No matter what type of day out you are looking for, the county of Essex to the east of London has something to offer everyone. Whether you love historic sites or nature reserves, quaint market towns, or seaside resorts, there’s something for everyone in Essex and plenty of fun things to do.
This post outlines 13 of the best days out in Essex.
Ideas for days out in Essex
Colchester Castle is an iconic attraction in Essex and an absolute must-see on any visit to the county. It’s one of the top days out in Essex.
Built by the Normans in 1076 on the ruined site of a temple from when Colchester was Britain’s Roman capital, it is the largest of the Norman keeps across Europe. It was designed to be similar to the White Tower at the Tower of London.
When you visit, you can take a tour down to the vaults and then up to the rooftop, all the while learning about the castle’s history. There are great views across Colchester from the top, so try to go up if you can.
There is also a variety of attractions to see here, including paintings, statues, and Celtic coins. And if you’re visiting with kids and want something more interactive to bring to life the history of the place, you can drive a chariot or fire a replica bolt thrower.
You can also hire a tablet for £1, which provides more interactive content as you explore the castle. It includes games and reconstructions of how the castle might once have looked.
Colchester Zoo is another of the top attractions in Essex. It’s a great day out, especially for animal lovers.
The zoo covers an area of 60 acres and allows you to see many different species of animals, birds, and reptiles. There are bears, elephants, giraffes, penguins, wild cats, monkeys, meerkats, tortoises, red pandas, and vultures, to name but a few. In all, the zoo is home to more than 160 different species.
As well as exploring the different sections of the zoo, you can book animal experiences. These include shadowing a zoo keeper or becoming a keeper for the day! If you don’t have time for these types of experiences, or want to avoid splashing out the money, a more affordable option is to book a short slot to feed the giraffes or lorikeets.
For those looking to visit a fun and vibrant seaside resort, head to Southend-on-Sea. Situated at the end of the Thames Estuary and on the North Sea, there are lots of great beaches to explore, particularly when the weather is good. It’s a perfect seaside day out in the summer for the whole family.
One of the most popular activities in the city is to visit the famous Southend Pier, which is the world’s longest pleasure pier. You can walk along its entire length, which stretches for a mile and a third, or take the Southend Pier train. Once here, you can play crazy golf, take a boat trip, visit the museum or just enjoy the stunning views.
Southend also has a Sealife Centre, ten-pin bowling, escape rooms, and amusement arcades along the seafront. You can visit Prittlewell Priory and the Clifftown Telephone Museum (believed to be one of the tiniest museums in the world). There are also several art galleries.
And if having the world’s longest pleasure pier isn’t enough, Southend also boasts Britain’s shortest funicular railway, The Cliff Lift. At the top, you get some fantastic views out over the sea.
If you’re looking for other seaside resorts to visit in South East England, see my post on a day out in Brighton. I have also written about the top things to do in Broadstairs in Kent and in Whitstable.
Audley End House and Gardens
A visit to Audley End House and Gardens near the small town of Saffron Walden in Essex is a great way to spend a day if you want to learn about bygone times. This beautiful 17th-century house is said to have once been “one of the largest and most opulent houses in Jacobean England”. It certainly is impressive.
You can explore inside and walk around the rooms used by the residents and the servants. One of the rooms houses a state bed, regarded as among the most important 18th-century beds that still exists in England.
The gardens – designed by the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown – are one of the highlights. There are beautiful gardens, a lake, and an extensive park – perfect places to walk around on a fine day. You can also pop into the stables and pet the resident horses!
You could always combine a visit to Audley End House and gardens with a trip to the pretty market town of Saffron Walden.
The town is well known for its medieval architecture and charming cobbled streets. It’s great for pottering around, with its independent shops and eateries along the main street and the county’s largest parish church (St. Mary’s).
It has a history museum with the remains of a 12th-century castle, and a lovely garden (Bridge End Garden), modelled on Victorian designs. There is also not one, but four mazes to get lost in in Saffron Walden!
I’d definitely recommend popping into the town if you’re nearby at Audley End – perhaps time your visit so you can stop off for lunch or a cake in a local tea room.
Colne Valley Railway
A ride on the Colne Valley heritage railway is a perfect way to experience some of Essex’s picturesque countryside. And it’s a great day out for train buffs!
The railway line runs for around a mile alongside the River Colne. You can see restored signal boxes and bridges along the way as you sit on vintage train carriages.
In addition to the train trip, there are several other train-related things to do on a trip here. There is a 7-and-a-quarter-inch miniature train that you can ride alongside the main railway lines. For lovers of model railways, you can stop off to look at one and if need be, buy parts for your own in the on-site shop.
There’s also a working signal box where you can watch the signal men pull the leavers. And you can pop into a Post Office Sorting Carriage to learn more about mail trains. You can have a really fun day out here!
Mountfitchet Castle and the Norman Village of 1066
A visit to Mountfitchet Castle and the Norman Village of 1066 gives you the opportunity to learn about life in medieval times.
