At the head of Plymouth Sound, one of the world’s great natural harbours, Plymouth is a city with a rich maritime past.
For hundreds of years this has been a naval base, and the cliffs along the harbour are armed with coastal forts and batteries from the 17th century to the Second World War.
You can stand on the Hoe, at the top of low limestone cliffs, to watch the comings and goings on the Sound, and potter around the cobblestone streets of the Barbican, where the Mayflower set sail for America in 1620. Britain’s oldest gin distillery is here, producing the English national spirit for more than 225 years, while the old Victualling yard is a dynamic waterside neighbourhood with venerable 18th-century naval buildings.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Plymouth:
1. Plymouth Hoe
A south-facing limestone rise, Plymouth Hoe has been used as a viewpoint to survey the Sound and the west end of the English Channel since time immemorial.
Standing here you can see the entirety of Plymouth Sound, as well as Mount Edgcumbe in Cornwall and Drake’s Island.
The story goes that Sir Francis Drake played a game of bowls here after the first sails of the Spanish Armada were sighted in 1588. A few of the attractions on this list are atop the Hoe, like the Royal Citadel and Smeaton’s Tower.
Down on the water is the Tinside Lido, a swish semi-circular outdoor pool with an Art Deco design.
2. Smeaton’s Tower
Taking the name of its designer, the Georgian civil engineer John Smeaton, this tower is a former lighthouse that was relocated on Plymouth Hoe in the 1880s.
The trailblazing original tower was set on Eddystone Reef between 1759 and 1877, until it had to be taken down due to erosion.
In its earliest days its signal was provided by 24 candles, each weighing a little under a kilogram.
The tower had become such a landmark that at the end of its lifespan it was rebuilt as a memorial and has been carefully restored inside and out to its 18th-century design.
You can battle up the 93 steps and ladders to the lantern room, more than 20 metres high to cast your gaze across the Plymouth Sound.
3. Plymouth Sound
Standing on the Hoe, you can take a few minutes to gaze at this vast natural harbour, spotting Royal Navy vessels and watching the water traffic.
A neat way to see this immense body of water is from the east side between Mount Batten Point and Andurn Point.
The geology of the cliffs and outcrops is also fascinating, and changes from red and green sandstone in the south around Andurn Point, to slates, siltstones and darker sandstone as you head north towards the city.
On the way you’ll observe colossal faults in the rock caused by tectonic pressures up to 330 million years ago.
The route is littered with coastal forts raised in different periods, like the circular artillery fort atop Mount Batten, dating to 1652 and the site of a Bronze Age fort.
The Barbican on the north and west sides of Sutton harbour is a stylish, historic and cosmopolitan area to get lost in for an hour or two.
It’s one of the few quarters of the city to escape major damage during the Plymouth Blitz in the Second World War and has tight alleys flanked by Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian properties from 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
There are more than 100 listed buildings on this labyrinth of cobblestone lanes, and the parade is a charming place to wander beside Sutton Harbour in the evening.
The Barbican also has a very international selection of places to eat, as well as galleries, unique independent shops, pubs, cafes and attractions like the Plymouth Distillery.
5. National Marine Aquarium
Plymouth has the largest aquarium in the UK, which opened on reclaimed land in Sutton Harbour in 1998. The National Marine Aquarium has habitats for 4,000 individual animals, from 400 species, across four main zones.
You’ll begin with a glimpse of the life found around Plymouth Sound, like sharks and rays, as well as the crustaceans and echinoderms that inhabit its rockpools.
The Eddystone Reef shows off the marine life around Britain, from conger eels, lobsters and pollock, to flatfish and smooth hound sharks.
The Atlantic Ocean exhibit was refreshed in 2009 with the largest ever shipment of live fish to the UK, and has a tarpon, barracudas, upside-down jellyfish and sand-tiger sharks.
Finally the Blue Planet reveals the amazing biodiversity of the world’s oceans, home to the Great Barrier Reef tank with 70 different species in one environment.
Just east of the city is Saltram House, a Georgian mansion in 500 acres of farmland comprising woods, marshes, farmland and the Plym estuary.
The house was planned by the feted Scottish architect Robert Adam, adapting an earlier Tudor property.
Several generations of the wealthy Parker family lived here, and the Neoclassical residence is still furnished with their collection of paintings by leading Georgian artists like Joshua Reynolds.
There are also valuable textiles, ceramics and clocks, and you’ll get to see the refined saloon, the library with Chinoiserie decoration and a kitchen with an antique range and copper cookware.
Outside you can walk in meadows among the grazing cattle, take a picnic looking out at the Plym and track down the Parkers’ 18th-century amphitheatre folly.
7. Royal Citadel
On the east side of Plymouth Hoe stands the Royal Citadel, built in the 1600s during the Dutch Wars in the reign of King Charles II. It was designed by the Dutch military engineer Bernard de Gomme in an unorthodox configuration, using local limestone.
The Royal Citadel is still a military base controlled by the British Army, but you can come for guided two-hour tours on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from April to September.
You can go up to the ramparts, still armed with cannons, to look across the Plymouth Sound.
