16 Beautiful Places to Visit in South West England for a Unique Getaway
Updated: 16th September 2021
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Bathed in glorious summer light, waves breaking upon beaches of treasured fossils, laughter spilling out from country pub gardens and the addictive scent of fish and chips floating through the air – my childhood memories of the South West of England (Dorset, to be precise) will always be fondly remembered.
Stretching from Cornwall to The Cotswolds, this collection of counties offers visitors the chance to hike through forests meeting friendly ponies, sun themselves on some of the best beaches in the land, devour freshly caught seafood, head on an island escape or wine and dine in now-trendy cities such as Bristol and Bournemouth.
But sadly, many visitors to the neck of the woods I called home make a beeline to the most famous spots, such as St Ives, which get packed in high season and overlook so much more which this region has to offer.
Whether it’s a sunny summer sojourn or a wrapped-up winter hiking trip, there are a plethora of idyllic destinations worth a detour and a whole host of Unique hideaways worth checking in to – here are just some of my favourite, and (for the most part) not as over-run places to visit in South West England.
The county town of Exeter is a delightful spot to visit on a tour of the South West. A historic walled settlement on the River Exe, facades of timber and crooked buildings line the streets.
The impressive Gothic exterior of the Cathedral invites you inside to admire the vaulted ceilings and magnificent windows. At the same time, it makes for a great base to explore nearby Dartmoor National Park, verdant and ripe for hiking or horse riding adventures. For something a little special, venture into the medieval underground passageways, once used for transporting water, for a deeper diver into Exeter’s history.
Walking the streets of Exeter will give you an idea of its history, but the area surrounding the Cathedral was my favourite part. White-wood fronted tea-houses, wonky ornate buildings and of course the Cathedral itself.
If you are looking for a bite to eat or a pint there are a few cool pubs in the area. Mill on the Exe serves up a mean fish and chips and is a converted mill along the cities river, wood panelling and an outside deck on the river makes for a decent English pub. A little out of town, and now annoyingly a Wetherspoons (a pretty basic British pub-chain) is The Imperial, but it’s worth shining in got a cheap beer and to see the impressive architecture of this converted hotel, especially the barrel-vaulted and curved shape of the conservatory space.
Castle Combe & The Cotswolds, Wiltshire
Many of my family live in Wiltshire, home of the Cotswolds Area of Natural Beauty – and it certainly lives up to its name. With many summer holidays spent in nearby Chippenham visiting loved ones, Castle Combe has always been a delightful little village full of charm and good memories – but now it seems to have earned itself a reputation as one of the most picturesque villages in all of England, and the Instagram crowd has started flocking there.
Don’t let that deter you from visiting, though, as with 787sq miles in this preserved area and countless other quaint villages; it’s a beautiful spot to spend a few days rambling and soaking up the best of the British countryside.
St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall
While there is no denying it’s firmly on the tourist track, the tidal island of Saint Michael’s Mount – the ‘sister’ of France’s Mont St Michel – shouldn’t be overlooked. At low tide, it’s possible to walk on water, so to speak, crossing from the Marazion Beach on the mainland over the causeway. Once back on terra firma, you can explore the castle and grounds, including the splendid castle gardens.
Staying close by makes an ideal base to enjoy this slightly less hectic stretch of coast, with the Perranuthnoe to Porthleven coastal walk an absolute favourite of mine. For a magnificent view of St Michael’s at golden hour, settle in around the fire pit of a luxury camping pod from a privileged position and admire the coast, including the Lizard Peninsula, in all its glory.
Lulworth, Dorset (Jurassic Coast)
Hands down my favourite place in the UK (and only half an hour from where I was born), Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is a mix of rugged cliff faces containing dinosaur fossils, clear blue waters with sandy beaches (no lie) and charming villages serving up the catch of the day.
On our Rabbies tour, we stopped at two of the most famous parts of the coastline, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door.
Lulworth Cove is a picturesque village, with old stone pubs, ice-cream stands, bucket and spade combos hanging from shops and the cove itself, a near perfect circular bar of lapping water on pebbles.
Durdle Door, which sits next to beautiful Man O’War beach is a large rocky opening within the ocean, and sadly it’s predicted it could fall within the next century. Take a close up look at the rocks along the coastline, and there is a fair chance you’ll find a fossil dating back to pre-historic times.
Chapman’s Pool Beach & Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset (Jurassic Coast)
While the Isle of Purbeck is no island at all, and the most visited attraction is likely is Old Harry Rocks, chalk towers rising from the ocean, this whole stretch of the Jurassic Coast is magnificent to hike along and embrace the refreshing coastal waters.
