Best Things to Do in South Devon

Best Things to Do in South Devon

From the palm-lined beaches of the English Riviera to the picture-postcard villages and vineyards of the South Hams; and from the atmospheric tors of Dartmoor to the woodland and creeks of the Tamar Valley, South Devon has it all. Needless to say, whether you’re visiting for the first time or the fiftieth, you’ll find plenty to fall in love with amongst its sun-kissed borders.

To help you on your way to South Devon bliss, we’ve put together a list of some of the very best things to do in the region. From uncovering the rich history of its famous cathedral city to getting lost amongst its stunning Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there is something for everyone.

Follow the Pathways of Overbeck’s Garden

A pretty greenhouse and lots of tropical plants at Overbeck's Garden in South Devon

One of the top gardens in Devon, the National Trust-run Overbeck's Garden at Sharpitor near Salcombe is an absolute must-visit. The former home of the eccentric Edwardian inventor and chemist Otto Overbeck, this hidden paradise is packed with curios. Home to a house full of intriguing collections and a garden overflowing with tropical plants, it has something for everyone to marvel at and enjoy. A real highlight, the views from the grounds of this seaside home are particularly breath-taking, showcasing stunning vistas across Salcombe, the estuary and the coastline beyond. Visit in summer to see the gardens in their prime and enjoy the kaleidoscope of colours bursting from the hedgerows and borders.

Complete the Exe Estuary Trail

A bike leaning against a bench that overlooks the Exe Estuary

Famed for its gorgeous scenery and balmy climate, the sheltered coast and verdant countryside of South Devon boasts some of the most glorious walking conditions in the county. The Exe Estuary Trail is renowned for being one of the best walking trails in Devon and is a must for walkers looking to get to know the region on foot. Linking the seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Exmouth, this 22.5-mile trail wends its way along both sides of the River Exe. Passing through picturesque waterside villages like Topsham and Exton and showing off beautiful views over the water en route, this trail is fairly flat the whole way and can be completed on foot or, if you feel like changing the pace, on bike.

Bathe on South Devon’s Best Beaches

The golden beach at Blackpool Sands backed by a tree-topped cliff

With its temperate climate, exotic palms and award-winning beaches, there’s no place quite like Devon for days on the beach. Benefitting from some of the most divine coastline in the UK, its long, sandy beaches and foliage-draped coves are a haven throughout the year. Especially beautiful in summer when golden sands and turquoise waters are warmed by a beaming sun, this region of Devon easily rivals the Med for its gorgeous aesthetics. Of the best beaches in South Devon, a trip to Bigbury on Sea is particularly recommended for literary enthusiasts, being the home of Agatha Christie’s muse, Burgh Island. For four-legged beachgoers, the dog-friendly East Portlemouth offers year-round fun, while Blackpool Sands Beach, accessed via the South West Coast Path or the local car park, is a must for its Blue Flag award-winning bathing conditions.

Wildlife Watch at Berry Head Nature Reserve

The beautiful cliffs and seas at Berry Head in South Devon

Berry Head National Nature Reserve is a 170-acre headland in Brixham home to a lighthouse, Napoleonic fort, award-winning Guardhouse Café, and a unique and broad array of flora and fauna. Surrounded on three sides by water and offering gorgeous views across Torbay and beyond, it’s a popular site for walking, wildlife watching and taking pictures of the Devonshire coast. Among the wildlife species who can be spotted here, the headland is known for its incredible guillemot colony who are protected by the UK’s only Area of Special Protection and whose numbers can reach around 1400 in breeding season. The waters below Berry Head are often frequented by dolphins too, which make for magical viewing from the benches scattered around the clifftops.

Admire the Wild Beauty of Dartmoor

A group of standing stones in Dartmoor National Park in South Devon

If you’ve never been to Dartmoor, a whole hidden world of discovery awaits you within easy reach of South Devon. A sweeping national park decorated with heather-strewn moorland, ancient woodland and glassy pools, this wild and wondrous place is one that quickly captures the hearts and imaginations of all those who visit. Among some of the best places to visit in Dartmoor are the spellbinding Canonteign Falls, Fernworthy Reservoir, Becky Falls and Wistman’s Woods. When it comes to the best places for sunrises in South Devon, Dartmoor is also a very strong contender, rivalling the salt-kissed fringes of the South Devon Coast National Landscape with the high peaks of its moorland swathes, including Great Staple Tor and High Willhays Tor (the highest point in Dartmoor).