You’ll get a thorough explanation of the history of the fort’s past, and its role as a training centre in the 19th century.
Some architectural highlights are the English Baroque gateway, and the Royal Chapel, dating to 1371.
8. Plymouth Naval Memorial
At the centre of Plymouth Hoe is a war memorial for British and Commonwealth sailors who lost their lives in the World Wars and have no known burial place.
The memorial is one of three monuments, here, and at the Royal Navy bases in Portsmouth and Chatham.
It bears are the names of 7,251 sailors missing from the First World War and 15,933 from the Second World War.
Unveiled in 1924, the memorial was designed by Scottish architect Henry Lorimer, and its lions, Royal Navy crest and globe atop the obelisk were carved by Henry Poole.
In 2016 at the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the memorial was elevated to Grade I listed status.
9. Plymouth Gin Distillery
Plymouth has the oldest operating gin distillery in England, the home of Plymouth gin since 1793, and once exported around the world by the Royal Navy.
The Black Friars Distillery is in a building with some much older architecture, at the Refectory, dating back to 1431 and now a bar and tasting area with a grand timber roof.
The building was a merchant’s house, and then a gaol and congregational house before taking on its current vocation.
The distillery continues to produce Plymouth Gin, which has a sweeter palate than London dry gin, and invites you for guided visits and then a testing session in the Refectory.
It is believed that pilgrims on the Mayflower spent there last night on English soil in this hall in 1620.
10. Royal William Victualling Yard
The stately Royal William Victualling Yard is a former Royal Navy property that was released by the Ministry of Defence in 1992. Up to that point it had been used for “Victualling”, supplying navy vessels with food and drink.
It has an ensemble of distinguished buildings from the 1820s and the 1830s designed by Sir John Rennie, made up of a former bakery, slaughterhouse, brewhouse, old and new cooperages, warehouses and residences.
Since the 90s this has all been turned into a posh waterside neighbourhood, with yachts docked on the water, and a mixture of restaurants, shops, bars and residential properties.
Drop by in summer and there’s lots of public events, like outdoor theatre, arts and crafts markets and open-air cinema screenings.
Plymouth is 15 minutes from the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the southeast, and on the coast sits the small village of Wembury.
This is wrapped in gorgeous rolling scenery, preserved by the National Trust, and with high cliffs on the coast.
With a field of Lower Devonian reefs exposed at low tide, Wembury Beach is one of the best in the country for rockpooling, and you can head down with children to look for starfish, crabs, sea scorpions, anemones and limpets.
There are also consistent swells of up two metres or more for surfers, and cliff-top walks on the Southwest Coast Path with views to the Great Mew Stone, an islet painted by J. M. W. Turner.
12. Plymbridge Woods
You can trace the Plym upriver to the northeast edge of the city, where you’ll come to a large swathe of woodland managed by the National Trust in a landscape of abandoned quarries.
The woods are woven with walking and cycling trails, varying in length but none particularly challenging on this light terrain.
You can follow the river through mossy oak forest and may spot fallow deer, peregrine falcons and kingfishers.
Springtime is really special, when the forest floor is bedded with wildflowers like bluebells, wild garlic, primroses and wood anemones.
13. Devonport Naval Heritage Centre
When you’re in a city with the largest naval base in Western Europe it’s only natural to be curious about its military history.
HMNB Devonport has a visitor centre that you can check out by appointment.
This attraction documents the dockyard’s growth over the centuries and Plymouth’s role in seaborne warfare since the 14th century.
In the galleries are model ships, pieces of military regalia, silver, crockery and historic figureheads.
The decommissioned nuclear submarine HMS Courageous is also part of the tour.
Depending on security and timetabling you can also contact the heritage centre to take a tour of one of the modern amphibious ships at the base, like the assault ship HMS Bulwark and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.
14. Dartmoor Zoo
Under ten miles from Plymouth on the southern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park, Dartmoor Zoo is a day out that will go down well with younger members of the family.
The park was the inspiration for the 2011 movie We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, based on the mishaps suffered by the current owners who purchased the attraction in 2006. Among the 72 mammal species are Amur tigers, African lions, jaguars, lynes, Iberian and grey wolves, short-clawed otters, zebras and wallabies.
The zoo also has a variety of owls, tarantulas, leaf insects, snakes and the oldest inhabitant, Tina, the spur-thighed tortoise, now pushing 60 years old.
15. Cremyll Ferry
From the Admiral’s Hard in Stonehouse you can cross into Cornwall over the River Tamar on a route that has been active since the start of the 13th century.
The Cremyll Ferry departs from Plymouth at 15, 30 and 45 past the hour and takes eight minutes to reach the small coastal village of Cremyll.
Aboard the Plymouth Belle you’ll can survey Plymouth Sound, the Royal William Yard and Mount Edgcumbe, climbing behind Cremyll on the eastern tip of the Rame Peninsula.
Bring a bike, which costs an extra 75p over the £1.50 fare and you can zip around the Rame Heritage Coast, a natural reserve with beautiful views back to Plymouth and the vestiges of Victorian and Second World War coastal defences.