The City Gate, Exeter: hotel review | Travel

Exeter is so close to lovely beaches, Dartmoor, Exmoor, and pretty towns like Totnes and Chagford it’s a wonder many travellers know it mainly for the M5 services. Being a “gateway” to the West Country is almost an invitation to whizz through.

When the 18th-century Royal Clarence Hotel – often described as England’s oldest hotel – was destroyed in a fire last October, the city lost its most characterful lodgings. The City Gate – a Young’s pub with rooms in a listed redbrick former coaching inn, which reopened in May after extensive refurbishment – doesn’t make up for this loss, but it does provide the essentials for a short stopover. Its 14 bedrooms are smallish but smartly decorated, and the locale is of historical interest: the pub abuts the original Roman city walls and looks out on to the Iron Bridge, built in 1834.

My standard twin room had an easy-on-the-eye green and grey colour scheme that’s replicated throughout the building. Exeter used to be a centre for processing and exporting woollen cloth, a heritage celebrated in prints of sheep, a framed abstract worked in wool, bedside lamps made from glass containing balls of wool, and a small, metal sheep’s head sculpture.

A long desk contained a handsome steel floating-arm office lamp, a Krups coffee machine, a kettle with Joe’s teas, and welcome treats in the form of some fudge to nibble and a small decanter of sherry. The minibar had beer, whisky and fresh milk. The bathroom was smallish, but smartly done, with floor to ceiling white tiling, large mirrors, roomy walk-in rainshower and Algotherm toiletries.

bathroom, CityGate in Exeter

The hotel is 10 minutes’ walk from Exeter St Davids station, and five from the city centre. The gothic medieval cathedral is impressive, and if you like your mercy seats and vaulted ceilings it’s worth the £7.50 entry. The Exeter Phoenix is an excellent small arts complex, with day courses and an interesting gigs roster. Exeter’s best attractions, however, are its waterways: a bike ride down the Exe to Topsham or Exmouth, or a paddle along the canal are highly recommended – hire from AS Watersports or Saddles and Paddles.

For a five o’ clock “bridger” try the Fat Pig, a stylishly unkempt gastropub just round the corner, which serves good wines and tasty ales.

The Cellar Bar, with bare stone walls

The Cellar Bar, with bare stone walls

The Young’s pub inside the City Gate is also stylish, in a slightly more corporate fashion. It has a long bar – serving local beers and ciders, and Plymouth gin – and a nice snug full of mismatched chairs and antiques. The nicest space, though, is the cosy, cool-looking Cellar Bar, which the landlords are offering to arts groups and open-mic nights free of charge. Once the pub’s wine store, it has original bare stone walls, with dark wooden tables, loungey chairs, and funky artwork on the walls.

The beer garden is vast, with space for perhaps 150-200 people to eat, as well as the 100 or so inside the pub. As the far end was drenched in evening sun, I took a seat outside for dinner.

Beer garden, CityGate in Exeter

Photograph: Chris Orange

Devon is a proud food county. Brixham crab on sourdough, and West Country lamb rump drizzled in caper and shallot dressing were delicious and generously proportioned. The wine list was short but good, with reasonably priced old- and new-world wines, and oddities such as Slovenian pinot bianco – though, sadly, none of Devon’s own crisp whites. Tim, the Dutch waiter, was chatty and charming.

The garden is already doing a roaring trade at weekends, when a craft beer stall and burger bar open, in addition to the main kitchen and pub.

Secondary glazing kept the traffic noise out at night, and though I could sense other guests moving around, I slept well through to breakfast – a perfect eggs florentine, with cafetière coffee, fresh fruit and cereals.
Accommodation was provided by City Gate Exeter (01392 495811,, which has doubles from £85 B&B; dinner from £50 for two including drinks

Ask a local

Patrick Cunningham, director, Exeter Phoenix arts venue

The Double Locks on Exeter ship canal

The Double Locks on Exeter ship canal

Walk, cycle, pub
Check out the independent shops around Fore Street before walking or cycling south along the canal – one of Britain’s oldest – to the Double Locks pub or the Turf Hotel, a few miles on, where the canal joins the Exe.

Further downriver, on a floating barge, the River Exe Cafe serves locally sourced fish and meat dishes. If you have your own boat you can moor alongside; otherwise catch a water taxi (£5 return) from Exmouth harbour.

There are lots of festivals in the city (see New this year is Lost Weekend (6-8 Oct) with music, digital tech, talks and playable art.

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