Essex, a county synonymous with the reality show that has made its accent famous, has surprisingly more to offer than people expect. While many Essex residents live here because of its proximity to London, the county is worth a visit in its own right. And with many commuter towns in the county, it’s easy to travel to all the unexpected treasures that Essex has to offer by train or bus. So from vineyards, nature reserves and country parks to museums and theme parks, here are 9 great places to visit in Essex for a fun day out!
This article is written by Faraway Lucy writer, Rebecca Bowers.
1. The Sugar Hut
Address: 93 High St, Brentwood CM14 4RR
Where else to start when visiting Essex than with the infamous Sugar Hut? The nightclub was a regular feature on TOWIE for many years and is perhaps one of the most well-known buildings in the town of Brentwood. Famous faces such as Gemma Collins, Mark Wright and Joey Essex have all partied here. So if you want to follow in their footsteps, this is the place for you. However, its strict dress code means there’s specific footwear you must wear when visiting. No trainers, casual boots or plimsolls here, folks! Don your highest heels, your most sparkly dress and longest lashes, and you’re ready to go.
If you want to visit The Sugar Hut but clubbing isn’t your cup of tea, they also have a restaurant that’s open seven days a week. Lunch and dinner menus are both available, and you can even book in large parties. As an added incentive, if you buy any two courses on a Friday or Saturday, you can bypass the nightclub queue. Win, win!
Unlike in some places in the UK, nightclubs in Essex rarely have free entry. This is the case too for the Sugar Hut, except on Thursdays, and Fridays before 10:30 pm. Drinks are on the more expensive side, but that’s the trade-off for partying at one of the most famous clubs in the UK.
Address: Colchester CO1 1TJ
Many of us know that the Romans invaded Britain nearly 2000 years ago. But did you know that Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town, as it was written about by Pliny the Elder in 77AD? As well as being home to a castle, Colchester seats two of the five Roman theatres found in Britain, and was the capital of Britannia for a number of years, before it was attacked and seized by Boudica. The town is full of Roman history and architecture, making this one of the best places to visit in Essex for history buffs.
One of Colchester’s biggest attractions is the castle, built by William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I, in the 11th century. Many parts of the castle fell into disrepair in the 17th century, until it was bought by Colchester Council in 1922, restored and turned into a museum. The museum has a large variety of exhibits and displays, as well as a fancy dress box where you can try on Roman togas and WWI helmets. Prices are £10.95 for adults, but discounts are available for children, students and group tickets.
If history isn’t your thing, don’t rule out Colchester quite yet. A staple part of growing up in Essex was visiting Colchester Zoo, home to a huge variety of animals, including rare tigers, penguins, and komodo dragons. You can get up close and personal with giraffes and elephants during their feeding time. And a new interactive display allows you to walk with woolly mammoths. You can book online or on the day, with prices varying by date of visit. For the variety of attractions on offer, Colchester is easily one of the best places to visit in Essex.
3. Crouch Ridge Vineyard
Address: Fambridge Rd, Althorne, Chelmsford CM3 6BZ
Phone number: 01621 450450
When you think of vineyards, you probably conjure up images of the sun beating down over California or Italy. What doesn’t come to mind is the Essex countryside! However, nestled away in the middle of the county is a family-run vineyard, which began making wine in 2010. With fifteen acres of south-facing slopes and relatively low levels of rainfall, Crough Ridge Vineyard grows grapes for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines.
From the Wine Cellar Shop, you can purchase any of the wines made here. But if you’re anything like me, you’d rather try before you buy. They offer a number of packages and experiences for visitors, with wine tasting starting from £25 per head, sparkling afternoon tea for two at £50, or if you want to go all out, private buggy tours for £200. Helpfully the vineyard has on-site accommodation for those who don’t want to drive after their visit! And at the Wine Barn, you can sit on the garden terrace overlooking the vineyard and have a bite to eat for brunch, lunch or tapas.
Seasonally they have special events at the vineyard. So it’s a good idea to check their website before visiting to see if they are hosting something extra when you go. Regardless of what you get up to, The Crouch Ridge Vineyard is one of the best places to visit in Essex if you want to feel like you’ve travelled somewhere far more exotic than the East of England.
