Best places to visit in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset
Best places to visit in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset: top attractions, and places to stay, eat and drink in the South West of England
Here’s our low down of the best places to visit in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset (England’s South West) so you can start planning your next trip to this beautiful part of the UK, which is perennially popular with holidaymakers.
The South West of England encompasses some of our most picturesque counties, from Thomas Hardy country in Dorset through delightful Devon – the birthplace of cream tea – to the sandy coves and thatched pubs of Cornwall, and the cider houses and Georgian grandeur of Somerset and Bath.
See the April/May 2023 issue of Discover Britain for our 47-page South West Special or read on for even more ideas for getting the most out of the region, with our pick of the very best places to visit in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset.
The best places to visit in Cornwall
Minack Theatre, Cornwall
This outdoor theatre, built into the rugged cliffs of the Cornwall coast near Porthcurno, offers one of the most dramatic backdrops to a show imaginable and is one of the best places to visit in Cornwall. The creation of local artist Rowena Cade, who moved into the nearby house in the 1920s and set about creating a performance space in her garden, it’s still a spectacular sight to behold almost 100 years on, whether you come to watch a performance or to wander its subtropical gardens.
When is an island not an island? When it’s low tide and you can walk across to it like at St Michael’s Mount, a tidal island that is home to an ancient castle, which can be accessed on foot from the Cornish town of Marazion for around four hours per day. At high tide from spring to autumn there is also a ferry that will take you over to explore the castle and its grounds, which has been in the hands of the St Aubyn family since the 17th century, but which is now largely looked after by the National Trust. Undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Cornwall.
An iconic ruin on the North Cornwall coast that has been linked to Arthurian legend for centuries – it is said King Arthur was born here – Tintagel’s rugged position on a rock just off the mainland makes it an unforgettable place to visit.
Thanks to the addition of a new footbridge in 2019, you can now explore the site more fully, including Merlin’s Cave, where it is said the famous wizard once lived. An unmissable stop on your tour of the best places to visit in Cornwall.
Best places to visit in Devon
The ancestral home of the Earl of Devon, the fortified manor house of Powderham Castle is set in an ancient deer park by the Exe estuary, just outside Exeter and has incredible interiors to explore, plus over 600 years of family history to uncover.
Read our exclusive interview with the current Earl of Devon in our new issue here.
Jurassic Coast, Dorset and Devon
Straddling the South West counties of Dorset and Devon, the Jurassic Coast is a 95-mile stretch of England’s south coast, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its abundance of prehistoric rocks and fossils.
So incredible is its geology that it’s the only place on earth where you can see rocks from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods – spanning 185 million years of history.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Devon
An essential stop for any history lover, this culture house in Devon’s ‘capital’ of Exeter has hundreds of precious Roman items on display, including the third largest Roman coin hoard in Britain.
As the longest established steam railway in the South West, the South Devon Railway is one of Devon’s best-loved tourist attractions, running along the seven-mile former Great Western Railway line that first opened in 1872.
Enjoy a traditional cream tea while you are transported through the beautiful countryside of Devon’s Dart Valley between Buckfastleigh and Totnes.
What began as something of a bohemian social experiment in the 1920s to encourage creativity and free thinking continues to this day in the 1,200 acres of grounds around Dartington Hall in South Devon.
Today, the charity that runs the estate runs learning courses, hosts music events, and offers accommodation to visitors who want to embrace the atmosphere of the place. Alternatively, visitors are free to wander the extensive grounds, which include heritage gardens and riverside walks, catch a film in the Barn Cinema, or enjoy farm-to-fork food in one of the on-site cafes or the White Hart pub.
Want to make your own gin? At Salcombe Distilling Co.’s award-winning waterside distillery, you can take charge of a beautiful mini copper pot still to develop and distil your very own 70cl bottle of gin, choosing from a range of botanicals provided or being even more inventive and bringing your own.
