On a scenic natural harbour at the estuary of the River Dart, Dartmouth is an enchanting Medieval seafaring town.
The picturesque scenery, snug streets and striking historic landmarks come together to give you something unforgettable.
Dartmouth has delectable food, whether it’s ultra-fresh shellfish or local cream that goes into the famed Devon cream teas and ice cream.
Dartmouth Castle, the town’s sentinel on a crag at the entrance to the harbour looks like something out of a movie, in the best possible way.
The South West Coast Path promises some brisk exercise repaid by views you’ll never forget, while the Dartmouth Steam Railway and river cruises let you savour this beautiful piece of Devon in a more leisured way.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Dartmouth:
1. Dartmouth Castle
Guarding the entrance to the harbour, Dartmouth Castle may well have the most picturesque setting of any defensive building in the country.
It stands on a rocky outcrop at the mouth of the River Dart and has knockout views of the harbour and out to sea.
Towards the end of the 15th century the castle was adapted to become Britain’s first artillery fort, with powerful cannons designed to sink ships.
Another addition at that time was a long iron chain that would be suspended across the harbour at night to Godmerock on the east bank to stop ships entering.
From afar one of the castle’s most prominent features is the Church of St Petrox, dating in its current form to 1641. Treat yourself a cream tea by the riverside at the castle to watch the harbour’s comings and goings, and take a restorative walk along the harbour or in the secluded woodland behind the castle.
2. Dartmouth Harbour
A natural harbour of serious dimensions, Dartmouth can accommodate whopping vessels like the famous residential yacht, MS The World, which visited before being delivered to its owners in the 2000s.
Although commercial activity has slowed, Dartmouth Harbour is still busy, with 3,000 moorings and a fleet of fishing boats unloading a bounty of crab and lobster in the autumn months.
The presence of the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth means that the harbour is often visited by big warships.
The hilly west and east banks of the Dart Estuary lend a sense of spectacle to the harbour, and if you need a time to come, make it the end of August.
This is when the three-day Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta takes place, with a programme of rowing races, sailing events, air displays, fireworks, markets and lots of family fun.
3. St Saviour’s Church
Begun at the turn of the 13th century, this church rising behind the Quay has a fascinating past.
While Edward I was inspecting the harbour for his French campaigns, the townsfolk asked the king for permission to build a new church as until then St Clement’s, a gruelling climb up Townstal Hill, was the only place of worship.
He accepted without consulting the Bishop of Exeter who objected, and the ensuing trouble meant the church wouldn’t be consecrated until 1372. See the astonishing Medieval ironwork door, bearing the two leopards of the Plantagenets.
There’s a rumour that the gallery, festooned with the coats of arms of eminent local families, is built from the timbers of ships captured during the Spanish Armada.
Check out the oak rood screen from 1480, and the many Medieval monuments including the tomb of John Hawley (d. 1408) and his two wives.
4. Dartmouth Museum
The absorbing town museum is in an old slate-clad merchant’s house on the Butterwalk, dating to 1640. In 1671 Charles II was a guest here after needing to spend the night in the town due to a storm.
The building is a museum piece of its own, and has an original plaster ceiling interpreted as a Tree of Jesse.
You can bet that in a town like Dartmouth the galleries have a strong maritime theme, with model boats, ships in bottles and artefacts from some of the many vessels that have docked in the town.
You’ll get to know Dartmouth’s famous sons, like the 18th-century inventor of the first practical steam engine, Thomas Newcomen.
Children will have fun peering through microscopes, being placed in the stocks, making pirate hats and solving quizzes.
5. Royal Avenue Gardens
A place to take in the full splendour of the Dart and its high banks, Royal Avenue Gardens sits on reclaimed land.
This had been a sandbank until a wall was built on the riverside to give extra space for the port’s ships to moor.
Because of the sandy ground the area was never used for construction and became somewhere to hold public events, eventually becoming a true park when it was landscaped in 1887. Queen Victoria had landed at this spot when she came to Dartmouth 1856, which explains the royal name.
The newly reconfigured borders and flowerbeds are very pretty in summer, and due to Devon’s mild climate the Antipodean garden, Japanese garden and Mediterranean garden have exotic species like olive trees, gingko, palms and New Zealand ferns.
6. Foss Street
This cosy street heads north, down the slope from St Saviour’s Church, often visible through the ravine of houses.
Foss Street is Medieval, dating back to the start of the 13th century and started out as a dam for the reservoir that drove Dartmouth’s mills.
Now pedestrianised, it’s a place to idle for its flower baskets cute houses, galleries and lots of interesting independent shops selling handmade candles, designer jewellery, fashion, art supplies, antique books and kitschy gifts.
7. Dartmouth Royal Naval College
Navy officers have been trained in Dartmouth since 1863 when HMS Britannia was moored in the River Dart.
The Royal Naval College was given a permanent home in 1905 at the completion of this solemn Edwardian Baroque campus.
The college’s architect Aston Webb is renowned for the Victoria and Albert Museum and the facade of Buckingham Palace.
Officer cadets between the ages of 18 and 32 spend between 30 and 49 weeks at the college, depending on their chosen field.
Access is of course limited but there are guided tours with the Britannia Association, taking place on Mondays and Wednesday, with details published on their website.
The tour takes you into the chapel, quarterdeck, senior gun room, Britannia Heritage Museum and parade ground.
