Pack your bags, we’re going to Exeter
Staycationing this summer? Then you'll be needing our bang-up-to-date insider guide to the cathedral city, including the tourist classics and hipster hangouts.
Have you checked out Exeter recently? A city neatly tucked between the beaches of the south coast and the wilderness of Dartmoor, it’s such a fab option for a weekender; it’s small, totally walkable and has a very cool visible cross-section of history, starting with *that* gorgeous Gothic cathedral, commanding all the attention on the green; it has a nightlife to please everyone from students to the most discerning crowd; and its indie scene is alive and kicking, baby!
We’ve pounded the streets, hit up the best places to fill your boots and drop some cash and discovered a whole load of fun for you to enjoy, while you’re at it.
The good news is that you can do every meal of the day justice here, with plenty of cake stops in-between if you fancy (I so would, I love a pitstop, me). If this city wore trousers, they’d be missing a top button, because Exeter loves its food and, away from the chains of Princesshay, you’ll find an abundance of menus to peruse at eateries that are intimate, quirky, smart and irrefutably independent.
Let’s start with brunch, shall we. Hotfoot it to Queen Street at the new Pink Moon Cafe (above) – we’re talking healthy Buddha bowls, (not-so healthy) pancakes smothered in Nutella, all the eggs you can dream of or if you’re feeling really naughty, their legendary Bottomless Brunch, £35pp for one and half hours of unlimited Prosecco and a brunch dish of your choice.
For a weekend brunch, how about the Muddy Award-winning Harry’s? Even on a desperately cold and rainy day, we find this bistro to be jam-packed, welcoming and buzzy. With a largely meaty menu, tapping into an impressive list of local suppliers, puds to dive into and plenty of cocktails on offer, you can see why this place is so enduringly popular for a family-friendly night out.
The city is all a-buzz with some new post-lockdown openings – hello, The Ivy! This botanical beauty on Cathedral Green may be a chain but it feels anything but with local artwork on the wall, and an uber-fresh seasonal menu, and a welcome chance to put on the glad rags.
We also recommend you try another newbie on the Green, No5 (above) family-owned by the same couple who own the gin bar, Crocketts on Gandy Street. Here’s another grown-up space, with a gorgeous courtyard garden, for meals and a newly opened upstairs bar, for coffee by day and cocktails with the gals by night, and very reasonably priced for such a luxe vibe.
Fish lovers don’t miss Rockfish on The Quay (above). It’s always buzzy, great with kids, pooch-friendly and the fish menu, which changes depending on the catch, is always super-fresh from Brixham. And your meal comes with great views across Exeter’s quayside.
Just off the High Street, and both owned by chef Lloyd are Lloyds Lounge, good for coffee, lunch and small plates after 6pm (book a summer beach hut for when you want to socially distance), and the new Sabatini serving up fresh all-day Italian classics and a menu for the bambinos to boot.
For all of Exeter’s indie shops and restaurants, we’re a teeny bit disappointed at the accommodation offering; if you’re not careful, you could end up being swallowed up by one of the mega-chains, tailored to conferency types when booking your digs in Exeter. But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as a stay at Southernhay House (above). This hotel should be announced with dry ice and mystical music because it’s totally acing it when it comes to a city break in Exeter. THANK GOD. It’s an intimate 11-bedroom Georgian townhouse hotel with a quirky history, in well-heeled Southernhay, a stone’s throw from the cathedral, and it’s doing casual luxe with aplomb. Think eye-catching antiques, roll top bath tubs, impeccable style and a cocktail bar that wouldn’t look out of place in the capital. This place is fun, refreshing and should be top of your list if you’re coming to town, and they have a new apartment just across the road if you’re looking to keep your social distance or have family in tow.
If you fancy a swim with your stay, Hotel du Vin (above0, has a small spa and pool and is located in an iconic historic pile, once the old eye infirmary.
If you don’t mind being just outside the city – four miles away to be precise – make the family-owned Salutation Inn (above) at Topsham your base, an ancient inn with a thoroughly modern makeover – and all the delights of Topsham, the estuary and its indie shops right there.
When I say this is a walkable city, it really is; you could cover some ground and squeeze all of the highlights into a day, but you can really go at your leisure over two.
If you’re keen on going bespoke, then tailoring a walk around the history is a good bet. You’ll find heaps of historical architecture and interesting old buildings that escaped the hefty bombing efforts during the war. Kick things off at Cathedral Yard, for two iconic chunks of ancient and modern history; opposite the Cathedral you’ll find the boarded up site that was once home to the Royal Clarence Hotel, devastated by a fire in 2017. There’s currently a collection of info-boards, telling the story for visitors. Then, take to the cobbles, passing medieval buildings, smart streets lined with Georgian townhouses, down past Exeter’s most photographed building The House That Moved, towards the Quayside, where you’ll find rich historical pickings.
If you fancy a guided tour and a hit of quirky history, then consider exploring Exeter’s underground passages. Built to house the pipes that brought clean drinking water to the city via natural springs, you’ll wander along dark, narrow, murky vaulted passages that were constructed to carry out repairs back in the day, learning tales from long ago as you creep along. There’s something kind of fun about being underneath the city; kids will love it, but maybe not for the claustrophobic!
Let’s start pre-11am, with the black stuff, shall we? Exeter has a thriving cafe scene and a notably impressive coffee culture. One of Muddy’s favourite spots is Chandos Deli, a friendly glass-sided cafe on Roman Walk in Princesshay, serving up the best homemade sourdough toasties and pastel del nata in the city. Meanwhile, down on a little Crescent next to Exeter Central Station is the legendary Exploding Bakery (above). You must not miss out on a visit to this super-popular spot, for a tray bake and a cuppa. Is it Exeter’s coolest cafe? Probably.
