Famous for its maritime heritage, the vibrant waterfront city of Plymouth on the South Devon coast is a great spot for a city break. There’s always something to do day or night, and its enviable position wedged in between the countryside and moors of Devon and the beautiful Cornish coastline make it a great base to explore this beautiful part of the world.
Relive the city’s historic past at the Mayflower Steps and spend lazy afternoons browsing the many shops and eclectic markets in the various shopping zones. Head to the beach, book a fishing trip out to sea or try some adventure sports. We’ve given you a head start with some of the best places to see, shop and eat; just make sure you book enough time to fit it all in as there’s so much to see and do in this city. Whatever you are looking for and whenever you want to do it, Plymouth has it in spades.
About the city:
Made up of a bustling city centre and surrounded by districts such as The Barbican, Sutton Harbour and The Hoe, this South Devon delight attracts visitors from all over the world to its maritime shores. Its historical significance tracing back to Saxon times means that there are many interesting landmarks and great historical monuments to visit, as well as an interesting architectural element. With a maze of 16th century cobbled streets and various different quarters, you could spend hours walking from district to district visiting all of the fascinating heritage this friendly city has to offer.
With over a thousand years of history under its belt, there’s so much to discover in this city. Start at The Barbican and Sutton Harbour with its ancient cobbled streets and listed buildings. Now full of independent shops, galleries and international cuisine, it isn’t hard to imagine its busy former life as a working port. The Mayflower Steps, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World in 1620 is a great point to stop for a photo though be aware that they are currently undergoing restoration for the 400th-anniversary commemoration in 2020.
Keen war historians should make time to visit the famous green at Plymouth Hoe where Sir Francis Drake played bowls as news of the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 was brought to his attention. Boasting spectacular views across the natural harbour of Plymouth Sound and across to the Cornish coastline, it’s also home to the 72-foot high Smeaton’s Tower Lighthouse and the 17th century Royal Citadel, home to the Royal Artillery.
Worth the short drive across town, the early 19th century Royal William Yard is one of the most important groups of historic military buildings in Britain. Now an arts and culture hub, it has lots of regular events such as outdoor theatre productions and an open-air cinema and is also home to a vast group of artists in residence. If you want to leave the car behind, hop on the ferry from the Barbican Landing Stage and also have a bite to eat as there are some fantastic bistros and restaurants to try.
Sutton Harbour also homes the National Marine Aquarium and is the place to hop aboard a boat tour to find out how best to help the local marine environment. Plymouth Boat Trips at the Barbican offers Fish N Trips fishing expeditions as well as sight-seeing cruises – choose from quick hour-long jaunts or take a half-day trip to The National Trust’s Cotehele and the village of Calstock along the River Tamar. Their foot-ferries also connect Plymouth to Cornwall on an eight-minute crossing on the historic Cremyll Ferry. Visit the stunning historic house and gardens of Mount Edgcumbe Country Park there before heading on the return journey home.
Everybody loves a distillery tour and Plymouth doesn’t disappoint. A former monastery located in the Barbican, the Plymouth Gin Distillery offers fabulous gin tours where you can see everybody’s favourite tipple being made and try a few for good measure. The oldest working gin distillery in England, the building dates back to the 15th century and it’s said that this is where the Mayflower Fathers spent their last night pre-sail! Also in the Barbican is the Mayflower Museum in the TIC which has an exhibition of the voyage of this famous ship.
Stay closer to home at the Elizabethan Gardens in New Street, an oasis of tranquillity tucked away just behind the harbour. Named as it was a ‘new street’ back in the 16th century, it was the area where wealthy merchants built their houses. A delightful way to while away a couple of hours and it’s even better if you pop next door afterwards for a traditionally Cornish cream tea in the Tudor Rose Tea Rooms and Garden.
The events and festivals:
You may have already heard of Illuminate, the biggest light show of the South West but if you haven’t, try to visit when it’s on. Four days of amazing light installations are exhibited at the Royal William Yard in November, along with little stalls where you can grab a hot drink to warm your hands while walking around.
The Christmas markets are a must, from the Bavarian Bar and wooden cabins of Plymouth Christmas Market in the city centre to visiting Santa and the festive alpacas at the Mount Edgcumbe Christmas Fayre. The latter also hosts Wonder Nights in the historic formal gardens, a new after-dark Christmas adventure, as well the Gin & Gift Festival in November.
Plymouth Hoe also welcomes some brilliant annual events including the British Firework Championships every August, MTV Crashes Plymouth, Ocean City Sounds and Plymouth Armed Forces Day. A vibrant and arty city, you are never far from an exhibition, gig or show, with the stone-fronted little Barbican Theatre: a firm favourite.
The great outdoors:
If you don’t like your walks too muddy, stay put for The Royal William Yard Wonder Walks, a guided hour and a half tour where you will discover the history of this fascinating area. Or head east to the Hoe, where you can take a gentle stroll while looking out to sea across the spectacular Plymouth Sound. Walk over to Sutton Harbour where you can also do the one-mile Sutton Harbour Heritage Trail. Cyclists are not left out – you can hop on your bike on one of the two National Cycle Routes to discover all the wonderful history on offer in the city or ride along the coastal path – the perfect way to spend a relaxing afternoon in the fresh air.
