A compact and lovable city near the coast in West Sussex, Chichester has a story that begins in Roman times.
What’s amazing is that the city centre retains the cross streets laid out by the Romans, and is defended by the original Roman walls.
Chichester has always been pocket-sized and was never industrialised, so for hundreds of years it was possible to fit the entire population inside its Cathedral.
That monument is phenomenal, keeping a lot of its Norman architecture, and preserving pieces of Medieval art in its tomb effigies, wall reliefs and misericords.
To the north is the South Downs National Park, while on the coast is Chichester’s natural harbour, once inhabited by Romans and Anglo-Saxons.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chichester:
1. Chichester Cathedral
A rousing mix of Norman Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Chichester Cathedral was started in 1075 and consecrated in 1108. It is quite unlike other English cathedrals for its twin aisles and because it has a campanile.
You’ll have no trouble telling which parts of the building are original as they have Romanesque semi-circular window openings and arches.
You can find these fragments all down the nave, in the crossing, transept and the bays of the choir.
There are also some outstanding pieces of Medieval workmanship to track down: In the south nave aisle are two very rare 12th-century reliefs evoking the story of Lazarus, while you can find 38 misericords in the choir, produced in 1330. If you’re a fan of the poet Philip Larkin, see the recumbent effigy of Richard FitzAlan, the 10th Earl of Arundel, that inspired “An Arundel Tomb”. The composer Gustav Holst is also interred at the cathedral.
2. Pallant House Gallery
When he passed away in 1985, the priest and avid art collector Water Hussey left his considerable collection to the city.
This was all on the condition that these works be displayed at Pallant House, a gorgeous 18th-century Queen Anne-style townhouse.
A new multimillion-pound wing was added in the 2000s, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Rooted in the 20th-century, the collection has pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper, and has since been augmented with paintings by Fernand Léger, Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Lucian Freud, Walter Sickert and Eduardo Paolozzi.
There’s also a trove of 18th-century porcelain from the prestigious but short-lived Bow factory.
The Pallant House Gallery is well-regarded for its temporary exhibitions: For a taste, in summer 2018 there was a show for art inspired by the writings if Virginia Woolf.
3. Fishbourne Roman Palace
On the southwestern edge of Chichester sits the largest Roman residence unearthed in Britain.
The Fishbourne Roman Palace is also remarkable for its age, dating to AD 75, just three decades after the Roman Conquest of Britain.
The palace was excavated in the 1960s, and was revealed to be about the same size as Nero’s Golden House in Rome.
A modern shelter was built over the remains, with raised walkways to view the palace’s corridors, hypocaust and more than 20 stunning mosaics, the standout of which is the exceptionally detailed Dolphin Mosaic.
Drawing on archaeological surveys, the formal courtyard gardens have also been replanted, with intricate boxwood hedges and espalier trees.
4. Weald & Downland Living Museum
In the South Downs National Park, this excellent outdoor museum has more than 50 historic buildings across 40 acres.
These monuments, from Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex, were earmarked for demolition before being carefully dismantled and reconstructed on this site.
There are timber-framed cottages, a market hall, barns, granaries, farmhouses, sheds, stables, a watermill, and also a school from the 19th century.
The buildings paint a picture of rural life over a millennium and open up for demonstrations and hands-on activities like spinning, weaving and Tudor-style cooking.
The museum puts on seasonal events, like a traditional charcoal burn and harvest in autumn, a working animals show in summer and a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day in November.
5. Bishop’s Palace Garden
In the southwest corner of Chichester’s wall circuit is a charming garden, looked after by Chichester District Council but not in the register or parks and gardens.
You can get in via the Bishop’s Palace Cannon Gate on Canon Lane to be dazzled by immaculate formal flowerbeds against the evocative backdrop of the old walls.
The arboretum has some 100 exotic and rare trees, while there’s an Alpine garden, a wildlife garden and a rose pergola entwined with clematis, honeysuckle and climbing roses.
6. Chichester Walls
Chichester has the most intact Roman city walls in the country.
Remarkably, over three quarters of the original Roman structure survives today, more than 1,800 years after it was constructed.
For that we can partly thank the Anglo-Saxons, who maintained the walls after Alfred the Great turned Chichester into a burh (fortified town) in the 9th century.
After they were last used for defensive purposes in the English Civil War, the walls became a way to admire the city from on strolls along the earthwork ramparts.
You can walk the 1.5-mile circuit using a leaflet you can download or pick up from the Novium museum.
7. Goodwood House
The Seat of the Dukes of Richmond, Goodwood House was founded at the start of the 17th century and later enlarged by stars of 18th-century English architecture like Matthew Brettingham and James Wyatt.
The estate is still private, but opens for tours from March to October.
This isn’t an opportunity to pass up, as Goodwood House has a very rich art collection started by the 1st Duke of Richmond and Lennox, the son of Charles II and his French mistress Louise de Keroualle.
There’s Sèvres porcelain, Gobelins tapestries, Canaletto’s first London commissions and fine 18th-century French furniture.
