There are so many things to do in South Devon.
From ancient ruins to dramatic hidden coves, this part of the county has lots of tourist infrastructure, but also plenty of hidden spots where you can get away from the crowds.
There’s plenty to do for family holidays, but the coastal walks and restaurants pack a punch for adulrts.
In the summer, South Devon enjoys mild weather with plenty of sunshine (it doesn’t have the crazy heatwaves that other parts of the country do, but it’s still nice and warm!) perfect for a trip away by the seaside.
However, it’s also worth visiting South Devon out of season – you’ll still witness a beautiful landscape, plenty of indoor attractions and top-class cuisine, but there are fewer crowds!
I live in Exmouth in East Devon, just over the River Exe from South Devon, so I visit all of these spots frequently.
I used to spend a lot of time in South Devon as a child too, so I’ve been to many of the family attractions that I mention, both as a kid and as an adult with other kids in the family!
Where is South Devon?
South Devon is all the way nearly at the bottom of the country.
Sitting on the south coast of the UK, it sits next to Cornwall.
South Devon encompasses the South Hams, Torbay and Teignbridge regions of Devon, although I might add a couple of entries for West Devon here as well.
Plymouth and Exeter are also kind of their own thing, but I’m going to include them in this blog post.
Although East Devon and the Jurassic Coast runs along the south coast as well, I’m going to write a separate travel guide for this region.
Here’s a map to illustrate it all better. Basically, as far as this post is concerned, South Devon runs from Dawlish Warren to Plymouth and inland a little.
Best things to do in South Devon
Walk along the west side of the Exe Estuary
The Exe Estuary technically marks the border between Teignbridge and East Devon.
On the east side, you’ll find Exmouth, Lympstone and Topsham, whereas Powderham Castle, Starcross and Dawlish Warren are on the west!
You can follow the path down the western side of the Exe Estuary as it spans from near Exeter all the way down to Dawlish Warren in the south.
There’s a popular cycling and hiking route that you can take from Exeter all the way down to the coast.
Or, you can take a boat from Starcross to Exmouth.
Explore Powderham Castle
Powderham Castle is a grand stately home sitting on the banks of the River Exe.
Dating back to 1390 when it was built by Sir Philip Courtenay, Powderham Castle was (and still is!) the seat of the Earl of Devon.
It was the home of a siege in the Civil War, and has historically been one of the most important places to visit in Devon.
Nowadays, you can visit the historic rooms of the house and learn about the area’s past. There are also some beautiful gardens to explore.
Take a hot air balloon flight from Exeter
One of the most bucket-list activities that you can do in South Devon is to take a hot-air balloon flight over the Devonshire countryside.
This hot air balloon flight takes off from the city and enjoys gorgeous sweeping vistas of both the countryside and coast.
You’ll be in the sky for an hour and witness some of Devon’s best scenery from the sky.
Either enjoy the panoramic vistas for sunrise or sunset!
After landing, enjoy a champagne toast.
Have some old-fashioned family seaside fun at Dawlish Warren
Dawlish Warren is one of the most popular seaside resorts in South Devon.
There’s all you need for a family day out here, including Funder Park which has some great amusements for kids of all ages.
Dawlish Warren has a blue flag beach – this is a prestigious award given to some British beaches due to their excellent water quality.
Eat a traditional cream tea in Dawlish
Dawlish town is full of traditional tea rooms and British pubs.
One of my favourites is Annie’s tea house.
This friendly cafe offers sumptuous cream teas and tasty savoury meals like jacket potatoes and sandwiches.
You can even order a cream tea which comes with a pot of tea or coffee – plant-based milk included!
Visit Forest Fungi, the mushroom farm of Dawlish
Forest Fungi is a fantastic sustainable restaurant, attached to its own mushroom farm.
Famous for their breakfasts (which all include mushrooms of course!), the cafe also offers BBQ food in the evenings from Thursdays to Sundays.
Walk along the sea wall from Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth
The scenic railway line runs from Teignmouth Beach to the headland at Holcombe.
The railway spans through a tunnel through the headland at Holcombe, and it then spans from this headland to Dawlish.
You’ll enjoy gorgeous views out to the ocean and smell the salty sea air as you walk!
This is part of the South West Coastal Path.
If you don’t want to walk, you can take the South Devon railway from Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth.
This is largely thought to be one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the country, especially on a sunny day!
