Its name conjures up images of palm trees, seaside promenades and luxury yachts, and while it doesn’t quite deliver on the same scale as its South-of-France sister, the English Riviera meets all these expectations and more. A gem on Devon’s south coast, the Riviera encompasses Torbay’s three towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, sweeping in a glorious 22-mile arc which opens out onto the English Channel.
Read on to find our hints and tips on the best experiences on the English Riviera, from where to dine on delectable dishes to the top attractions to visit with your family. We’ll be divulging a few local secrets too, to help you make the most of your stay.
About the area:
The bustling harbour town of Brixham lies to the south, neighbouring the family-friendly seaside resort of Paignton and elegant Torquay with its beach, international marina, shopping streets and abundance of eateries. On a sunny day, as you admire the yachts in the harbour, the breeze tugging gently at the palm tree fronds, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that you were wandering around stylish St. Tropez!
The English Riviera is blessed with some beautiful beaches to suit all visitors. Many of them have Blue Flag status and family-friendly credentials.
Torquay’s main beach, Torre Abbey Sands is a favourite for families; its gentle slope makes it safe for paddling and swimming, and its red sand has been crowned the best in Britain for sandcastle making by the University of Bournemouth! There is good disabled access to the beach, and it’s just a stone’s throw from a great choice of restaurants.
Just around the corner from Torquay harbour lies Meadfoot Beach, a peaceful curve of sand and pebbles where you’re just as likely to find sunbathers enjoying the view over to Thatcher’s Rock as divers exploring the crystal-clear shallows.
Further along the coast, at the foot of the cliffs, are the beaches of Babbacombe and Oddicombe, connected by a wooden walkway. Oddicombe is the larger of the two, accessed via the charming Cliff Railway or a winding walk. There are beach huts, a shop and toilets, as well as the Three Degrees West bistro: the perfect recipe for an enjoyable few hours at the seaside.
Between Torquay and Babbacombe you’ll find secluded Anstey’s Cove, a real hidden gem, backed by cliffs and lapped by clear water, it’s a scenic spot to stop for a coffee at the beach café. The café also hires out kayaks and SUPs if you feel like gaining a different perspective on the coast.
Torbay’s northernmost beach, Maidencombe, is accessed via a steep path and steps. It is flanked by dramatic red sandstone cliffs which shelter the cove, making it good for swimming. Climbing back up to the car, reward your efforts with a pint or lunch at the Thatched Tavern in the village
Moving south along the coast, Paignton also has its fair share of fantastic beaches. Paignton Sands is the ultimate family-friendly beach, complete with a Victorian pier, amusements, crazy golf, seasonal donkey rides, an excellent play park, seafront kiosks and plenty of shops and restaurants to choose from in the nearby town.
Preston Sands, the first beach you come to as you travel from Torquay to Paignton, is also popular all year round. Backed by Preston Green and overlooked by colourful beach huts, the beach is long and sandy, so don’t forget your bucket and spade!
Continuing downwards, beyond a small headland, is Goodrington Sands. Here you’ll find Splashdown Quaywest, a waterpark that’s sure to attract the attention of families over the summer months. Other attractions include a boating lake, crazy golf, cafes and amusements. Keep your eyes peeled for the steam train which runs right alongside the beach.
Broadsands is next on our list, popular year-round with walkers and water sports enthusiasts alike. Windsurfing, sailing and kite-surfing are all favourite pursuits here and the recent addition of a beachside cafe provides a warm place to enjoy a coffee and a slice of cake if the weather isn’t on your side.
Finally, Brixham’s Breakwater beach also deserves a mention as the only beach in the town. It is small but slopes gently, making it wonderful for swimming or scuba diving. A surprising range of underwater life inhabits the waters below. Just along the coast from the beach is Shoalstone Seawater Pool, a free lido where you can take a refreshing dip at any time of year.
The attractions and activities:
The English Riviera boasts some of Devon’s top attractions, from the old homes and haunts of Agatha Christie, the area’s most famous daughter, to award-winning zoological gardens.
Paignton Zoo is indeed one of the best days out in Torbay. The wildlife park is home to over 2,000 animals, including lions, tigers, giraffes, an elephant and monkeys. Each day there is a packed programme of animal feeding, talks and experiences to make your visit as memorable as possible. The zoo’s sister attraction, Living Coasts in Torquay houses all manner of coastal critters, with penguins being the highlight for most.
