Right on the border with Wales, Chester was founded in AD 70 as the Roman fortress of Deva Victrix.
Excavations at the amphitheatre suggest that Deva was pegged to become the UK’s Roman capital in the 3rd Century if the invasion of Ireland had gone ahead.
The City Walls have big curtains of ashlar blocks from Deva’s ancient defences.
These are bolstered by Medieval towers and have tales to tell from the Siege of Chester in the English Civil War.
On Chester’s straight Roman streets you’ll see the Rows, Medieval timber buildings with raised galleries that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
And you can’t talk about Chester without mentioning the zoo, one of the best in the world and one of the first to use humane enclosures.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chester:
1. Chester City Walls
A fact that may stop you in your tracks as you walk along the three-kilometre walkway surmounting Chester’s walls is most of these defences follow the same course as when they protected the Roman fort of Deva.
Only the southeastern defences were altered when Chester was rebuilt in the 10th century, so that they could extend down to the River Dee.
The walkway gives is a fine way to admire Chester’s historic skyline and half-timbered houses, and will lead you to Medieval sandstone structures like Bonewaldesthorne’s Tower (1249), Thimbleby’s Tower (13th century) and the Water Tower (1325). Morgan’s Mount on the north side was built in 1645 as an observation platform and gun emplacement during the English Civil War.
It’s worth seeing the walls at ground level, where you’ll be able to identify the oldest Roman ashlar blocks, as well as pieces of spolia (Roman stone reused in the Medieval period).
2. Chester Cathedral
Built over nearly 500 years from the 11th to the 16th century, Chester Cathedral has traces of every Medieval English architectural style, from Norman Romanesque to Perpendicular Gothic.
The oldest parts of the cathedral are in the north transept, which has a semi-circular Romanesque arch, while the northwest tower also has 11th-century origins.
Here there’s a beautiful baptismal font, fashioned from black marble and dating to 1697. The choir needs to be seen for its Decorative Gothic stalls, carved around 1380. These have tall, sharp canopies adorned with little spires and crockets, and feature 48 misericords depicting an array of quirky characters.
The 13th-century Lady Chapel is in the Early English Gothic style, with a stone rib vault, while outside you can shuffle through the cloisters to see a 17th-century Mortlake tapestry on the refectory wall.
3. Chester Rows
The Rows are a set of timber-framed galleries on Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Eastgate Street and Bridge Street in the old centre of Chester.
These covered walkways have no equivalent anywhere in the world, and are set above street level, leading you past a second line of shops.
The first mention of the Chester Rows dates to 1293, following a city-wide fire two decades before.
They are believed to have been built to increase the amount of shopping space in the middle of the city.
Underground, beneath the galleries are vaulted stone undercrofts, 20 of which survive from the 13th and 14th centuries, while at no. 48 Bridge Street is the Three Old Arches, believed to be the oldest shop front in England, dating to 1274.
4. The Groves
Starting in the west under the city walls at Lower Bridge Street and ending at Grosvenor Park, The Groves is a pretty riverside promenade on the north bank of the Dee.
With beautiful views to the mansions of the Queen’s Park area on the south bank you’ll walk beneath the lime trees, past Georgian houses, pubs, iron gaslights and no shortage of benches to take a break and watch the swans.
One of the most photogenic sights is the Queen’s Park Suspension Bridge, a few metres east of the sweet Edwardian bandstand.
5. Chester Zoo
One of the best zoos, not just in the UK but the whole world, Chester Zoo in the north of the city is gigantic.
Over 125 acres there are more than 20,000 individual animals.
The founder George Motterhead wanted to built a zoo without bars, calling on natural barriers like ditches and moats to contain animals.
Every few years there’s a new multimillion pound habitat, and as of 2018 the newest is “Islands at Chester Zoo”. This mimicks six island habitats from Southeast Asia and has Sumatran tigers, cassowaries, Visayan warty pigs, Malayan tapirs, tentacled snakes and many more species from the region.
The list of other environments to check out is enormous, but you have to make time for Bears of Cloud Forest, Monkey Islands, Tsavo Black Rhino Reserve and the Realm of the Red Ape with Bornean Orangutans.
6. Grosvenor Museum
In a purpose-designed Renaissance Revival building from 1886, the Grosvenor Museum has assembled all sorts of fascinating curios over the last 130 years.
The name comes from Hugh Grosvenor, 1st Duke of Westminster, who put up more than a third of the funding in the 1880s.
Inside you’ll find the largest single collection of works by the 19th-century English watercolour artist Louise Rayner, stelae from the Roman period and a set of six recorders by the 17th and 18th-century woodwind instrument maker Peter Bressan.
The museum also has hands-on exhibits dealing with the natural history of the region, and reconstructions of period homes down the centuries, complete with original decor, furniture, paintings and everyday utensils.
7. Grosvenor Park
This genteel Victorian park covers 20 acres on the north bank of the Dee on land granted to the Chester by Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster.
Grosvenor Park was drawn up by Edward Kemp and is considered one of the country’s outstanding parks from this period.
Kemp’s design has regimented lawns, flowerbeds and paths, together with more picturesque elements like a stone arch removed from Chester’s St Michael’s Church, and the Grade II listed Jacob’s Well drinking fountain.
The miniature railway is from 1996 and runs on weekends and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in term time, and every day during the school holidays.
There’s also an Activity Zone for youngsters, the Lodge Cafe and one of the UK’s top open-air theatres, staging productions from the start of July to the end of August.
8. St John the Baptist’s Church
Beyond the eastern walls, this Medieval church sits on a cliff overlooking the River Dee.
Constructed from sandstone, St John the Baptist’s Church has Anglo-Saxon origins, possibly going back to the 7th century.
The surviving architecture dates from the 11th century when the Bishop of Lichfield moved his episcopal seat to Chester, making St John’s a cathedral.
There are clear Norman Romanesque elements in nave, crossing, the first bay of the chancel, the drum arch to the Lady Chapel and in the ruins of the choir chapels.
This eastern portion of the church was torn down during the Reformation, and those remnants can be visited outside.
Back in the church you can see the pieces of Saxon stone crosses, thought to have stood in the churchyard.
9. Eastgate an Eastgate Clock
Chester’s most recognisable landmark, the Eastgate is the original entrance to the Roman fortress of Deva.
As we see it now, the gate has a sandstone arch from 1768, surmounted by the wall walk.
To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897), the Cheshire architect John Douglas designed a handsome clock supported by openwork wrought iron pylons flecked with gold.
There’s a clock face on all four sides below a copper-clad ogee cupola.
The clock mechanism was supplied by J.B. Joyce of Whitchurch, and up to 1974 had to be hand-wound once a week.
Above the face on each side are the Queen’s initials, “VR” (Victoria Regina).
10. Roman Amphitheatre
An English Heritage Site and Grade I listed building, the Roman Amphitheatre was founded in the late 70s and lay undiscovered for almost 1,700 years.
Two different amphitheatres stood on the site, the latter dating to the 3rd century and able to seat at least 8,000 people.
The problem was that in the intervening years listed buildings had been constructed on all but the north side of this ancient monument.
So only the northern quarter has been recovered.
There’s a grassy bank where seating used to be a curved retaining wall delineating the pit.
In 2010 a trompe l’oeil mural was painted by London artist Gary Drostle to give a feel for what the rest of the building would have looked like.
11. Chester Cathedral Falconry and Nature Gardens
The grounds to the north of the cathedral, tucked into the northeast corrner of the city walls, are home to a nature attraction that kids are sure to love.
The Falconry allows you to get within centimetres of owls, hawks, falcons and a naughty vulture who goes by the name of Tinks.
The expert handlers show off these animals and provide lots of interesting information about their behaviour and diet.
Depending on the weather there are flight demonstrations, and if you’re brave you’ll be able to handle some of these birds of prey.
You can look around the centre, which also has terrariums for reptiles, and stroll in the gardens to pick up tips on how to attract wildlife to your garden at home.
12. Chester Cross
By the rows in the historic centre of Chester is a staggered crossroads at the junction of Northgate Street, Eastgate Street and Bridge Street.
Those latter three streets go right back to when Chester was a Roman fortress and were the main arteries in that period.
Just north of the junction of Bridge Street and Watergate Street was the setting for the fortress’ Principia building (headquarters). The focal point of the crossroads is the Grade II listed Chester High Cross.
This red sandstone monument is from 1476, but was taken apart by the Parliamentarians in 1646 during the English Civil War.
Pieces of the original were rediscovered in the 19th century and used in a restoration that was put up by Newgate in 1949, and then moved to its rightful position in 1975. The cross has an octagonal plinth, steps and shaft capped with a hexagonal head that is carved with niches beneath a circular finial.
13. Chester Roman Gardens
Bounded to the west by the city walls, the Chester Roman Gardens were plotted by the curator of the Grosvenor Museum, Graham Webster in 1949. The park was laid out in the run up to the 1951 Festival of Britain and has ancient architectural fragments found during the 19th-century excavations of Deva’s baths and military buildings like the Principia.
There’s a row of columns from the exercise hall in the main bathhouse, once almost two metres high.
The tallest column is from the Principia building, the site of the present day Chester Cross.
Also in the garden is a hypocaust heating system and mosaic, brought here from the Legionaries’ bathhouse.
Pay attention to the city wall you can see a section that was damaged during a bombardment in the Siege of Chester of 1645, and repaired quickly after.
14. Cheshire Military Museum
There isn’t much left of the Medieval Chester Castle, as the deteriorating monument was mostly reworked in a Neoclassical style in the 1780s by the acclaimed architect Thomas Harrison.
Along with the Crown Courts, the Cheshire Military Museum occupies former barracks in one of Harrison’s Grade I listed buildings.
With the help of authentic artefacts, photographs, paintings and accounts, you’ll learn about the various Regiments of Cheshire’s participation in some of history’s great battles and put yourself in the boots of a soldier fighting in the trenches in the First World War.
You’ll get to see curiosities like the silver collection of the Cheshire Regiment, a shield and baton from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a WWII Vickers Medium Machine Gun (MMG) and memorabilia from the German surrender in 1945.
15. River Dee
On warm days you’ll be drawn to Chester’s river, and along The Groves there are a few companies providing cruises.
A typical trip will take you east, under the Queen’s Park Suspension Bridge, past the regal waterfront properties to the Chester Meadows on the city’s outskirts, before returning, all in less than half an hour.
On the way you’ll hear a running commentary, pointing out the monuments on the skyline and some of the river’s birdlife, like cormorants and kingfishers.
ChesterBoat and Chester Day Boat Hire also provide private charters if you’d like to float along for a day or more on your own vessel.
The river is also calm enough for pedalos and kayaking, all of which can be hired from The Groves.