A historic inland port on the River Severn, Gloucester is at the entrance to England’s West Country on the cusp of the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean.
Originally this was the Roman fort of Glevum, defending a crossing on the Severn, and gained its town charter under Henry II in 1155. Gloucester’s cathedral has to be a priority, for its majestic Perpendicular tower and Norman nave.
In the 19th century the city’s fortunes were transformed with the construction of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, and striking Victorian warehouses still surround the city’s docks, which are now an upmarket residential district and mall.
After the war Gloucester had a blossoming aerospace sector, and you can view a rare collection planes made by the Gloster Aircraft Company at the Jet Age Museum.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Gloucester:
1. Gloucester Cathedral
The roots of Gloucester Cathedral go back to an abbey set up in the 670s.
The cathedral as we see it was completed between the 11th and 15th century and has a Norman Romanesque core, and embellishments from every phase of English Gothic architecture.
From a distance you can’t help but be drawn to the 15th-century Perpendicular tower, which is 69 metres high and topped with four intricate pinnacles.
The nave is unmistakably Norman, with powerful circular columns supporting semi-circular bays, under a later Early English Gothic vaulted ceiling.
Look for the late Decorated Gothic East Window, which has Medieval stained glass, while the cloisters have England’s earliest fan vaults, produced between 1351 and 1377. The most important monument in the cathedral is the tomb for Edward II, who was murdered not far away at Berkeley Castle in 1327.
2. Gloucester Docks
Gloucester has England’s most inland port, which came about in the first decades of the 19th century when the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal was completed.
With the advent of railways and road freight the docks fell into disuse in the 20th century, before being revived as a stylish residential and commercial area in the 1980s.
There are 15 monolithic Victorian warehouses here, testifying to the volume of goods that passed through Gloucester when the port was at its peak.
You can also check out a chapel built for the city’s mariners in the 19th century, a dry dock in working order and all sorts of other historic infrastructure, beautifully preserved.
The warehouses have since been turned into museums and housing, while some have been adapted by the Gloucester Quays mall.
3. Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
Opened in 1827, this 16.5-mile canal cuts across a loop in the River Severn between Gloucester in the north and Sharpness in the south.
When it was completed it was the broadest and the deepest canal in the world, allowing far larger ships to visit Gloucester’s docks than had been possible on this difficult stretch of the river.
The large span of the canal is crossed by bulky swing bridges, beside dainty bridge-keepers’ houses, which lend the canal a distinctive character.
For a peaceful day in the countryside you can amble along the towpath, stopping on the grassy banks for a picnic or pub lunch.
There’s a superb wetland centre at Slimbridge beside the canal where you can sight wildlife, from migrating waterfowl to otters.
4. Gloucester Life
This museum for Gloucestershire’s social history is in two stunning half-timbered houses on Westgate Street.
Side by side, these are a 16th-century Tudor merchant’s residence and a town house from the 1600s.
According to tradition John Hooper, the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester stayed in the merchant’s house the night before he was burnt at the stake by Queen Mary I in 1555. Some of the things to see inside these houses include equipment related to fishing on the River Severn, period costumes, a reconstruction of a classroom in Victorian times, scenes from domestic life over five centuries and the interior of a pin factory that used to be on this site.
5. Robinswood Hill Country Park
This 200-metre hill to the south of Gloucester once provided the city’s water supply.
Springs bubble through Robinswood Hill and were harnessed by Gloucester Abbey in the 1200s.
Reservoirs were dug in the 19th century, and these were filled in during the second half of the 20th century to provide facilities for the country park that occupies the hill today.
In these 250 acres you can take in stirring views over to the Black Mountains in the west, south to the Severn Bridge and Cotswolds, and north to the Malvern Hills.
A historic orchard has been restored on the hill, while the space is nature reserve, offering a habitat for species like badgers, foxes and red kites.
6. Nature in Art
A three-mile drive north of Gloucester will take you to this wonderful gallery of art inspired by nature, housed in the splendid Georgian mansion Wallsworth Hall.
This is claimed to be the largest collection of nature-based art in the world and comes in a host of media.
In the permanent collection are pieces by British painters and illustrators who devoted their careers to wildlife, like George Edward Lodge, Eric Ennion, Charles Tunnicliffe and Archibald Thorburn, as well as universally known artists like Picasso and an array of Flemish Masters.
There are bronze sculptures, works of contemporary glass, porcelain items from the Far East, watercolours, engravings and woodcarvings.
Kids can attend workshops in the school holidays, and there’s a coffee shop looking out over a sculpture garden.
7. Blackfriars Gloucester
Maintained by Gloucester City Council, Blackfriars is an unusually complete Dominican black friary that you can visit on Sundays and Mondays in summer.
The friary was founded beside Gloucester’s southern walls in 1239, with the backing of King Henry III. After the monastery was dissolved in the mid-16th century, Blackfriars was preserved as a mansion, while its cloisters became a cap factory and then dwellings in the 1700s.