Sure, Durdle Door, further along, is where all the crowds go, and it shouldn’t be missed, but if you want a more relaxed swimming spot, then Chapman’s Pool Beach (although unguarded) is the place to do so! Slightly further along the coast is Kimmeridge Bay, where my Mum enjoyed her summer holidays as a kid – nowadays you must pay to enter and park on the private lane, so we don’t visit as often. However, the mammoth photo print I gifted her one Birthday is a constant reminder of its beauty in their kitchen.
Lyme Regis, Dorset (Jurassic Coast)
Another rather popular spot in Dorset is Lyme Regis, a seaside town like many of the others along the coast – however, for some reason, this one just feels ‘special’. Every time my school friends’ WhatsApp group comes alive with the chatter of us all returning for summer, it’s usually here we set out sights on enjoying a few days away together.
As with much of the coast, the ancient fossils that give the route its name can often be spotted here in the cliffs or by visiting the museums, and for the perfect morning waking to lapping waves, you can even sleep in a chalet right on the beach.
Cheddar Gorge, Somerset
Set in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, this magnificent limestone gorge and cave system is one of the more unusual places to visit in South West England. Whether you just enjoy the dramatic drive through the gorge or stop for a hike, it will certainly leave you marvelling at mother nature.
For those who do stop, you’ll be rewarded with a true adventure playground. Hike up Jacob’s Ladder – a set of stairs – and enjoy the magnificent views from 450 feet above as you embark on the cliff-top trail. One thing to note is this part is on private land, so you’ll need to buy a ticket to climb the steps and visit Pavey’s Lookout Tower.
Cheddar Gorge is also a very historically significant location, as this is where the oldest human skeleton in Britain – around 10,000 years old – was found. Truly a hidden gem in Europe worth making the detour for!
Perhaps the most famous place to visit in South West England is the intriguing collection of pre-historic sarsen stones known as Stonehenge. I’m going to warn you, though, it will cost you a little over £20 to see them up close, although you can get a free glimpse from further back on the public heritage trail.
Regardless of how you decide to visit, one thing is for sure – this weathered rocky ring of upright sarsen and bluestones are one of our nation’s greatest mysteries.
Surrounded by burial mounds and a favourite place to be on the solstice due to the alignment, it’s really rather fascinating. I’ll admit, I was adamant I wasn’t going to pay to enter and just take a look from further away, but in the end, I succumbed, and I’m glad I did.
Another bonus of entering with the National Trust ticket is you can see some mocked-up style ‘homes’ from the time period and visit the education centre to try and grasp an understanding of how these 25-ton stones were placed. Of course, many mysteries remain, and you won’t come away with all the answers, but then again, maybe we will never know how or why this Neolithic monument was constructed more than 4000 years ago.
Hugging the mouth of the River Dart, the pretty town of Dartmouth is a solid base to pick to explore all South Devon offers – both for the coast and the region’s interior.
This is also a great spot for water sports in South West England, as you can choose from the calmer waters or travel along the coastal path to Compass Cove Beach.
Dartmouth also has a couple of galleries and cultural attractions to visit, such as the small Dartmouth Museum – mainly WWII and maritime-focused – and Bayard’s Cove Fort, which dates from the Tudor period.Outside of the summer season, visitors are also relatively scarce, making the off-season the best time to visit. Even in the peak months though, you can still find some fairly priced accommodation, especially if you look a little inland and consider camping or glamping in a jazzed-up yurt. Being slightly inland will offer easy access to other nearby attractions, such as National Trust properties and the family-friendly. Woodlands Family Theme Park.
If you’ve heard of Glastonbury before, you are likely imagining muddy fields, music raves and hippy tents. Yes, this is the home to South West England’s best-known event, Glastonbury Festival.
Yet, when the music isn’t blaring, Glastonbury remains one of the most interesting cultural places to visit in South West England – and is undoubtedly a lot more chilled out outside of June.
Legends and myths linger in the air of this town, and the most prominent relates to King Arthur’s Tomb, which you can find here. The high street itself also feels rather storied and is sometimes compared to Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter books. The cobbled side streets are dotted with herbal and potion stores, jewellery shops, and plenty of vegan and raw food cafes – once you’ve visited it, you’ll see why this ‘awesome 80’s hippy town’ as my parents call it became host to the festival.
Another popular spot, especially for the views, is Glastonbury Tor. From St Michael’s Tower atop, you’ll have lush and green far-reaching vistas across the countryside. There are also the remains of the 8th-century Glastonbury Abbey, which was left in disrepair thanks to Henry VIII’s decision to destroy the Catholic Church.
Dartmoor National Park, Devon
Sadly, Dartmoor was in the news for all the wrong reasons in late 2022, as a court case banning wild camping – something which has always been accepted here – dominated the headlines. While there will certainly be an appeal to this ruling, Dartmoor National Park will have to be enjoyed as one of the best days out in South West England for now, rather than a camping trip.
