When it comes to choosing the best places to visit in Devon, there’s only one answer. Proper job. That’s an expression of pleasure for something done well in Devon. And Devon itself is a proper job. It’s one of England’s most south-westerly counties, being the land between Cornwall (of Land’s End and Tintagel fame) and the rest of England. Also known as Devonshire, the county is full of natural beauty. There are two national parks within the county, and two very distinct coastlines. I grew up in Devon, and I’ve been a frequently returning visitor ever since. Come with me, and I’ll show you my favourite spots in this stunning part of England.
Revised and Updated August 2019
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- 1 Introducing Devon
- 2 Exeter: Cathedral City on the River Exe
- 3 exmoor: Lorna Doone Country
- 4 Hartland Quay: Smugglers and wreckers tales
- 5 Appledore: Arty estuary village
- 6 Westward Ho!: Seaside Resort
- 7 Places To Visit In Devon: Clovelly’s Cobbled History
- 8 Saunton Sands: All your Childhood beaches revisited
- 9 Broomhill Sculpture Garden, Muddiford
- 10 Lundy Island: Wild Island Life
- 11 Take The Tarka Trail
- 12 Dartmoor: Granite Tors and Ponies
- 13 Totnes: Bohemian Market Town
- 14 Plymouth: Maritime heritage
- 15 Getting to Devon
- 16 More English Treasures
Devon’s a mainly agricultural county, full of rolling hills, river valleys and fertile lands. It’s unusual as English counties go for having two coastlines: one to the north and one to the south. It’s also blessed with two National Parks: Dartmoor and Exmoor. The climate is mild and the landscape gorgeous, making tourism a big industry here; there are so many wonderful places to visit in Devon. That’s not to say that the county is full of things created for tourists, but rather that people have flocked to see the gorgeousness that is Devon. Those first settlers 40,000 years ago weren’t wrong. Here are my top places to visit in Devon, some well known, others less so.
Exeter: Cathedral City on the River Exe
Exeter is the administrative centre of Devon and punches well above its size in terms of things to see and do. Pop into Gandy Street to see one of the locations that inspired J.K Rowling for a certain young Potter. Not far from there, you can explore the ruins of ancient Rougemont castle; I used to have many hides under its sprawling trees as a child.
Exeter Cathedral is a beautiful place to visit, and you’ll also find timbered Mol’s Coffee House in Cathedral Yard. Nightlife is centred around the Quayside, where there are plenty of opportunities for a good time on the river. Curiosities in the city include Parliament Street, one of the narrowest streets in the world, and The House That Moved, a fourteenth century timber building painstakingly moved inch by inch to make way for a road.
Mol’s Coffee House, Cathedral Yard, Exeter
exmoor: Lorna Doone Country
Exmoor National Park covers parts of both Devon and Somerset, but I’m thinking you’ll forgive me for sending you here. There’s evidence of prehistoric occupation, and maybe of more recent occupation by the Beast of Exmoor.
Exmoor includes the highest sea cliff in mainland England at Great Hangman near Combe Martin, and the town itself is also worth exploring. One of my favourite things to do here (or potentially a great walk too) is to take the toll road (a modest £2.50) from Porlock to Lynton. It’s a spectacular route, full of wildlife, coastal views and lanes dappled by sunlight through trees. On a bright day you can see across the Bristol Channel as far as Swansea and the Gower Peninsular. You’ll find plenty of stopping places and a picnic area. Don’t forget to look out for goats in the Valley of the Rocks. Once at Lynton, there’s a coastal funicular railway linking you to the bay below at Lynmouth.
Exmoor: Wild and beautiful
Hartland Quay: Smugglers and wreckers tales
This spectacularly wild piece of coastline is one of the county’s hidden treasures, and one of my absolute favourite places to visit in Devon. The Hartland Peninsular is rugged and full of narrow lanes fragrant with wildflowers. You take the long winding lane across the peninsula where you first find Hartland Lighthouse. It’s possible to stop off here and explore, but I urge you to continue on to Hartland Quay.
This is the Atlantic Coast of big weather, seafaring tales and smugglers’ passages. When you spot the sign for Hartland Quay, you’ll turn down a series of steep switchbacks to the complex which includes a small hotel, an equally small museum and a dramatic bay. Go scrambling in the rockpools, watch hangliders finding the thermals from the cliffs above and marvel at the majesty of the coast.
The bay at Hartland Quay – full of seafaring history
Appledore: Arty estuary village
Appledore’s one of those picture perfect small villages. It’s lined with streets of higgledy-piggledy cottages painted in pastels, interspersed with independent shops and restaurants. The village has a thriving arts scene, including a lot of galleries and a book festival in the autumn. The quay itself has lots of space for wandering, with fresh fish being landed at the far end each morning. It’s the kind of spot that makes you want to absorb the lifestyle and move into a cottage overlooking the estuary to Instow.
