In the English Riviera, Paignton is a polished seaside resort that has beaches and big attractions for all-comers.
No attraction is bigger than Paignton Zoo, which was one of the first zoos oriented towards animal conservation and welfare.
The crime writer Agatha Christie spent four decades at Greenways, a Georgian estate close to Paignton.
The local theatre has regular productions of her works, and, to really throw yourself into one of her novels, you can catch a steam train to Greenways from the town.
The English Riviera’s beaches are safe and family friendly, and Devon’s fascinating geology is celebrated with a super Geoplay Park, where each area is a different period from the Earth past.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Paignton:
1. Paignton Zoo
According to independent visitor feedback Paignton Zoo is one of Britain’s top three animal attractions.
The zoo is managed by a registered charity and was one of the first in Britain to emphasise animal conservation.
In humane and smartly planned enclosures are more than 250 animal species from around the planet.
The Tropical Forest House for instance has caimans, various crocodile species, boa constrictors, green anacondas, matamata turtles and a variety of other reptiles.
Also special is the Forest Animals area, where you’ll get within metres of Sumatran tigers, Asian lions, western lowland gorillas, orangutans, lemurs and lar gibbons.
The animal enclosures are joined by themed gardens, growing medicinal and commercial plants, along with Mediterranean, tropical and subtropical species.
2. Paignton Beach
The go-to for family days by the sea in Paignton, the main beach has a long strip of sand in red and golden tones.
As with most of the beaches in Tor Bay, you can swim here in safety, and the surf is gentle enough for pedal boats and rowboats, which can be hired from the shore.
You can also rent a deck chair or a beach hut for the day, and simply bask in the sunshine.
For amusements and endless sea views there’s Paignton Pier, while in August the Paignton Regatta, now more than 170 years old brings a funfair, boat races and a carnival atmosphere to the beach.
3. Paignton Geoplay Park
On the foreshore next to Paignton Beach is an imaginatively designed free outdoor attraction for kids.
The Geoplay Park is slyly educational, taking cues from the English Riviera’s rich geology and where youngsters can travel epochs in a few steps.
The toddlers’ play area represents the Devonian period when this place was under the water, below the equator.
Here, little ones can ride a trilobite, while the Junior area is Carboniferous, and has a climbing net designed to evoke an epic mountain range formed by the collision of two continents at this time.
The Permian Period, when Paignton’s red rocks took shape, is a sand and water play area, while the Quaternary Period, for bigger kids, mimics the challenges faced by early man, with climbing trees, tricky obstacles and zip-lines.
4. Dartmouth Steam Railway
Meandering through the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Dartmouth Steam Railway runs on an old Great Western Railway branch line between Paignton in the north and Kingswear in the south.
The station at Paignton, which has vintage signage and an original metal and glass canopy, has recently been restored.
From there you’ll journey down the coast, crossing Victorian viaducts and taking in vistas of the sea and countryside.
The main season is April to November, during which nearly every service will be pulled by a steam locomotive (dating from the 1920s to the 1950s), with diesel trains used only when the steam engines are being repaired.
After arriving in Kingswear you can continue your journey with the same company, on a ferry across the River Dart to visit Dartmouth.
5. Greenway Estate
You don’t have to be a fan of murder mysteries to fall in love with Greenway, the former home of author Agatha Christie.
Now a National Trust property, the estate is less than five miles south of the centre of Paignton and has a stop on the Dartmouth Steam Railway (Greenway Halt). Christie moved into this 18th-century Georgian mansion in 1938 and lived here with her second husband Max Mallowan for almost 40 years.
She worked Greenway and its ground into several novels, from Five Little Pigs to Dead Man’s Folly.
In the house you can view Agatha’s possessions, like a Steinway piano, collections of china and silverware, and all manner of discoveries made by Max Mallowan in his career as an archaeologist.
The grounds are also fabulous, on the east bank of the River Dart, with towering trees and a “Camellia Garden of Excellence”.
6. Goodrington Sands
Another sublime beach, Goodrington Sands is under a mile south of the town centre, with a long, gently shelving sandy beach tracked by a promenade and split into two by a headland.
The water is calm, so families flock here in summer, and when the tide goes out there’s a network of rockpools to investigate.
Behind are multicoloured beach huts, and in summer the locomotives on the Dartmouth Steam Railway add an extra dose of English seaside nostalgia.
The Seashore Centre right on the beach has displays on the wildlife inhabiting the English Riviera’s coastline.
If you’re in Paignton with kids this is a great accompaniment to a rockpooling expedition when the tide recedes at Goodrington Sands.
7. Goodrington Park (Youngs Park)
To the rear is the park of the same name – somewhere to go for a leafy break from the beach.
Goodrington Park is centred on a boating lake that rents out bumper boats and pedal boats in the shape of swans.
