With the west’s best shopping, food and nightlife, plus great countryside, beaches and activities right on the doorstep, Devon's county town of Exeter makes a perfect city break destination
Exeter is the best place west of Bristol to stay for a city break. It has all the right ingredients: the best shopping and eating for 100 miles, great hotels and bars, unique attractions and a real after-dark buzz. And it stands in the middle of gorgeous countryside, moorland adventures and top seasides.
You might say I’m biased. I spent the first 20 years of my life there. It’s difficult to be objective about your beloved hometown. But to prove my impartiality I’ll say this: Exeter used to be a bit of a dump. Now it’s brilliant.
When I was growing up, the only famous bit was the notorious bypass, a long bottleneck jammed by holidaymakers heading west. No-one thought of stopping off in Devon’s sleepy, dowdy county town. The M5 arrived but at first visitors sped past on their way to Torquay and Cornwall. But gradually Exeter seemed to spark into life as big London organisations like the Met Office and Reuters moved west. And I can’t help wondering if it was anything to do with me moving away.
Now when I return I can hardly believe Exeter’s thriving centre. The newest bit, ‘Princesshay’, replaced some dour brick office blocks where my mum used to work. She wouldn’t recognise it now: it’s a glossy pedestrianised ‘Quarter’ with pavement cafes and trendy shops like Apple, Orange Tree and Fat Face.
My favourite new bit is around Gandy Street. This was a scary dark alley in my day. Now it’s packed with quirky shops, bars, clubs and restaurants - like Coolings, The Cavern and The Vaults - and leads to the excellent Phoenix Arts Centre, live venue and wi-fi café-bar at the end. The High Street may be dominated by chain stores but at the last count there are 350 independent traders in spots like Cathedral Close, Fore Street heading down the hill to the river and bohemian Sidwell Street, leading east.
With more than 16,000 students at university and colleges, Exeter now has lively pubs and cafes, a busy arts scene and a full what’s-on listing. Thanks to them, this compact little place can support three theatres, plenty of cinemas, music venues and clubs.
Things have certainly progressed since my family went for meals at the bus station café. Now two-Michelin-starred celebrity chef Michael Caines has a gorgeous restaurant facing the cathedral. And Exeter rates as one of the top 20 cities to eat out in the UK, according to the Good Food Guide. Try Café Paradiso (when the Hotel Barcelona reopens), the trendy Exe-Shed in Princesshay, Michelin-recommended Angela’s down towards the river, and cosy Number 21 by the cathedral. There’s great pub food at places like semi-circular Hourglass above the river, and the old Double Locks and Turf Tavern along the canal banks.
The city’s big historic attraction is the cathedral. It’s a world-class sight - one of England’s oldest, most distinctive medieval monuments. The dramatic west front is a Devon icon, with its 83 carved statues. Imagine what it originally looked like painted in bright colours. Locals used to think they were actually entering heaven when they walked in the doors. Some thought it so sacred, they ground bits of stone off the walls, stirred them into water and drank them. Visitors don’t have to do that these days but stepping inside the cathedral will still take your breath away - the longest Gothic vaulted roof in the world will have you gazing up to heaven just as the designers intended almost 1,000 years ago.
Outside, the grassy Cathedral Close is lined with great restaurants, shops and bars. Once it was a haunt of Devon’s Elizabethan seadogs, including Drake and Raleigh. The Royal Clarence Hotel, the country’s oldest hotel, is now a stylish boutique hotel, ABode Exeter, with Michael Caines’ restaurant downstairs. The trendy Hotel Barcelona is a great rival but shut in 2009 for refurbishment. Other good Exeter hotels include the modern Southgate in Southernhay, the old White Hart Inn in South Street and the Queens Court Hotel on a leafy square near the centre.
Walking across the ancient cobbles of the Cathedral Close - stones dredged from the bed of the River Exe - it really feels like you’re walking in the footsteps of Tudor seadogs. And Drake and Raleigh would have known the historic quayside down by the river best of all. It’s now nicely restored with bars, restaurants, nightclubs and shops. There’s plenty to do here, and bikes and boats can be easily hired. The ride or walk down the canal towpath is a fine adventure and there are good pubs along the route.
Other highlights include the red sandstone Norman castle amid the trees of Northernhay Gardens, a medieval guildhall on the High Street and the Tudor ‘house that moved’ in St Mary’s Steps - a half-timbered treasure that was moved on rollers 100 yards out of the path of a new road. And under the city centre is a unique attraction - a recently-restored network of spooky medieval tunnels, Exeter’s Underground Passages. Look for the memorable sight of a manhole cover - from underneath.
Guidebook: Devon - The Best of Britain by Simon Heptinstall
Local listings: The Express and Echo