Read More: Things To Do In Appledore
Appledore on the estuary, as seen from Instow
Westward Ho!: Seaside Resort
The only town in England to have an exclamation point in its name, Westward Ho! was named after the Charles Kingsley novel. It makes my list for being a very British seaside resort, with a broad sandy bay. It has many of those attributes that you’d expect from the seaside: amusement arcades where you can spend a protracted £5 of 2 pence pieces on a rainy afternoon, cafes, ice cream parlours, tea rooms and purveyors of buckets and spades.
Read More: Take your Devon cream tea like a local with the help of our guide to traditional British food. Clue: it’s all about the jam.
If you like your beach a little wilder, just walk to the right of the bay and you’ll find yourself at Northam Burrows. This is more of a dog-walking, exploring kind of beach. You’ll find opportunities for surfing here too; there’s a real buzz in the air when you catch a glimpse of the first boards of the day arriving. The whole seaward part of Westward Ho! village is designated an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Read More: Surf’s Up – A Guide To North Devon Surfing
Keeping signwriters in exclamation points – Westward Ho!
Places To Visit In Devon: Clovelly’s Cobbled History
I’ve included Clovelly here for its uniqueness. It’s a coastal village, famous for steep cobbled streets, and is home to less than 500 people. Unusually, the village is privately owned, and only seven buildings in the village are not listed for their architectural importance. The main street in the village is not accessible to vehicles, and deliveries are made by sledge. Top local’s tip: don’t wear sandals – your feet will slide straight out the front on the descent!
The village has been a source of literary inspiration to authors such as Dickens and Kipling, and also inspiration to artists including Turner. There is an admission charge to enter the village.
Clovelly – where your groceries have to arrive by sledge
Saunton Sands: All your Childhood beaches revisited
Saunton Sands is a broad bay with sand dunes to the left, rock pools to the right and a fine collection of beach huts. To my mind, it’s the perfect beach of childhood memories and one of my cherished places to visit in Devon. You can hire a beach hut by the day, complete with deckchairs, windbreaks and even a mirror to repair your sea-swept self at the end of the day. The cafe to the back of the bay has a massive balcony where you can enjoy a cream tea while watching the sun slip behind the headland. There is also a shop selling everything from beach toys to chips.
This is the kind of place where you make friends with random strangers at the water’s edge, find yourself throwing balls for dogs who just wanna have fun, and join in with a word perfect rendition of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds from the group of sixtysomethings sitting at the edge of the dunes. It’s a place to make memories you’ll never lose.
Saunton Sands at sunset
Broomhill Sculpture Garden, Muddiford
In the swirling river valley just outside Barnstaple, extravagant amounts of foliage give way to some strange sights. Is that really a red stiletto up on the hill? Or a group of pastel figurines looking over the valley, and a giant game of jacks by the river? Welcome to Broomhill Art Hotel and its sculpture park.
The owners of the hotel have carefully collected a memorable and diverse selection of sculpture scattered around the elegantly wild gardens of the hotel’s river valley. At the very least it’s a wonderful walk beside ponds and streams with interesting pieces to spot including a violin player and a sofa. At best, you’ll encounter something that grabs you by the feels, and won’t let go. For me, that was a piece on nuclear war, so full of desperation and sadness that I can encounter all over again when I think of it. And is that not what art is meant to do?
Read More: Broomhill Sculpture Park, Muddiford
Lundy Island: Wild Island Life
Lundy’s an incredible place. It’s situated 12 miles off the coast at Ilfracombe. If you’ve ever listened, fascinated, to the shipping forecast, then you’ve heard Lundy mentioned as a sea area. In 2007, the island was noted to have a resident population of 28, so we’re talking pretty isolated here.
This was England’s first Marine Nature Reserve, and it’s managed by the Landmark Trust. You can actually stay on the island, but most people visit for a day via the MS Oldenburg. If you sail from Barnstaple, you’ll spot the unmistakable figure of Damien Hirst’s Verity on the harbourside.
The name Lundy means puffin, although the number of puffins on the island has declined. There is plenty of other bird life including cormorants, oystercatchers and kittiwakes. You might see wild Lundy ponies, seals, shrews and pygmy goats. The island is also popular with climbers for the Devil’s Slide, the UK’s longest continual slab climb.
Lighthouse, Lundy Island
Take The Tarka Trail
If you ever read Tarka the Otter, you’ll recall Henry Williamson’s tale of the rivers of North Devon and their inhabitants. The Tarka Trail covers 32 traffic-free miles from Braunton to Barnstaple, hugging the river valleys on routes accessible only on foot or by bike. If you want to cover the full trail, that will be 180 splendid miles to enjoy.
