It was my first trip to Chester but I felt a distinct case of déjà vu. It was like someone had taken the best bits from cities around the UK and spliced them together. The Roman walls could’ve been from York, the riverside from Bath, the cathedral from Canterbury and the canalside from Birmingham. It was like a highlights reel from my weekend break guides! Chester’s position means it could easily be overshadowed by its bigger, brasher neighbours Manchester and Liverpool. But it packs a lot into a small space and has plenty of character, history and style of its own. So here’s my guide to spending 48 hours in Chester.
Check into the Roomzzz Chester City, a modern apartment-style hotel by the racecourse. Each room comes with a mini-kitchen with hob, fridge and dishwasher if you want to whip up your own food. There’s also a ‘grab and go’ breakfast where you can help yourself to pastries, fruit, juice and coffee. Rooms start from £60 a night. Or if you want to splash out then head to the Grosvenor, a Chester institution in a black and white building in the heart of the city. It’s real old-fashioned luxury, from the top-hatted doorman and crystal chandeliers to the Michelin-starred restaurant and Elemis spa. Rooms from £150 a night.
Have dinner at Upstairs at the Grill, a two-storey New York-style steakhouse near the racecourse. As you’d guess they specialise in steak, with a range of different cuts of local meat dry-aged for five weeks. If you’re not a steak fan there are dishes like lamb rump, lobster and pan-fried sole on the menu too.
Start the day with a big breakfast and get your comfy shoes on for a circuit of the city walls. The first walls were built by the Romans back when Chester was a fortress known as Deva Victrix, and they’ve been added to over the years. They run for two miles in a circuit around the old city, with medieval gates and towers along the way. You pass under the ornate Eastgate Clock, built on top of a bridge to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. It’s England’s second-most-photographed clock, beaten only by Big Ben’s clock tower. There are some remnants of Chester’s Roman history around too, including Britain’s largest Roman Amphitheatre and fragments from the old Roman Baths in the Roman Gardens.
Next head inside Chester’s most imposing building – the cathedral. It started life as an abbey before becoming a cathedral in 1541, and you can climb the tower for one of the best views of Chester. There are a couple of different tower tours – a 30-minute one (£6 per person) which visits the tower and bell-ringing chamber, and a one-hour one (£8 adults or £6 children) which also goes up into the cathedral galleries. There are usually a few tours each day, except Sundays – check their website for dates and times. Then walk just around the corner for lunch at Ginger, a friendly, relaxed little wine bar and deli which serves homemade soups, sandwiches and meat and cheese platters along with a good range of wines.
Chester is home to the original medieval version of a shopping mall – the Rows. These double-decker shops are unique to Chester (and a good place to hide out if it rains). Each black and white building has a layer of shops or restaurants on the ground floor, then another on a raised level above. The shops are great for browsing, with a mix of High Street favourites and local independents. Or if you’re a serious shopper then head just out of town to Cheshire Oaks – a big designer outlet village with over 145 shops.
Have a pre-dinner drink in the Secret Garden at Oddfellows hotel, with cocktails in summer and hot toddies and an outdoor fireplace in winter. Then have dinner at Porta, a cosy tapas bar under Chester’s Northgate Bridge. It’s owned by the brothers who set up the popular deli-restaurant Joseph Benjamin next door. There are a lots of traditional tapas dishes on the menu, like croquetas, patatas bravas, ox cheeks and lentil and chorizo stew, along with with a selection of Spanish sherries, wines and cavas.
Take a morning boat trip on the River Dee (adults £7.50, concessions £6.50 and children £2.50, with a discount if you book in advance online). Half-hour city tours departs at least once an hour from The Groves. They take you upstream under the Queen’s Park suspension bridge, past Grosvenor Park and through the meadows. Along the way you get background on the city’s history and some great views.
Next talk a walk along the Shropshire Union Canal, which runs along the edge of the city. The towpath passes the city walls and converted industrial buildings, locks and narrow boats. Then refuel with Sunday lunch at Artichoke in a former mill on the canalside (it gets busy though so it’s a good idea to reserve a table). If it’s sunny grab a spot outside by the water, or head inside where it still has the original bare bricks and iron columns from its days as a warehouse. As well as a choice of roasts there are Mediterranean-style salads and pizzas on the lunch menu, as well as a selection of craft beers and an immense gin list.
Finish off your weekend with a trip to the zoo. Chester Zoo is on one of the largest zoos in the country with over 20,000 animals (adults £24 and children £20 on the gate, but you can save about 30% if you book online in advance). It’s just outside the city and if you don’t have a car it takes about 20 minutes on the number 1 or X8 bus. It was founded in 1930 and focuses on conserving endangered species and keeping the environment as natural as possible. You can visit replicas of South-East Asian islands as well as the Elephant House, a Black Rhino reserve and the Realm of the Red Ape, and there are lots of activities for kids.
Have you visited Chester? Do you have any tips to add on what to see, do and eat?