At the end of the three-hour lesson, you can enjoy a ‘Salcombe & Tonic’ gin in the distillery bar or try your own creation. Building on the exceptional success and popularity of the Salcombe Gin School, there’s now an option for visitors to try their hand at rum distillation at the Salcombe Rum School.
This Blue Flag award-winning beach is backed by evergreens and scented pines that make it feel as if you are off the Mediterranean coast. The beach is formed of the smoothest little pebbles, which make the water astonishingly clear. There are a range of water sports available in the summer months, with kayaks, paddleboards, and wetsuits all available to hire, and a pontoon floating offshore is perfect for diving off into the bay’s blue waters.
At the back of the beach is the new Blackpool Sands Takeout – completely glass and plastic free and opening on 1 April – which sources only the very best local ingredients. There is plenty of accommodation close to the beach including off-grid Wild Comfort and Sea Thrift, with B&Bs, guest houses and self-catering cottages in close vicinity too.
Best places to visit in Somerset
Long before the Georgians came, the Romans were making use of the natural thermal springs in what is today the city of Bath.
This attraction, in the heart of the city, provides audio tours through the baths, which are home to 2,000 years of history and many fascinating finds from Roman and pre-Roman Britain, including a gilt bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva, one of the best-known objects of Roman Britain.
Top places to eat in South West England
The best places to eat in Cornwall
The Seafood Restaurant, Cornwall
So absolute has been chef Rick Stein’s reign over the Cornwall town of Padstow that many people call it Padstein. Padstow is also on our list of the best places to visit in Cornwall, and Rick Stein has a few places to his name here, but this is his flagship, which has been providing top notch seafood to locals and visitors since 1975, and so should not be missed.
Hot on the heels of Rick Stein is another seafood chef who has found his calling locally, Nathan Law. This restaurant, just a bit further along the north Cornwall coast from Padstow, in Port Isaac (another essential stop on your tour of the best places to visit in Cornwall!), shows him at his best. It’s not cheap – far from it – but the seafood tasting menus here are unforgettable.
The best places to eat in Devon
This great new pizzeria in Topsham uses high quality local produce on a crispy, fresh sourdough pizza, with a tomato or white base sauce that will leave you wanting more. The pizzas are lovingly hand made to order in the roman style with the option to add extras and Steve, the owner, uses toppings from his amazing Devon charcuterie. We recommend the BBQ pig and pallet with its sweet BBQ sauce and scrumptious pulled pork, which is simply delicious. With a relaxing ambience, laid-back vibe, friendly staff, and tasty food it makes a great place to dine out where the pizzas are (possibly) better than in Italy.
Just outside Topsham but also worthy of a mention is the amazing farm shop, set on a real working farm, where you can pick up lots of local produce for your self-catering place, or a picnic on the beach. The cream-tea hampers – which include options with a bottle of bubbly or G&Ts – are perfect for the latter, while if you are in the mood for cooking, try some of the slow grown beef or local lamb.
At Devon’s newest wine destination, enjoy a seasonal lunch or dinner at Circa, where you can feast on seafood from Brixham Fish Market, organic veg, and locally reared meat, with the perfect wine pairing after taking a tour of the estate.
Bellies full, bed down for the night in the suave Georgian Sandridge Barton House, or an 18th-century boathouse on the River Dart.
With panoramic sea views from its terrace, this contemporary brasserie is a great spot for fish and chips and to try some of the local drinks mentioned, before meandering down into the pretty fishing village of Shaldon, with its numerous thatched cottages and village cricket green.
If you’re looking for a perfect country pub, then this characterful inn, in the historic village of Broadhembury, in east Devon, which has a largely gluten-free menu with fruit grown in its own orchard and everything freshly cooked on site, is a real treat.
The best places to eat in Dorset
In the village of Evershot, this ancient coaching inn is brimming with character and original features, right down to it wonky, creaky floors. The open fire and flagstones are what you want from a village pub in the heart of Hardy country – the inn is even referenced in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, albeit under a different name – and you can’t really go wrong with its ‘famous’ ploughman’s washed down with some Pimm’s (what could be more English?) in the pub, or for a couple of courses or more, try the more formal restaurant.
