From sublime countryside and coastal towns to bustling cities filled with night club loving residents, Essex – just like many its residents – is quite a character! It’s also a gorgeous corner of the South East which sometimes gets overlooked as a travel destination from visitors coming further afield.
Which is honestly a shame as they’re missing out on some of the best sites and beauty spots England has to offer. From picture-perfect Constable country and pretty historic towns to grand stately homes and long beaches filled with golden sand, here are the best and most beautiful places to visit in Essex, UK…
1. Dedham – one of the most famously stunning places to explore in Essex
This is easily one of the prettiest places to visit in Essex! For the artists amongst you will know Dedham as ‘Constable country’, whom the area has a lot to thank for; his detailed landscape oil paintings inspired by the area are considered revolutionary in the art world.
It is easy to see why John Constable gained so much inspiration from what he saw. The place is genuinely beautiful, giving rise to country vistas, splendid architecture, and punctuated by verdant green lawns and tree-lines.
Housed within are the usual village staples of beam-fronted buildings and tearooms. For the more active visitor, a fun afternoon can be spent floating along the River Stour in a rowing boat taking in the stunning Essex views.
2. Mersea Island – a small but perfectly formed tiny estuary island beloved of holidaying families who fall for its old-world charms
Essex is not traditionally associated with idyllic, laid-back island life, but Mersea offers exactly that.
An island to the West of Clacton-on-Sea, Mersea houses colourful beach huts and sweeping open spaces to make it a hidden estuarial gem.
The Western side of the island is ideal for a postcard-perfect beach day, complete with multi-coloured huts, sandy beaches, seafood restaurants, and maybe a cheeky pint or glass of wine in one of its many pubs.
The Eastern side has a slightly different flavour. Cudmore Grove National Park is a natural haven offering both bird watchers, and picnic aficionados alike, a space to indulge in what they love.
3. Epping Forest – is a 2,400-hectare area of gorgeous ancient woodland and one of the best places to visit in Essex
If discovering lakes and treading meandering forest trails through leafy green vistas are your thing, look no further. Epping Forest straddles the border of Greater London and Essex. Its excellent transport links mean it is easy to get to.
‘The Peoples Forest’ is awash with beauty and indeed, History. Whether you are a walker (with or without a dog), a cyclist, an equestrian enthusiast, or a city type who just wants a quick ‘break’, Epping forest is a treasure and a beautiful place to visit in Essex.
Admission is free to the Queens Hunting Lodge, where rumour has it, Henry VIII used to take potshots at the occasional passing deer. Connaught water is one of the better-known lakes in the forest and is not far from Chingford, providing excellent parking and facilities, a manageable walk, and the option to feed the numerous waterfowl which inhabit the lake all year round.
4. Maldon – a pretty ancient town where you can discover vintage sailing barges, vast salt marshes, and traditional waterside pubs
As one of the oldest towns in Essex and oozing charm, Maldon is a jewel of a town. Timber-framed medieval buildings, salt marshes, and a port laden with history, are its signatures.
It’s one of the few places in the UK where you can board a Thames barge, which at one point in time would have crowded the docks at Hythe Quay, loading and unloading their wares.
Now they offer afternoon tea or sightseeing tours. Promenade Park, known locally as ‘The Prom’ offers short picturesque walks and the ability to sit and people watch and maybe grab a bite to eat.
If the weather isn’t playing, you can have a wander up to Bright’s Path, where you can get a chintzy cup of tea and perhaps a slice of cake.
5. Finchingfield – one of the prettiest rural villages to visit in Essex
If you were to go in a travel dictionary and look up ‘stereotypical Home Counties village’, chances are you would find a picture of Finchingfield.
The village ‘feel’ in this town almost borders on the ridiculous.
Boasting a village green, tiny stone bridges, country pubs, and even a windmill you would be forgiven for thinking you were back in the 1930s. Located just to the North of Braintree, the village isn’t exactly a tourist epicentre, but that’s what gives it most of its charm.
6. Walton-on-the-Naze – a family seaside resort filled with sandy beaches, seafront gardens and quaint narrow streets
Piers, sandy beaches, ice creams, and fish and chips. What could be better? Situated on the East Coast, Walton-on-the-Naze is full of traditional British beachside charm.
A huge beach with soft clean sand means there is plenty of space to set up for the day and remain relatively undisturbed, or even go for a long walk. For those who fancy a dip in safety, the beach is monitored by lifeguards.
If getting sand everywhere fills you with horror there’s a lovely little pier down which you can stroll, with numerous kiosks selling everything from whelks to souvenirs.
Whilst ideal for a day trip and for those looking to ‘escape’ London, there are also numerous guest houses suiting various budgets, making it ideal for a weekend getaway – definitely up there as one of the best places to visit in Essex county!
7. Audley End House – one of England’s finest country houses located just outside the pretty market town of Saffron Walden
Audley End House is a 17th-century mansion that has undergone various renovations, and at one point even accommodated King Charles II. The size and grandeur of the house, Located just to the West of picturesque Saffron Waldon, is breathtaking.
The gardens in particular are an ideal venue for a picnic or just a lovely photo opportunity. From a historical point of view, the house has had an interesting past.
It was used in World War II to train covert Polish operatives before they were parachuted into enemy territory, if this is an area that you find particularly interesting, English Heritage offer guided tours, detailing this and other facts from the house’s 400-year history.
If the crowds are too great the nearby market town of Saffron Walden offers pastel-coloured tea shops and black and white timbered pubs where you can grab a bite to eat and relax.
8. Colchester – an easy-on-the-eye historic Essex town which has a rich history dating back over 2000 years
If you want plenty to see and do then Colchester will certainly keep you busy. Located in the very centre of the county of Essex it has good transport links and is easy to get to.