Restored in 1960, the complex has lots of riveting things to check out, like the scissor-braced roof in the dormitory and the oldest purpose-built library to survive in the UK.
8. Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum
This military museum in the former Custom House on the docks recounts the history of the Gloucester Regiment and the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars.
The objects on show span three centuries and relate to the many conflicts that these regiments have been involved in, from the Napoleonic Wars to peacekeeping in the Balkans in the 1990s.
The museum has two Victoria Crosses, the highest award for gallantry in the UK honours system.
There’s also a series of lifelike tableaux, archive footage, audio snippets, weapons, pieces of equipment, heavy machinery, paintings, silverware and uniforms.
9. Museum of Gloucester
In a Victorian Renaissance Revival building, the Museum of Gloucester is an engaging miscellany, covering fine art, applied art, palaeontology, archaeology and local history.
One piece to keep on your agenda is Rufus Sita Tombstone, a 1st-century Roman stele discovered on London Road and more than 1.2 metres in height.
In the art collection are works by Thomas Gainsborough and J. M. W. Turner, while there’s also Dutch Delftware and Arts and Crafts bowls by Alfred and Louise Powell.
Kids will be enthused by the dinosaur fossils, and one of the more peculiar exhibits is a portrait of Oliver Cromwell without his characteristic warts.
10. Gloucester Waterways Museum
In the Gloucester Quays development, the Gloucester Waterways Museum examines the 200-year history of Gloucester Docks, and shipping and navigation on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.
The attraction is an a portion of the Llanthony Warehouse, constructed in 1873 and formerly used for alcohol, timber and grain.
In the galleries are interactive exhibits, models, vintage signs and a fleet of historic vessels like tugboats, barges and narrowboats.
You can see what a canal repair yard would have looked like, entering its machine shop and forge, and checking out its hydraulic accumulator, heavy oil engine, steam crane and weighbridge.
11. St Mary de Crypt Church
On Southgate Street, this beautiful Medieval church has a blend of Gothic and Norman architecture.
St Mary de Crypt was consecrated in the first decades of the 12th century and then reworked in Perpendicular Gothic style in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Over the west door you can view a preserved Norman tympanum, depicting a lamb and flag, symbolising the Resurrection of Christ.
The nave dates to the 1400s and has a beautiful pulpit carved in the Renaissance style in the early 1600s.
One of the founders of Methodism, George Whitefield, gave his first sermon at St Mary de Crypt in 1736 before travelling to America to spread this denomination.
12. Highnam Court Gardens
On weekdays from March to September you can drop by this estate on Gloucester’s western outskirts to view the fabulous gardens that have been restored over the last 25 years.
The Mannerist house at Highnam court is one of just a few to have been built during the Commonwealth (Interregnum) in the 17th century, and was designed by a student of Inigo Jones.
Surrounding large ponds, the gardens were designed by the artist Thomas Gambler-parry, after he bought the estate in 1838. After a fallow period in the 20th century, the gardens have slowly been brought back to their former glory, with a boxwood knot garden, kitchen garden, wisteria walk and a Pulhamite winter garden, featuring waterfalls, waterfalls and rock gardens.
13. Jet Age Museum
In the post-war period Gloucestershire firms like the Gloster Aircraft Company, Smiths Industries and Dowty Rotol all contributed to the UK’s aviation boom.
That chapter of local history is recorded at the Jet Age Museum on the north side of Gloucestershire Airport.
It’s the only museum in the world with four complete Gloster Aircraft Company jets in one place.
These are two Gloster Meteors (T.7 and F.8) and two Gloster Javelins (FAW.4 and FAW.9). You can also find full-scale models of a Gloster E28/39 and a Hawker Hurricane, as well as the cockpits of an Avro Vulcan and a Hawker Siddeley Trident.
14. Severn Bore
A curious phenomenon occurs on the Severn, Britain’s longest river, when the rising tide surges up the river in the form of a wave.
If the bore takes place during the day you may see groups of surfers and canoers trying to catch it.
The Severn Bore can be seen around 260 times a year, taking place twice a day on 130 days.
The highest bores roll in around the equinoxes, although they can take place at other times of year: They are rated on star system, five being the highest, but even three-star bores are worth seeing.
If you’re in Gloucester during a bore, you can see it just west of the city, between Stonebench and Maisemore Weir.
15. Gloucester Quays
With upwards of 120 stores in 2018, the Gloucester Quays shopping centre has continually expanded since it opened in 2009. In 2017 it was announced that a further £100m would be invested into the development, adding an additional floor to the main centre.
What sets Gloucester Quays apart from typical malls is that the designer outlet department is housed in brick former warehouses on Gloucester Docks, with long alleys and waterfront terraces for alfresco dining in summer.
The 10-screen cinema complex, Cineworld, opened here in 2013, while new chain restaurants arrive by the year.