Set across 10 acres, the Motte and Bailey castle was originally built by William the Conqueror and reconstructed in the 1980s after it had become overgrown and fallen into disrepair. Consequently, it is the “only wooden Motte and Bailey reconstruction on its original site anywhere in the world”.
When you visit, explore the castle and then wander around the open-air village. Go into the different houses and see the animals that roam freely amongst the buildings (many of which are rescue animals).
There’s also a museum that houses several different interesting and unusual exhibitions and activities. Included within these are the world’s most extensive toy collection (dating back to Victorian times), a Rock ‘n’ Roll exhibition, displays on the Battle of Britain, and a puppet theatre. It also has Del and Rodney’s yellow van from Only Fools and Horses and Star Wars and Dr Who figures!
Dedham Vale, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Essex, covers an area of some 90 square kilometres that borders Suffolk.
Its size means that you can visit several villages and different sites within the area. These include the north east Essex village of Dedham itself and other places across the border into Suffolk. Some are famous for appearing in the works of the famous English painter John Constable.
There is a good choice of different walking and cycling routes that you can take around the area. This website will give you more details to help you plan a visit.
If you have limited time, opt for one of the Dedham walks. Walk 1 here, for example, covers around 4.2 kilometres and is said to take only around an hour to complete. It starts in the historic village of Dedham and then goes across meadows and fields, and past streams. Walk 2 takes you along the side of the River Stour that flows through both Essex and Suffolk and the Stour valley.
Dedham Vale is the perfect place to get away from it all, get some fresh air and admire the stunning scenery.
If you don’t have the time to day trip to the Dedham Vale area and are looking for some fresh air and exercise, head to Epping Forest. It is an area of almost 6,000 acres that borders the Greater London area (and hence it’s a relatively easy place to get to if you’re using public transport, notably the London Underground).
Epping has more trees (a whopping 55,000) in its ancient woodlands than anywhere else in the country. It’s the perfect spot for a nature day out and has many lakes and ponds. You can explore Epping Forest on foot or by bike and participate in activities such as horse riding and fishing. There is also golf course near Chingford.
This website provides more information to help you plan a day in Epping Forest.
Weeleyhall Wood Nature Reserve
Weeleyhall Wood Nature Reserve is another beautiful and tranquil place to spend a day outdoors in Essex. Located near Clacton-on-Sea, this ancient woodland covers about 80 acres and is known for its beautiful wildflowers that bloom here from springtime.
You can wander through the reserve via several circular trails. Depending on the time of year that you visit, you’ll see bluebells, yellow archangels, and moschatel flowers, as well as beautiful butterflies and birds flying around.
This is a great place for nature lovers and families alike, especially on warm sunny days.
Hylands Gardens and Parkland
Hylands Gardens and Parkland in Chelmsford is another of the top days out in Essex.
Hylands House – a white neo-classical 18th-century villa – is part of the 574 acre estate. If you want to explore inside, visit on the third Sunday of the month when the house is open, and there are guided tours and live music playing. You can also browse in the shop and studios in the old stables.
At other times, you can stroll through the gardens and park (which are open daily and offer free entry). There are lots of things to see here. As well as the more formal gardens on the estate (including a Victoria Pleasure Garden with roses), there are woods, ponds, and lakes to discover. You can buy food in the visitor centre (Information Park) to feed the ducks in the pond in the pleasure gardens.
If you are planning a day in the gardens, check out the five designated walks on the estate and choose from these. And if you’re visiting with children, there’s also an adventure playground and picnic area.
Layer Marney Tower
Layer Marney Tower is an impressive Tudor fort located in Essex. It’s only around a 20-minute drive from Colchester Castle, so you could easily visit both on a day out.
This tower was built in the 16th century by Lord Henry Marney and is the tallest Tudor gatehouse in England. When you visit, you can wander around the gardens, see the animals on the farm, and go into the gatehouse and church. There are also some exhibitions you can take a look at. The Edwardian Stables has a tearoom in it, serving local food.
You can visit Layer Marney Tower on selected days from the middle of April.
Lee Valley White Water Centre
The Lee Valley White Water Centre, located in Waltham Cross, is a fantastic day out for those looking for some action-packed and thrilling activities. The outdoor adventure centre provides an incredible white-water ‘Olympic standard’ course that offers a rafting experience for both beginner and more experienced rafters.
If this is not for you, there are other outdoor activities here. There is a lake where you can try your hand at kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding. Or, for some group fun, try the ‘Water Wipeout’, an hour-long inflatable obstacle course on the water.
Days out in Essex
These are just some of the top days out in Essex county and the best things to do on your day out in this fascinating county. I’ve picked ones to try to appeal to everyone – whether you’re a history lover, a train buff, a walker, or love days out in English seaside resorts with all the seaside attractions this offers.
I hope you have a great time in Essex!
Other ideas for days out and short breaks in the UK
For other ideas for days out and short breaks in the UK, see my website. You may be interested in my post on things to do in Whitstable, and days out in East Sussex. In the south west, I have written about a visit to Weymouth, to Lyme Regis, to West Bay and to nearby Beer.