10 'must-see' attractions when visiting Essex for the first time

Is this your first visit to Essex?

Culturally vibrant, redolent with over 2,000 years of history, Essex is a fascinating place to explore. So, ignore the received wisdoms and come and enjoy one of Britain’s most surprising and rewarding counties. We have also put together some quirky facts you might not know.

Here are our top ten suggested attractions for you to visit for a great day out. You could even stay a while longer and explore more of our county.

Picture of a leopard lying down and looking into the camera.

Enjoy a day out at Colchester Zoo

Featured attraction

Lee Valley Regional Park
Lee Valley White Water Centre
Lee Valley Regional Park
Lee Valley White Water Centre
Lee Valley Regional Park
Lee Valley Park Farms
Lee Valley Regional Park
Lee Valley Park Farms
Lee Valley Regional Park
Lee Valley White Water Centre
Lee Valley White Water Centre
Lee Valley Park Farms

If you’re stuck for things to do this summer, then Lee Valley has the answers. There’s 100’s of adventure and family days out to be had for both little and big kids alike. Whether it’s meeting our scaly, fury and feathery friends at Lee Valley Park Farms, catching some rapids at Lee Valley White Water Centre or simply enjoying a picnic in one of our open spaces; there’s plenty to keep the whole family entertained. So turn off the TV, put the games controller down, venture out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Little explorers will love making new friends at Lee Valley Park Farms as they discover animals from around the world. Say hello to farmyard favourites alongside our more exotic creatures, such as mischievous Meerkats or our bright-eyed Bearded Dragon, all without leaving leafy Essex. There’s more than just animals to keep the little ones occupied during your visit - let their imagination (and their legs) run wild in our indoor and outdoor adventure play zones or take a ride on Tex the Tractor over to our working dairy farm, and learn how our cows provide the milk to splash on their cereal in our interactive learning area.

Fuel your adventurous side and get wild on the water at Lee Valley White Water Centre. From the exhilarating thrills of white water rafting to a leisurely paddle on our lake it’s the place to be to get your water wings. This summer forget the seaside, make a splash at our family fun day on 29 May – there are activities for all ages to enjoy both on and off the water and once you’ve put the kids to bed join us at our Beer Festival in the evening. Whether it’s a catch up with friends over coffee or raising a glass to the weekend at Friday Night Live, refresh and refuel at The Terrace Bar & Café – it’s the perfect child out spot to relax and unwind and watch the world (and rafts) go by.

From camping to glamping make a weekend of it and pitch up at one of Lee Valley’s campsites. Lee Valley Caravan Park, Dobbs Weir is just a stone’s throw away from both of these great attractions – making it the perfect base to explore what Lee Valley has to offer. You’ll also receive one of our Camping Cards which unlocks fantastic offers across the whole of Lee Valley. 

Must see attractions for your first visit

Picture of a man in period costume sitting on a horse in front of Audley End House.

With glorious gardens and stunning countryside views, it’s not only the grounds at Audley End that are unmissable. The authentic Victorian Service Wing, impressive 17th century stable block, intricate interiors and wonderful works of art are all waiting to be discovered.

Aerial view of the historic building.

Magnificent Tudor building with the tallest Gatehouse in Britain and 16th century Italianate terracotta. Henry VIII was so impressed by the building he came to stay in 1522. Climb the tower and marvel at the views of the Blackwater estuary and beyond.

Picture of the exterior as seen through the trees.

The 110 feet high Norman keep of Hedingham Castle, the finest and best preserved in England, was built around 1140 by Aubrey de Vere and is still owned by one of his descendants. It's romantic, beautiful, ancient, historic and wild, it is somewhere to set your imagination free.

Picture of a family walking along exquisitely maintained flower beds.

With sweeping panoramas, big open skies and far reaching views over the countryside, this Essex garden provides somewhere to watch the changing seasons and get closer to nature.

Beautifully landscaped garden around a pond with a boat in it.

Beth Chatto is one of the most influential living gardeners in Britain, best known for her pioneering, ecological approach to gardening. Her gardens are internationally acclaimed.

Picture of the iconic Firstsite building at night.

The spectacular Rafael Viñoly-designed building, in the heart of the cultural quarter, is a modern art gallery in Britain's oldest recorded town. Regular new exhibitions run all year round.

PIcture of a leopard laying on its back and looking in to the camera.

The zoo features in the top 20 zoos in the world according to The TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Attractions Awards. With more than 270 wildlife species, over 50 daily displays, beautiful parkland and lakes, everyone will be entertained.

A group of people in a raft hurdling down the white water course. The are all looking excited.

Discover the thrill of white water rafting at Lee Valley White Water Centre, the London 2012 venue where the rapids challenged the world’s best athletes. Book your own white water adventure now.

Interior of the museum with a a young woman looking at the displays.

The biggest Norman Keep in Europe, Colchester Castle Museum, voted the Best Large Attraction in the 2015 Essex Tourism and Hospitality Awards delights thousands of families with its exciting new displays and hands-on activities.

Explore our county

Picture of the iconic Firstsite building at night.
Discover Essex’s creative spaces. They come in all shapes and sizes and are crammed with artistic treasures, from international names to emerging local artists.
Picture of a sunset over the The Naze waters with some rocks protruding from the water.

Explore our 350 miles of coastline, the longest shoreline of any county in England, a place of surprising wild beauty, rich in wildlife and sprinkled with history and hidden cultural gems.

Essex’s history has been shaped by a wide variety of cultures. Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans – all left their mark. Echoes of their influence can still be seen today.
Picture of a cow at the edge of the River Stour and drinking water.
A scenic patchwork of rich farmland speckled with pastelwashed villages of thatch and timber, the views interrupted by mighty oaks and ashes presided over by the hurrying skies.