A neat and prosperous market town, Taunton has a newly regenerated and pedestrian-friendly town centre with Perpendicular Gothic churches and Georgian townhouses.
Taunton Castle houses the Museum of Somerset, a trip through the history of the county with Roman mosaics and coins, while Vivary Park has lush flowerbeds and carefree outdoor fun for kids in summer.
To really get in touch with English country life you can catch a game of cricket at the County Ground, or tour the National Trust properties in the Quantock Hills, which rise to the north of Taunton.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Taunton:
1. Museum of Somerset
The county museum is in the great hall and inner ward of Taunton Castle, which goes back to the start of the 12th century, even if it has been heavily altered since then.
The biggest changes took place in the 1780s when the dilapidated monument was given a through “Gothick” restoration, but Tudor and even Norman elements are still visible.
The Museum of Somerset has loads of exciting exhibits, like five mosaic panels from the Low Ham Roman Villa, and coins from the Frome Hoard, which was discovered in 2010 and included more than 52,000 Roman silver and bronze coins.
Also on display are fossils, prehistoric pottery shards, collections of toys and dolls, and curios like a real shrunken head from South America.
2. Vivary Park
On the southern cusp of the town centre, Vivary Park is Taunton’s prime park, mixing ornamental gardens with family recreation.
This 7.5-hectare space is threaded by the Sherford Stream and takes its name from the vivarium (Medieval fish farm) for Taunton Priory that used to occupy this spot.
There’s a model railway, miniature golf course, tennis courts, two playgrounds for little ones and an 18-hole golf course for serious players.
In spring and summer the park erupts with the blooms of some 56,000 bedding plants, while the rose garden is a provincial trial ground for the Royal National Rose Society.
In August it’s a fitting location for the Taunton Flower Show, dating back to 1831 and billed as the “Chelsea of the West”.
3. St Mary Magdalene
A classic “wool church”, St Mary Magdalene was completed at the beginning of the 16th century with wealth generated by the local wool trade.
This grand Perpendicular Gothic monument has the tallest church tower in Somerset, at 50 metres, while the remainder of the building has elements going back to the end of the 12th century.
The prolific Victorian restorer George Gilbert Scott contributed to the reconstruction of the building at the turn of the 1860s and most of the windows and statues are Victorian.
But there are older pieces, like a carved head of Edward I from the turn of the 14th century, the spectacular west window and the gilded roof, adorned with angels and coats of arms.
4. Somerset Military Museum
In the Great Hall at Taunton Castle, the Somerset Military Museum is an arm of the Museum of Somerset.
This attraction maps the history of the County Regiments of Somerset from 1685 onwards.
You can learn about some of the conflicts that the Somerset Light Infantry was involved in, with interesting details about its 19th-century deployment in Afghanistan and the Siege of Jellalabad of 1842, as well as information about daily life in the regiments.
One of the prized exhibits is a silver model of Mumbai’s Gateway of India, a monument completed in 1924 commemorating the visit of George V and Queen Mary in 1911.
5. Tudor Tavern
A sight to admire at no. 15 Fore Street is this three-storey half-timbered house with beautifully patterned studwork.
The facade was completed in 1578, but the interior is claimed to be older, dating to the 1300s.
Under the leaded window bay on the second floor you can make out the initials “T.T.” and “I.T.” and the year 1578. It is one of the only Tudor buildings to survive up to the 21st century in Taunton.
Despite the name it was originally a clothiers shop for Thomas and Joan Trowbridge, hence the initials, before becoming a grocer and then lying empty at the end of the 20th century.
Caffe Nero restored the Tudor Tavern in 2003, and as a customer you can go in to see the remarkable trusswork in the Medieval hall.
6. Somerset County Cricket Club
April to September you can pay a visit to the County Ground to acquaint yourself with the typically English sport of cricket.
For the last decade Somerset have been one of the top first-class cricket teams in the country, competing in Division One of the County Championship and finishing second in 2012 and 2016. But the England Women’s Cricket team is also based at this venue, and there are regular male international matches to look out for, so there’s no shortage of action in summer.
First-class matches last for three or more days and have a sedate pace.
So if you’re a newcomer to the sport, a good introduction would be a one-day, or even faster-paced T20 match, when batsmen are forced to play more aggressively.
7. Church of St James
English cricket fans will be familiar with this monument as its 34-metre tower looms over the County Ground to the south.
The Church of St James has Medieval roots, but was reconfigured throughout the 19th century.
All the same, captivating traces of the original building remain, most impressively in the barrel vault over the nave and north aisle.
