Colchester is one of the most important towns in the east of England when it comes to culture. It’s home to a world-class contemporary art gallery designed by one of the biggest names in architecture; a splendiferous Norman castle housing a sublime museum, an internationally renowned film extravaganza, and the largest medieval festival in Europe.
Culture in Colchester
Taking pole position on our jam-packed jaunt through Colchester’s culture scene is Firstsite, an absolutely stunning contemporary art gallery occupying pride of place in the Lewis Gardens, at the heart of Colchester’s Cultural Quarter. The architecture is worth the visit alone. Firstsite is a £25-million gallery designed by Rafael Vinoly, the world-renowned architect behind the Tokyo International Forum, the Curve Theatre in Leicester, and the new Battersea Power Station. What it lacks in modesty, it makes up for in modernity with its gilded walls and angular design.
It hasn’t been around for very long but Firstsite has fast become one of the most important centres for the visual arts in the east of England. The gallery’s exhibits only run six months at a time and have showcased the works of renowned artists and sculptors like Barbara Hepworth, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei. In fact, the only permanent exhibit at Firstsite is the Berryfield Mosaic, which dates back to Roman times and was unearthed on the site of the gallery in 1923.
As well as being a fantastic art gallery, Firstsite runs regular workshops, clubs, classes and community events, while also showing films and screenings in the state-of-the-art auditorium. Plus, if you want to enjoy a spot of shopping in Colchester, the Bazaar at Firstsite is a monthly market that attracts some of the best arts, crafts and street food traders in Essex.
Firstsite is also right next to The Minories Art Gallery, which is run by the Colchester School of Art. Along with a diverse range of exhibitions, it’s worth popping in to see the school’s postgraduate programmes. Similarly, the Art Exchange is affiliated with the University of Essex and promotes contemporary work from all around the world. There's also the little Colchester Gallery on North Hill that showcases the works of local artists.
Colchester Castle is one of the most popular attractions in the east of England; the most iconic building in town, and one of the most important in terms of Colchester culture. Dating back to the 11th century, it’s the largest surviving Norman keep in Europe. It’s now the home of The Castle Museum and its internationally renowned archaeological collections, which you can read more about on the castle’s dedicated page. They cover 2,500 years of history and feature some of the most important Roman finds in Britain.
The Hollytrees Museum is another of the cultural attractions in Colchester Castle Park. It’s a free-to-visit museum housed in a Georgian townhouse that dates back to 1718. Inside, you’ll find three centuries’ worth of toys, costumes, artefacts and decorative arts, which give you a fascinating insight into what life was like way back when. You’ll also get to learn about the origin of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which was written in Colchester. Plus, there’s a captivating clock gallery which features at least one example from almost all of the clockmakers who had businesses in Colchester. It’s barely more than a five-minute walk from our Colchester Town Centre hotel and directly over the road from the Colchester Natural History Museum that’s housed in a beautiful old church. Inside the museum, you find out about the mammoths that used to mosey around town, as well as the local wildlife that can still be found in Essex.
In terms of Colchester’s annual calendar of cultural events, the Colchester Film Festival is among the most popular. It showcases international short films and consistently features some of the finest filmmakers from around the world. Venues are spread around town, although most of the action does take place at Firstsite. Each year it also hosts the 60 Hour Film Challenge, which is free for anyone to enter. It gives filmmakers a title, a line, and a prop, which has to feature in their final film. The world is their oyster when it comes to the rest.
Nearly Festival is all about cover artists and tribute acts. Colchester, along with Ipswich, Norwich, and Bury St. Edmunds, is one of the festival’s four locations. It’s always a fantastic weekend of family fun, familiar names, street food and flowing drinks.
Speaking of which... the Colchester Food and Drink Festival is the largest of its kind in the region. For nearly 20 years it’s been taking over Colchester Castle Park with over 150 stalls packed with positively pukka street food and refreshing beverages. Considering it costs less than a fiver, it’s a fantastic festival where you can see celebrity chefs in the flesh, eat almost endlessly, and wash it down with some lovely live music from local bands.
Or, here’s the one you’ve been waiting for, particularly if you love a good joust: The Colchester Medieval Festival & Oyster Fayre Market. It’s the biggest event of its kind in Europe and has everything you could ever want from a medieval festival: armed combat, archery, ale, puppets, pies, period costumes, birds of prey, oysters, and more. Again, it takes place in the Colchester Castle Gardens and will transport you back in time to the 15th and 16th centuries.