Take your pick of a day at the zoo, a stroll along the world’s longest pleasure pier, a day at a Blue Flag beach or exploring a Norman castle with our Essex activities guide.
Activities in Essex
Home to over 5,000 animals and 260 species spread over 60 acres, Colchester Zoo is one of the best tourist attractions in Essex. The zoo, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday, is home to a large range of big cats, primates and birds. It’s dedicated to preserving wild and endangered animals, with conservation and breeding at the core of its principles. The large zoo has 30 distinct habitats and has also embraced modern-day technology, with a VR display that lets you ‘walk’ with woolly mammoths. As well as the animals, a wide range of guest talks and feeding sessions, the park has lots of food and drink outlets, and you can even take a picnic.
Just south of Stansted Airport, Hatfield Forest is a vast forest home to over 3,500 species including some trees more than 1,000 years old. Once a Royal Hunting Forest, it’s now a managed National Trust property, with plenty of walking, cycling and horse trails plus large open meadows perfect for picnics.
Sea Life Adventure
Southend is a popular destination in its own right in Essex, with Sea Life Adventure a big draw. The large aquatic attraction has over 40 different displays including a walk-through tunnel with sharks swimming above and around you, a meerkat enclosure, sea penguins, otters and more.
If you head to Sea Life Adventure, make sure to add a trip along Southend Pier onto your to-do list. The longest pleasure pier in the world stretching over a mile into the Thames Estuary, it has its own railway, a cultural centre which hosts theatre, drama, live music and exhibitions, mini-golf, a wide range of cafes and food stalls plus a working lifeboat station at the very end.
Parks and Beaches
With over 350 miles of beaches and shore, Essex has the longest coastline of any county. And there are plenty of excellent beaches too, including Clacton-on-Sea beach either side of the large, fun-packed pier and Frinton-on-Sea several miles up the coast where you can get away from the crowds and attractions and enjoy the quiet life.
Canvey Island is another highly-recommended spot. A reclaimed island in the middle of the Thames Estuary, you can discover miles of seafront spanning wild, secluded beaches and prime-time tourist hot spots with funfairs, fish and chip stands and even a tidal swimming pool, perfect for children and families in the warm summer months.
Just north of Canvey Island is Hadleigh Park. The 500-acre park is home to a wide variety of activities including an Olympic Mountain Bike Course, 18km of cycling trails, archery, paddle-boarding and open water swimming plus plenty of activities for families and younger children.
Hylands Estate is on the outskirts of Chelmsford and is a 574-acre public park with the beautifully restored Neo-Classical Hylands House at the centre. The park and woodlands are alive with activities including a large adventure playground as well as regular farmers’ markets and an excellent cafe. The estate is also the location for some of the biggest festivals in Essex, including the annual Rize music festival, Rock Essex, the National Flower Show and FriendsFest, with our hotels in Chelmsford a short drive away.
Spanning local history and culture, Chelmsford Museum is a free-entry Victorian house that covers everything from the Ice Age up to the modern-day. The museum was renovated recently and has plenty of interactive displays and exhibits, videos and dedicated child-friendly sessions.
Moving into more niche – but no less impressive – areas, the Tiptree Jam Museum and Tea Room is a fascinating 45-minute tour into the jam-making world, including a trip to the strawberry fields. The in-house tea room is also excellent, and a destination in its own right, while you’ll do well to escape from the shop without picking up some jam, fruit juices or their range of teas.
You’ll have to head down 38-metres to find Kelvedon Hatch, a never-used cold war underground bunker built to house the government in the event of nuclear fall-out. The bunker is a brilliant insight into the Cold War, with plenty of interactive exhibits and self-guided audio tours. Adrenaline junkies – and would-be zombie-killers – should keep an eye out for The Last Survivor, a Walking Dead-style event held in the bunker once a month.
Travel back in time with a visit to Mountfitchet Castle, an impressively reconstructed medieval castle and Norman village in Stansted. The large attraction has plenty to offer including regular reenactments and interactive village residents, plus plenty of tame wildlife including fallow deer and pygmy goats that you can feed. The castle is also where you’ll find the fascinating pop culture House on the Hill Toy Museum, another time-travelling activity that joins the dots between toys, books and games from the Victorian period until the current day, with one ticket getting you access to both attractions.
A must-visit if you’re staying at one of our hotels in Colchester, Colchester Castle originally dates as far back as the Roman conquest and is the largest Norman keep in the world. The castle and its grounds have been brilliantly preserved, with amazing finds and archaeological collections on display, with interactive demonstrations, regular tours and story-telling sessions. The large grounds are well worth exploring too, including a boating lake, the popular Cafe in the Park and the bridge over the River Colne to the Colchester and East Essex Cricket Club.