Devon's cathedral city was once the most westerly British outpost of the Roman Empire. It's now a vibrant destination for lovers of history, nature... and shopping. By Frank Partridge

Click here for 48 Hours In... Exeter map

Why go now?

The gateway to the South-west is refreshingly uncrowded in September, yet you can usually rely on warm sunshine to draw people on to the pedestrian-friendly streets of its impressive new centre. And it's the perfect base for exploring Dartmoor, one of England's wildest places, as well as the thatched villages and cheerful seaside resorts of the English Riviera.

Make Tracks

Frequent high-speed trains run to Exeter's main station, St David's (1), from London Paddington via Reading on First Great Western (0845 7000 125; www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk); and from Bristol, Birmingham and beyond with Cross Country (0844 811 0124; www.crosscountrytrains.co.uk). In addition, the line from London Waterloo via Salisbury is operated by South West Trains (0845 6000 650; www.southwesttrains.co.uk); these trains also serve Central Station (2).

Buses operated by National Express (08717 818181; www.nationalexpress.com) terminate at the Paris Street bus station (3).

The airport is six miles north-east of the city; Flybe (0871 700 0535; www.flybe. com) is based there and has links to nine regional airports. Buses 56 and 379 link the airport with St David's station.

Get your bearings

Exeter straddles the river Exe, five miles north-east of a tidal estuary that joins the sea at Exmouth. The Romans founded the city as their most westerly British outpost, laying out the centre on rising ground formed by an extinct volcano. Much of this area was destroyed by heavy German bombing in 1942, but the post-war reconstruction of the High Street and its surrounds stuck to the original Roman street plan.

The Historic Quayside area south-east of the centre has been attractively renovated, with antique and craft shops, cafés and pubs lining the basin of Britain's oldest canal (1566), which still provides navigable access to the sea.

The main tourist office (4) at Dix's Field (01392 665700; www.exeter.gov.uk/tourism), in a modern building, opens 9am-5pm daily except Sundays (in July and August it's open 10am-4pm on Sundays).

Check in

The city's best-known hotel has recently had a change of ownership and name: the Royal Clarence is now ABode Exeter (5), in Cathedral Yard (01392 319 955; www.abodehotels.co.uk). The ABode's 53 rooms have been stylishly updated, and doubles start at £79, including breakfast.

At first sight, the red-brick 19th-century building occupied by Alias Hotel Barcelona (6), on Magdalen Street (01392 281 000; www.aliashotels.com/barcelona), is dauntingly austere. It was once the West of England Eye Infirmary, but the Victorians understood the importance of light, and most of the rooms in its T-shaped arrangement face the sun all day. The decor is quirky, with psychedelic Sixties art and funky furniture alongside the original features. Doubles start at £125, room only.

The Park View hotel (7), at 8 Howell Road (01392 271 772; www.parkviewexeter. co.uk) is an attractive family-run Georgian property in a quiet street five minutes' walk from the centre. Doubles with breakfast from £58.

Take a hike

The old city is bound by a one-mile-long wall that is part-Roman, part-medieval, and has lost its gates and towers but retains about three-quarters of its masonry, even after fire, rebellion and warfare. Information panels lead you along the wall from where it meets Castle Street (8), explaining the history and landmarks along the way. The trail ends on High Street, almost back where you started. The city's Red Coat Guides offer free two-hour walking tours of the wall every Sunday at 2pm (01392 265 203; www.exeter.gov.uk/visiting).

Lunch on the run

However you spend the weekend, you'll never be far from Cathedral Green, where The Plant (9) (01392 428 144) is one of several refuelling stops with a ringside view of Exeter's most famous landmark. The Plant offers vegetarian fare, with home-made soup and a generous salad at £5.35.

Take a ride

Exeter Cruises (07984 368 442; www.exetercruises.com) runs excursions down the canal from the Quayside (10) to the pub at Double Locks (11). From there, other cruisers sail further into the estuary, a haven for birdwatchers. The Kingsley makes the 45-minute round-trip to Double Locks five times a day between June and August, and on weekends and bank holidays in April, May and September. The fare is £5.

