From its Roman walls to its award-winning zoo, the county town is a destination full of appeal
BY Kate Jones
Situated close to the border with Wales, Chester is a city that oozes charm. With its pretty buildings, interesting landmarks and great range of shops and restaurants, the area offers a whole host of things to see and do, meaning that whatever your interests (and knowledge of the locality), you’ll be likely to find something here that keeps you entertained. Despite being such a captivating destination in the present, however, much of what makes Chester so special is actually rooted in its past.
Shaping a city
Chester has the Romans to thank for both its existence as a city and the local plan. Following the invasion of Britain by the Roman army in AD 43, the largest legionary fortress in Roman Britain was established here in the AD 70s, known as Deva (full name Deva Victrix) due to its location on the River Dee. It was the Roman period that saw the original construction of Chester’s city walls, the longest, most complete and oldest in Britain today.
After the departure of the Romans, the Saxons rebuilt Chester in the 10th century, with this group repairing and enlarging the walls to their present position. The strategic importance of the city as a trading and military hub was re-established at this time, and during the Norman era, it additionally served as a military and administrative capital for the region. The 13th and 14th centuries saw Chester grow in prosperity owing to its importance as the leading port regionally. This period resulted in the interesting and unique legacy of the Chester Rows – a set of continuous, half-timbered galleries which provide a second row of shops above those at ground level along four of the city’s streets.
The English Civil War left a permanent mark on the area after the Siege of Chester between 1644 and 1646, due to it resulting in damage to much of the medieval city. However, the Georgian era featured the addition of four main entrance gates to the city walls and reconstruction of the walls to enable pedestrian access. The Victorian and Edwardian periods, meanwhile, saw the Black-and-White Revival imprint itself on Chester, with this architectural movement leading to many of the city centre facades it is known for today. In more recent times, the settlement has been the birthplace of figures like Michael Owen and Daniel Craig, as well as serving as the setting for the TV soap Hollyoaks (though, in fact, filming usually occurs in Liverpool).
The array of places of interest in Chester today means you stand little chance of getting bored here whether you’re a visitor or a local. History enthusiasts are well catered for, as the city offers the opportunity to visit sites including Chester Roman Amphitheatre (the biggest in Britain), the Grosvenor Museum and the more immersive Sick To Death and Deva Roman Experience. Other local attractions include the pedestrianised walls, Eastgate Clock (said to be England’s most photographed clock after Big Ben), the collection of independent and chain shops and Chester Cathedral. This religious building started life in 1092 as a Benedictine abbey and has recently finished a project to recreate the venue in Lego.
Chester is well known as a destination for horse racing, with Chester Racecourse (alternatively known as the Roodee) holding a Guinness World Record for being the oldest horse racecourse (in operation). The venue was brought into existence after the region’s Goteddsday football match was judged to be too violent, observing its first recorded race in 1539. The Chester Cup is the annual highlight here, though the racing calendar unfolds between May and October.
Outside the city centre, Chester Zoo has won multiple awards and was the second-most-visited attraction outside London in 2021 (according to figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions). The venue is home to over 20,000 animals, with 128 acres of zoological gardens also available for guests to explore. Follow your own route around the site and get to know the residents at your own pace, or catch a talk from a zoo ranger.
A gastronomic spread
Chester boasts no shortage of locations to eat and drink at. The city is currently home to five Michelin Guide restaurants, with these offering a number of different dining options. The Forge has a passion for simple cooking over charcoal and fire, while Covino provides a daily-changing menu of small plates which are seasonally inspired (plus more than 130 different wines). Da Noi is an Italian restaurant that promises “elegant, innovative dining”, while Upstairs at the Grill is inspired by New York’s legendary steakhouses. Arkle, meanwhile, offers continually-changing tasting menus, with new dishes reflecting the season’s best fresh produce.
A range of different cuisines can be enjoyed locally. Chester’s top-rated restaurant on Tripadvisor (as of August 2023) is Rio Brazilian Steakhouse, a small chain which provides a Brazilian churrasco dining experience. Celebrated Polish dumplings can be found nearby at Pierogi, while Marmalade is a popular licensed cafe serving breakfasts and lunches. Another fab local spot is Hanky Panky – the place to be if you’re a pancake fan.
The new Chester Market opened in November 2022, welcoming more than 1 million visitors in its first six months. Traders here selling products to eat or drink include Cheezy Bandits, inspired by the love of cheese, and Guroma, which has a passion for delivering a true Bangladeshi foodie experience. Be sure not to miss a visit to one of Chester’s varied pubs, bars and breweries too, though: venues include The Old Harkers Arms – a child-free pub which argues that “you’re pretty much bound to meet someone interesting” here – and Vin Santo, set in 13th-century crypted cellars. Both are great places to end a visit to the city.
What’s on in October
MBNA Chester Marathon
Various Locations, 8 October
This award-winning race covers both England and Wales, with the day also featuring metric and mini marathons.
Season Finale at Chester Racecourse
Join a once-in-a-season celebration of a year of racing.
Chester Zoo Youth Symposium
This event enables young people to share their passion, knowledge and experiences relating to conservation.
Various Locations, Until 1 December
Curated by artist Ryan Gander, this new biennial will include the work of visual artists and a range of talks, walks and workshops.
Stanley Palace Ghost Hunts
Mark the spooky season with paranormal investigation in a city that offers robust links to the spiritual.