The town is near Colchester and Sudbury, in the Colne Valley. The town originally developed on the hill to the north of the river. The name Halstead is said to have derived from the Old English hald (refuge, shelter, healthy) and stede (site, place or farm), meaning 'healthy farm' 'safe place' or 'place of refuge'.
The single wide High Street is dominated by the 14th-century church of St Andrew, which was extensively renovated during the Victorian period but retains much earlier decoration including tomb monuments dating from the 14th century and earlier. The town's other attractions include a local Antiques Mill.