pay a small fee to climb the tower and look out onto some magnificent views across Chester. Be sure to also take a stroll in the gardens, they are a lovely place to sit and relax or even have a picnic.
Inside you will also find a lovely cafe situated inside a 13th century monk’s dining hall. Where else can you sit enjoying a cuppa and a cake or even some afternoon tea surrounded by such amazing historic architecture.
The cathedral is free to enter, however a small donation is expected which is used to help with ongoing restoration works. For more information on visiting the cathedral checkout the official Chester Cathedral Website
3. Check out the Eastgate Clock
Along the Chester city walls you will find 4 main city gates, one of which is home to the Eastgate Clock! This prominent landmark is said to be the most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben.
The Eastgate clock stands at the original entrance to the once Roman Fort, the original gateway was only a timber tower but rebuilt in stone in the 2nd Century and then again in the 14th Century. The current structure dates back to 1768 with the clock added in 1899 to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria two years earlier.
The Eastgate clock is a great place not only to admire the clock but it also gives great views of the main Chester High Street with its countless Tudor style buildings. The clock is also a great starting point to walking along the city walls.
4. Go window shopping along the Chester Rows
Spread throughout the city centre and unique to Chester, Chester Rows date back to the Middle Ages. Housed within the beautiful Tudor style buildings these rows are continuous half-timbered galleries, reached by steps, which form a second row of shops above those at street level along Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Eastgate Street and Bridge Street.
Nobody knows quite why these buildings were built this way but it has been suggested that due to a fierce fire that ravaged the city in 1278, owners were ordered to make ground floors fireproof, this in turn developed into this two floor shop design. Another theory is that the rows were built on top of debris left from the Romans. It is thought during the 13th Century debris was excavated and these hollows gradually turned into shops with upper levels built on top which overlapped the lower storey, providing a covered walkway.
Whatever the reasons for these unique structures they make an excellent addition to the Chesters architectural history and make for an interesting shopping experience. You can spend an afternoon window shopping as well as admiring some fascinating architecture.
5. Visit the Grosvenor Museum
The Grosvenor Museum is housed within another of Chesters fabulous listed buildings. The museum houses many collections that explore the history of Chester. Its a great place to find out more about Chesters Roman occupation as well as its more recent history. Check out the Period House which dates back to 1680 and houses a series of rooms from the 17th century to the 1920s.
Entrance to the museum is free, however they do expect a small donation to help with running costs.
6. Check out Chester Castle
Chester castle dates back to 1070 when it was founded by William the Conqueror. The original castle would have been just a timber ‘motte-and-bailey’ castle and then rebuilt in stone with an outer Bailey added in the 12th Century.
Chester Castle is owned by English Heritage and is only accessible inside by paid organised tour. Details can be obtained by checking out the official website here.
However you can still observe the castle from the outside for free. The best way is to look out for it whilst walking along the city walls. You will find the castle perched high looking down onto the River Dee near the racecourse.
7. Visit Minerva’s shrine
One of Chesters most random attractions is the Minerva’s Shrine situated in Edgar’s Field on the south side of the River Dee.
This unique rock that almost looks like a hobbit house is actually the site of ancient Roman worship. It’s where quarrymen came to honor Minerva, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena, goddess of war, art, wisdom, and craftsmen. Although the shrine now sits quietly in a local park it is also the location of what was once a large quarry that was used to build Chesters Roman walls.
According to Historic England, it’s believed this is Western Europe’s only representation of a Roman goddess that’s still in its original location. As such, it’s the only shrine of its kind in the UK. Although now looking a bit worse for wear, you can still make out with a close eye the once adorned Minerva; her figure holding a spear and wearing a helmet and an owl over her shoulder on the right.
8. Take a stroll along the River Dee
The River Dee originates in Snowdonia and passes through Wales before reaching Chester and then out towards the Irish Sea. Take a stroll along the quiet riverbank and then relax on the ‘Groves’. This lovely Promenade has numerous cafes, bars and restaurants as well as a few Ice cream shops selling amazing local handmade ice cream!
Throughout the year there are numerous events on the river ranging from a duck race to live music on the Victorian bandstand. It’s the perfect place to take a picnic and enjoy some summer sun whilst watching the world go by. If interested you can also have some fun on a pedalo or even take a cruise down the river. Relaxing on the “Groves’ with an ice cream in hand is one of my favourite free things to do in Chester!
9. Visit Chester Roman Gardens
Chesters Roman gardens are located between the River Dee and the Eastgate clock. The gardens are not a ancient Roman garden but made up of fragments of ancient Roman buildings that have been excavated in the city.
The original Roman Garden was established in 1949 by Graham Webster, then curator of the Grosvenor Museum, and Charles Greenwood, the City Engineer, as Chester’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Later in 2000 the gardens were remodelled to provide access to the River Dee as well as the installation of many informative displays.
Today it is a quiet oasis in a bustling city, you will usually find people sitting quietly reading a book or enjoying some lunch.
10. Check out Chesters Roman Amphitheatre
Another favourite spot to relax with a coffee or picnic is Chesters Roman Amphitheatre.
Chester Roman Amphitheatre was built in the late first century AD and lay just outside the south-east corner of the Roman fortress. It it thought that the amphitheatre was probably used both for entertainment and for practising troop manoeuvres and weapon training. Today it is used for outdoor events and entertainment. You will usually spot the odd tour guide dressed up as a Roman soldier chilling out having lunch on the grassy verge.
Only part of the amphitheatre has been excavated, today only two-fifths of the oval amphitheatre are visible with the rest hidden underneath a stone wall. It is the largest stone amphitheatre in Britain and the scene of Britains largest archaeological excavation at the time back in 2005. Finds uncovered at these digs are now on display in the Grosvenor Museum.
11. Visit Chester’s original cathedral; St John the Baptist
Just across the way from the Amphitheatre you will find the cities original cathedral: St John the Baptist. the church is made up of two parts; the newer present day church and the old remains of the former cathedral.
Origins of the church date back to AD 689 as a Saxon Minster church. In 1075 St John’s was raised to the status of a cathedral for the region of West Mercia until the reformation. The cathedral status then later changed to the now known Chester Cathedral. During this time much of the church was destroyed and now still lies ruined, however part of the church was redeveloped during the 12th Century and is now seen as one of the finest examples of Normal architecture.
You are free to enter the church as well as wander around the ancient ruins. Whilst wandering the ruins look out for some quirky tombstones and a medieval coffin!
12. Admire the historic architecture
As you have probably already realised Chester has a multitude of historic buildings and fascinating architecture.
As Chester is such a compact city, to be honest it feels more like a large town than a city, you can easily see what the place has to offer in just a day. So if short on time or just wanting to explore Chester on foot then I recommend just walking around getting lost and finding some hidden gems. No matter where you go in Chester you are bound to find some historic sites or beautiful architecture.
Out of all the free things to do in Chester, I find exploring the city on foot to be one of my favourite things to do. Even thought I have visited Chester on so many occasions I still manage to see something new each time.
So there you have it my 12 free things to do in Chester. Have you been to Chester, would you add anything else to this list? Let me know in the comments below. Plus if you have enjoyed reading this article then please share on your favourite social media and subscribe to hear more about my travel adventures.
Thanks for reading,