With a beautiful Devon setting, lashings of historical attractions to explore, and some great places to eat, Plymouth makes the perfect place for a weekend break
Plymouth, in Devon, must be the most ideally situated city in Britain, with the sea to the south and Dartmoor to the north. It might not have the unforgettable architecture of other cities, or great shops - but it more than makes up for that with its views and surroundings.
What to do
The city has a very long and chequered history; we wanted to explore that side, and discovered that the best way to do it was on foot. We found the Tourist Information Centre (01752 306330) right on the historic Barbican (not easy to get to if you’re in a car) and armed ourselves with a free pack of five historic trails.
Our favourite was the Barbican Walk, which took us from the famous Mayflower Steps through narrow Elizabethan streets and 'opes' (openings from one street to another). The walk is not a long one in distance but it certainly is in time, taking us right back to another era. We stopped at the Elizabethan House on New Street (well, it was new in the 1600s!) and were entranced further on by the Elizabethan Gardens, an oasis of calm, far from the noise of the city. While there, we were able to check the names of the Pilgrim Fathers to see if any of our ancestors had sailed with them (and, no, they hadn’t).
New Street is also home to local artist Chris Robinson (34 New Street; www.chrisrobinson.co.uk), who had beautifully illustrated the pack of trails, and we couldn’t resist buying one of his prints of the Barbican.
Full of good intentions to finish the walk fairly quickly, we set off again, only to find ourselves outside the Plymouth Gin Distillery at 60 Southside Street, set in an old monastery that was formerly home to Dominican monks. Who could pass by the opportunity to see how this famous spirit is made? Or to taste it? Certainly not us! This is a very good tourist attraction (even for those who don’t drink), with a demonstration of the herbs and spices used in the process, and a couple of free samples. My favourite was the Fruit Cup – even better than Pimm's.
Back at our starting point, we crossed the foot bridge over Sutton Harbour and spent a delightful few hours in the National Marine Aquarium (01752 600301; www.national-aquarium.co.uk), marvelling at the wonders of the deep - perhaps not part of the history we’d come to see, but certainly part of Plymouth’s maritime heritage. If you know you’re going to visit this attraction, book ahead – you can save money and avoid any queues.
The pack of trails included walks round the city centre and the famous Hoe but for a bit of fun, we used a Treasure Trail (www.treasuretrails.com), set out like a murder mystery. This was a great hit, as it led us to places and little bits of local history that we would almost certainly have missed if we’d just strolled around. I won’t give too many clues about the route – it’s certainly worth trying it for yourselves – but we couldn’t help but be saddened by the names on the huge war memorial on Plymouth Hoe, and then impressed by the feat of building that is Smeaton’s Tower, one of the original Eddystone Lighthouses.
As a rest from all that walking, we took a boat trip from the Mayflower Steps (Tamar Cruising: 01752 822105; www.tamarcruising.com). This took us into Plymouth Sound and the oddly-named Hamoaze before heading into the River Tamar and Devonport Dockyard. There was a very informative commentary on board but unfortunately there weren’t many warships for us to see. However, the trip was still well worth it, with superb scenery all around, especially on the Cornwall side, where Mount Edgecumbe Country Park was pointed out to us.
Where to stay
We stayed for two nights at the Quality Hotel, situated right on Plymouth Hoe, with spectacular views from our window overlooking Plymouth Sound. There was always something to watch, from the large Brittany Ferry on its way to France to small sailing boats dodging in and out. We were even lucky enough to see a submarine heading into the nearby Devonport Dockyard. There are other hotel chains in the city and plenty of B&Bs, many of which are also on or near the Hoe area.
Where to eat
The Barbican area of Plymouth is full of restaurants, cafes and pubs catering for all tastes and budgets. We certainly couldn’t go home without savouring a Cornish pasty (despite the fact that Plymouth is in Devon!). It made a great lunch, sitting on the quay, watching the activity – and avoiding the seagulls.
On some friends’ recommendation, we booked to eat at The Souk (Pinnacle Quay, Sutton Harbour; 01752 221111). I thought we might have made a mistake as we entered what looked like a block of modern offices, but straight away we were transported to North Africa, with a tented room lit by Moroccan lanterns. The whole evening was a really great experience. The food was delicious, with a huge selection of meze to choose from. I can certainly recommend the baba ganoush and prawns, and Himself loved the stuffed baby squid.
It seemed as though we couldn’t keep away from the Barbican, as on our other evening, we ate at the Glassblowing House (www.glassblowinghouse.co.uk), set in what was originally the old fish market and later a glass-blowing workshop for Dartington Glass. We ate surrounded by local art and stunning views over the harbour (and very expensive yachts). Everything was delicious, especially the locally caught fish, and the desserts were to die for. We needed the walk back up to our hotel after my chocolate tart.
Sadly, it was then back to the present day and home, but with very good memories and lots of photos. Would we go back? Oh yes. Dartmoor next, and the coastline on either side of Plymouth...