Travel by Sail and Steam

A steam train running alongside a river in South Devon

There’s just something about exploring by steam and sail that evokes a nostalgic feeling, swapping the cars and roads of the modern-day with altogether more traditional methods of transport. Offering an easy way to explore, and showing off otherwise hard-to-reach areas, are some great local operators, including South Devon Railway and Dartmouth Rail River. Originally built in 1872, the multi-award winning South Devon Railway is the South West’s oldest steam railway and still invites all generations to enjoy a pleasant 14-mile round-trip between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. Meanwhile, Dartmouth Rail River offers a range of cruises, including river journeys along the River Dart, past Dartmouth Castle, Sir Walter Raleigh's Boathouse, Greenway Quay and more.

Visit a Family-Friendly Park or Zoo

An otter at the Buckfast Butterfly Farm and Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary

For family-friendly days out in the South West, there are few places that can beat South Devon for its breadth of attractions. If your little ones are head over heels for wildlife, then a trip to one of the region’s many zoos and farms will be a huge hit. Pennywell Farm and Buckfast Butterfly Farm and Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary in Buckfastleigh, The National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, Paignton Zoo and Dartmoor Zoo are all wonderful places to visit and open most of the year for days of fun. Should your youngsters have their sights set on rides and rollercoasters, then Woodlands Family Theme Park near Totnes (the largest family theme park in Devon) and the award-winning Crealy Theme Park near Exeter won’t disappoint.

Go Underground in Prehistoric Caves

The silhouette of someone standing in a cave at Kents Cavern in South Devon

Kents Cavern near Torquay is the site of one of the most significant Stone Age treasure troves in Europe, as well as some truly impressive prehistoric showcaves. During your visit, you’re invited to step back in time and learn all about the ancient humans who first ventured into the caves and made them their home, using the vast caverns to shelter from the elements and make important hunting tools. Follow the labyrinth of tunnels and caves as you go, wandering between walls naturally carved from 400-million-year-old rocks and past elegant stalagmites and stalactites. Make sure you set time aside to visit the cave’s Stone Age Zone, and, if you still have energy, emerge from the caves to follow the site’s woodland trails, before relaxing with some food at the Firestone Kitchen.

Discover Buckfast Abbey

The grand and beautiful Buckfast Abbey with the pretty manicured gardens in front

Buckfast Abbey near Buckfastleigh on the eastern side of Dartmoor is a well-known working Benedictine monastery and tourist attraction in South Devon. First becoming an abbey in 1018, it embodies over a thousand years of history and today is both a centre of worship and a place for visitors to savour its abounding peace and tranquillity. If you’ve never been before, you can find a great variety of things to see and do within the abbey grounds, including the abbey church and monastery, flowing gardens, an apiary, restaurant, and shops. For further exploration, you can also visit Buckland Abbey, around 30 miles from Buckfast Abbey.

Take a Tour of Exeter Cathedral

The incredibly ornate exterior of Exeter Cathedral

Providing a polished contrast to the sugary sands and granite tors of South Devon’s coast and moors is the city of Exeter. A historic city dating back to Roman times, Exeter’s streets brim with history, at the centre of which is the city’s stunning Gothic cathedral. Sitting on the site of a 12th Century structure, the present Exeter Cathedral is over 600 years old and has set the backdrop for countless tales and lives within the city over the centuries. One of the top attractions in not just Exeter but the county too, this striking architectural gem is well worth visiting, especially for its fascinating cathedral tours which take you all the way from its cemetery, to its secret spaces, to its rooftop. In the winter, the city’s famous Christmas Market takes place at the foot of the cathedral and adds yet another reason to visit this beautiful building.

Walk the Dog in Saltram Estate

The grand and stately exterior and lawns at Saltram Estate in South Devon

South Devon is a real magnet for dog owners thanks to its abundance of jaw-dropping outdoor spaces. Combining one of the top places to visit in Devon with some of the most gorgeous scenery is the 18th Century Saltram Estate in the parish of Plympton, near Plymouth. A sprawling 500-acre estate surrounding a Grade I listed country house, Saltram’s expansive, dog-friendly grounds contain a wealth of walking and cycling trails that simply beckon for carefree walks with four-legged friends. Venture past its manicured lawns and set off to make the most of its well-maintained pathways, including the 1-mile Saltram boundary walk and 2-mile riverside trail. Once you’ve both worked up an appetite, you can also take advantage of the estate’s dog-friendly Park Café, where light lunches, snacks and drinks are served – as well as dog-friendly ice cream.

Ready to explore the top attractions in South Devon? Take a look at our luxury cottages in Devon.

Sign up to receive our boutique stories…

Stay connected with retreat magic and be the first to know about our new additions. We promise to only fill your inbox with the dreamiest staycation stories and luxury travel moments.