Exeter is often overlooked in favour of trendier Bristol or Bath, yet scratch the surface and you'll find a laid-back vibrant city full of stark contasts. At once a cultural haven with its landmark cathedral, a mecca for student yahs and a thriving market town, Exeter is both arrestingly pretty and blisteringly ugly depending on where you're standing. Encircled by the beautiful River Exe yet bombed heavily in the war, this town has a concrete jungle at its heart. But don't let that put you off - with quirky shops, a cool soul club, one of the best restaurants in the SW and a whole quayside to explore, it's the ultimate road trip.
St Peter's Cathedral makes a great starting point. You have to pay to get in which slightly hurts (£6) but it's well worth it to view the inside of this Gothic behemoth which has the largest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in the world, a whispering gallery and the most stunning stained glass windows. Afterwards you can continue to gawp at the knock-out architecture from one of the cafes in cobbled Cathedral Yard, my favourite of which is MC Bar and Grill, owned by chef Michael Cain of Gidleigh Park.
Cathedral Yard: Joseph Gurney In summer there's nowhere better for a glass of chilled rose and a shared platter of anti-pasti unless you want to splash out on the chef's more formal restaurant ABode where you'll eat pretty much the best food in the South West. Check in for the 3 course lunch £19 a head which has stellar dishes like Brixham pollock with white beans, chorzio fricasse and chorizo foam or smoked haddock risotto with toasted almonds and curry oil.
Gandy Street by Joseph Gurney The lovely thing about Exeter is that it's small enough to amble around. You'll definitely want to potter in the cobbled, atmospheric Gandy Street (pictured above) said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and full of quirky, independent shops like Moko which has homeware sourced from South East Asia and lots of weirdly tempting one-offs you didn't know you wanted like the punk mug with safety pin through its handle. You can't come to Exeter and not check out The Real McCoy in Fore Street, a legendary vintage shop and cafe that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Head here for 60s knee high boots, psychedelic dresses, vintage Levis, fancy dress hire and a 50s style cafe with burger and shakes. There's even a silent cinema here with wireless headphones and live music on Saturday afternoons.
Pictured: The Real McCoy Also in McCoys arcade you'll find the famous Mansons guitar shop, the place to source your prize Gibson and next door is The Bike Shed, a theatre and bar which does themed 50s and swing nights. Culture wise you can't afford to miss RAMM - the newly revamped Royal Albert Memorial Museum an amazing art space which combines a stunning permanent collection with offbeat, inspirational exhibitions such as the current BP Portrait Award.
Exeter is all about the water, the beautiful river which bounds the city, the historic quayside and the canal. So we're taking you quayside now, stopping first for a pint at Double Locks, originally a lock-keeper's cottage, now a regular, no frills boozer which specialises in great ales, ciders and atmosphere. Not a gastro pub and all the more perfect for it. From here you can hire bikes or walk along the canal for half an hour or so until you reach the legendary The Turf pub on the Exe estuary, a place so perfect it's worth the road trip alone - you can read our review here.
From April 1 there's another stunning spot for lunch the River Exe Cafe (closed in winter) a floating restaurant barge just off the ski lane. Last year we ate moules marinieres then sat on the deck watching water-skiers in the fading sun - it was about as perfect as you get. Before we get to the darker underbelly of Exeter nights, we need to take you on one more day trip to Haldon Forest Park on the outskirts of the city. Great for kids but also just for gentle roaming, 9 acres of forest with staggering views of Exeter, trails to get lost in and a butterfly walk. There's a huge and vibrant student scene in Exeter which means a different club for every day of the week, according to Flora, our girl on the ground who rates: 'Mondays at Mosaic or Arena, Tuesdays at Cellar Door, Wednesdays at Timepiece, Thursdays at Mosaic, Fridays at Timepiece and Saturdays at The Lemon Grove." Fellow student Lewis recommends live music at The Revelry down by the Quay and both favour Urban Burger for blow-out gourmet burgers and brunch at The Boston Tea Party. The best pub in town is The Firehouse, a dark and atmospheric old place that serves knock-out pizzas at night. It's also said to be the inspiration for JK Rowling's Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter. You'll definitely want to check into Mama Stones, a soul club run by Joss Stones's mother Wendy Joseph. Book a table and listen to jazz house band Mama Stones and other guest acts. You can watch Joss perform Sweet Dreams with Dave Stewart at Mama Stones last year here. The best places for cocktails are Monkey Suit (you know you're in a university town when the cocktails cost £3.95), Coolings Bar on Gandy Street and 44 Below, in the basement of the Urban Burger. Just makes you want to get wasted, really. Anyone for a shot? After all that hedonism may we suggest you lay your pounding head at Exeter's Magdalen Chapter hotel, a place of quiet but staggering luxury with the most comfortable beds, your own personal ipad with a bespoke music collection to help you chill out. In the morning recover in the spa with a Ren facial and a swim in the inside out pool.
A final word for foodies - make sure you check out Piper's Farm in Magdalen Street, a brilliant butcher but also the go-to place for possibly the world's greatest pies - try chicken with smoked ham hock, steak with mushroom and thyme or pumpkin with goat's cheese. Well worth the detour as is the cafe here, a true step back in time with jazz on the turntable and light as air Victoria sponge. We love.