The 10 best things to do in Plymouth, England – Britain’s Ocean City. It was home to Me (Joel) for one month shy of 18 years. Growing up in Leeds, Plymouth was a long way from my birthplace. Leeds being over 300 miles away and landlocked! Stacey grew up in mid-Cornwall, 30 or so miles away and it was our joint home for almost six years. But the time finally came to move to pastures new in Shropshire. Plymouth was also the place Stacey and I met. Saltram House and Gardens, to be precise.
We had our first date there, followed by lunch at Royal William Yard. But we’ll tell you about them in a little bit. This article is also a bit of a cheat because it’s got more than 10 things on if you include all the eateries and bars. This is the 21st century, so let’s just go with it.
Plymouth featured in the Condé Nast Traveller magazine Best Holiday Destinations 2021 (and 20) and it’s not hard to see why it featured in such an acclaimed publication with so much to see and do. Sadly, Plymouth is under the radar for lots of people, don’t let it fall under yours! There really is something about living by the sea that adds value to your life. It’s indescribable, but if you know what I’m talking about, you just know.
Plymouth is regarded as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’, well, that’s the slogan, but it’s more than that, it’s a gateway to a rich history, a diverse landscape, the cream tea and… the Janner! The term ‘Janner’ is a regional nickname for the locals of Plymouth, and for the local accent and colloquialisms. You may recall the Paul Whitehouse Aviva advert if you are old enough. If you don’t, click HERE to watch it and it will reveal all…geddon ya Janner! Ha!
Anyway, I thought I’d tell you why Plymouth is such a great city and if you are ever visiting, stick to this guide of the best things to do in Plymouth to make the most of it and you might appreciate the place a fraction as much as we do. And if you live here and haven’t been to some of the places listed, go visit them!
You should know something about Plymouth – it was heavily bombed in the Second World War. So heavily bombed, in fact, most of the city was reduced to rubble. There were almost 60 bombings on the city, and it’s suggested it was the worst bombed city in the UK. I don’t know how they work these things out, but looking back on pre-war photographs, it’s easy to see the damage caused, which should be taken into account when you visit.
Plymouth is a bit of a concrete jungle with some questionable architecture, but now you understand the reason why you will understand it only adds character to such an interesting place. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here is our list of things to do in Plymouth…
10 Best Things to Do in Plymouth, England
1￨Royal William Yard
Number 1 on our list of things to do in Plymouth is to visit Royal William Yard. Where do we start with Royal William Yard?! The history, maybe… the yard is a former victualling yard built between 1825 and 1831, it’s now home to Europe’s largest collection of Grade I Listed military buildings and considered to be one of the most important groups of historic military buildings in Britain.
A victualling yard, in this case, was where food was prepared for the Royal Navy, which can be seen all over the yard where the buildings are named after their purpose, like the Cooperage or Slaughterhouse. As you can imagine, the place is an architectural marvel, built from Cornish granite and local limestone. I don’t know if there is anywhere else like this in the country.
Because of the unique character of Royal William Yard, even the chain restaurants have the feel of independent places because the site is so unique. You are unlikely to find a Prezzo, Lounge or Wagamama in such incredible surroundings. Not only can you eat and drink here, but you can also get your fix of activity with stand up paddleboarding at Firestone Arch with South West SUP.
During the summer months, they also have live music and looking through Firestone Arch offers one incredible view of Drake’s Island. There is also the occasional market held in the historic buildings. We went to a wedding fayre just so we could see inside the building…and have the free wine!
As you approach Royal William Yard, you will drive down Dunford Street. This street is home to Royal Marines Barracks Stonehouse, which is described as the oldest and most important group of barracks in England, but it’s also the street on which Arthur Conan Doyle had a surgery. If you don’t know who he is, he’s the guy who wrote the Sherlock Holme series.