8. South West Coast Path
The UK’s longest National Trail passes through Dartmouth on a very circuitous 630-mile route around South West England’s peninsula.
Dartmouth is a superb place to stay if you only want to hike sections of the route.
They give a taster of what is considered the trickiest of all of the UK’s national trails, taking in rugged headlands, descending to the sea and the suddenly climbing up another cliff.
The lighter of the two local options is the ten-mile walk to Torcross, which gets easier the further south you go as the landscapes opens out onto lush fields.
If you need a challenge, the way to Brixham is tougher as you battle through a series of majestic valleys on the east bank of the River Dart.
Stop off at Berry Head to see the largest guillemot colony on England’s south coast.
9. Dartmouth Steam Railway
Catch the ferry to Kingswear for a 35-minute journey on this heritage line, travelling 6.7 miles to Paignton and making three stops on the way.
As we’ll see later, the ferry over the Dart connecting to the train service is operated by the same company, which also provides tours on the river.
Get a seat on the right side of the carriage to marvel at the full beauty of the Torbay coast, as well as the densely wooded hills on the east side of the Dart Estuary.
When the skies are clear you should be able to see as far as Isle of Portland in Dorset across the Lyme Bay.
The line’s locomotives all ran on this former branch line of the Great Western Railway and were built between 1921 and 1951, while 11 of the 21 coaches are elegant British Railways Mark I corridor coaches from the 50s and 60s.
10. Blackpool Sands
This Blue Flag crescent-shaped bay almost looks like it doesn’t belong in England.
Blackpool Sands is an alluring shingle/coarse sand beach lapped by light waves and traced by low, green cliffs.
The beach is rare in England for being privately managed, but this guarantees perfect cleanliness and lots of facilities for a stress-free summer’s day.
You can hire out paddleboards and kayaks, and swim out to a bathing raft in the bay.
There are sand pits for children to play in and an organic cafe for snacks or light meals.
11. Water Activities
Dartmouth and the South Devon Coast have to be experienced by water to be fully appreciated.
Luckily there are lots of ways to do this.
Dartmouth has always had a reputation as a sailing port, and Dartmouth Yacht Club offers tuition for all abilities.
To get even closer to the water, Sea Kayak Devon is based in Dartmouth and provides kayak courses and kayak trips around the protected coastline.
The picturesque scenery, historical landmarks and calm waters of the Dart Estuary are made for paddleboarding expeditions, pausing at riverside villages and friendly inns for lunch.
If you’re in shape and have an urge for adventure, wild swimming has also taken off in the River Dart.
12. Boat Trips
The company that operates the steam railway also offers cruises around the beautiful and heritage-packed Dart Estuary, starting and ending in the harbour.
There are six cruises a day in the peak summer season, and four at other times.
On the voyage you’ll have lots of time to see the Dartmouth and Kingswear Castles, the Royal Naval College, Bayard’s Cove Fort and Agatha Christie’s estate.
Fun and detailed commentary is provided.
Don’t forget that the river is tidal, so cruise times change accordingly.
If you’re in luck you’ll get to ride on the PS Kingswear Castle, a coal-fired paddle steamer launched in 1924 with engines dating back to 1904. Another much shorter trip can be made on the Higher and Lower Kingswear Ferries, crossing the estuary in a matter of minutes.
Added to these is Dartmouth Passenger Ferry, another service run by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company.
13. Newcomen Memorial Engine
The Dartmouth native Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) is credited with designing the first practical steam engine.
Amazingly, a working example of his beam engine from 1725 has been preserved in his memory.
It’s the oldest surviving steam engine in the world, and was put to use pumping water at a series of collieries in the West Midlands.
In 1963 the engine was finally brought to Dartmouth in recognition of Newcomen’s achievements and to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth.
The building is a former electricity substation and is shared by Dartmouth’s tourist information centre.
As for the engine, the arched beam and 22-inch cylinder are original, dating back almost 300 years, while the pickle-pot condenser under the cylinder is from 1820.
14. Bayard’s Cove Fort
On a rocky terrace at a narrow point in the Dart there’s a 16th-century artillery blockhouse protecting the entrance to the harbour.
Bayard’s Cove Fort was begun some time during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign to prepare for an attack from France or Spain.
This was intended as a last line of defence against any ships that had got past the Dartmouth and Kingswear Castles further down the estuary.
After hundreds of years of decline the fort found a new defensive role as a machine gun post in the Second World War.
When we wrote this article in 2018 English Heritage was conducting conservation work.
Once this is complete you’ll be able to put yourself in the shoes of a Tudor soldier, peering through the 11 gun ports and picking up titbits about the fort’s architecture and firepower.
15. Woodlands Family Theme Park
Five miles out of Dartmouth is Devon’s biggest family theme park, with 16 rides and scores of animals in more than 90 acres.
Over such a large space, Woodlands Family Theme Park is a versatile day out, boasting three of Devon’s largest rollercoasters, a toboggan run zipping down half a kilometre of high-speed track, but also placid walks in mature woodland.
Younger visitors will be besotted with the Zoo Farm and its pigs, meerkats, reptiles, creepy-crawlies llamas, alpacas and ponies.
Added to all this is the largest indoor play area in South West England, with a world of ball pools, slides and climbing equipment, as well as a whole programme of science themed “Fizz Pop” workshops and shows.