Looking for things to do in Plymouth? You’re in the right place! Plymouth, Britain’s Ocean City, 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, which is over 300 miles away and landlocked! Stacey grew up in mid-Cornwall, 30 miles away, and it was our joint home for almost six years. 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. Plymouth has been featured in the Condé Nast Traveller magazine Best Holiday Destinations at least twice, and it’s not hard to see why it is 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 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 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 and home of the cream tea.
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.
You should know something about Plymouth – it was heavily bombed in the Second World War. So heavily bombed 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 realise it only adds character to such an exciting place. So, without further ado and in no particular order, here is our list of things to do in Plymouth.
Things to Do in Plymouth
1￨Explore 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 most extensive collection of Grade I Listed military buildings and considered 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 special. 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 to see inside the building and have 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 barracks in England, but it’s also the street on which Arthur Conan Doyle had surgery. If you don’t know who he is, he’s the guy who wrote the Sherlock Holme series.
Are you 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￨Relax on Plymouth Hoe
Overlooking the sea and the beautiful Plymouth Sound, Plymouth Hoe is a picturesque must-visit spot where you can take a leisurely stroll, admire the views or soak up the sun with a picnic on the grass. This iconic site is steeped in history and is where Sir Francis Drake famously played bowls before defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, supposedly!
On Plymouth Hoe, you’ll find one of Plymouth’s most iconic landmarks – the stunning Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse, which offers breathtaking panoramic views of Plymouth and beyond. And for the history buffs among you, the Royal Citadel, a 17th-century fortress, is also located here. It’s occupied by the British Army and is accessible via guided tours only.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day out, a bit of history, or a beautiful view, Plymouth Hoe is the perfect spot. So, why not grab a pasty, sit on a bench, and watch the world go by? There’s no better place for it. The Plymouth Hoe is one of my favourite places in the city, and a visit to Plymouth wouldn’t be complete without a wander around the Hoe.
3￨Wander the Historic Barbican
The charming Plymouth Barbican is a place you can’t miss if you’re visiting Plymouth. It’s a fascinating historic area just a short walk from the city centre. This bustling district has cobbled streets, charming architecture, and a rich maritime history. You can wander along the quayside, watch the fishing boats come in, and even try delicious fresh seafood at one of the many restaurants and pubs.
The Barbican is also home to a couple of museums, including the Mayflower Museum, which tells the story of the Pilgrims who set sail from Plymouth to America in 1620. You can also visit the Elizabethan House, a well-preserved merchant’s home from the 16th century. It’s also home to the Black Friars Distillery, the oldest working gin distillery in England, and Jacka Bakery, the oldest bakery in the UK, dating back to the early 1600s.
For a bit of culture, there are plenty of galleries and art studios to explore, as well as independent shops and cafes.
The Barbican also has a great bar scene, so if you’re looking for a fun, lively, and historic place to visit in Plymouth, the Barbican is definitely worth a stop. The Plymouth Barbican is a remarkable place, steeped in history and full of character and any trip to Plymouth wouldn’t be complete without a stroll around it. So, grab a pint, enjoy the atmosphere, and soak up the maritime heritage of this charming district.
4￨Take a Tour of the Gin Distillery
Although the distillery isn’t massive, it’s fascinating and worth a visit, even if you don’t like gin. The Plymouth Gin Distillery is one of the most iconic gin distilleries in the world, located in the historic Barbican district of Plymouth. Established in 1793, it is the oldest working gin distillery in England.
You can visit the distillery, take a tour to learn about the distilling process and the history of gin, and enjoy a tasting of the different gins produced on-site. The distillery’s signature gin is the classic Plymouth Gin, which you can taste in the impressive and atmospheric Refectory Bar afterwards. The distillery also offers a gin-making experience, where you can create your own custom gin blend using a selection of botanicals.
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 worldwide because of the Royal Navy’s global deployments, taking the gin everywhere the ships set sail to.
Did you know Navy strength gin is known for its high alcohol content? The term “navy strength” refers to gin at least 57% alcohol by volume, which is the strength required by the Royal Navy in the 18th century. The reason for this was that if a cask of gin ruptured during a scrap and the gin spilt onto the gunpowder, the gunpowder would still be flammable and, therefore, could still be used in action.
5￨Wander 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 feels like 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 around.
The National Trust now owns Saltram because, in 1957, it was donated by the Parker family to the National Trust instead of death duties…whatever they are! There’s also a fantastic garden inside the boundary walk, home to a cafe, orangery and even a veteran oak tree over 400 years old featured in the 1995 film Sense & Sensibility. Our house in Plymouth was on the opposite side of the estuary on which Saltram sits, so I would often run or cycle around this place. For more information on Saltram, visit the National Trust site HERE.
6￨Visit The Box Museum
Next up on our list of things to do in Plymouth is The Box, which is one of the things to do in Plymouth on a rainy day. I first visited The Box during a press day and was pleasantly surprised. I am not the biggest fan of museums, but this one piqued my interest. It’s not too big, and it’s surprisingly engaging.
There are 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 an excellent gift shop at The Box, which has been perfectly curated with art, stationery, homeware and even a bit of clothing.
7￨Enjoy the Views at Mount Wise
Mount Wise is probably one of the more underrated parts of Plymouth, but 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 were 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, led by Scott, to the Antarctic.
You may know the story because it’s famous, so here’s a short history lesson for you. Scott, also from Plymouth, led the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913 in search of the South Pole. Leading a 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 12th November 1912, their bodies were found in tents. Scott’s last diary entry was eight months before the day they were found and assumed the day he died – 29th March 1912. The team were just 11 miles away from a food and supplies depot. So, get fish and chips from Fish and Chips On The Corner in Devonport, and admire the monument and views overlooking the River Tamar, Royal William Yard and Mount Edgecumbe.