Arriving at Royal William Yard by car? Be aware of the parking charges inside. If you want to park for free, head to Devil’s Point car park and walk around. It’s a nice walk, if heading west, and offers views across Plymouth Sound and over to Mount Edgcumbe in Cornwall.
2￨Plymouth Hoe and Barbican
We’ve coupled these together because they are like a couple – they just go together, and you can’t visit one without the other. The Barbican and Sutton Harbour was once the original town centre before Plymouth became Plymouth. It’s still a functioning fishing port but is largely now a touristy spot. The Barbican and Hoe are my favourites place in Plymouth. Of all the places I’ve been to around the world, I was always glad to return. They are both remarkable places, steeped in history and full of character. Any trip to Plymouth wouldn’t be complete without a trip to them.
The Barbican is home to Plymouth Gin, Black Friars Distillery, which is the oldest working gin distillery in England and has been in action since 1793. You can visit and take a tour of the place and even make your own gin! It’s not a huge place, but it’s interesting and definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been.
And here’s a bit of naval and gin history for you – for almost 200 years, all newly commissioned Royal Navy ships received a ‘Gin Commissioning Kit’. This was a wooden box containing two bottles of ‘Navy Strength’ gin and glassware and it’s said that gin became famous the world over because of the Royal Navy’s global deployments, taking the gin everywhere the ships set sail to.
Not only does the Barbican have the oldest working gin distillery in England, but it’s also home to Jacka Bakery, which is the oldest bakery in the UK, dating back all the way to the early 1600s. The bakery even provided food which was taken across the Atlantic on the historic Pilgrim Fathers voyage to the New World in 1620. Probably not the original owners, but still worth popping in for a coffee and pain au chocolat! I don’t know how true this is, but apparently, Plymouth has the largest concentration of cobbled streets in Britain, with most of that being in and around the Barbican.
3￨Saltram House and Gardens
Number 3 on our list of things to do in Plymouth is where Stacey and I had our first date, so it holds a special place in our hearts. But beyond that, it’s a marvellous place to visit. Despite being on the edge of the city, it has a feeling of being in the countryside, with the beautiful woodland walks and the cattle that are often grazing on the fields. There’s a 2-mile boundary walk, with splinters to take you into woods and it even has its own little beach, about halfway round.
Saltram is now owned by the National Trust because in 1957 it was donated by the Parker family to the National Trust in lieu of death duties…whatever they are! There’s also has a cool garden, inside the boundary walk, which is home to a cafe, orangery and even a veteran oak tree that is over 400 years old which featured in the 1995 film Sense & Sensibility. Our house in Plymouth was located on the opposite side of the estuary on which Saltram sits, so this was somewhere I would often run or cycle around. For more information on Saltram, visit the National Trust site HERE.
Next up on our list of things to do in Plymouth is The Box. I first visited The Box during a press day and was pleasantly surprised by it. I must admit, I am not the biggest fan of museums, but this one piqued my interest. It’s not too big and it’s surprisingly interesting. There nine permanent galleries in The Box which are Plymouth centric. They showcase all sorts, from natural and human history to art and photography, of which the Media Lab was my favourite gallery. There’s also a really cool gift shop at The Box, which has been perfectly curated with art, stationery, homeware and even a bit of clothing.
Mount Wise is probably one of the more underrated parts of Plymouth, but definitely worth a visit on a warm summer’s evening. Mount Wise was the former home to senior Admiralty staff and was inaccessible to the public, but in 2011 the 28 acres of Mount Wise was bought and converted into a load of homes, utilising the former military buildings, alongside some new houses which were built. But that’s not the best bit. The best bit is the view and Scott Memorial. The memorial, now a Grade II listed structure, was unveiled in 1925 to honour the British team, lead by Scott, to the Antarctic.
You may know the story because it’s a fairly famous one, so here’s a short history lesson for you. Scott, who was also from Plymouth, led the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913 in search of the South Pole. Leading the team of five (Scott, Oates, Bowers, Evans and Wilson), they reached the pole in 1912 but learned that they had been beaten by a Norwegian team who reached the pole just over one month earlier. Sadly, Scott and his men perished on the return journey.
