Destinations in South Devon: From Seaside Havens to Historic Cities and Rural Retreats

Southwest England stands out as one of the country’s premier holiday destinations, and Devon offers a diverse range of attractions. Whether you’re seeking picturesque beaches, a vibrant food scene, charming villages, or an adventure in the great outdoors, Devon has it all.

While Cornwall may be the more renowned beach destination, many, including myself, favor Devon.


Stretching across the western shore of the expansive Dart Estuary, Dartmouth has a rich maritime heritage. It’s home to a renowned naval college, an upscale yacht marina, and a historic harbor district waiting to be explored.

Nowadays, the town’s charming, winding streets are adorned with elegant dining establishments, intimate bars, stylish art galleries, and trendy boutiques. Additionally, there is a profusion of shops selling nautical clothing, immersing visitors in a maritime atmosphere that’s ever-present.

One of the highlights of visiting Dartmouth is the opportunity to explore the area by river. Start by taking a ferry downriver to visit Dartmouth Castle, parts of which have a history dating back to 1388. Afterward, enjoy a relaxing cruise upriver, where you can spot wildlife such as seals, kingfishers, wading birds, and occasionally otters. Conclude your river adventures with a ferry ride to Greenway, which was once Agatha Christie’s holiday residence and is now a National Trust property.


Plymouth, Devon’s largest city, boasts a rich maritime heritage and proudly carries the moniker of ‘Ocean City.’ It has been the departure point for some of history’s most renowned voyages, including those of the Mayflower Pilgrims, Captain James Cook, and Francis Drake.

In more recent years, Plymouth has experienced a significant makeover. The city, which endured heavy bombing during WWII due to its strategic naval importance, underwent rapid reconstruction that prioritized practicality over aesthetics in its city center.

However, this is changing with the emergence of stylish waterfront developments in Sutton Harbour and Royal William Yard, as well as the development of a vibrant new Arts Quarter. The Arts Quarter is located around the university area and features galleries, contemporary architecture, and the bustling Tavistock Place.

Burgh Island

When exploring South Devon, you mustn’t miss out on Burgh Island – a truly iconic destination for a mini adventure! This tidal island is accessible from the mainland via a narrow beach strip that disappears completely during high tide.

During low tide, you can reach Burgh Island on foot from Bigbury-on-Sea. Alternatively, when high tide rolls in, you can use the Sea Tractor, an unusual vehicle operated by Burgh Island Hotel. Timetables for the Sea Tractor can be found at the Bigbury-on-Sea beach carpark and at the island’s entrance.

Burgh Island has only a few structures, and it’s devoid of proper roads. This destination offers a peaceful escape where you can explore the coastal path, observe wildlife, and climb the hill to enjoy panoramic views of the coastline. When it’s time to dine, you have the option of the elegant Art Deco Burgh Island Hotel or the Pilchard Inn, a 14th-century tavern – one of England’s oldest – which is rumored to be haunted by a smuggler’s ghost.


Just down the coast from Dartmouth, you’ll encounter another prominent sailing destination to discover. Nestled at the entrance of the tranquil Kingsbridge Estuary, Salcombe is one of the most sophisticated and high-end destinations in South Devon.

This chic town, with its well-protected anchorages, pristine sandy beaches, and upscale culinary offerings, tends to draw a yachting crowd. Nevertheless, there’s something for everyone to relish here.

Anticipate exquisite seafood (make sure to visit the Crab Shack), breathtaking cliffside hikes, and beautiful beaches. South Sands and North Sands are the nearest options, or opt for a ferry ride to explore the picturesque beaches around East Portlemouth on the opposite shore. You can also embark on a river ferry to reach the historic market town of Kingsbridge.

Torquay & The English Riviera

During the era of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), these three towns, nestled around the expansive Tor Bay, were affectionately dubbed ‘The English Riviera.’ When the French Riviera was inaccessible, affluent Georgians redirected their attention to the tranquil, sheltered waters of Tor Bay. After all, this exquisite turquoise bay ranks among the most picturesque destinations in Devon!

Torquay and Paignton are the two largest towns, each offering delightful beaches and a strong sense of nostalgic seaside charm. If you seek a quintessential English seaside experience, this is the place to be!

Torquay exudes an air of sophistication with its impressive Victorian villas and scenic parks. On the other hand, Paignton is more budget-friendly and retains a slightly weathered feel in some areas. However, it boasts lovely beaches, with Goodrington and Broadsands standing out. Additionally, Paignton features a vintage Victorian pier adorned with amusement rides and arcades.