Find the hidden Ness Cove Beach in Shaldon
There are lots of beautiful beaches in South Devon, but Ness Beach is one of the best hidden gems!
You can reach it from Shaldon by walking down a historic smuggler’s tunnel.
When you reach the end of the tunnel, enjoy the vistas of beautiful golden sands and the epic towering cliffs.
Due to its relative isolation, it’s one of the quieter beaches even in the summer months, when other beaches in the county are packed.
Discover the curious history of Buckfast Abbey
Sitting on the edge of Dartmoor, Buckfast Abbey dates back to 1018, although it was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.
Ultimately, a Gothic mansion house was built, although the site was purchased by French Benedictine monks in 1882; it was then ultimately reinstated as an abbey in 1902, and the church was consecrated in 1932.
Buckfast tonic wine has been brewed in the abbey since the monks took it over, and it’s become somewhat renowned for the drink!
Nowadays, visitors head to the monastery to try some of the wine and learn about its fascinating in-depth history!
Go back in time at Kent’s Cavern Prehistoric Caves
Down in Torbay, one of the best attractions is Kent’s Cavern Prehistoric Caves
These are located close to the coastal town of Torquay.
These natural caves have been part of Torbay life for 2,000 years, although they’re estimated to date back 12,500 years old, and were home to 50,000 artefacts.
It’s thought that bears, lions and mammoths once roamed the caves!
The caves have been run by the same family since 1865 and you can see them on a fascinating tour.
Torquay Coastal RIB Seafari
Fancy heading out on a boat from the seaside town of Torquay?
This Torquay Coastal RIB Seafari takes in some of the best beaches in the area, the beautiful rock formations and then heads to some of the best areas where dolphins and other marine animals frequent.
You can read more about this Seafari here.
Explore the majestic Torre Abbey
Dating back to 1196, Torre Abbey became the wealthiest monastery in Medieval England.
Like other monasteries, the abbey was closed after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
After 1662, the Cary family lived there and adapted the abbey as a private house.
They lived there for nearly 300 years, before the council bought the abbey and adapted it into a tourist attraction.
Nowadays, it houses exhibitions with 18th to 21st century artwork and an 800 years gallery which tells the story of the abbey.
Escape from the rain at Bygones Museum
Bygones Museum boasts over 2,000 authentic curiosities and antiquities from the last few centuries of British history.
Learn about Victorian history with a real-life, 27-tonne steam train or walk through the World War One trenches.
If you’re visiting Devon in the rain and looking for indoor attractions, this is your place!
Beach hop in Torbay
Affectionately known as “The English Riviera”, Torbay was a popular summer holiday destination in the 1960s onwards.
There are so many beautiful beaches around Torbay (many with palm trees!) so this stretch of coastline is perfect for enjoying golden sands against the bright blue water. Here are the best beaches in the Torbay area:
- Oddicombe Beach: Close to Torquay town centre, Oddicombe Beach is a beautiful cove with bright green plants on the cliffs either side.
- Anstey’s Cove: This breathtaking beach is located between Torbay and Babbacombe and is a stunning cove with a small shingle beach.
- Meadfoot Beach: This beautiful beach is a strip of white sand contrasting against the bright blue water and green bushes.
- Goodrington Sands: This beach is just to the west of Paignton. It’s a lovely stretch of sand with plenty of attractions, including Splashdown Quaywest water park.
Wine tasting in Torbay
This Torbay wine-tasting tour is a fantastic budget-friendly activity to do, especially if British weather gets the best of you when in Devon!
Your guide will walk you through a few wines from all over the world, with a connoisseur who knows all there is to know about the drink!
Find out more about the tasting here.
Take a spin on the famous Paignton Pier
Paignton Pier, spanning out from the main beach of the town, is one of Devon’s best family-friendly attractions.
Full of rides and amusements, this fun attraction is great for all the family.
It also boasts plenty of food outlets, including ice cream stalls and fish and chip stands.
At 240 metres, it’s the longest pier in Devon and dates back to 1879 (slightly younger than Teignmouth’s which dates back to 1867.
Soar around rides at Splashdown Quaywest, the UK’s largest outdoor waterpark
Also in Paignton is Splashdown Quaywest. This is the UK’s largest all-outdoor waterpark, with eight water slides of varying levels.
I reviewed this park this summer, and while I was a little underwhelmed, I can see how it offers family fun, especially for adrenaline chasers.
I did enjoy the spectacular views of the red cliffs from the top of the slides!
