Plymouth isn’t the most popular tourist city in the UK, but it’s certainly one of the most historically significant. It has an immense history around seafaring, with countless notable sea voyages leaving from the port.
It’s also been home to many interesting characters over the years – some of whom you’ll definitely know!
Plymouth is quite small, and you can easily see it in a day. Firstly, there’s the Barbican – this is the historic area that has been lovingly restored by locals.
Here, you’ll find lots of independent shops, as well as the waterfront at Sutton Harbour.
Also of interest is Plymouth Hoe, an area on top of cliffs where there are epic views of the River Tamar and over the border into Cornwall.
Here you’ll find the fascinating Smeeton’s Lighthouse, the ‘Beatles Bums’ which replicate where the Beatles once sat, and various statues of notable Plymouth people.
I’d generally recommend at least a weekend in Plymouth so you can enjoy the surrounding beaches as well – but you’ll definitely feel a sense of accomplishment after just a day trip to the city.
Here’s exactly how to make the most of a Plymouth day trip!
Getting to Plymouth
Because of Plymouth’s geographical position – it’s just over the Tamar River from Cornwall, England’s most southwesterly region – it takes a while to reach it from many parts of the country.
However, it’s a feasible day trip from cities like Exeter, Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, London and Birmingham.
There are direct train links from Exeter (50 minutes), Bristol (2 hours), London (3 hours) and Birmingham (3.5 hours), and for services from Bath (2.5 hours) and Cardiff (3.5 hours), you can change trains in Bristol.
It’s a little far to drive from London to Plymouth just for the day (4 hours), but it’s around 3.5 hours from Birmingham, 2 hours from Bristol, 2.5 hours from Cardiff and Bath, and less than an hour from Exeter.
There are also coach links, but it’s probably only worth utilizing these if you are travelling from Exeter (1.5 hours) or Bristol (3.5 hours).
Plymouth is a popular day trip on the way to or from Cornwall. If you are going on a Cornwall staycation or are driving to this region from an airport elsewhere in the UK, you could easily pop into Plymouth on the way there or on your return journey.
The cheapest places to park are Martin Street or Western Approach – both of these are a little far from the Barbican but are half the price of parking closer to the waterfront, so it may be worth the walk!
Best Place For Breakfast In Plymouth
For breakfast, I’d recommend dining at Boston Tea Party. This cafe started in Bristol and has branches all over South West England, with an outpost at the Plymouth Barbican.
They serve delicious coffee and different cooked breakfasts in an enviable waterfront location.
Top things to visit in Plymouth for 1 day.
Plymouth is famous for being where the Mayflower Pilgrims left from in 1620, before venturing to what is nowadays the USA.
They aimed for Virginia, but after a treacherous journey, ended up in Cape Cod, coincidentally in a settlement that had already been named Plymouth.
The Mayflower Museum explores this voyage, discussing the reasons why the Pilgrims left, how treacherous the voyage was, the effects that this and subsequent settlements had on the Native population and how the Native group effectively saved the lives of the Pilgrims by helping them adjust to their new land.
Walking Tour of the Historic Centre
Doing a walking tour is a great way to see a city, and Plymouth is no exception. There is only one company that operates walking tours in Plymouth: Devon and Cornwall tour guides.
They offer a two-hour tour that shows you the most distinctive sights in the Barbican, the Medieval centre and Plymouth Hoe.
You’ll learn stories like how smuggling was relegated in Cornwall and Devon, the epic tale of Smeeton’s Lighthouse on the Hoe, and meet all sorts of colourful characters – from people who sailed on the Mayflower Voyage to Sir Francis Drake, who spotted the Spanish Armada from the high ground of the Hoe to Napoleon, who was imprisoned on an island close to Plymouth.
The tour lasts two hours and starts and ends at the visitor centre. It costs £12 per person, with discounts for concessions and children.
Lunch – The Harbour or the Pier Master’s House
There are lots of beautiful restaurants along the waterfront to dine at. If the weather is fine, I recommend The Pier Master’s House.