8￨Visit Mount Batten
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 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. It’s from the days when goods were transported by glass, and 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 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 it should be celebrated even more when it’s such a massive, striking, fascinating piece of art and engineering. You will notice the cracked flagstone under her thumb when you get close. I did hear there was a problem with the foundations when they put her down. Maybe the engineers didn’t consider her sheer size and weight…who knows!
While admiring Messenger, spend some time wandering around the city centre. You will undoubtedly think it’s a bit of a concrete mess, but you should consider why it’s 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 pretty amazing it’s still standing. Three bombs were dropped metres from the end of the terrace!
10￨Visit Devonport Guildhall
One of my favourite buildings in Plymouth and home to Column Bake House, 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 even businesses are housed there. It’s an impressive space and one you should make an effort to visit. It’s one of Plymouth’s hidden gems.
Column Bake House makes fantastic coffee and the most delicious toasties…not a typical cheese and ham toastie but one oozing with cheese on their 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.
11￨Take a Ferry to Mount Edgcumbe
Technically, Mount Edgcumbe Country Park isn’t in Plymouth. It’s in Cornwall. But it’s close enough and easily accessible from Plymouth. Situated on the Rame Peninsula, Mount Edgcumbe is a beautiful estate that spans over 800 acres of rolling hills, woods, and gardens. It’s a fantastic place for a leisurely stroll, picnic, or to escape Plymouth for a few hours, with panoramic views of the coast and even a wonderful walk to the lovely villages of Cawsand and Kingsand if you’re feeling up for it.
The park is also home to Mount Edgcumbe House, a stately residence dating back to the 16th century, which is now a museum showcasing the history of the estate and its owners. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a ferry ride from Plymouth to Mount Edgcumbe and explore the many walking trails, hidden coves, and charming villages that dot the coastline. So, whether you’re a nature lover, a history buff, or simply looking for a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city, Mount Edgcumbe is a must-visit destination in Plymouth.
12￨Visit the National Marine Aquarium
The National Marine Aquarium is a must-visit destination in Plymouth if you love sea creatures! This award-winning aquarium is home to an incredible array of marine life, from colourful tropical fish to majestic sharks, all living in beautifully recreated habitats. The exhibits cover many themes, from local species to the world’s oceans and ecosystems.
The highlight of the aquarium is undoubtedly the massive Atlantic Ocean tank, which holds a whopping 2.5 million litres of seawater and is home to sharks, rays, and many other impressive creatures. You can even walk through a glass tunnel for a truly immersive experience.
The National Marine Aquarium also offers a variety of fun and educational activities, including interactive exhibits, behind-the-scenes tours, and even the chance to meet some of the resident sea creatures up close. So, whether you’re a marine biology enthusiast or just looking for a fun day out, the National Marine Aquarium is definitely worth a visit.
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. The sea, Cornwall and Dartmoor surround Plymouth. 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.
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! 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.
Is Plymouth worth visiting?
Absolutely! Plymouth is a beautiful coastal city with a rich history and plenty of attractions to explore. From the world-famous Mayflower Steps to the historic Barbican and the stunning Plymouth Hoe, there’s something for everyone in Plymouth. Plymouth is also home to one of the UK’s most beautiful waterfronts, and you’ll be surprised at all the other things to do in the city.
What’s the best time of year to visit Plymouth?
Plymouth is lovely year-round, but spring to autumn is the best time to visit. Summer is the most popular time for tourists, with plenty of sunshine and outdoor events, but spring and autumn provide a pleasant climate and the best colour around the city. If you choose to visit in winter, you should know it can rain a lot!
What are the must-see attractions in Plymouth?
There are so many fantastic attractions in Plymouth; it’s hard to choose just a few! The Mayflower Steps, Smeaton’s Tower, the National Marine Aquarium, and the Royal William Yard are all must-see sights, as well as the historic Barbican area. The city isn’t huge, and you’ll be able to see a lot of the attractions in a short time.
What’s the best way to get around Plymouth?
Plymouth is a very walkable city, but plenty of public transportation options exist. Plymouth has a very good bus network, with most routes leading to the city centre. If you prefer to drive, there are parking options at almost every single attraction in the city, or certainly not far away.
What are some excellent restaurants, pubs and cafes in Plymouth?
Plymouth is known for its fantastic seafood, and there are plenty of great restaurants and pubs to choose from. The Dolphin Inn, The Chancel, and The Harbour Seafood Restaurant are popular options, as well as the historic and cosy Minerva Inn. The Seco Lounge, Rocket and Rascals, and Caffeine Club are decent, relaxed cafe bars worth a visit, too.
What are some fun things to do in Plymouth with kids?
Plymouth is a great destination for families, with plenty of fun attractions for kids. The National Marine Aquarium is a must-visit, as is the nearby Dartmoor Zoo. Kids will also love exploring the historic Barbican.
Things to do in Plymouth
- Explore Royal William Yard
- Relax on Plymouth Hoe
- Wander the Historic Barbican
- Take a Tour of the Gin Distillery
- Wander Saltram House and Gardens
- Visit The Box Museum
- Enjoy the Views at Mount Wise
- Visit Mount Batten
- See Messenger
- Visit Devonport Guildhall
- Take a Ferry to Mount Edgcumbe
- Visit the National Marine Aquarium
- Explore Dartmoor
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