Particularly lavish is the Egyptian dining room, with scagliola walls.
Cap a stately day out with afternoon tea in the beautiful confines of Goodwood’s ballroom.
8. Chichester Festival Theatre
A venue for high-quality productions, and a mainstay of the community, the Chichester Festival Theatre opened in 1962. Its first artistic director was none other than Laurence Olivier, forming the company that would merge with the Old Vic in London to create the National Theatre Company.
That alone, gives you a sense of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s real pedigree.
The Chichester Festival lasts from April to September, staging home-produced plays (both classic and contemporary), musicals and more.
There’s a big menu of side events during the festival season, including productions at the smaller Minerva Theatre, dance workshops, cabarets and talks.
This award-winning modern museum building was constructed over Chichester’s Roman baths and opened in 2012. On Tower Street, these baths were discovered during the construction of a car park in the 1960s.
Novium has a reserve of hundreds of thousands of artefacts, recovered from this excavation and others around the Roman city.
The baths make up the entire ground floor, and at the start of your visit you can watch a film explaining how they were built and the role they played in Roman society.
Some of the Roman artefacts unearthed around Chichester include the Chilgrove mosaic from the 4th century AD, the Jupiter Stone, a fascinating chunk of a sculptural work from the 3rd century, an abundance of coins and the Bosham Head, a fragment of the largest Roman statue found in Britain, weighing 170kg.
10. Chichester Cross
Where Chichester’s two Roman streets converge in the city’s pedestrian-friendly old centre stands the Chichester Cross, an exuberant Perpendicular Gothic monument.
This most likely dates from the last decades of the 15th century and would have served as a meeting point and a place for people to sell their wares up the early 1800s.
The Chichester Cross is built from Caen stone and has an octagonal shape, with each side opening through a Gothic pointed arch beneath blind tracery, pinnacles with crockets and a lantern with a finial.
11. Priory Park
In the northeastern nook of the Roman city, Priory Park has a rich past.
You can trace the Roman Walls, which enclose much of the park and climb the motte (earthwork mound) of the Norman Chichester castle.
This was raised at the end of the 11th century and wiped out by Henry III in the 13th century during the First Barons’ War.
A monument still standing is the Grade I-listed Guildhall, built in 1282 and now rented out for weddings.
If you have time to spare, you can idle away a sunny summer afternoon watching a cricket match here, and try to understand what’s going on!
12. CASS Sculpture Foundation
In 26 acres of idyllic woodland within the ancient Goodwood Estate , the Cass Sculpture Foundation has an outdoor gallery exhibiting some 80 large-scale sculptures.
These are arranged in gardens, glades and deep in the forest, which is decked with bluebells in spring.
You can visit from March to November to view these works, all of which are for sale, so the exhibition changes from year to year.
Some of the artists who have produced works commissioned by the foundation include Tony Cragg, Kiki Smith, Marc Quinn, Rachel Whitehead and Andy Goldsworthy.
Also in the CASS grounds are two indoor galleries, and there’s a schedule of talk, guided tours and workshops for grownups and children.
13. West Dean Gardens
In the foothills of the South Downs you can discover this sumptuous mosaic of gardens.
These were first planted in the 17th century, and many of its chestnuts, cedars and planes date from the start of the 19th century when the adjoining manor house was reworked by James Wyatt in a Gothic Revival style.
The house is occupied by West Dean College, a centre of excellence for conservation, while the gardens have been replanted since the infamous storm of October 1987. There’s a kitchen garden, 100-metre Edwardian pergola, sunken garden, 50-acre arboretum, a pair of delightful Victorian glasshouses, a spring garden with succulents and a restaurant and gift shop.
14. Chichester Harbour
Starting in Chichester’s southwestern outskirts is one of the largest undeveloped parcels of coastline in the South of England.
The network of creeks at Chichester Harbour makes for superb sailing, and the little settlements by the water, like Bosham and West Itchenor have boatyards, slipways, and hundreds of yachts anchored offshore.
Chichester Harbour is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and waders and wildfowl like curlews, egrets, oystercatchers and ringed plovers are winter visitors to these mudflats and salt marshes.
The pretty village of Bosham also packs a lot of history, dating back to Roman times and having been mentioned by the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, Bede and in the Bayeux Tapestry.
The Holy Trinity Church has kept a lot of its Anglo-Saxon architecture, with some Norman additions.
15. Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
This museum in two hangars at the former RAF Tangmere has a collection of aircraft, mostly jet fighters and bombers from the Cold War era when British firms like Hawker and Gloster had their heyday.
The most interesting exhibit is the Hawker Hunter flown by Neville Duke when he broke the world airspeed record, hitting 727.63 mph in 1953. In the hangars and on the turf outside are two Harrier jump jets, a Supermarine Swift, two Gloster Meteors and a de Havilland Sea Vixen.
There are also cockpits from an array of aircraft, as well as simulators and Rolls-Royce engines.