Escape the city to explore the beautiful Devon and Cornish countryside if you have time. Miles of scenic coastline and beautiful countryside await, peppered with pretty chocolate-box villages and fishing harbours. Take the opportunity to drive up to The Tamar Valley just above the city or slightly further on to Dartmoor National Park to explore its brooding moorland and forest and spot the hardy semi-wild ponies grazing amongst the heather.
If water is more your thing than walking, take a summer dip the Art Deco Tinside Lido at The Hoe, the perfect traditional seaside day out for all the family. Lie back on a sun lounger with an ice-cream in hand, with the blissful sounds of the sea nearby. Adventurous types can hire a canoe and glide along one of the estuaries, perhaps doing some kayaking, coasteering or windsurfing if the mood takes.
Plymouth is fortunate enough to have lots of stretches of beach on its doorstep. Family bucket and spade beaches are within 6 miles including Bovisand with its huge flats at low tide and the simply beautiful Wembury, great to take children rock pooling. The tranquil Mothecombe beach is within 12 miles and you are also perfectly placed to visit the many pretty little fishing villages and coves along the coast if you don’t mind a drive.
Just across Plymouth Sound from the Barbican you will find Batten Bay Beach. Take a water taxi over, much easier than navigating the way to it yourself. Drink in the views across to Drake’s Island, as you walk around Mountbatten Point, past the landmark Mount Batten Tower and along the breakwater. Across the water on the other side of the island are the charming twinned villages of Kingsand and Cawsand, their small shingle beaches perfect for something a little different, especially out of season.
Nearer home, you have two little beaches - Plymouth Hoe West and Plymouth Hoe East, just below Smeaton’s Lighthouse at The Hoe. Rocky and shingly, they have great views across the Sound and there is, of course, the saltwater lido mentioned above, a great alternative for young children when the sea is too choppy. The area is a major scuba diving spot, as is Kingsand Bay with an impressive number of wrecks in relatively shallow waters. Home to Europe’s only artificial diving reef, it’s great for both beginners and also those who know their stuff.
Plymouth has the largest selection of shops in the South West apart from Bristol, with a huge selection of high-street chains and smaller independent stores. The centre is a typical pedestrianised area, great for dropping the car and hitting the shops for the day. On rainy days, head to Drake Circus where you will be able to buy everything under one roof. In the Independent Quarter, Plymouth Market and West End have a remarkable collection of smaller shops and over 150 stalls with everything from food stalls selling fragrant Asian dishes to quirky gift stores, perfect for those hard to find original presents.
For something a little different, head to the little boutique shops and galleries along the cobbled streets of the Barbican and Sutton Harbour. Antique lovers will love a browse around New Street where a delightful collection of artefacts and collectables await those whose taste is a little off-mainstream.
The food and drink:
There are lots of places to sample the local cuisine, with many establishments utilising locally-sourced produce and excellent freshly-caught seafood. You can’t go wrong with the award-winning Barbican Kitchen in the Plymouth Gin Distillery or for a bit history with your supper, head to one of the oldest buildings in the city, Prysten House where you will find the Greedy Goose. In Sutton Harbour, Boston Tea Party is a characterful café set in the historic Jamaica House and ideal when you need a child and dog-friendly vibe.
Take a water taxi across Plymouth Sound from the Barbican Landing Stage to visit the Royal William Yard. Formally a Royal Navy area, it is now crammed with fabulous bars, cafes and restaurants including Bistro Pierre where lovers of French cuisine can sample vintage country recipes on its outside tables, Le Vignoble wine lounge and various other eateries, including a Prezzo, old favourite Wagamama, the Brazilian Las Iguanas, or The Bakery if you need a hearty breakfast before starting the day.
For something really special, less than a mile away you will find the Artillery Tower Restaurant next to Devils Point Tidal Pool. Set in a 15th ccentury military tower on the sea wall overlooking the sea, it feels as though you are wrapped inside an ancient cave: the excellent modern cuisine, however, will soon bring you back to the 21st century.
There’s no shortage of nightlife in Plymouth, both in the city centre and at the Barbican, where various waterside bars and clubs, including The Loft and its cocktail lounge, bring the town alive with their different styles. After-dark venues include Annabel’s Cabaret with its live music and burlesque dancers, and the Refectory Bar at the Plymouth Gin Distillery where you can kick back with a well-deserved G&T. If you are into ‘proper’ clubs, try Revolution, Pryzm and Walkabout; if you’re looking for something a bit more underground, remember that Plymouth is a university city and has all sorts of music for all tastes – head to North Hill and Mutley Plain and ask the locals.
After busy days exploring, and believe us, you will be tired, why not retire to one of our holiday cottages in and around Plymouth? We have a great selection, from upmarket Georgian apartments and waterside retreats in the city itself to traditional stone cottages and coach houses just a couple of miles away in Plymouth’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Tempted to book a holiday? Have a look at our collection of accommodation in Plymouth to find the perfect place for you.