Cultural afternoon

Exeter Museum is closed for refurbishment until 2010, but the medieval St Nicholas Priory (12), behind Fore Street (01392 665 858; www. exeter.gov/priory) provides plenty of historical interest, as it is furnished and decorated in period style. Originally part of an 11th-century Benedictine monastery, it was partially destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, then restored by a wealthy family who moved there in 1602. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Sunday; admission £2.

Among Exeter's many historical curiosities are the narrow medieval passageways that run beneath the city centre and once brought fresh water into town from springs in the hills. The entrance is at 2 Paris Street (13), from where you take a guided tour. Open 9.30am-5.30pm daily (except 10.30am-4pm on Sundays), admission £5, £3 for children (01392 665 887; www.exeter.gov.uk/visiting).

Window shopping

The city centre was given a new lease of life last autumn with the opening of the £275m Princesshay centre (14), with its striking architecture and network of covered and outdoor concourses. The shops along medieval Gandy Street and Fore Street have a more regional flavour. Foodies should head to Foodeaze (15) at St George's Hall on Market Street (01392 269 590; www.foodeaze.co.uk), a capacious food hall where the emphasis is on local produce.

An aperitif

Tucked out of sight, but conveniently near the centre, Bar Rendezvous (16), at 38-40 Southernhay East (01392 270 222; www.winebar10.co.uk), is on the lower ground floor of a Regency block, with a secluded garden terrace. The low lighting and exposed brick walls create just the right atmosphere. It specialises in Devonian wines.

Dining with the Locals

Exeter's most celebrated restaurant is the Michael Caines, part of the ABode Hotel (5). The nouvelle cuisine is superbly presented, with scallops and pigeon dishes among the specialities. A set three-course meal costs £19.50 per head, not including wine.

Exeshed (17), on Bedford Street (01392 420 070; www.shed-restaurants.com), is on the first floor of a modernist see-through building with wonderful views of the cathedral. The continental menu is reasonably priced and there's an excellent wine bar on the ground floor.

Sunday morning: go to church

Exeter Cathedral (18) is one of England's finest. Two towers survive from the Norman period; otherwise, it's a 13th-century Gothic confection with a sweeping vaulted ceiling and a façade on the west front decorated with tiers of prophets, kings, apostles and angels. Among its many features is the astronomical clock in the north transept, which shows both the Sun and Moon revolving around the Earth: in 1484 our planet was still thought to be at the centre of the universe.

The cathedral (01392 255 573; www.exetercathedral. org.uk) is open 9am-5pm daily, admission £4. Sunday worshippers are, of course, admitted free of charge, and the two main services are at 8am and 9.45am.

Out to brunch

Café Paradiso, part of the Alias Hotel Barcelona (6), does brunch in style. Fine food is served in an eye-catching conservatory, inspired by a circus big top, and outside on the garden terrace. A two-course meal costs £13.95 per head; a third course is £2 extra. Brunch is served between noon and 2pm, accompanied by live jazz on the first Sunday of every month.

A walk in the park

A block away from High Street, on elevated ground, Rougemont and Northernhay Gardens (19) offer a refreshing break from the throng, with ornamental flower arrangements, walkways and benches at the foot of the castle (which is itself open only for special events).

Icing on the cake

Every half-hour on weekdays, and hourly on Sundays, trains depart from St David's (1) or Central (2) station to the town of Topsham, four miles south at the start of the estuary (£2.80 return). Topsham is a delight: its narrow lanes wind towards the harbour, which is ringed with restaurants, pubs and antique shops.

Other attractions include an appealing run of 18th-century Dutch-style gabled houses, a long riverside strand, and the Georgian Tea Rooms at 35 High Street (01392 873465), which are consistently voted the best in Devon – quite an achievement in the county that is the undisputed home of the cream tea.

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