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Trip Planner Europe  /  UK  /  England  /  Essex
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Things to do: parks, zoos & aquariums, nightlife
The gently rolling landscapes of Essex have long inspired the works of some of Britain’s best-known artists, yet many people still regard this region as an urban wasteland devoid of places to visit. Nothing could be further from the truth: the rural parts of this region break the classic Essex stereotype, featuring an idyllic countryside dotted with small, bustling towns and sleepy medieval villages perfect for sightseeing. John Constable, one of the country’s beloved painters, found plenty of inspiration in the region’s winding country lanes, which have seen little change for many centuries. Modern tourists can tour the old buildings of historic Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town, which dates back to before the Roman conquest and contains an ancient Norman castle. Plan your trip to Essex and other United Kingdom (UK) destinations using our handy United Kingdom (UK) travel itinerary planner.
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Essex Holiday Planning Guide

The gently rolling landscapes of Essex have inspired the works of some of Britain's best-known artists, yet many people still regard this region as an urban wasteland devoid of places to visit. Nothing could be further from the truth: the rural parts of Essex break the stereotype, featuring an idyllic countryside dotted with small, bustling towns and sleepy medieval villages perfect for sightseeing. John Constable, one of England's beloved painters, found plenty of inspiration in the region's winding country lanes, which have seen little change for many centuries. Tourists can explore the old buildings of historic Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town, which dates back to before the Roman conquest and contains an ancient Norman castle.

Places to Visit in Essex

Leigh-on Sea: One of the region's most bustling oceanside resorts, Southend-on-Sea features a fascinating combination of bumping nightlife, classic carnival fun, and the timeless remnants of a traditional fishing town.

Colchester: Once the capital of Roman Britain and one of the nation's oldest cities, 5th-century Colchester exudes an ancient charm, with a host of pleasant streets lined with historical buildings, clusters of Roman ruins, and an imposing castle built by William the Conqueror himself.

Brentwood: Surrounded by fields and forests, Brentwood draws plenty of visitors with its array of charming pubs and bars, from historical establishments featuring outdoor garden spaces to smaller joints boasting cask ales and special brews.

Chelmsford: Though it's the 800-year-old cathedral that likely places Chelmsford on your Essex itinerary, this commuter town rewards deeper exploration with its attractive manor houses and surprisingly diverse shopping options.

Saffron Walden: An abundance of colorful timbered houses, lush gardens, and grand mansions are just a few of the delights that make the medieval market town of Saffron Walden, a center of commerce since the 12th century, one of Essex's can't-miss historical destinations.

Clacton-on-Sea: As its name might suggest, laid-back Clacton-on-Sea occupies a prime spot along the county's famed "Sunshine Coast." Its pleasant town center and sandy beaches, spa resorts, historical fortifications, and waterfront entertainment are all compelling reasons to include this town on an Essex vacation.

Things to Do in Essex

Popular Essex Tourist Attractions

Colchester Zoo: Home to more than 270 different species and a host of themed exhibit areas, the Colchester Zoo is one of the United Kingdom's finest zoos, and features some of the most extensive collections of big cats and primates in all of Europe.

Adventure Island: Few Essex attractions are as iconic as the waterfront amusement park, and Southend's Adventure Island certainly delivers, with more than 40 rides ranging from high-speed thrills and heart-pounding roller coasters to family-friendly arcades and classic bumper cars.

Clacton Pier: Seaside laughs are the hallmark of an Essex holiday, and the Clacton Pier is a perfect place to let loose, as you can take your pick from an array of entertainment venues, cafes, and restaurants, or simply enjoy a relaxing wander.

Southend Pier: As the world's longest pleasure pier, it's no wonder that the 2.16 km (1.34 mi) long Southend Pier stands as one of the city's biggest draws, featuring hosts of local fishermen, outstanding sea views, and even a handy train line.

Tropical Wings Zoo: Dedicated primarily to the butterfly and its many colorful variants, the Tropical Wings Zoo gives you the chance to get up close and personal with these delicate creatures, and enjoy the antics of meerkats, parrots, and the center's reptilian residents.

Audley End House and Gardens: One of the nation's best examples of Jacobean architecture, the palatial estate and residence at Audley End House and Gardens, equipped with its own mini railway, is a fascinating glimpse of country life during the 17th century.

RHS Garden Hyde Hall: Experienced green thumbs and novices alike can pick up a few tricks at RHS Garden Hyde Hall, a botanical garden featuring all sorts of workshops, trail walks, and other activities among its lush greenery.

Clarice House Spa: Take things down a notch while on your trip to Essex at the historical Clarice House Spa, where you can indulge in all sorts of treatments, massages, exercise, and dining on the grounds of a beautiful Georgian manor home.

Old Leigh: Gently tilting masts and bobbing dinghies abound in the harbor of Old Leigh, an Essex fishing village where visitors have the chance to see a slice of the county's historical life among wooden homes and quaint streets.

Colchester Castle Museum: Housed within the imposing walls of the largest Norman fortress in all of Europe, the Colchester Castle Museum boasts extensive collections of artifacts and displays that document more than 2,000 years of British and local history.

Planning an Essex Vacation with Kids

Places to Visit in Essex with Kids

The trio of Colchester, Clacton-on-Sea, and Leigh-on Sea boast the lion's share of Essex's attractions, and therefore receive a huge portion of the region's visitors, tourists, and holidaymakers. The diverse array of things to do in these historic towns is more than enough to fill your family's time. The coast is positively bursting with destinations ideal for families, from the glitzy lights of Leigh-on Sea and bustle of Maldon to the rustic charm of Harwich and the fun-filled fishing traditions of Mersea Island.

Head inland to explore Essex's smattering of charming villages and to learn about rural life old and new, from the timbered beauty and medieval heritage of Saffron Walden to the sleepy splendor and historical buildings of Horndon-on-the-Hill. Alternatively, make for larger urban centers like Braintree, Chelmsford, and Harlow for easy access to all sorts of chain restaurants, stores, and accommodations, along with their own selections of kid-friendly attractions.

Things to Do in Essex with Kids

Essex is renowned for its waterfront entertainment, and few destinations offer better family-friendly options than the many pleasure piers scattered along the county's coast. Once frequented by Victorian-era workers, the piers exude a bit of a dilapidated charm sure to fascinate parents and history buffs, while at the same time providing plenty of good times in the form of amusement parks, carnival games, arcades, and restaurants for the younger members of your family. Clacton Pier and Southend Pier, along with Adventure Island, are some of the most famous, but lesser-known examples like Walton Pier also deliver. Famous Colchester Castle, imposing Hedingham Castle, and the Norman-style village at Mountfitchet Castle can transport the little ones back in time, giving them a look at countryside life a millennium ago.

Colchester Zoo, reputed to be among the country's and the continent's best zoos, delights young visitors with its variety of rare and endangered animals, lush enclosures, and array of activities on offer for families. Older kids may appreciate a break from sightseeing in Essex with an adrenaline-pumping round of go-karting at Brentwood Karting or an intense game of paintball at Delta Force Paintball Billericay.

Keep in mind during your Essex vacation, particularly in the warmer months, that a quick beach stop on one of the county's fine shorelines makes for a simple (and free) way to chill out for a few hours. Clacton-on-Sea Beach and Walton On The Naze beach are relaxing stops. City parks like Great Notley Country Park near Braintree or Hadleigh Country Park make great inland alternatives, as do Essex's abundant green country lanes and hiking trails.

Tips for a Family Vacation in Essex

Essex, right next door to London, is a major commuter county, and many of the residents of its cities and towns make their way to the British capital each day for work, so it's well-served by the English road network. Therefore, renting a car for your Essex trip is certainly an economical and convenient option, as you can traverse the relatively short distances between destinations both on the coast and inland in a short time. When traveling with the kids, this can cut out a great deal of the hassle and headache of corralling multiple youths onto public transportation each day, and also gives you the freedom to visit countryside sites.

Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Essex

Cuisine of Essex

Fresh marine food sourced from the cold waters of the North Sea is king in Essex, and both casual vacationers and major foodies will find plenty of opportunities to sample local fare. Consider including historical fishing villages in your Essex itinerary if you're craving traditional seafood specialties. Places like Leigh-on Sea and Clacton-on-Sea boast classic fish and chips dishes, along with plenty of variations, and Old Leigh in particular is famous for its wide selection of "cockle sheds," where you can pick up a tasty cupful of these clam-like local staples. Other shellfish and ocean-dwelling delicacies make up a huge part of Essex's traditional cuisine, and you'll find that oysters, mussels, clams, and brown shrimp are mainstays of seaside cafes, shops, and restaurants throughout the county. Fish-lovers will also find plenty to satisfy their tastes while on vacation in Essex, as mackerel, salmon, and anchovies are just a few of the options commonly available. Try the smoked versions of many local fish: this age-old process blesses the fish with a rich and earthy flavor. For a real thrill, try ordering up a portion of jellied eels, a classic East London specialty that's also extremely popular throughout Essex. Though these cross-sections of eel suspended in gelatin may be hit-or-miss with visitors, there's no denying that they represent a timeless legacy of Essex's working classes. Traditional English home cooking, including pub grub, pies, and roasts, is also prevalent throughout the region, and serves as a hearty way to warm up on a cold night.

Shopping in Essex

Since many of Essex's newer towns developed as suburban outlets for a growing post-World War II London, they feature large selections of stores offering a wide range of consumer goods. Grocery stores, big-name brands, and big department stores are all a common sight on Essex high streets, and cities like Harlow, Braintree, and Chelmsford are all solid destinations for a day of shopping. Many larger towns boast sizable malls, such as Eastgate Shopping Centre and Gosfield Shopping Village. However, Essex also entices visitors with smaller alternatives. Independent art galleries, such as Fry Art Gallery and the galleries at The Minories Galleries carry colorful and one-of-a-kind works, while local craft stores like Dedham Art & Craft Centre supply an entertaining range of handmade goods—solid souvenir material for your Essex trip. Town markets such as those in Saffron Walden and St Osyth are also great for a weekend wander and are often packed with a pleasing mish-mash of antiques, knick-knacks, and plenty of delicious local food products.

Know Before You Go on a Trip to Essex

History of Essex

Essex's rich history stretches back far before the United Kingdom and England as we know them today. Colchester itself was a pre-Roman town, a settlement populated by Britain's native Celtic peoples. However, Roman Emperor Claudius' conquest of the city transformed Colchester, then known as "Camulodunum," into a strategic military garrison and the capital of Roman Britain. Though burned to the ground by Boudica in her rebellion against Roman rule, Colchester and the surrounding villages rose again to become one of Britannia's, and Roman Essex's, most important cities. While on your Essex vacation, you'll be able to catch glimpses of Roman architecture and ruins, usually incorporated into later buildings like Saxon-era St. Botolph's Priory.

The centuries following the fall of Rome saw Essex established as an independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, ceded to the Kingdom of Wessex, and finally incorporated into a united England in the 10th century. The Norman conquest of Britain saw Essex formed as a county in 1139, and gave rise to a whole host of impressive fortifications designed to solidify the Norman hold on the island. Keeps, castles, and forts sprang up across the land, rising from the countryside and standing guard over the county's population centers. While famous Colchester Castle is the largest and most intricate, Essex features many similar structures that have been astounding tourists and discouraging would-be invaders for centuries. Try swinging by sturdy Hedingham Castle or the reconstructed Norman village around Mountfitchet Castle to get a healthy appreciation for these impressive fortresses. Essex's penchant for castles continued into the later medieval period, producing masterpieces like the ruined Hadleigh Castle.

The medieval era also saw the rise of market towns in the interior of the county, including Saffron Walden and Chelmsford, and their many historical timbered buildings, town squares, and merchant homes. Head to Cressing Temple near Braintree to see a preserved timbered barn used by the famed Knights Templar, or admire the beauty of timbered Prittlewell Priory in Leigh-on Sea. Gothic architecture arose as a mainstay of local buildings during this period between the 13th and 16th centuries, including such examples as sizable Chelmsford Cathedral and the Norman church at Waltham Abbey.