The traffic-free section of the Trail takes you past fascinating places including the tidal estuary around historic Fremington Quay. You’ll find lots of small boats, waterfowl and a fascination with the advancing or retreating tide. Don’t forget to stop off at its busy cafe for some delicious sustenance before cycling or walking onwards. The views over the river are pretty spectacular too. This is a great place to stretch your legs, smell the flowers and the foliage, and get excited to find what might be hidden around the next corner.
Dartmoor: Granite Tors and Ponies
Dartmoor‘s been settled since prehistoric times; I remember school trips to see the ancient hut circles at Grimspound. Today it’s an outdoor treasure, with everything from picturesque villages to challenging scrambles and walks in a stunning landscape. The National Park covers an area marked by granite outcrops or tors. The tors are individually named, sometimes very descriptively. Sheeps Tor has a lot of scattered small rocky outcrops, looking from a distance like a flock on the hills. Hound Tor has the silhouette of a large recumbent dog on the skyline. The native Dartmoor ponies, stout and hardy, graze on much of the moorland.
As well as the tors, don’t forget to give the villages some love. From Buckfastleigh to Doddiscombsleigh (Doddy to its friends) and Widecombe to Christow, they’re worth a visit. You may have gathered that I love the water, so don’t be surprised to find me recommending a trip to Becky Falls, and also Dartmeet, where the East and West Dart rivers join. Both are brilliant fun for an afternoon of walking and scrambling; bring your water shoes!
Dartmoor’s full of old stone bridges
Totnes: Bohemian Market Town
Totnes is set on a hill above the River Dart, and is said to have more listed buildings per head than any other town. The Elizabethan House Museum is one example of the merchant’s houses, and there is a motte and bailey Norman Castle, now an English Heritage property.
Totnes has long had a reputation for being arty and slightly alternative. There is a massively long list of creatives who live or have lived in the town, and as you would expect, it has the feel of an arty community. It’s been named one of the world’s Top 10 Funky Towns, so you get the general vibe and my reasons for including it in my recommended places to visit in Devon.
Plymouth: Maritime heritage
“Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’
They shall find him ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago! ”
Drake’s Drum – Henry Newbolt
Drake, he was a Devon man – also from Newbolt’s poen – and the stirring reading of Drake’s Drum summons up many images of Plymouth’s maritime heritage. It was on the Hoe where Sir Francis Drake was meant to have been playing bowls when he was summoned to deal with the Armada. It was also, of course, from Plymouth that the Pilgrim Fathers set out to the New World.
The economy of the city remains strongly linked to shipbuilding and seafaring. It has the largest operational naval base in Western Europe in HMNB Devonport, and is a base for ferries to France and Spain. In the Plymouth Sound, Drake’s Island is visible from the Hoe. You’ll find the Plymouth Gin Distillery in the city, and the 1930s Tinsdale Pool. The city is an important watersports centre, especially for scuba and sailing. The Port of Plymouth regatta is one of the oldest in the world.
Sir Francis Drake’s Plymouth
Getting to Devon
If you are driving, the UK motorway network will take you to Devon via the M5 south of Bristol. If you are heading to the North Devon coast and Exmoor, then the North Devon link road is clearly signed from the M5. After Exeter, the M5 splits into the A38 which runs to Plymouth and onto Cornwall, while the A380 takes a route to Newton Abbot and connections to the south coast and Torbay. Also from Exeter are connections to Dartmoor.
Taking the train is easy, with mainline stations such as Exeter St Davids and Plymouth served by trains from London and cross country services from the Midlands, North West and North East. You should be aware that the line from Exeter to Torquay runs along the coast from Starcross to Teignmouth. It’s an absolutely glorious journey, as the track runs parallel to the sea, but this also makes it vulnerable to extreme weather, and the line had to be closed for substantial repairs at one point. I remember as a child being thrilled at waves crashing over the train, but I’m thinking that days of the whitewater experience are probably no more.
Exeter Airport is a base for Flybe.
More English Treasures
Tempted to find England’s Secret Places? I spilled my list of England’s hidden treasures discovered over 50 years exploring this spectacular country. For more secrets, check out these essentially English experiences, as picked by travel writers. From Paddington Bear to afternoon tea, we’ve got your bases covered for 25 great things to enjoy.
If you’ve loved Devon, don’t forget the great selection of things to do in Cornwall, the land of myths and legends. Once you reach Plymouth, it’s just a short trip onwards to Cornwall. You could even make an adventurous week of both counties.
If you have more time in the UK, then I’ve put together a 10 Day UK Itinerary – well, actually five itineraries plus a bonus – to help you make the most of every hour you have for your trip.
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