Planning a day out in Plymouth? The ‘Ocean City’ has a lot to offer visitors, but if you’ve only got one day in Plymouth there are few attractions that should be at the top of your hit list.
Staycations have been booming for the last 18 months as Covid’s made it hard – and sometimes impossible – to travel overseas, and Cornwall and Devon are two of the most popular UK holiday destinations.
In Devon, most people have been heading to popular seaside spots like Torquay and Ilfracombe for their breaks, but there’s one place that often gets overlooked as a holiday destination – Plymouth.
I get that a lot of people might not want to spend their summer holiday in a city though that’s more for a weekend break, but I do recommend Devon holidaymakers at least make one day trip to Devon’s largest city, as it’s overflowing with history, culture and attractions.
I recently visited the city for the first time, and my Plymouth day trip was a blast. I hardly scratched the surface of what you can see or do, but I now have a long, long list of sights and attractions that I want to return to visit – and I most definitely will!
To help fellow day trippers I’ve put together this guide on how to spend one day in Plymouth, highlighting some of the best ways to see the city, and some of its main attractions.
You might be pushing it to fit all of the below into just one day, but as Plymouth has something for everyone, I’ve included a number of different options on how to spend your day in Plymouth, whether you’re an explorer, a foodie, an animal lover or a history fan.
I’ve finished up with an example of a one-day itinerary for Plymouth, which you can follow if you choose, or use as a base to create your own one-day Plymouth itinerary, picking the things you fancy from the following guide.
The best things to see and do in Plymouth, Devon
Take a bus and/or boat tour of Plymouth
Tours are a great way to get a feel for a new city, get your bearings and discover places you might want to go back and visit. During my day trip I managed to squeeze in a bus and boat tour and I’d recommend both!
We went around the city on a vintage bus first, travelling through Plymouth’s different areas from the central shopping district – where a bombed-out church stands tall the middle of a roundabout – down towards the waterfront and the historic barbican district.
That church actually has an interesting, if sad, story behind it. To give it its right name, Charles Church was sadly bombed during the ‘Plymouth Blitz’ in WW2. After the war ended there were talks around rebuilding it, but in the end, it was decided to leave it as a memorial to those that lost their lives during the air raids on the city.
When our bus tour ended at the Barbican, we then took to the water for a boat tour of the Plymouth sound.
This is a lovely way to see the city from a different view. As the boat follows the coastline you can admire sights like the gorgeous Plymouth Hoe, Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse and Tinside Lido from the water.
We learnt a lot from our tour guide during the hour-long trip. He shared highlights from the city’s rich maritime history, pointing out historic landmarks like the Royal Citadel more modern sights like the Royal Navy base Devonport, which holds the UK’s old fleet of nuclear submarines. If you look closely, you might even be able to see one or two as you pass by!
Walk around the Plymouth Barbican
Plymouth has quite a few picturesque spots, but my favourite from my first visit was the Barbican district.
Overflowing with history, it’s one of the oldest parts of the city. It was lovely simply walking around its cobbled streets (it has the largest concentration of cobbled streets in the UK!) and taking in some of its 100 listed buildings – many of which have been lovingly restored by the Plymouth Barbican Association.
Highlights include the Merchant’s House, a 16th/17th century residence once home to three of the city’s mayors, including privateer William Parker, a friend of Sir Francis Drake, and the 16th Century Elizabethan House. This is now a museum laid out in the style of a sea captain’s residence, with a kitchen, dining room, parlour and bedrooms you can explore.
Then there’s the hidden gem that’s the Elizabethan Garden. I wish I’d known about this place before my visit, but if you want to escape into your own secret garden away from the bustle of the Barbican, this comes highly recommended. I also loved Jacka’s Bakery, which I later discovered is the oldest of its kind in the UK. It’s known to date back to at least the 16th century, and supplied the Mayflower with biscuits for its journey to America!
It’s easy to see how well loved and cared for the Barbican area is – during our short time there we saw several people tending the flower boxes and hanging baskets dotted along its streets and there were signs all over sharing info on the district’s history and more specifically on the historic buildings that were you were passing.
Several of the city’s big attractions can be found here like the Plymouth Gin Distillery and the National Aquarium (more on those below) and the iconic Mayflower Steps, near where the pilgrims set off on the Mayflower for the ‘New World’ back in 1620. Nearby you can learn about their trip in more detail at the Mayflower Museum.
