Whether you fancy a fun-packed family break, or a back to nature adventure, holidays in England’s Devon and Cornwall deliver it all, offering travellers of all ages a rich range of rewarding things to do - from discovering art at the Tate St Ives in Cornwall, to finding fossils on Devon’s Jurassic Coast, to enjoying eco adventures at the Eden Project. What’s more, Devon and Cornwall’s diverse landscapes - Caribbean-esque coves on the Isles of Scilly, Newquay’s scenic surf spots, Dartmoor’s haunting heathlands - provide perfect backdrops for all kinds of unforgettable staycations. Read on to discover the 15 best things to do in Devon and Cornwall, to help you make the most of your time in England’s glorious south west. And for more ideas about what to see and do in the region, take a look at the Rough Guide Staycations Devon and Cornwall guidebook
For lovers of the great outdoors, exploring Dartmoor National Park is one of the very best things to do in Devon and Cornwall (and Britain as a whole, for that matter).
Covering some 365 square miles of southcentral Devon, Dartmoor is one of Britain’s great wilderness areas - a haunting place of rugged grandeur, menacing moorland, and wooded valleys speckled with secluded villages. And with around 2000 Bronze Age sites dating back to 4000 BC, it’s as rewarding for history buffs as it is for ramblers.
The eastern gateway to the moor is Bovey Tracey, a small pleasant town with its main street running up the hillside. Another must-see sight is Hay Tor. Reached via a relatively short walk from Widecombe road, the climb to the summit is steep, but more than worth the effort for the panoramic views.
Beginning at Orcombe Point in Exmouth, Devon, and continuing to Old Harry Rocks near Swanage in Dorset, the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site represents 185 million years of Earth’s history along 95 miles of coast. The rusty red section in East Devon is the oldest segment, and home to Britain’s richest concentration of mid-Triassic reptile sites. When it comes to keeping monster-mad kids entertained, few things can beat going on a family fossil-finding expedition. Discover more about walking the South West Coast Path - Britain’s longest national trail, no less.
For further geological wonders, you won’t want to miss Kent’s Cavern, a network of limestone caves created by underground rivers some two million years ago. The best of the 80,000 archaeological artefacts found here are now housed in Torquay Museum.
See the highlights and best places to visit while walking in the fabulous west country locations below. You'll find full descriptions of these walking routes, plus much more, in the Rough Guide Staycations Devon & Cornwall guidebook:
If you’re looking for holidays in Devon and Cornwall that blend a traditional seaside break with natural beauty, it doesn’t get better (or more convenient) than Dawlish Warren. A golden sandbar covering the entrance to the Exe Estuary, Dawlish Warren boasts a Blue Flag beach backed by sand-dunes, funfair attractions, plus an exceptional nature reserve.
Comprising over 500 acres of protected grassland, sand dunes and mudflats, Dawlish Warren Nature Reserve is home to over 600 different species of plants and over 23,000 wildfowl and wading birds, for whom the warren is a migratory hotspot. With rarities recorded here including the Broad-billed Sandpiper and Stone Curlew, it’s little wonder the reserve is beloved by bird-watchers.
To experience the area in all its golden-sanded, red-cliffed glory, follow the South West Coast Path from Dawlish Warren to Dawlish. With a path that clings to the crimson cliffs as it follows the train line along the coast, taking this trail between the two towns is a truly top thing to do Devon.
Often as described as Elizabethan, Totnes’s history actually stretches back much further, to AD 959 when “Totta’s Ness” (meaning fort on a “ness”, or ridge of ground) was established as a walled town. In Henry VIII’s day, Totnes was the second richest town in Devon (after Exeter) and today an eclectic array of independent shops - vintage clothing boutiques, bookshops and artists’ galleries - makes it the perfect place to part with your own hard-earned riches.
Other Totnes treats include the castle, Totnes Elizabethan House and Museum, and the Guildhall, where Oliver Cromwell sat in 1646 after taking the town for the Parliamentarians. With almost one thousand years of history to explore through fascinating exhibits, this handsome building (it's set behind a pillared portico) still houses monthly council meetings.
Lying on the River Exe in South Devon, Devon’s county town of Exeter is a grand old market town enlivened by one of Britain’s oldest universities, and beautified by its majestic 14th-century cathedral and quaint cobbled Quayside.
Located in the 1680-built Custom House, the Quayside’s visitor’s centre hosts arts and cultural events alongside an exhibition of Exeter’s 2000 years of history. It’s also home to an excellent indoor antiques market (a treasure trove of everything from art deco jewellery and Victorian parasols, to vintage postcards and mid-century glassware) and scenic waterside bars and restaurants. Perched in a 19th-century warehouse on the edge of the water, the appropriately named On the Waterfront is a great spot to sip cocktails and people-watch.