On the 12th of November 1912, their bodies were found in their tents. Scott’s last diary entry was eight months previous to the day they were found and is assumed the day he died – 29th March 1912. The team were just 11 miles away from a food and supplies depot. So, get yourself some fish and chips from Fish and Chips On The Corner in Devonport, and go admire the monument and views overlooking the River Tamar, Royal William Yard and Mount Edgecumbe.
Plymouth has an impressive waterfront, from the military heritage of the Royal Citadel, Drake’s Island and Fort Bovisand, to the historic Barbican where the Mayflower left for the New World in 1620 and home to Smeatons Tower, which was a breakthrough in lighthouse design, it can be viewed in all its glory from Mount Batten and the Mount Batten Pier.
If you are keen on crafts, you might be interested in the sea glass which you can find in Mount Batten. Head to the beach on the left, right after the roundabout (you can’t miss the roundabout, there’s only one way in by car!), and you’ll find stocks of it. Apparently, it’s from the days when goods were transported by glass and given there are over 600 wrecks in the Plymouth Sound, it’s likely lots of these jars were broken up and now end up on beaches around the Sound.
I am fascinated by this thing every time I see it. Standing 7 metres tall, 9 metres wide and weighing in at 10 tonnes (that’s almost 7.5 Fiat 500 cars!), Messenger is the largest sculpture ever created in the UK and is made from Bronze. The pose of Messenger is based on Nicola Kavanagh, during rehearsals for a performance of the Shakespeare play Othello in 2014.
Sadly, there is no information about Messenger outside the Theatre Royal, where it sits. I’m not sure why, when it’s such a massive, striking and fascinating piece of both art and engineering – it should be celebrated even more. When you get close, you will notice the cracked flagstone under her thumb. I did hear there was a problem with the foundations when they put her down. Maybe the engineers didn’t consider the sheer size and weight of her…who knows!
While you’re admiring Messenger, spend some time wandering around the city centre. No doubt you will think it’s a bit of a concrete mess, but you should consider why it’s like the way it is. As I mentioned earlier, Plymouth was heavily bombed in the Second World War, which resulted in almost total destruction of the city. It just so happens there was a bomb shelter in our old back garden. Our old house was built in 1903 and it’s quite amazing it’s still standing. Three bombs were dropped metres from the end of the terrace!
One of my favourite buildings in Plymouth and home to Column Bake House, which is one of my favourite cafes in Plymouth. The Devonport Guildhall has an interesting history – it was once a prison. You can go in the old prison cells, which are now used as gallery space. And the main hall is used for conferences and markets and there are even businesses housed in there. It’s an impressive space and one you should definitely make the effort to visit. It’s one of Plymouth’s hidden gems.
Column Bake House do fantastic coffee and the most delicious toasties…not a typical cheese and ham toastie but one oozing with cheese on their very own artisan bread (which you can also buy in a loaf!). Right next to Devonport Guildhall is Odd Fellows Hall and Devonport Column. Odd Fellows Hall, also known as Egyptian House, is one of only two Egyptian-style houses in England, with the other being in Penzance. Built in 1824, Devonport Column served as a post for fire-watch duties during the Blitz, with one policeman at the top and another at the bottom to relay messages. It’s now open to the public offering views over Plymouth and up to Dartmoor.
Obviously, Plymouth and Dartmoor are two different places, but I feel it deserves a place in this list of things to do in Plymouth because Dartmoor is so accessible from the city. Plymouth is surrounded by the sea, Cornwall and Dartmoor. I won’t go into it in any more detail because you can read all about our favourite spots on Dartmoor HERE. But beyond the city is a moorland filled with even more things to do. You might even spot a highland cow.
10￨Go eat & Drink!