Eating in Plymouth
The Barbican is dotted with bars and restaurants, making it a great place to stop for a drink or a meal during your whirlwind day trip of the city (if you’re willing to give up the time that is!).
As you’re by the sea it might be fitting to visit the restaurant Harbourside, which has been voted the UK’s third best fish and chips shop, but our recommendation goes to the kitsch Flower Café.
Afternoon tea in Plymouth
Here you can get a bargain afternoon tea or overload on sugar with one of their epic ‘freaky’ milkshakes, pancakes, ice creams or hot chocolates that come loaded with sweat treat toppings. If this takes your fancy, you might want to read our full review of afternoon tea in Plymouth at the Flower Café.
Picnic on Plymouth Hoe
Plymouth Hoe is a beautiful green space overlooking the Plymouth Sound and a perfect spot for a picnic on a sunny day if this takes your fancy instead, and puts you close to several more of the city’s attractions.
Sit in the shadow of the famous 72ft red and white Smeaton’s Tower, and then make your way down to the beautiful Tinside Lido.
Swim at the Tinside Lido
If the weather’s really nice, and you packed your cossie, you might want to stop for a swim at the iconic Tinside Lido, which is open during the summer months. However, if you don’t feel up to a dip, or you’re visiting during a different time of year, I still highly recommend you at least walk by, as it’s such a beautiful example of art deco design.
Built back in 1935 and renovated back to its former glory in2005, grade II listed Tinside Lido has been voted one of Europe’s top 10 outdoor pools. As well as the 180ft diameter semi-circular salt water pool, it also has a sun deck, which many say is one of the best places in the city to lie and soak up some rays. This place has gotta be seen to be believed.
Plymouth rainy day attractions
It’s always great to beat the streets of a new city and take in the sights on foot, but you can’t always predict the English weather, so if you end up in Plymouth when it’s raining, you’ll be happy to know there’s some great indoor attractions (which are also worth visiting even if the sun’s shining, I must add!).
Visit the Plymouth Gin Distillery
The Plymouth Gin Distillery has been producing Plymouth Gin since 1793, which was exported around the world by the Royal Navy no less and today it offers interesting tours to visitors.
You can learn about the history of the distillery as well as the distillation process for Plymouth gin and the botanicals used. Depending on the chosen tour, you might get a chance to be tutored in gin tasting or even have a go at distilling your very own gin, with a sample you can take home and share.
Check out Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium
The UK’s largest aquarium, the National Marine Aquarium is home to over 4,000 animals and at 650,000-litre in volume, boasts the largest fish tank in Europe.
It’s also home to the Ocean Conservation work, which does lot of important work in the marine conservation area this is a wonderful way to spend time for animal lovers big and small.
Go shopping in Drake Circus
Another option for rainy days is always a bit of shopping! This might not be for everyone, but if you like to do a bit of window shopping, you’ll appreciate the Drake Circus shopping centre.
Here you can stay dry and shop undercover, with a great selection of shops and eateries to kep you occupied.
An example one-day Plymouth itinerary
If reading the guide has left you a bit overwhelmed with all the choices, here’s a short example itinerary you can use for your first trip to Plymouth.
- Start the day with either a city bus or boat tour
- Head to the historic Plymouth Barbican and explore its cobblestone streets
- Stop for an early lunch at either the Flower Café or the Harbourside Restaurant.
- Enjoy one of the Barbican’s main attractions – options include the Plymouth Gin Distillery, National Marine Aquarium or Mayflower Museum.
- After you’ve had your fill of everything the area has to offer, maybe pick up a snack and drink for later then stroll towards the Plymouth Sound, stopping off to check out the Tinside Lido and perhaps even go for a swim.
- End your day at Plymouth Hoe, where you can check out Smeaton’s Tower and a statue of Sir Francis Drake. Depending on the time of day, you could have a little picnic, or perhaps watch the sun set…
Got more than one day?
If you’ve got more than one day to spend in the area then we recommend a trip out to the beautiful Dartmoor National Park which is literally just outside of the city of Plymouth.
You can road trip through the park, go for walks on the moors or visit some of its big attractions, such as Dartmoor Zoo, Buckland Abbey and even HMS Dartmoor which has an onsite museum!
Emma’s written a guide to five of the best things to do in Dartmoor, which we highly recommend if you’d like to learn more.