Pack your bags, we’re going to Exeter
The insider's city guide to where to shop, walk, scoff and hang out.
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 all the chains of Princesshay, you’ll find an abundance of menus to peruse at eateries that are intimate, quirky, smart and irrefutably independent.
On Fore Street, The Flat gets a fist bump for its organic, flatbread pizzas and planet-friendly veggie/vegan fare. We also tapped up our fave city salon Amanda Marsden (a totally in-the-know bunch ) for their top tip and they rate Circa 1924 for its steaks, seafood and vibe. But sometimes you have to tip your cap at the ones who’ve stood the test of time and are still rocking it with style. Step up, Harry’s. Even on a desperately cold and rainy Friday night, we recently found this bistro jam-packed 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 night out.
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. 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 10-bedroom Georgian townhouse hotel with a quirky history, in well-heeled Southernhay, a stones 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.
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 the the city’s newest spots is South St Standard, a industrial-looking bar and kitchen located on South Street, backing on to Cathedral Yard. It’s a cafe that wouldn’t look out of place in Berlin, with some funky artwork and the coffee is amazing (those cups = cool). Meanwhile, down on a little Crescent next to Exeter Central Station is the legendary Exploding Bakery. 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 Crocketts Bar, a glam, cosy and super-cool gin bar, found in a Grade II Listed building, within the city’s cultural quarter. The gin selection, cocktail list and knowledge of the bar tenders (who are, by the way, the friendliest in town) is phenomenal, with the selection mainly focused on artisan gins from the South West, but with plenty of top tastes from around the world. Cosy and atmospheric downstairs, upstairs in the Library, you can sit, sup and catch up with your date for the night. Bliss.
Yes, Exeter’s city centre is dominated by Princesshay and a high street full of chains, but there are some cracking indie boutiques tucked away, 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 (another fab, buzzy lunch spot for pondering that top you just fell in love with). Here, you’ll find a beautifully curated collection of soft knits, cool kicks, jewellery, gifts and homewares. And, happily, *super-flashy-newsflash*, the city has just gained the latest store from Busby & Fox, on Cathedral Yard. You’ll spot owner and florist Emma’s beautiful trademark blooms just outside and they WILL tempt you in.
But if losing hours looking at pretty things in a striking shop is your thing, 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 totally sniff out a decent spa and carve out an hour or two’s relaxation. And if you’re anything like me, I’d point you in the direction of Amanda Marsden’s Aveda Lifestyle Salon & Spa. An unexpected oasis in the heart of the city, walk past this handsome building and you’ll be lured in by the whiff of uplifting lotions and potions.
But if you want something more adventurous and energetic, then seek out Saddles & Paddles down on Exeter’s Quayside. Here, within the arches next to the canal, 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!)
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. But if burning energy is the requirement of the day, then 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. 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 an institution in the gifts, clothing and homewares department. Housed across two floors of a Victorian building on Queen Street, Toot Garook arguably helped blaze the trail for indie lifestyle stores in the city and has been selling an eclectic selection of quirky pieces within its treasure trove since 1995. The store is still gaining recognition by award-giving types today, so it’s clearly hitting the mark.
Then we come to Fore Street, where you’ll find two brilliant sustainable stores – one for women and one for male-types a few doors down. Sancho’s is 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, while Exeter was recently dealt a blow by the announcement that the brilliant Bikeshed Theatre is closing (sob), watch out for news of the Boatshed, which we hope will take the cultural baton and run with it. Exciting!
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 coffee and cacti? No problemo. Hutch – possibly Exeter’s most Instagrammable space – is a pop-up 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. With a coffee machine behind the counter and a little space to just sit and be, this one should be visited before it disappears (rumoured to be in June, but who knows!).
And what kind of hipster category would this be if we didn’t bring you a micropub? Brand, spanking new to Exeter, The Pursuit of Hoppiness is an ale and winehouse that opened in mid-March, but has been beering up Bridport for the past year, with what it calls its ‘monument to real ale, scrumptious cider and wonderful wines, old world and new’. It’s so new we’ve not been, but if the exterior is anything to go by, it definitely caught our eye, wandering past.
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