Address: Western Esplanade, Southend-on-Sea, Essex SS1 1EE
One of Essex’s most popular tourist destinations is Southend-on-Sea. Originally the holiday of choice for Londoners in the post-war era, Southend has retained its reputation for tourism. On a sunny day, you can’t beat walking along the seafront eating a 99 flake. And as a child, I was so excited to see the outline of France across the water. Imagine my disappointment to learn it was actually the Kent coast!
Adventure Island is Essex’s answer to Disneyland, with a rollercoaster and outdoor arcade games for all to enjoy. Billed as the UK’s number 1 free admission theme park, you need to buy tokens to go on the rides. The size of the rides are more suited to children. But if you’re along the seafront and fancy a go on a couple of them, you can buy tokens as and when you want. Alternatively, for a full day out, you can buy a day pass for unlimited fun of water slides, dodgems and candy floss.
Southend is also a record holder, as it’s home to the world’s longest pleasure pier, which has the unfortunate habit of burning down once a decade or so. The pier played an active role in both the world wars, but is now a tourist attraction. You can walk down the 2.1km long pier, or you can relax on the train which runs every fifteen minutes. At the end of the pier, grab hot doughnuts or fish and chips while watching the rolling waves and soaring gulls.
To finish off your trip to Southend, why not pay a visit to Cliffs Pavilion, a medium-sized theatre with a wide variety of performers? Musicals and shows often perform here before or after their West End runs. And the venue has also played host to big artists such as The 1975, Paloma Faith and The Human League. Tribute acts are a regular occurrence too! Situated just a mile away from Southend Victoria train station, it’s easy to get home afterwards.
5. Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome
Address: Hackmans Lane, Flambird’s Chase, Chelmsford CM3 6RJ
Phone number: 01245 429134
This is one of the best places to visit in Essex for plane enthusiasts! Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome dates back to World War One and houses a large collection of Royal Flying Corps buildings and equipment within its walls. It opened in 1916 as the base for the B Flight of No 37(HD) Squadron, whose pilots played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain. The site closed in 1919 and stayed that way until local councils bought it in 2012 and renovated it into a museum.
During your visit, you can eat in the Airmen’s Mess just as the men stationed here would have done in the war. Afterwards, you can also see where they would have slept and trained. Exhibits such as the history of the Women’s Air Force, replica planes and interactive activities means there’s something for everyone. The airfield also often puts on impressive flying displays where you can see the old planes in action. Perfect for any aviation fan!
If planes don’t pique your interest, the surrounding area is one of significant natural interest, with all five of the UK’s natural owl species residing here. You can walk around the fields and lanes for miles, admiring the Essex countryside.
A trip to the aerodrome is an inexpensive day out with adult tickets costing £9, and reduced fares for seniors and children. The airfield is currently open Friday-Sunday 10 am-3 pm. I’d advise booking ahead to ensure you don’t miss out on this historical site.
6. Lee Valley White Water Adventure
Address: Station Road, Waltham Cross EN9 1AB
Phone number: 0300 003 0616
Although strictly just outside of Essex (by a mere five miles), Lee Valley is a must-visit attraction for any visitors to the county. There are all the activities you’d expect, like kayaking, rafting, and paddle boarding. However, there are also more unusual activities such as hydrospeeding and disc golf, too. If you’ve ever wondered how you would fare on Total Wipeout, there’s even a water obstacle course to test your balance and speed. Oh, and you can’t leave without paying a visit to the 2012 Olympic white water rafting course.
Prices vary by activity, with paddling starting at £5 per person, and water rafting costing £50 each. You get your money’s worth from it though, with sessions lasting sixty minutes to two hours. All equipment is provided, although some activities have strict clothing requirements so it’s best to check before you visit. Wet suits are available to hire if you want one!
There are sports for all abilities and adventure levels. And those who aren’t strong swimmers shouldn’t worry, as the weaker swimmers can be given a different colour buoyancy aid. This will give you priority if your raft overturns. When you’re finished with your watery adventure, you can dry off at The Terrace Café with food and drink. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy the (hopefully) warm weather.