Explore National Trust Greenway, home of Agatha Christie
One of the most famous Devonian residents is the famous novelist Agatha Christie.
Close to Dartmouth, on the banks of the River Dart, you can find her manor house, which is a snapshot of 1950s life.
It was one of her eight residences, but she spent many a summer and Christmas here.
Nowadays, the building is a National Trust property, so you can explore, learn about the famous author’s life and enjoy the gorgeous river views that she once relished in.
Admire Dartmouth Castle
Greenway isn’t the only historical attraction in Dartmouth.
Dartmouth Castle dates back to the 14th century and enjoys breathtaking vistas over the coastline.
The castle historically defended the entrance to the Dart Estuary, which was always a vulnerable place in Devon that could have been invaded.
Nowadays, it’s a tourist attraction that’s run by the English Heritage. Walk around and learn about Medieval defensive history or just enjoy the incredible estuary and sea views!
Board a boat in Dartmouth and sail to Totnes
Board the Dart Explorer to get between the town and the equally impressive settlement of Totnes, enjoying some beautiful nature along the way.
The Dart Explorer takes around 90 minutes to plow the distance between the two towns.
If you want to see more of the area, you could opt for the Round Robin ticket, which includes a bus to Paignton and a train to Kingswear, which sits just on the other side of the River Dart.
Explore the ruins of Totnes Castle
Totnes Castle also has an impressive English Heritage-run castle.
Totnes Castle is a Norman motte and bailey castle that was built to defend the histoirc Saxon town.
A stone shell-keep was added later, which you can climb to the top of for breathtaking views of the town and River Dart.
It’s also worth learning about the World War Two history of the castle – you can see graffiti left on trees by prisoners of war.
Walk around Totnes, one of Devon’s most historic towns
After visiting Totnes Castle, it’s worth taking a walk around the town as well.
There are so many things to see in Totnes, including the 11th century Totnes Guildhall and the Totnes Museum.
You can also follow the Totnes Town Trail to see some of the most impressive historical buildings, or take the South Devon Railway to explore the surrounding countryside – it runs all the way to Buckfastleigh!
Taste some gin at Salcombe
After all that exploring, it might be time for a drink!
If you visit Salcombe, you’ll have the chance to enjoy some of their locally-made tipples at the Salcombe Gin Distillery.
This distillery offers tours where you can try all of their most delicious gins, plus learn a little about the business and its origins.
If you don’t fancy the full tour, just head to the bar where you can try a local gin or a wide range of other beverages. Don’t drink? Salcombe does a great alcohol-free gin!
Watersports at Salcombe Estuary
Salcombe is a beautiful harbour town that boasts both river and sea vistas.
It’s most famous for Salcombe gin, but it’s also an incredibly photogenic place with some excellent beaches and plenty of independent shops and restaurants.
Salcombe Harbour is an excellent place for watersports. With Salcombe Watersports, you can hire a paddle board or take lessons or try your hand at kayaking.
Admire the sandy beaches on a coastal walk around Hope Cove
Hope Cove is one of my favourite places in South Devon.
Sitting on the rocky coastline in the south of the county, Hope Cove boasts two beaches and sits in the heart of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Explore Mouthwell Sands, which is right by the main car park in town, and enjoy the Harbour Beach which is a shorter walk away.
You can walk the South West Coast Path, one of the UK’s best walking trails, around this area – or it’s also an excellent place for a beach day!
Head out to Burgh Island from Bigbury-on-Sea
Bigbury-on-Sea is one of the best beaches in Devon and is another ideal location for paddle boarding.
However, thanks to the fact that it has bigger waves than most South Devon beaches (as they mostly face the English Channel, surfing isn’t as popular here as in North Devon!), it’s also quite a popular surfing destination!
Bigbury-on-Sea’s other main draw is it’s connected to Burgh Island, which is connected to the mainland by a small spit and is home to an Art Deco Hotel.
Do a historic walking tour around Plymouth Barbican
Plymouth Barbican is one of the most fascinating areas of the city – and
This tour will also take you to Plymouth Hoe, where you can enjoy amazing sea views of the entire of Plymouth Sound.
It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Plymouth!
Visit Plymouth gin distillery, the oldest continuously operating gin distillery in the world
I know this is the second gin distillery I’ve got on this list – but it’s worth visiting them both, trust me!
Plymouth Gin Distillery sits just back from the Barbican.