The west window has kept pieces of 15th-century stained glass, while the baptismal font was fashioned in the 1400s and the pulpit dates to 1633.
8. Bridgwater and Taunton canal
By bike or on foot you can walk the 15 miles to the town of Bridgwater on the towpath of this canal, which opened in 1827. This waterway was part of a big but unrealised plan to join the Bristol Channel with the English Channel.
Coal and iron were carried south from the pits in Wales, while agricultural goods were shipped in the other direction.
Now the canal is an undemanding and scenic way to travel lowland Somerset’s countryside.
After decades of decline, the towpath was cleared in the 1990s, and is well-maintained.
The Somerset Space Walk is an accurate scale model of the Solar System, tracing the full course of the canal.
9. Brewhouse Theatre
Taunton’s main performing arts venue opened at a pretty location next to the Tone in 1977. the Brewhouse Theatre ran into financial difficulties and closed in 2013, but was quickly reopened under the control of a non-profit association.
So if you’re wondering what to do on an evening in Taunton, you can see what’s on the programme, which has ballet, contemporary dance, classical ensembles, jazz, tribute acts and touring bands.
At the 350-seater auditorium there are also live feeds from Glydenbourne and Royal Shakespeare Society productions, as well as screenings of independent films.
10. Bishops Lydeard Mill
Five miles out of town in the cute village of Bishops Lydeard there’s a museum at a historic watermill documenting traditional crafts and trades.
The mill itself dates from the 18th century, while the accompanying millhouse was added a few decades later.
Powered by a stream sourced in the Brendon Hills, the waterwheel was restored to working order in 2003 and you can come to watch it in action.
You can also peruse a blacksmith’s forge, cooperage, wheelwright’s shop and saddlery and take a look around an authentic Victorian kitchen, all with genuine utensils and tools on show.
11. Quantock Hills
In 1956 the Quantock Hills to the north of Taunton became the country’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Four miles across and twelve miles long, the range has rambling peaks descending to wooded valleys (or “combes”), easily conquered on foot or by bike.
The highest summit is Wills Neck at 384 metres, just eight miles out of Taunton and with an all-encompassing view that takes in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, as well as Exmoor, Dartmoor and across the county boundary to Pilsdon Pen in Dorset.
The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in the Quantocks and drew on the hills for inspiration.
His home here, the Coleridge Cottage is one of a few National Trust sites in the range.
12. Hestercombe Gardens
In the range just outside Taunton is a glorious estate dating back to the 16th century.
Hestercombe House is owned by Somerset County Council and has a mishmash of styles, from Italianate Baroque to Victorian Neo-Gothic.
The gardens at Hestercombe are astonishing, testifying to 300 years of design.
There’s a Georgian Landscape Garden, a Victorian Terrace and a gorgeous Edwardian Formal Garden, designed by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens, the foremost landscape architects of the period.
Gazing at the flowerbeds, you’ll understand how Jekyll’s approach to colour was influenced by the Impressionists and J. M. W. Turner.
Book a table at the plush Column Room Restaurant at Hestercombe House, browse the plant centre and garden shop and see what you can find at the secondhand bookshop, also in the house.
13. Fyne Court
A recommended day trip into the Quantock Hills, Fyne Court is a National Trust property on the grounds of a country house that burnt down at the end of the 19th century.
After the fire the once manicured grounds returned to nature to become a “wild garden”, and you can look around the surviving buildings and follies.
With the help of information boards you can find out about the fire of 1894, but also get to know a famous former resident, Andrew Crosse, who conducted early experiments with electricity here.
There’s a tearoom, open seven days a week after March, and a play trail in the grounds with games and activities for kids.
14. French Weir Park
Back in Taunton, a little way from the Museum of Somerset is the triangular French Weir Park, bounded on two sides by the River Tone.
The park is practically in the centre of town, but feels rural because of the large sweeps of greenery extending west of Taunton.
It makes for a peaceful place to take a picnic by the water in the company of swans and ducks.
The weir itself is on the park’s southwest border and has a cafe alongside it.
There are also wild areas with interpretation boards, a “bug hotel” and a newly fitted children’s play area.
15. RSPB Swell Wood
Southeast of Taunton is a corridor of ancient woodland about 10 miles long, between Langport and the Blackdown Hills.
Around the middle is an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) nature reserve, supporting the largest colony of grey herons in the southwest of England.
The spring and early-summer months are a fine time to come, when bluebells, orchids and primroses are in flower.
If you drop by in winter you’ll see nuthatches and woodpeckers around the birdfeeders in the car park.