7. Hadleigh Park
Address: Hadleigh Country Park, Chapel Lane, Hadleigh SS7 2PP
If you’d rather keep yourself on firm ground, but still think you can take on an Olympic sport, head over to Hadleigh Park, where the London Olympic Games mountain biking competitions took place. The course has now been adapted so members of the public can take part. With over 387 acres of land, there’s plenty of space for four different trails depending on your skill level. Before you ride, you can take advantage of the Skills Area, designed to develop your technique and improve your confidence on the trail.
If you don’t have a bike or you don’t have the means to transport your bike there, no fear! Mountain bike hire is available for £12 for an hour, rising to £24 for 4+ hours. All cyclists must wear a helmet, but you can hire one of these too for a small fee.
Hadleigh Park is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Its mixture of grasslands and woods makes it home to rabbits, hares, stoats, grass snakes and adders, as well as a herd of Red Poll cattle. There are views of the Thames estuary and the charming Hadleigh Castle from the trails. If you’d rather explore the park at a more sedate pace, there are miles of trails suitable for walking. And there’s even an option to go glamping in the park! As one of the largest green spaces the county has to offer, this is one of most beautiful places to visit in Essex.
Address: Promenade Park, Park Drive, Maldon CM9 5JQ
One of my absolute favourite walks in Essex, especially with my dog, is along the Maldon Promenade and High Street. On the Promenade you walk along the River Blackwater, often overtaking impressive barges and sailing ships. At the end is a tall statue dedicated to Byrhtnoth who fought against the Viking invasion in the 10th century. From here you can admire the view across the river and salt marshes.
Promenade Park is full of booths to buy refreshments, including the famous Mrs Salisbury’s Tea Room selling afternoon tea, paninis, and hot drinks. Or if you’d rather eat with views on the river, a barge has been converted into a café. Here you can sit above or below deck. There’s plenty to keep everyone occupied in the park, with a petting zoo, kids’ sandpit and play area, Pirate Bay crazy golf, and cruises along the Blackwater. The park is open daily from 7.30 am until dusk, and free to enter. However, the car park is Pay and Display.
Maldon High Street
Past the park, you can walk up Maldon High Street, with a mix of big-name shops and independent stores. As the ancient market town dates back to 1109AD, it has a vibrant yet historical feel to it. This is why it was recently chosen as a filming location for the adaptation of Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent, starring Tom Hiddleston. Maldon is the perfect place for a relaxed day out, especially if you’re visiting with children or dogs.
9. Hamford Water Nature Reserve
Address: The Quay TDC Parking, Harwich CO12 3HH
In the backwaters of the Hamford Water Nature Reserve are over 250 seals. What started as a family of five in 1986 has grown massively over the years. So much so that you can be taken out on a boat to see them. In addition to seals, you’ll also get to see a variety of birds, including curlews, sandpipers, gannets and arctic skuas. In fact, the nature reserve is an internationally important wetland for birds (RAMSAR). As well as being home to many species of wildlife, this beautiful part of the coastline is said to have inspired Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons book.
The seal watching company that runs these tours guarantees that you’ll see the seals up close. And if you don’t, you’ll get a free trip! The boat tours depart from Half Penny Pier and run for 90-120 minutes. Tickets are £24 each, or to privately hire the boat it’ll cost you £240. They do apologise on their website that their boat, built in 1944, is not disability friendly, so it may not be accessible to all guests.
You’re advised to dress warmly and bring a spare set of clothes to leave in the car and change into when you’re finished, as you’re likely to get wet on board. The boats sail in all weathers, other than extremely strong winds, but there’s a cabin for winter trips. With four trips a day, there are plenty of chances to catch a good sighting of these amazing creatures.
So there you have it: 9 great places to visit in Essex for a fun day out. I hope that this has given you a taste of what visiting Essex would be like. There are some well-known attractions like Colchester, Southend and the TOWIE nightclub. But seal watching, wine tasting and mountain biking are lesser-known tourist activities. There are places here that will suit everyone, from family days out with children to fun nights out with friends. But which of these places to visit in Essex are you most desperate to visit? Please let me know in the comments below!
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