Known as the Queen of the English Riviera for its elegant Edwardian architecture - as epitomised by its iconic Pavilion theatre - Torquay has long been a West Country tourist hotspot. With an attractive pier and esplanade, and harbours glittering with leisure boats and yachts, you could (almost) be forgiven for thinking you’re in Cannes, especially at night when illuminations dance on swaying palm trees.
Alongside this blend of old-time seaside charm and Mediterranean flair, Torquay is fast-gaining a reputation as a destination for foodies, with Michelin-starred The Elephant Restaurant heading the herd.
A beautiful Blue Flag beach experience is to be had a little further afield in Oddicombe Beach, accessed via the child-pleasing Babbacombe Cliff Railway. Similarly, Babbacombe Model Village, famed for its gardens of both the miniature and full-scale variety, makes for a fun, family-friendly experience.
Connecting the town of Lynton with Lynmouth (located 150m below), the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway has provided passengers with stunning coastal views since opening in 1890. That said, its raison d'etre wasn’t recreational. As the towns are separated by a high cliff, its primary purpose was to transport people and goods between them.
Designed by a student of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, this Grade II listed site is the UK's only fully water powered railway. In fact, there are only three of its kind in the entire world, and this is the highest and the steepest of the lot. Hands down, taking a trip aboard the Lynmouth Cliff Railway is one of the best things to do in Devon and Cornwall if you’re travelling with children. What’s more, the Cliff Top Café is arguably the most scenic spot in Devon to enjoy a traditional cream tea.
Ilfracombe is a delight of north Devonshire, and the most significant resort area in the region. Overlooked by Lantern Hill, head to Ilfracombe’s characterful harbour to enjoy a host of seaborne adventures, the highlight of which is taking a boat to Lundy Island. Owned by the National Trust, and managed by the Landmark Trust, it’s a peaceful refuge for puffins (they far outnumber the resident human population), with on-island activities ranging from diving and climbing, to birdwatching. From Ilfracombe’s harbour, you can also book sea-fishing charters, and seasonal coastal cruises aboard a paddle-steamer.
Parents with kids in tow would do well to head to Ilfracombe’s Tunnels Beaches. After a short walk through the creepy caves, little ones will love splashing in the safe tidal pool and exploring the rock pools. More family-friendly fun can be had at Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park. With full-size dinosaur models in the woods, a Dino Express train ride, plus plenty of wildlife - including sea lions, lions, penguins and meerkats - it’s a guaranteed winner.
As Cornwall’s most popular attraction, exploring the Eden Project is absolutely one of the best things to do in Devon and Cornwall. In fact, it’s a highpoint of any visit to south west England. At once a global garden, an environmental educational tool, an art gallery, and a playground, it offers multiple experiences on one 35-acre site.
From the Visitor Centre, you can take the little train between the biomes, among them the awe-inspiring Rainforest Biome. Glorious with tropical plants, and home to an exhilarating canopy walkway, this is the world’s largest greenhouse. Meanwhile, the massive Mediterranean Biome re-creates the landscapes of the Mediterranean, California, and South Africa. Whichever zone you’re exploring, an ethos of education - underpinned by serious environmental ambitions - has been slickly integrated into the curation. The same goes for engaging children too - Eden’s landscapes and exhibits have been engineered to encourage curious young minds to explore and learn in a playfully creative way.
It was Sir Walter Raleigh who first spotted Falmouth’s potential as a harbour back in the late sixteenth-century, with the coming of the railway and new docks propelling the town’s development as a tourist town in the mid-nineteenth-century.
This Cornish town makes for a pleasant and welcoming place to visit (or stay), with guesthouses, villas and gardens lining the quiet roads between the beaches and the station. Falmouth has also undergone a revival focussed around the redeveloped Discovery Quay. Here the state-of-the-art National Maritime Museum Cornwall dominates the landscape. It’s a stunning structure, with a floor-to-ceiling glass viewing gallery, a large collection of boats, lots of hands-on displays, and opportunities to see traditional boat builders at work.
For more history (450 years-worth of military history, to be precise), head to Pendennis Castle. Reached via thrilling Castle Drive (it encircles the headland), the castle boasts a Tudor gun deck, underground tunnels and a World War II observation post. It also offers one of the West Country’s most scenic views, which is really saying something.
Nestled in three wooded valleys near Falmouth, the National Trust managed Glendurgan Garden is a paradise of rare subtropical plants. A meander down through the garden takes visitors to the charming hamlet of Durgan on the Helford River - the perfect place to watch birds and build sand-castles. The site is also home to a lovely laurel maze that’s been bamboozling visitors for over 180 years
Neighbouring Trebah Garden is another sub-tropical stunner. First planted in the 1840s in a steeply wooded ravine, an abundance of palms, tree ferns and giant gunnera give the impression that you’re very far from England. What’s more, secluded Polgwidden Cove lies at the bottom of the garden.