It’s the oldest continuously operating gin distillery in the world, and you can learn all about its fascinating history on a tour, which also includes information about its distilling process and a tasting.
It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re spending a weekend in Plymouth!
Learn about the Mayflower steps in Plymouth
One of Plymouth’s most significant tales is that of the Mayflower Pilgrimage.
Today, you can see “The Mayflower Steps” which is allegedly where the pilgrims departed from.
However, they are actually a replica from the early 20th century, rather than the physical steps that the pilgrims descended down before boarding the Mayflower.
There is a plaque commemorating the departure of the ship and its significance.
It is worth taking a look inside the Mayflower Pilgrim Visitor Centre which is above the Tourist Information Centre just opposite the steps and is a fascinating exhibition all about the journey.
Take a Red Coat guided tour in Exeter
There’s a wonderful way to get around Devon’s other city.
Red Coat Tours are definitely the best things to do in Exeter.
Run by local guides who are really passionate about the Devon city’s history, you can choose between a Cathedral to Quay tour, a Medieval tour, a tour about the hidden areas of Exeter, a Georgian Exeter tour or many more!
Red Coat Tours are completely free.
If you want to learn more about the rich history of Exeter and Devon, I recommend checking out the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
Admire Exeter Cathedral
There has been a cathedral on this site since the 7th century, although the building that you see today was built between 1258 – 1400 AD, after a bishop visited Salisbury Cathedral and was jealous that Exeter’s wasn’t as grand!
It boasts the longest uninterrupted Medieval Gothic Vaulting in the world, along with a crypt, several impressive stained glass windows, several chapels and an astronomical clock.
You can visit during a service free of charge, or if you want to look around some more, you can see it during visiting hours.
Go underground in Exeter Underground Passages
There’s an extensive labyrinth of tunnels spanning under Exeter.
These underground passages date back to Medieval times when they were used to bring clean drinking water to the city.
Nowadays, they can be visited on a guided tour.
Your guide will take you underground and detail some of Exeter’s Medieval history on the way.
Not only is it a really cool experience, but you’ll learn lots of interesting facts about Medieval Exeter as you go!
Shop in the Pannier Markets in Tavistock
There are quite a lot of things to do in Tavistock, and I think it’s a really underrated South Devon town.
One of the best parts is its beautiful pannier markets, which date back to 1105 when Tavistock got its royal charter and first gained permission to hold a market in the town.
Originally, the markets sold food. Nowadays, they’re a little different, and mainly offer gifts and other trinkets!
However, they’re set in a beautiful historic building and are the ideal place to purchase any Devon souvenirs.
Explore Dartmoor National Park
Dartmoor National Park is a bucket-list place to visit in Devon.
Although it’s kind of a region of its own, the southern part of the park is very close to the South Devon coastline.
Spanning 954 km², the park is one of the most famous and impressive open spaces in the UK. It’s also the only place you can legally wild camp in England!
Here are some of the best things to do in Dartmoor:
- explore the ancient woodland of Wistman’s Wood
- walk across the clapper bridge at Postbridge
- hike up its many tors and admire the view
- walk around Burrator Reservoir
- see some of the best waterfalls in Devon, such as Cantonteign Falls
- tour the Dartmoor Prison Museum
- enjoy countless hikes
- camp out for the night!
What is better South or North Devon?
They’re both different, and I wouldn’t say one is better than the other!
North Devon is one of the best places in the UK for surfing, with its wild Atlantic Ocean coastline.
Expect craggy cliffs with dramatic views and somewhat isolated towns and villages. It’s a great place for outdoor activities, although there are a few wet weather activities too.
South Devon, on the other hand, has golden beaches and a milder climate – which is why you’ll find palm trees here!
It also has a few more attractions – although there are plenty of things to do in North Devon too.
I’d say that North Devon is marginally better for adventurous types, and South Devon is best for families and people who want a beach holiday – but it’s worth exploring both if you can!
is North or South Devon better for beaches?
It’s hard to say. North Devon’s beaches are more crashing and dramatic, but the weather isn’t as good. South Devon has golden sands with palm trees and generally calmer weather!
South Devon’s top attractions!
Whether you love outdoor adventures in breathtaking landscapes, top-class cuisine in fine dining or hearty British restaurants or activities for kids, South Devon is the perfect destination for a fun holiday by the coast!
See my other Devon guides!
There are so many things to do in Devon, and South Devon is just one area! Here are my other guides to different Devon regions: