15 Best Places to Visit in Essex

East of London and with a continuous suburb that clings to the north side of the Thames Estuary, Essex is a county that has got a bad rap in the past.

But journey north and east and the countryside becomes ever more picturesque and the towns gain more personality.

Dedham for instance has the romantic Water Meadows painted by John Constable and Saffron Walden possesses a marketplace as pretty as any in England.

The coast is lovable too, with child-friendly seaside resorts, fishing communities and the port of Harwich, which is brimming with maritime lore.

Lets explore the best places to visit in Essex:

1. Colchester

Colchester Castle

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Colchester Castle

The oldest town, not just in Essex but the entire country, Colchester was the capital of Roman Britain for a time.

If this has caught your attention then Colchester Castle should be your first stop.

Built in the 11th century the keep here is the largest of any castle, ruined or standing, in all of Britain.

There’s a newly revamped museum inside to bring you up to speed on Colchester’s rich history, and it’s always adding new finds from the town’s Roman excavation sites.

The landscaped and well-tended gardens in Castle Park are just the ticket for a few minutes of repose, and Colchester Zoo is up there with the best  and raises money for wildlife conservation projects in South Africa.

2. Southend-on-Sea

Southend-on-Sea

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Southend-on-Sea

Like many English seaside resorts, Southend’s heyday was in the 50s and 60s before you could get affordable flights abroad.

But unlike a lot of its rivals, Southend has evolved and continues to pull in day-trippers from all over the southeast.

One of the draws is the pier, which at 2.16 kilometres is the world’s longest pleasure pier.

If a walk to the pierhead seems too much of a trek, take the train, which runs the full length of the structure.

Younger kids and teenagers will get the most out of Southend; even more if Adventure Island is in your plans.

It’s next to the pier and is like a large permanent funfair.

3. Saffron Walden

Saffron Walden

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Saffron Walden

High in the northwest of the county and far from London’s urban sprawl, Saffron Walden is a cute medieval market town within striking distance of Cambridge.

There has been a market here since the 12th century, which sets up on Tuesdays and Saturdays on the square next to the beautiful Guildhall, which is made of wattle and daub over stone arcades.

Myddlyton Place and Castle street, lined with colourful half-timbered buildings, are exceedingly pretty too, and the 15th-century St. Mary’s is Essex’s largest parish church.

You can also step in to a BBC period drama at the majestic 17th-century Audley End House, which has been in the Baybrooke family since the 1700s.

4. Maldon

Maldon

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Maldon

The oldest town in Essex after Colchester, Maldon’s earliest years were a constant struggle against the Vikings, who would sail up the Blackwater estuary to raid the town throughout the 10th century.

The banks of the Blackwater are a little more sedate today,  and Promenade Park, laid out in Victorian times, is picnic central on sunny days, with tree-lined avenues and lawns by the water.

From there you’ll notice the Thames sailing barges, flat-bottomed boats that once transported all kinds of goods up and down the Blackwater and Thames estuaries.

There’s long been a military presence in east Essex, and near Maldon it’s endowed the area with two attractions: The Combined Military Services Museum and Slow Maries Airfield, which puts on air shows with First World War planes.

5. Dedham

Dedham, Cows by the river Stour

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Dedham, Cows by the river Stour

On the River Stour and close to the boundary with Suffolk, Dedham is a refined village with links to two prominent British painters.

From medieval times to the 1800s Dedham got rich through the wool and textile trades, and the weavers and mill owners built large timber-framed houses and later regal flat-fronted mansions.

John Constable painted Dedham’s mills and its countryside in the early-1800s; the scenery hasn’t changed much since then, especially on the Stour where cows and sheep graze in the water meadows.

The early-20th-century painter Alfred Munnings lived in Dedham for 40 years and his splendid home is now a gallery for his work.

6. Harwich

Harwich Quay

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Harwich Quay

Stranded on a peninsula at the entrance to the estuaries of the Rivers Stroud and Orwell, Harwich is Britain’s second-busiest passenger port.

Many of the people who arrive in Harwich will just be passing through, but the town has a thrilling maritime legacy that recalls legendary privateers like Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher.

The Mayflower was launched from Harwich in 1620, and its captain, Christopher Jones was born in the town.

The older part of Harwich is on a grid system plotted in the 1200s, and is protected as a conservation zone for its jumble of cantilevered and flat-fronted houses.

The Electric Palace Cinema from 1911 is the oldest unchanged cinema in Britain, and still has its original silent screen.

7. Mersea Island

Mersea Island

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Mersea Island

The most easterly inhabited island in Britain, Mersea isn’t as remote as that description makes it sound, as it connects with the Essex mainland by road along a causeway.

The local economy is oysters-driven, and there’s a clutch of seafood restaurants at West Mersea that are a hit with day-trippers.

The Company Shed is a rough-and-ready BYOB place in an old wooden hut, but has fantastic oysters, lobster and crab.

There’s a vineyard and hop farm on the island and lots of opportunities to ramble and appreciate the open seascapes.

8. Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey

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Waltham Abbey

The abbey that gives this market town its name has been in use since the 600s, although the current Norman architecture dates to the 1100. It’s still loaded with history and while the abbey church survived the dissolution in the 16th century the rest of the monastic buildings were demolished.

In the grounds you can see an original gatehouse guarding a bridge, and the abbey is also the resting pace of King Harold, killed in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The problem is that nobody is too sure where he’s buried! For three centuries gunpowder for the army was manufactured in Waltham Abbey, and at the Royal Gunpowder Mills there’s a presentation of weapons going back to the 1500s and lots of interactive displays to keep kids engaged.

9. Thaxted

Thaxted

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Thaxted

The village of Thaxted, a few minutes from Saffron Walden will win you over as soon as you see the painted houses on Town Street.

These are in pastel shades, and it’s interesting to see how some of the older ones with telltale cantilevered upper floors had been given a classical makeover in the 1700s.

The view up the street of the arcaded Guildhall and the buttressed stone spire of St. John’s Church in the background is special.

Equally winsome is John Webb’s Windmill, and it’s here for you just on the edge of the village if you ever wanted to see the mechanism of one of these building.

10. Epping

Epping Forest

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Epping Forest

Despite being outside the M25, Epping is the eastern terminus for London Underground’s Central Line.

So while it’s integrated into the city’s transport system Epping has the appearance of a rural market town, with a massive forest and farmland backing onto it.

The high street is within a conservation area and has rows of beautiful listed houses, including a string of terraced cottages from the 1600s.

Epping Forest is 1728 hectares of woodland and heath, and has historical flourishes like Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, which was actually built for her father, the hunting fanatic Henry VIII in 1543.

11. Clacton-on-Sea

Clacton-on-Sea

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Clacton-on-Sea

There’s also a familiar old-time vibe about Clacton, as you’ll tell from the Princes and West Cliff Theatres, great for broad, family entertainment.

As with Southend it’s the kids who will adore this seaside getaway, running wild at the pleasure pier or splashing around on West Beach or the Blue Flag Martello Bay.

Holidaymakers pack the seafront for the Clacton Airshow in August, with jets flying in formation and there’s a fireworks display in the evening to end the day with a bang.

The Jaywick Martello Tower is one of a long sequence of early 18th-century watchtowers to spot a possible invasion attempt by Napoleon, and has been repurposed as an arts and cultural centre.

12. Braintree

Colne Valley Railway

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Colne Valley Railway

The district of Braintree is composed of four different market towns, all with their own quirks and character, as well as National Trust estates and green countryside.

From the late medieval times this region prospered with the help of the woollen textile trade, which explains the profusion of elegant old properties.

Everyone from kids to industrial historians will be mad about the diesel and steam locomotives on the Colne Valley Railway, and the Warner Textile Archive documents two centuries of textile manufacturing history and is the second largest of its kind in the UK, though opening times are restricted.

Last but not least, Cressing Temple has three 12th-century barns belonging to the Knights Templar, one of which is the oldest surviving timber-framed barn in the world.

13. Coggeshall

Coggeshall

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Coggeshall

One of the delightful market downs within Braintree is Coggeshall, with almost 200 listed buildings in its old centre.

When the town’s textile industry subsided at the start of the 20th century the railway line was redirected, which left a town in suspended animation.

Bad news for Coggeshall back then is great news for visitors today as there are creaking timber houses and idiosyncratic landmarks to be found.

One is the 15th-century St. Peter ad Vincula Church, which is known as an “oversized church” because it was built unnecessarily large by local merchants hoping their generosity would get them into heaven.

The Tudor Paycocke’s House’s from 1505 is more evidence of the local wealth, and has the most delicate carvings on its painted timbers.

14. Chelmsford

Chelmsford Cathedral

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Chelmsford Cathedral

The only city in the whole of Essex, Chelmsford , like many places within reasonable reach of London has many commuters.

But there’s also plenty for family days out, and if you’re coming in the other direction from London you can get here in half an hour.

For something sophisticated step into the neoclassical 19th-century villa, Hylands House and take a turn in its 230-hectare grounds, with wide open fields, dotted with ancient oaks and individual little flower gardens.

Maybe a bit more child-friendly is the Tropical Wings Zoo, billed as an “interactive zoo” that lets you groom a goat, feed a wallaby or hold all kinds of creepy-crawlies.

15. Thurrock

Thurrock

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Thurrock

If you’ve read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness you’ll recognise this inhospitable and muddy stretch of the Thames Estuary as the place where the “Nellie” is anchored at the start of the book.

The waterside is still awaiting redevelopment, but there are interesting things if you know where to look: Tiblury Fort is a star-shaped artillery installation that is operated by English Heritage and fulfilled its defensive purpose right up to the Second World War.

Intu Lakeside meanwhile is one of Britain’s largest shopping centres, with more than 250 stores.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Essex, England
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15 Best Places to Visit in Essex:

Maldon