The best places to eat in Somerset
For a special occasion dinner on your holiday, head to this Bath restaurant, where the former head chef of the city’s reputable Royal Crescent Hotel has gone it alone in a tiny dining room where the open kitchen ensures all eyes are on him. The surprise tasting menu includes a delectable fusion of English, Indian and Asian dishes that are quite unlike anything you have ever tried before.
Best places to stay in South West England
Best places to stay in Cornwall
Overlooking the water in St Mawes (another stop on our tour of the best places to visit in Cornwall), this 18-bed Relais & Chateaux hotel offers laid-back luxury with plenty of style, from its crisp seaview rooms with pastel colour pops and lots of home comforts, through its fashionable supper club and hidden cinema.
Cornish Secrets holiday cottages
Cornish Secrets have some of the most beautiful and unique self-catering properties across Cornwall, from sea view apartments to historic cottages with hot tubs.
Their opulent property Libertine was built in 1603 and was once an old vicarage hall and is just 5 minutes’ drive from delightful Praa Sands. Eclectic and stylish the house has a boho artisan feel and with gothic church artefacts artfully dotted around. Libertine has four bedrooms, sleeping 8, and its own swimming pool, and is a wonderfully lavish, yet totally charming choice for your stay. Read more here.
For something a little different with a laidback feel, Cornish Secrets’ stunning coastal property Lower Hendra near Port Isaac is a charmingly rural cottage with four bedrooms, sleeping up to 10 guests, and spectacular 180 degree sea views. There’s even a hot tub to enjoy a glass of something sparkling in the evening before cosying up in front of the woodburner. Read more here.
Best places to stay in Devon
Devon does traditional pubs with rooms very well but at this former mill, just a short drive from Totnes, there are some nice surprises. As well as hearty, homecooked meals, there are beautiful grounds to wander where you can mingle with peacocks and peahens or play a giant game of chess. And hidden within the grounds are two new luxury lodges with full-length doors that can be pulled back for uninterrupted lake views and some binoculars for a little armchair twitching.
In the heart of Dartmouth, a pebble’s throw from where the Mayflower left for America in 1620, this 14th-century Tudor inn is brimming with character. Downstairs, the restaurant with its many nooks and crannies always seems busy, and its seven rooms have plenty of original features within and lots of nods
to the area’s naval past.
The Royal Crescent Hotel, Somerset
An elegant five-star hotel on Bath’s most famous Georgian crescent, if you are looking for the embodiment of Regency style a la Bridgerton and Jane Austen, then this is the place to come. As well as beautiful bedrooms, there’s a fabulous spa, lovely gardens, and delicious afternoon tea all on site.
With 60 bedrooms and 22 lodges, this country house hotel, which first opened its doors to guests in 1930, has a spa, golf course and luxurious accommodation. Don’t miss our competition for your chance to win a stay at Bovey Castle.
The Salutation Inn, Devon [https://salutationtopsham.co.uk/]
This hotel in the heart of Topsham is steeped in history, having provided beds and sustenance for travellers for nearly 300 years. The wonderful Glass House dining room has an outstanding menu from executive chef Tom, who has worked with the greats of the industry such as Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsey, and Michael Caines, while the rooms are extremely comfortable and spacious with very welcoming staff.
Hotel Indigo, Devon [https://exeter.hotelindigo.com/]
For somewhere to lay your head in Exeter, the newly opened Hotel Indigo offers a little slice of luxury in the historic heart of the city. Once the home of an 18th-century department store, the hotel is decorated to honour different historic elements of the city, with all the modern amenities you could wish for.
The Pig – on the Beach, Dorset
Known as the ‘mellow yellow’ house, this old manor near Dorset’s Studland Bay, with uninterrupted views along the area’s sandy beaches, was something of a trailblazer when it first opened in terms of stripping back the formality of yesteryear and creating a blueprint for a string of hotels that put the comfort (and appetites) of customers first. It’s the kind of place you never want to leave.