Heading towards Mevagissey, the Lost Gardens of Heligan deliver history and natural beauty in spades. Decades of inattention during WWI (when the house was converted into a military hospital) meant the gardens were all but lost to time and the elements, until a huge garden restoration project - Europe’s largest - got underway in 1990. The grounds are now beautifully restored, with boardwalks through a subtropical area, lakes, wetlands and woodlands in the Lost Valley, and exotic fruits in the walled garden. The estate is a haven for wildlife, with an Insect Hotel and bee observation hide to enthral little ones. Between them, this trio of gardens are true highlights of Cornwall.
Hiking Cornwall's Lizard Coastal Walk to Lizard Peninsula, the most the southerly tip of mainland Britain, can't come more recommended for lovers of the great outdoors. Routing through dramatic cliff scenery, rare wildflowers and fascinating historic spots, it’s a seven-mile walk that typically takes around three hours to complete, beginning and ending at golden-sanded Kynance Cove. Renowned for its serpentinite rocks, it looks especially stunning at low tide when the green and red of the shiny snakeskin-esque rocks - backed by the Prussian blue of the sea - are at their most resplendent.
Along the way, the walk passes Pentreath beach, Polpeor Cove (look out for the disused Victorian lifeboat station), Lizard Lighthouse, and Pen Olver - the perfect place for a picturesque picnic. The hike also offers excellent opportunities to see seals and basking sharks, with plenty of bird-life to watch for too, including buzzards, peregrines, stonechats and shearwaters, with choughs sitting top of the Cornish birds-spotting tree. Important symbols of Cornwall, legend has it that King Arthur's soul departed this world in the form of a chough, its red feet and bill representing Arthur's bloody end.
Given that St Ives has long been a magnet for artists, it’s perhaps little wonder that the town has its own Tate Gallery. While the Tate St Ives might be smaller than her London sisters, she’s big on impact and perfectly formed. In fact, the gallery’s building and location opposite Porthmeor Beach look like a spectacular painting, while the public roof garden and restaurant serve up breathtaking views.
Tate St Ives holds a permanent collection of works by celebrated St Ives painters (among them Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Sir Terry Frost and Alfred Wallis) while also housing displays from the main Tate Collection, with a focus on works with Cornish connections.
An integral part of the Tate St Ives experience is the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in Trewyn Studio on Barnoon Hill. Hepworth wrote that “finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic” and it has to be said that magic is very much in evidence here today, as is the artist’s dynamic spirit.
Some of Britain’s best surf beaches are found along Cornwall’s north coast, with tourist hub Newquay a major magnet for water-sports lovers. Fistral Bay is the biggest of the town’s three beaches and the location of major surfing championships and events. To stay close to the sea in style, locations don’t come better than Headland Hotel and Spa. Set right above the beach in ten acres of rugged headland, this five-star hotel oozes elegance and a welcoming ambiance.
For families based in the Newquay area, the Blue Reef Aquarium has to be one of the highlights of Cornwall. With an underwater tunnel at its heart and 40 themed habitats - from Cornish coasts to tropical seas - animal-lovers have the opportunity to see the likes of loggerhead sea turtles, reef sharks, caiman and pufferfish. More conservation-minded animal experiences can be enjoyed at Newquay Zoo. With an admirable focus on saving animals through captive breeding, the zoo is home to almost 1000 of the world’s rarest and endangered animals.
Characterised by crystalline waters and soft sands that provide an especially spectacular backdrop for romantic getaways, the subtropical Isles of Scilly seem a million miles from Britain. Yet this cluster of five inhabited islands (and over 100 smaller uninhabited islands) are a mere 28 miles southwest off Land’s End.
Steeped in myth and legend (the archipelago has associations with the Arthurian Lyonesse, the Atlantis of the Greeks and the Cassiterides of the Phoenicians), the islands have been inhabited for at least 4000 years, as countless Bronze Age burial mounds testify. Among these ancient gems is Bant’s Carn Burial Chamber on St Mary’s. Only three miles at its widest point, St Mary’s is the largest island and home to the Isles of Scilly Museum, which makes for a fascinating stop-off between scenic strolls.
The islands’ mild climate means subtropical plants thrive here, and there’s no better place to experience this exotic vibe than Tresco Abbey Garden. Landscaped in the 19th-century, it contains rare plants from 80 countries, ranging from Brazil to New Zealand, and Burma to South Africa. Tresco is also known for its paradisal, near-empty soft sand beaches - you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the Caribbean.
For more ideas about what to see and do in Devon and Cornwall, take a look at the new Pocket Rough Guide Staycations Devon and Cornwall, part of a new practical - and inspirational - series covering top tours and walks.
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Header image: tropical vibes on St Mary's, the Isles of Scilly © Shutterstock
Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her