This body of water is far older than it might seem, harking back to a medieval lagoon in the middle of marshes, believed to be a bottomless pool.
When the marshes were drained, the pool was found to be less than a metre deep! Look out for the granite headstone marking the “Major’s Grave”, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars.
Some 300 French soldiers were buried here in what is now Goodrington Park in unmarked graves in that period.
It’s all a far cry from today, when there’s crazy golf, a bouncy castle and playground.
8. Berry Pomeroy Castle
Hidden in a wooded valley a few minutes in from the coast are the vestiges of a once vast Elizabethan house, built in the last decades of the 16th century.
Berry Pomeroy Castle was never completed, and by 1700 the property was abandoned, to be shrouded in mystery and stories about ghosts.
The English Heritage site offers an audio tour, recounting some of these tales and the history of the owning Pomeroys and Seyours.
When Berry Pomeroy Castle was rediscovered by the Romantics at the end of the 18th century it became the definition of “picturesque”, and its enigmatic ruins, historic slate quarry and mature woodland still hold that same fascination.
9. Cockington Court
Strictly part of Torquay, but only ten minutes in the car from Paignton, Cockington Court is a mansion dating mostly from the 17th and 19th centuries.
The idyllic village of Cockington is within a country park and has a historic water mill, forge, almshouses and a Norman church standing since 1069. That mansion is a multifaceted attraction, standing out for its historic architecture and Tudor garden, but also as a centre of excellence for arts and crafts.
There are more than 20 craft studios at Cockington Court, as well as a walled art garden, contemporary art gallery, tea room and a kids’ play area.
So you can watch glassblowers and blacksmiths go about their work and buy something unique, straight from the maker.
10. Oldway Mansion
The American inventor and entrepreneur Isaac Merritt Singer (famous for refining the sewing machine) built himself this plush mansion in 1875, the year he died.
Later, his son, Paris Singer, remodelled the mansion and its grounds into a miniature Versailles, enclosed in Italian-style formal gardens.
After being used as a RAF training centre in the Second World War, the property was sold for a knock-down price to the local council.
They moved out in 2012, and since then the future of the mansion and its listed outbuildings has been up in the air.
For now, you can mosey around the flowerbeds, broderies, topiaries and balustrades in the parterre and take in the mansion’s massive Ionic colonnade from the outside.
11. South West Coast Path
A National Trail and the longest waymarked footpath in the UK passes through Paignton on its 630-mile route from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset.
Tor Bay is great if you want to walk small sections of the path, as there are railway stations and bus services all along the coast to get you home again.
You could take a morning to hike the six miles down to Brixham, making your way through grassy countryside, along craggy red cliffs and next to secluded beaches and coves.
You could carry on to Berry Head for a complete panorama of Tor Bay, right up to Torquay.
12. Palace Theatre
The oldest operating theatre in Torbay was constructed in 1890 and can seat audiences of up to 380. The venue is a pillar of Paignton’s community, and along with touring tribute acts, pantomimes and, appropriately, Agatha Christie plays, there are lots of workshops and shows for kids.
If you like to support grass roots arts, the Palace Theatre is home to youth and community theatre groups (Torbay Acting Factory and Bijou Theatre Productions), which put on several performances a year.
13. Paignton Harbour
The town’s picturesque working harbour dates to 1847 and feels a world away from the ultra-posh marina at Torquay to the north.
Paignton has avoided development and has kept a traditional feel.
You can watch the fishing boats coming and going, and amble along the harbour wall and quay for a better look.
In among the Harbour Master’s building and rowing club on the South Quay there’s a cluster of bars and restaurants.
You can also head to Paignton Harbour for boat tours around Tor Bay, and ferries to Torquay and Brixham.
14. Paignton Pier
Piers are linchpins of English seaside resorts, and Paignton’s has been standing since 1879. And like nearly every English pier, Paignton Pier has a history of fires, having lost its pavilion and paddle steamer station to a blaze in 1919. The main building is somewhere to bring children for amusements like dodgems, bowling, slides, arcade games and trampolines.
Outside you can pause with an ice cream and appreciate the view back to Paignton Beach and across Tor Bay.
This is the perfect vantage point for the Torbay Air Show, on the first weekend of June.
15. Splashdown Quaywest Waterpark
Paignton has the UK’s largest waterpark, set next to Goodrington Sands and open May to September.
Splashdown Quaywest has eight slides, ranging from the 22-metre near-vertical descent of the Devil’s Drop to the more sedate Surf Lagoon, a tyre slide that twists along a 130-metre course.
Children seven and younger are well catered for at the Submarine Adventure and Blennies Tiddler Pool.
The waterpark also has a conventional swimming pool for those who want old-fashioned exercise, as well as an amusement arcade, concessions stands and a cafe with a beach view.