It’s an attractive city with interesting historic buildings, in fact, it was built on the foundations of a Roman temple and one of the city museums displays artifacts up to 2,500 years old. So a long history indeed!
It’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon taking advantage of the many shops, restaurants, and cafes. Make sure you also include a visit to Colchester Castle.
The castle is well preserved and even houses a museum, making it an ideal ‘back pocket’ option for a rainy day. The castle is housed in the centre of a park, so on good weather days, you can take advantage of the grounds.
9. Frinton-on-sea – a resort filled with victorian style beach huts and miles of quiet and secluded sandy beaches
If you have spent several days in Walton-on-the-Naze and fancy a change, somewhere a bit quieter, or a good walk, then Frinton-on-sea is worth a visit.
If you’ve got the motivation it is possible to walk from one to the other, and back (there is also a regular bus, however).
Frinton is the less commercial version of Walton-on-the-Naze. There are no kiosks or shops selling buckets and spades here, just well-tended promenade gardens, benches, and serenity.
The only bright thing you’ll be seeing is the multi-coloured beach huts, which are available to rent on a daily or weekly basis.
10. Hadleigh Castle – romantic ruins of an ancient royal castle overlooking the beautiful Essex marshes
As a happy historical coincidence, castles were designed to give the best possible views over their surroundings. Hadleigh Castle is no exception, it offers breathtaking panoramas over the Thames estuary all the way into Kent.
Whilst the castle isn’t exactly in tip-top condition if you use your imagination you might be able to envisage its former glory in days gone by.
For some atmospheric and brooding photography, you won’t find a better venue (just check the weather first as it can get a bit ‘breezy’). The castle can be a challenge to walk to, with limited parking, so take something supportive to wear on your feet.
11. Weald Country Park – offers some of the most beautiful Essex countryside
Located a 15-minute drive from Brentwood, deer, rolling meadows and stunning views are what make Weald Country Park special.
Occupying a space of more than 520 acres you can wander to your heart’s content. In spring and throughout summer the rolling grassland is dotted with outbreaks of wildflowers.
There are deer held in an enclosure that you can feed by hand, and for those with children to occupy (if the deer were not enough) the stick man play trail offers a good 2km walk with climbing, swinging, and crawling along the way.
12. Brightlingsea Beach – a sandy beach in Essex which boasts a Blue Flag Award
Brightlingsea Beach isn’t the largest on our list, but it has a certain character. It is easily accessible and is located on the opposite side of the estuary to Mersea island. It might not be quite as fashionable as Mersea but boasts many of the same features.
Featuring a promenade there are many activities to indulge in, whether that is simply paddling or trying to catch an angry crab. For sailing enthusiasts, there is a marina that celebrates regular regattas and events.
13. Waltham Abbey – a pretty suburban market town home to some interesting attractions
Rich in culture and activities Waltham Abbey offers a one-stop shop. Lying just to the north of Epping Forest you could even combine the pair for a super full day out.
Definitely visit the Abbey itself and also the pretty gardens and if you want a bit of excitement the Royal Gunpowder Mills are a top-rated attraction, with interactivity that will set your trip off with a bang.
There is a fair bit of history soaked up in Waltham Abbey, it is thought to be the final resting place of King Harold II. If you are more of an outdoors type and haven’t had chance to get to Epping Forest you can still get your ‘green fix’ in one of the towns numerous picturesque parks.
14. Thorpe Bay – a charming seaside resort with a sandy beach which is a great place to go in Essex
Located to the South of Essex on the mouth of the Thames Estuary, Thorpe Bay is another offering for you to enjoy if you like the seaside.
With beach huts available for daily hire and clean sandy beaches you can swim and bask at will. There are plenty of shops and restaurants catering to a variety of tastes.
With direct services to London, Thorpe bay is easy to reach regardless of where you travel from. For those seeking a bit of an adventure, there are numerous water sports you can partake in, including kayaking and paddle-boarding. Thorpe Bay is ideal if you want to escape the busier hustle and bustle of Southend-on-Sea.
15. Hylands House – a grade II listed country park encompassing 574 acres of historic parkland
Picturesque and classy, that’s Hylands House. Located just to the southwest of Chelmsford, the Hylands House is situated in over 570 acres of beautiful parkland.
The house itself shines like a white beacon amidst the pleasant green grounds.
The entire park is open to the public so you are free to wander and roam. If you like a bit of structure then there are five guided trails to follow.
For those who love Victoriana or if you want to indulge your inner ‘Mr Darcy,’ there are Victorian pleasure gardens to stroll around, laden with various floral wonders and neatly striped lawns and hedges.
We also have posts on…
- The best places to visit in Hampshire
- The most beautiful places to visit in West Sussex
- The most beautiful places to visit in Hertfordshire
- The most beautiful places to visit in Dorset
- The most beautiful places to visit in Berkshire
- The most beautiful places to visit in Kent
- The most beautiful places to visit in Cambridgeshire
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Michael Cowley – writer and photographer
Ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper Michael has always had an affinity for adventure. Growing up he was lucky enough to live in a handful of exotic far flung locations including Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania and since then he’s continued seeking out new places and cultures. In his spare time he explores everywhere from the sizzling street markets in Bangkok to random back alleys in Sri Lanka and everything in between! He also has a special fondness for Cohibas, trying all kinds of street food, playing carrom with random strangers, and fine wine – he knows his clarets from his chiantis. He counts Cuba, Amsterdam, Indonesia, Goa, Cambodia and Italy as his favourite destinations. Find Michael on Instagram or Twitter.