As soon as it’s permissible to switch to the harder stuff, hit up Rendezvous, probably Exeter’s oldest wine bar, and a classic, found down some steps in a Southernhay basement. The wine list is phenomenal, with the selection curated by the owner Rebecca and her sister, the sommelier in the family. And the courtyard garden is a great for a sundowner.
Newer on the scene is Margoux Restaurant & Wine Bar at Mary Arches Street (above) – come hither for your Porn Star Martini, Bellini’s and Aperol Spritz, along with a small but appealing menu which you can eat in or al fresco.
Exeter has the dubious claim to fame of being named as having Britain’s blandest High Street (thank you Luftwaffe), but don’t let that deter you. Head away from the hard-hit chains and down the cobbled side streets, and here are plenty of indies to enjoy. Gandy Street (above) has bijou eateries serving Thai and Portuguese food, as well as Maker Mart, showcasing the best local art.
Hotfoot it downhill to Exeter’s so-called indie quarter on Fore Street for cool cafes – The Glorious Art House Cafe (above) has a cute little courtyard garden and its own first floor gallery, or for plant-based vegan bites, it’s got to be Sacred Grounds – plus vintage and retro stores to rummage around, an impressive vegan soap store selling cruelty and plastic-free make-up, SoapDaze, and the famous Manson’s (where the likes of Devon rock band Muse buy their guitars).
Exeter has some cracking indie boutiques tucked away in its centre too, if you know where to look. Our enduring favourite is Lorna Ruby, a fashion and lifestyle concept store on Catherine Street, handily next door to Lloyds Kitchen (that buzzy lunch spot we mentioned above). Here, you’ll find a beautifully curated collection of soft knits, cool kicks, jewellery, gifts and homewares. And, happily, we also have Busby & Fox, on Cathedral Yard. You’ll spot owner and florist Emma’s beautiful trademark blooms just outside and they WILL tempt you in.
Gifts you’re after? Then you’ll want to know all about the city’s award-winning gift shop Hyde and Seek. Chock full of fun gifts, homeware, toys, books and stationery, it’s the kind of place where you’ll find you want to buy everything, justify that it’ll all make great gifts and then have no intention of giving anything away. Just saying.
So, what kind of tourist are you? If it was me coming for the weekend, I’d go take a gander at our Gothic cathedral, either inside or at least sit on the green with a coffee like a local to admire the exterior.
Then feeling buoyed by the caffeine hit, I’d seek out Saddles & Paddles down on Exeter’s Quayside. The Quay has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and is now a hive of activity, where you you can hire bikes, canoes and kayaks, depending on how you want to see the city and beyond. Whether you want to cycle the paths around the Exe Estuary, or kayak your way to the pub, the whole family can jump aboard and safely explore (they’ve been in business for 25 years, so if anyone knows how to get around, it’s them!)
Just a fifteen minute walk downhill from the city centre and a great Sunday morning chill-out sorta place, Exeter Quay doesn’t have to be all go though. Order a brew from one of the numerous coffee shops, and just sit and watch the rowers and swans glide on by on the river or have a mooch in the stores nestled in the arches, where you can buy gifts, handmade silver jewellery and handcrafted wooden furniture. And don’t miss the chance to buy the most amazing handmade sourdough and cinnamon buns from The Boatyard Bakery & Cafe.
City. And kids. Do the two mix? Absolutely. We’ve hunted down a couple of ideas that should please every member of the family. First up, a visit to Exeter’s RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) is a must. Located on Queen Street, it’s got that ‘important museum building’ vibe going on from the outside, but once you’re in you’ll discover a bustling, fun, interactive space full of collections celebrating Exeter and Devon’s heritage. There’s something to capture the attention of all ages.
If burning energy is the requirement of the day, then Clip ‘n Climb at the Quay Climbing Centre down on the waterside will take up the challenge – making the most of its industrial setting within the city’s former electricity works, it’s got the South West’s largest indoor climbing wall too. The higher they climb, the longer you can savour your flat white.
When it comes to mooching the streets, indie and quirky seem to go very much hand in hand and, once again, we lead you to something totally unique in the UK, let alone Exeter – The Recycled Candle Company (above) on Gandy Street. Here, owners Sargon or Richard take in your burnt-out bits of wax and magically transform them into their own curated range of deliciously scented candles.
Then we come to Fore Street, where you’ll find the brilliant sustainable store Sancho’s doing great things for ethical fashion in the city. Here, you’ll find beautiful collections of affordable, organic, certified fair-trade clothing, accessories and gifts. Big thumbs up and totally worth a look around.
We love Exeter Phoenix, for its indie soul and enticing blend of events happening throughout the year. Whether you want music, film, art, or performance, this is the city’s creative hub (they love a party, too, so keep an eye out for their fun, themed nights). Worth mentioning, too, is the Northcott Theatre, doing its thing for professional theatre for the past 50 – fifty – years.
And finally, if you’re looking to sniff out those true indie’s, doing things in their own authentic way, then we’ve a few suggestions for you to add to your itinerary. First up, you want cacti? No problemo. Hutch – possibly Exeter’s most Instagrammable space – is a cool terrarium and houseplant shop just up the road from John Lewis. Yep, this very funky space is bringing back the retro hanging plants vibe and you can literally feel the oxygen bubbling around you. It started life as a pop-up in 2018 and it’s still here!
And what kind of hipster category would this be if we didn’t bring you a micropub? The confusingly named Topsham Brewery (it’s not in Topsham but on Exeter Quay) is a brewery and taproom that opened in 2018, where you can order a pint and a pizza, soak up some live music and watch the world go by on the Quay’s canal and piazza while you sup.
ON THE MOVE?
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Updated August 2021.