Cafe’s, Bars and Restaurants
Last on our list of things to do in Plymouth is to eat. It’s easier to place all these under the same heading otherwise the list will go on forever! This list is our go-to places in Plymouth that we like to visit to eat and drink. Most of the places are easy-going cafes and restaurants.
Seco Lounge – Our favourite hangout. Residing in Royal William Yard, this place is decked out with loads of old naval stuff. From plaques of Royal Navy ships to old signage reclaimed from the yard, it’s fitted out with taste. They have a good spread of food and drink and you can find the menu HERE…I recommend the Ultimate Chicken Burger!
Rocket and Rascals – The decor in this place is right up my street. The coffee is great and so are the staff. They also have some really cool merchandise, like this coffee (or tea) tin below. The coffee in Bumper is now housed in this. How cool is the artwork? My only problem with this place is the complex sweet treats…I like something a little simpler, like a basic flapjack without anything in it…or on it! Haha.
Bertie’s Ice Cream – If you live in Plymouth and don’t know who Bertie is, you should be ashamed of yourself. Bertie is the ice cream man. He used to run a vintage ice cream truck on the Hoe. He did so well he managed to open a shop in one of the old boat sheds on the Barbican. His ice cream is all homemade, as are his doughnuts and cookies. He’s also a super friendly chap who loves a natter.
Meze Grill – There are other Greek restaurants in Plymouth but go to this one. It is the best, in our opinion, and you must try the meze. There is a lot of food so be warned if you are getting one each! Maybe get one for every two people and add another main and starter, it will definitely be enough!
Fisherman’s Arms – One of the cutest little pubs in Plymouth and very well hidden! Unless you know about this place, you are very unlikely to stumble upon it. It’s got a lovely atmosphere. It’s always busy, so you are probably best booking a table, given it’s quite small too! If the mussels are on the menu, I recommend them!
Cap’n Jaspers – A visit to Plymouth and the Barbican wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Cap’n Jaspers. It’s been around since 1978, sat on the edge of Whitehouse Pier and is still a family run business. It’s run by the daughter of the original owner. You can get some cheap eats at Jaspers. And where else can you get a mug of tea for just 90p?!
And where else requires a 20p deposit for the old school glass mug it comes in? There’s nostalgia right there. If you’re a biker, this is the place to be too. You will often find the cobbled streets by Jaspers filled with a vast array of different types of motorbikes. From vintage Lambrettas to modern superbikes. There’s always something interesting to look at.
Caffeine Club – This is the place to go for cheap eats and two for one cocktails. It’s also full of really cool reclaimed signage if you like a bit of nostalgia as I do! One of the very few 24-hour cafes in Plymouth. It usually has a great atmosphere, helped by being located in the university quarter.
Turtle Bay – I feel Turtle Bay’s food menu leaves something to be desired, but I am partial to an espresso martini, of which Turtle Bay do a really awesome one. You can even have it made with rum! And you can sit at the bar and enjoy watching the staff make cocktails, which is quite frankly mind-blowing. I can’t remember Valentine’s Day, let alone a list of cocktails, each with a unique recipe. The best thing about Turtle Bay for me, aside from the espresso martinis, has to be the relaxed vibes.
Kitty O’Hanlon’s – Is any city complete if it doesn’t have an Irish pub?! Well, this is Plymouth’s version. It’s located right next to the historic The Prysten House, which dates all the way back to 1500. But you can guarantee you’ll get a decent pint of Guinness and a good atmosphere.
A Final Word…
That concludes our list of things to do in Plymouth. I hope you agree that Plymouth is full of wonder, with its rich and unique history, and if you’d like to know more, I suggest reading the Plymouth Book of Wonder, which you can read HERE. And finally, below are some extracts and random facts from it:
- Plymouth has its own strawberry, really! It’s hairy…have a Google.
- Britain’s porcelain industry began in Plymouth
- Plymouth is home to the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in the English-Speaking World
- Plymouth’s Lady Astor was the first female MP in the House of Commons in 1919.
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