Top Activities in the English Riviera

  • Explore the subterranean wonders of Kents Cavern, a system of caves located beneath Torquay.
  • Embark on a scenic journey aboard the steam train to Dartmouth.
  • Follow the Agatha Christie Trail, as the world-renowned crime fiction author was born in Torquay, and her novels often feature locations from the area. Alternatively, consider taking a guided tour (starting at £28 per person) .
  • Experience the Babbacombe Cliff Railway, a 1920s funicular that descends to the red sands of Oddicombe Beach.


Brixham is another jewel on the English Riviera, but it offers a distinct atmosphere compared to Torquay and Paignton. The town boasts colorful fishermen’s cottages that cluster along the hillside, overlooking Brixham’s bustling and industrious harbor. This harbor hosts one of the largest fishing fleets in the UK, making Brixham an unparalleled destination for seafood enthusiasts.

Visitors have the opportunity to partake in fishing trips and boat tours departing from the harbor, or they can explore the Fish Market located along the harbor’s edge. To make the most of your visit, consider enjoying a delicious fish breakfast at the highly-rated Rockfish restaurant. Additionally, be sure to visit the life-size replica of the Golden Hind, Sir Francis Drake’s historic ship.


Located in the heart of rural South Devon, you’ll find Totnes, the UK’s pioneering Transition Town and quite possibly the most environmentally conscious town in England. Totnes was among the first towns to join The Transition Network, a global initiative that empowers communities to address global challenges at the local level.

As a result, Totnes has blossomed into a creative and community-focused town, boasting one of the most distinctive independent high streets you’ll encounter. The town also offers a robust veggie and vegan food scene. Be sure to explore Riverford Field Kitchen for an exceptional farm-to-fork dining experience.

Totnes is steeped in history, with the ancient Totnes Castle standing as a prominent landmark. Moreover, the town is graced by the tranquil and wildlife-abundant River Dart. Positioned at the head of the Dart Estuary, you can embark on ferry rides and boat tours to Dartmouth, or opt for a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to explore the waterways.

Explore Start Bay

To the west of Dartmouth, you’ll find the expansive Start Bay, which is one of the most picturesque locations along this coastal stretch.

Slapton Sands is situated at the heart of the bay, featuring a narrow shingle beach bordered by the sea on one side and a vast lake on the other. The lake, known as Slapton Ley, is enveloped by a wildlife-rich nature reserve and offers excellent opportunities for leisurely walks. As you exit the village of Strete, you can enjoy a breathtaking panoramic view of this picturesque landscape. Driving across the narrow expanse of Slapton Sands is a unique and enjoyable experience in itself.

At the southwestern tip of the bay, Start Point provides a fantastic location for hiking and outdoor adventures. Following the coastal path allows you to catch glimpses of the remnants of South Hallsands village, which was devastated by a severe storm in 1917. You can also explore Start Point Lighthouse. Continue along the path to reach the secluded, crescent-shaped Mattiscombe Sands, where you’re likely to have the beach all to yourself!


Northeast of Torquay, you’ll find the charming coastal town of Teignmouth. The town boasts a splendid Victorian pier, an attractive Georgian seafront, and a distinctive sandy beach with a rust-colored hue.

In addition to its nostalgic beach ambiance, Teignmouth offers a vibrant food scene. Positioned at the mouth of the River Teign, the town benefits from the abundance of excellent local produce. With mussel and oyster beds along the river, fertile farmlands, and a thriving local fishing industry, you can expect a fantastic culinary experience in Teignmouth.

Dawlish Warren is a quaint village known for its budget-friendly holiday parks and a nostalgic amusement park. However, just beyond the town lies Dawlish Warren Nature Reserve, offering a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle.

This reserve is situated at the mouth of the Exe Estuary, a critical area for migratory birds and a year-round haven for diverse and abundant wildlife. Alongside this nature reserve, you’ll find an enchanting, often uncrowded white-sand beach nestled against grassy dunes.

Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)

Located to the north of Plymouth, the Tamar Valley is a picturesque rural area characterized by rolling valleys and lush woodlands.

In the Tamar Valley, you’ll find a harmonious blend of history and nature. While Cornwall is more renowned for its mining heritage, West Devon also boasts its share of mines, especially in the Tamar Valley. Be sure to explore the ancient stannary town of Tavistock, a charming place with a thriving independent shopping scene. Additionally, don’t miss Morwellham Quay, a living museum where you can experience a ride on an underground mine train.

The Tamar Valley offers excellent opportunities for walking and biking. Consider exploring Drake’s Trail, a 21-mile cycling and walking route that connects Tavistock and Plymouth. You can opt to traverse the entire trail or select a specific section to enjoy.

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