The Dartmouth Steam Railway gives visitors the chance to explore scenic southern Torbay and the River Dart at a leisurely pace, taking in some iconic sights along the way. For the ultimate experience, choose the Round Robin option which includes a steam train ride from Paignton to Kingswear via an optional stop at Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway. It’s then a short ferry hop across to Dartmouth, a riverboat ride up to Totnes and a bus trip back to Paignton.
Those interested in history will be spoilt for choice with attractions. There’s the National Trust’s Greenway House and Coleton Fishacre, the delightfully preserved Cockington Court with its art galleries, workshops and cafes and historic Torre Abbey which houses a museum and a number of exhibitions throughout the year. Torquay Museum serves up an eclectic mix of history, including a gallery space devoted solely to Agatha Christie. Step further back into the past by visiting the prehistoric caves of Kents Cavern, or get up close and personal with Jurassic beasts at Dinosaur World.
If you’re looking for more fun days out with children, you’ll have to choose carefully as there’s well over a week’s worth of places to visit! Wander the miniature landscapes of Babbacombe Model Village, make the most of rainy days at Waves Leisure Pool, take a nature walk at Occombe Farm, explore the deceptively realistic Victorian streets of Bygones Museum and play at being pirates on board the replica Golden Hind at Brixham.
There are numerous other experiences on offer which don’t involve parting with too many pennies. A good way to get out on the water and see two towns in one day is to catch the ferry from Torquay to Brixham (£3.50 return). You may even be lucky enough to spot dolphins in the bay. Beach days are a great family activity, and there are numerous scenic walks in the area, including Berry Head where you can explore the Napoleonic forts and look out for seabirds.
Where shall we start? The English Riviera is a haven for foodies. All around the bay, you’ll stumble across friendly cafes and eateries while out and about, but if you’re looking for something special, here are our top suggestions:
For fine dining in Torquay, there are three names which you should fix in your mind. The Elephant, The Orange Tree Restaurant and Old Vienna all of which offer a little taste of luxury – perfect for an indulgent holiday treat!
Memories Bistro in Babbacombe serves up fantastic meals in modest surroundings and is a true hidden gem, but be prepared to book way in advance as they are only open on Friday and Saturday evenings and fill up quickly.
For the best seafood, head to Brixham where you’ll be spoilt for choice. The most celebrated restaurants are Rockfish, Beamers and The Poopdeck. There are numerous fish and chip take-away cafes in the characterful town, and nothing beats tucking into your paper-wrapped feast while watching the comings and goings in the harbour.
If location is key, The Cary Arms in Babbacombe is hard to beat. Enjoy a delicious meal of seasonal produce in a comfortable setting overlooking the beach; it’s also a top spot for a sundowner.
Paignton, too, has its fair share of eateries, including Sky Bar and Bistro, Restaurant 59, La Scala and TJ’s to name but a handful of the most highly rated.
The English Riviera has a history which is rich and multi-faceted with plenty of opportunities to dive in and discover it for yourself.
Prehistoric man is known to have inhabited the area thanks to fragments of jawbone which were found in Kents Cavern. Hurtling forwards through time, Torbay’s Spanish Barn played its part in the Spanish Armada, imprisoning Spanish invaders captured in the channel. It’s now the last surviving Armada prison in England.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Torbay became the local destination of choice for the rich elite, who had to forgo their trips to continental Europe. This sowed the seeds of the English Riviera as a holiday resort.
In 1833 Princess Victoria paid her first visit to Torquay and the 19th century saw the town become a popular holiday and health resort.
The Riviera’s position on the English Channel has made it a strategic site over the years, including during WWII when it was used for the embarkation for American troops in preparation for Operation Overlord. This resulted in some big social changes in the area, as relationships were built with the allied newcomers.
Agatha Christie is by far the most well-recognised celebrity of the English Riviera. She was born in Torquay in 1890 and all across the bay are sights and attractions dedicated to the world-famous crime author. Many of her books were set in the area and she drew inspiration from various places in Torbay.
An outstanding year-round holiday destination, the English Riviera isn’t short of accommodation options. There are a plethora of beautiful holiday cottages dotted throughout the bay, as well as stunning hotels, welcoming B&Bs and fantastic holiday parks.