Colchester (pop. 142,000) is the number one tourist destination in Essex. Not that there much else to see around Essex, but Colchester is definitely not to be missed.
The town was the capital of Roman Britannia and was then known as Camulodunum. It could well be England's oldest city, dating back to the 5th century BC, well before the Romans arrive in 43 CE. Cunobelin, King of the Britons, had settled in Colchester since 5 CE, which made it a target for the Roman invaders. The town was ravaged by Boadicea in 60 AD, by the Normans in the 11th century and again during the English Civil War in 1648.
Colchester's main sight is its castle, which boasts the biggest dungeon tower in Europe. William the Conqueror started its construction in 1076 on the remains of the Roman Temple of Claudius, and the last stone was laid in 1125. The castle was used as a prison in the 14th century.
One of the remarkable aspects of this ancient fortress is the surviving Roman vaults with its mosaics and statues.
The castle is open all year round from 10am to 5pm (last entry 4:30pm ; Sunday from 11am), except on 25, 26, 27 December, 1 and 2 January. Admission is £4.50 for adults and £2.90 for children between 5 and 15 and concessions.
Colchester Zoo is one of the best zoo in Europe, particularily renowed for its white tigers and other felines and for its apes.
Admission is £10.79 for adults and £6.29 for children between 3 and 14 years old. The Zoo is open all year round (except Christmas) from 9:30am to 6pm (until 6:30pm in July and August, and 5pm or dusk from October to March).
Colchester has three museums, the most interesting being the Tymperleys Clock Museum. Housed in an Elizabethan timber mansion, Tymperleys has one of the most impression collection of clocks and watches in Britain, dating from 1640 to 1840. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm, and is closed from November to May. Admission is free.
The Hollytrees Museum has an array of Victorian toys mostly destined to children. The Natural History Museum is dedicated to the local environment. Both museums have the same opening hours as the castle and admission is free.
How to get there
Colchester is 45min by train from London's Liverpool station (£16.90).
National Express buses from London make the trip for £8 one-way or £9 return.