This restaurant has a large outside terrace that juts into the sea, so it’s the perfect place to watch boats go by. The lunch menu includes open sandwiches, with veggie and vegan options, and burgers.
Alternatively, you could eat at The Harbour. This is a seafood restaurant, serving the usual staples as well as more unique dishes like crab tacos.
If you don’t eat fish, there are also veggie options. The Harbour is predominantly an inside restaurant, although there is an attached fish and chip takeaway restaurant and space to eat these outside.
Plymouth Harbour Cruise
Next up, it’s time to explore Plymouth Harbour! Plymouth Boat Trips do various tours up and down the harbour and the River Tamar, where you can see the scenery on the Cornish and Devonian sides of the river and learn about the city’s fascinating connection to the water.
Plymouth is the largest naval base in Western Europe, and this boat cruise will take you past Devonport, where most of it is administered.
Once you’re back on dry land, you have a few options for the rest of your afternoon.
Plymouth Gin Distillery
If you aren’t driving, you could take a tour around the Plymouth Gin Distillery. Firstly, you’ll learn a little about the history of the place and why it is such a significant distillery (it’s the oldest continuously operating one in the world, so there’s plenty to learn about!).
Then, you’ll enter the distilling room and learn about the process of gin making. Finally, you’ll be able to try some gin in the upstairs bar – and get a gin and tonic at the end! At £11 for the entire tour and the drink, it’s a bargain.
There is a tour at 4pm every day, so you could pop into the nearby Elizabethan House Museum and Elizabethan Garden if you are there early.
These are replicas of what both the house and garden would have looked like in the later Tudor period.
Another option is to visit Plymouth Aquarium. This is known as one of the best things to do in Devon in the rain – it is the largest aquarium in the country and is run by the Ocean Conservation Trust.
There is a strong focus here on learning about the ocean and protecting it, so it’s a great place to visit if you’re in Plymouth with kids and want to teach them a little about marine life.
Or, head to The Box. This is a brand new museum about a 15-minute walk from the Barbican area.
There are lots of different exhibitions here, including displays about life in Devon, elsewhere on in the UK, and in the wider world. It’s an interactive museum that’s great for people young and old.
Royal William Yard
For dinner, I’d recommend going to Royal William Yard. This is a bit of a trek from the rest of Plymouth’s attractions – if you don’t want to walk, you can use the Need A Cab app to get a cheap taxi (the app works like Uber).
Royal William Yard is a historic naval victualling yard – the buildings that you see today were used as storehouses in the Victorian period and up until 1999.
After it was closed for victualling, the buildings were renovated to house luxury apartments, bars, restaurants and offices.
It’s a unique place to visit in Plymouth, with a really peaceful atmosphere, and it’s worth checking it out for dinner.
Popular chains like Prezzo (for pizza) and Wagamamas (Japanese dishes) call Royal Willliam Yard their home, but there’s also the Hook and Line, which serves seafood, Seco Lounge for burgers, and Le Vignoble which is a wine lounge.
The last trains to Bristol and London leave between 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm – make sure that you check train times on the National Rail website and leave yourself with plenty of time.
Coaches run throughout the night – you will usually need to book a return ticket when you buy the outgoing one.
Martin Street Car Park is open 24 hours, and Western Approach shuts at midnight – so if you’ve drove to Plymouth, you’ll have plenty of time to get back to your car!
Plymouth is a fascinating city that is well worth visiting while you’re in the UK. There’s a lot more to do here than meets the eye – its fascinating maritime history means that it has been at the forefront of British history for centuries.
Plus, its waterfront location makes its historic centre one of the most visually appealing cities in the UK!
There’s lots more to explore as well – we bet that after your day trip to Plymouth, you’ll already be planning your return visit!
Claire is a South West England local and travel expert.
She writes about Bristol, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset on her blog Go South West England, with the aim to help people explore this region and have more local experiences.