Following the Norman invasion, Essex assumed a prominent role as a bulwark against England's rival across the English Channel, France. This well-documented hostility led to the construction of an array of defensive bastions over the centuries, including Harwich's Napoleonic Era-redoubt, Coalhouse Fort, and Tilbury Fort, located strategically along the Thames River.

The development of rail technology and rapid expansion of railway lines from London during the Victorian era led to Essex becoming increasingly connected and accessible to the capital, prompting major growth in its population. Another huge population boom came about after the end of World War II, when thousands of new homes were built in Essex to help alleviate London's housing shortfalls. You can see examples of these growing "bedroom communities" during your Essex trip by stopping by postwar developments like Harlow and Basildon. In the last decade, Essex has seen a flowering of local culture and a host of popular television shows glorifying the historic county, contributing to a strong sense of pride in what it means to be an Essex native.

Landscape of Essex

Serene stretches of North Sea coastline, rolling green hills interspersed with fertile farmland, and vast estuaries—Essex has it all when it comes to natural beauty. An Essex trip encompassing multiple regions of the county can give you a full appreciation for just how varied and beautiful this green land can be, as you can find yourself strolling down country lanes, exploring expansive marshland, and wiggling your toes in soft seaside sand, all in the same day. Ridges and valleys provide great opportunities for wandering and exploring the great outdoors, as does Essex's extensive swath of Epping Forest, a remnant of the nearly endless greenery that once covered much of England. Try stopping by Epping Forest Field Centre to learn more about the surrounding natural environment. Locations surrounding the mouth of the Thames River, such as Tilbury Fort, are great places from which to admire this fascinating landscape where the rich salt water of the ocean meets the nutrient-filled river waters of the county's interior. These estuaries and the huge stretches of tidal mudflats surrounding them are home to much of the teeming local aquatic life so important to the local cuisine and economy.

Holidays & Festivals in Essex

Much like the rest of England and the United Kingdom, Essex celebrates common Western holidays, including Christmas, New Year's, and Easter, with plenty of seasonal spirit adorning cities, towns, and villages. "Bank holidays," as they're known in England, occur at several points during the year, usually at the beginning and end of May and at the end of August, and you'll find that pubs and restaurants are packed with locals enjoying their three-day weekends, particularly during stretches of beautiful weather. Transportation can be limited, businesses closed, and beaches crowded during these short holidays, so plan your sightseeing accordingly. The county's lush rural interior hosts a massive selection of music festivals during the warmer months, so you're likely to find one that piques your interest, from big outdoor events featuring international artists to smaller village gigs in local parks. Celebrations of traditional foods, local beers, and classic Essex countryside culture are also commonplace, so be sure to check out listings during your trip to see what's on offer.

Essex Travel Tips

Climate of Essex

Essex features a climate much like the rest of southern England: mild throughout the year, with the constant potential for gray days. Though England's overall climate makes a waterproof jacket or shell an essential item on your packing list for your holiday in Essex, you'll be pleased to know that this green and pleasant land is one of the least rainy places in the nation. The coastal stretches of the county feature a less variable climate, meaning that they remain warmer in the winter but don't heat up quite as reliably during the summer. However, summertime temperatures can often rise high enough to make kicking back on the beach a viable and enjoyable option. Inland, the region surrounding Braintree and towns closer to London is one of Essex's coldest during the winter, but these inner portions of the county boast significantly warmer weather during the summer months.

Transportation in Essex

As a major commuter county, Essex is well-served by roads, highways, and trains running in and out of nearby London, with decent connections between major towns and cities. However, you'll find that buses are a very useful transport option during your Essex holiday, with a variety of local city vehicles plying routes within towns and larger coaches serving routes between cities. You'll likely end up using a combination of trains and buses while traveling, though keep in mind that bus and train fares can add up quickly if traveling with a family or group. Renting a car can help you to maximize your flexibility and easily make your way between attractions out in the countryside or along the coast, and may be quite an economical option when considering the impact of multiple train tickets and bus fares. With your own car, it's quite easy to make your way between the county's southern coast and its northern, inland reaches via the network of highways radiating outward from London and major Essex cities.

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