And boy, what a beautiful part of the country it is. Even on my most recent visit, when the weather did the typical English drizzle-and-grey-skies combo, I was reminded of how special this vast moorland is.
Being a relatively flat national park, Dartmoor is a great place for low-impact hikes without climbs. Throw into the mix some waterfalls, the adorable and famed Dartmoor Ponies, and the odd medieval bridge and neolithic tomb, and you’ve got an exciting mix of sights to enjoy while rambling through the park. It’s certainly a contrast to the cute coastal towns and villages Devon is usually known for.
Isle of Wight
While some would consider the Isle of Wight one of South West England’s best days out, I’d suggest spending at least a few nights on the isle to soak up all of its charms.
Having circumnavigated the whole island on foot – my best friend and I decided to walk it all for charity when we were 15 as our first foray into backpacking – I can personally confirm every corner of the Isle of Wight promises picturesque panoramas.
Easily accessed by ferry from Southsea, Lymington and Southampton, the short journey across the Solent will whisk you to the island. On arrival, you’ll find a more laid-back air, with vintage-style beach huts, dazzling beaches, and – from the other side of the island – views across the English Channel.
Hire a Kayak to take in The Needles (chalk ridges protruding from the sea), burn through all your coppers at the amusement arcades of Shanklin, and settle in for a night of fantastic stargazing – this is a great place to switch off from the modern world.
Camping, guesthouses, and hotels of all types can be found on the Isle, but to really feel close to the island life, you could stay onboard a yacht or houseboat – certainly one of the more unusual places to stay in South West England. If you plan to visit during The Isle of Wight Festival, be sure to book your accommodation in advance.
Tavistock sits on the edge of Dartmoor and makes for a great place to stop for lunch on a day out in South West England. An ancient market town – trading stalls have been selling their wares and produce here since 1105 – it retains a personality from bygone days.
The market operates from Tuesday until Saturday – Friday being the traditional fruit and veg day – in the Market Square, and it’s a nice place to call in to pick up local crafts and products from small businesses.
Brownsea Island, Dorset
What makes Brownsea Island – a short boat ride from Poole – one of the more unusual places to visit in South West England are the island’s animal residents. Home to one of the biggest communities of protected red squirrels, a small population of peacocks, and even deer, it’s a great alternative day out in Dorset.
As well land animals, plenty of migratory and local bird species can be spotted – specifies varying depending on the time of year. Puffin sightings aren’t out of the question either, especially if you take a boat trip to try and witness them. You can also opt to camp on the island overnight.
With a limit on visitor numbers during the season, the island is open to the public (around April to October), it never feels too busy, and National Trust members don’t need to pay the fee to visit. Personally, I’d say it’s well worth the approximately £20 ticket, which includes entrance and the ferry, but to be fair, I’ve been obsessed with Brownsea Island since I visited as a kid on a school trip. Even now, having travelled much further afield, it remains one of my favourite islands to visit.
St Ives, Cornwall
For centuries, St Ives has been one of the most popular places to visit in South West England for a UK staycation. The gorgeous and expansive swatches of creamy sands – especially magical at low tide – quaint whitewashed streets, and abundance of fresh seafood restaurants are crowd pleasers, making it one of the best places to stay in Cornwall as it has the lot.
It’s also a great base to explore some of the top adventure activities in the UK, such as hikes along the Lizard Peninsula or surfing on Carbis Bay. From St Ives itself, you can take boat trips to spot dolphins or see the Godrevy Lighthouse up close. For a little culture, the impressive modern art collection at The Tate will oblige.
Okay, so I hadn’t planned to include the ‘major’ cities of South West England, such as Bristol and Bath, but seeing as I believe the latter is one of the best places to visit in England, I decided it would be criminal not to mention it.
On my first visit to Bath, I instantly fell in love. It has the perfect balance of history and heritage buildings combined with a vibrant, forward-thinking energy. If I ever move back to England from Portugal, this would undoubtedly be one of the first places I would consider.
I’m clearly not the only person who thinks this way, as Bath is one of the most popular places to visit in South West England as people flock to see the Roman Baths, which give the city its name.
Now serving as a time capsule and museum, the thermae date back nearly 2000 years. While it will cost you close to £20 to enter and tour the baths, certainly on the steep side for a UK attraction, it’s a fair price when you include the museum and the audio guide, which is very informative.
Bath Abbey, another of South West England’s landmark attractions, is also worth a visit and works on a donation rather than ticketed entry. Soaring fan-vaulted ceilings and towering stained-glass windows make this one of England’s most beautiful buildings, and the (paid) towers provide sweeping views over the city.
Away from the star attractions, the rest of the city is dreamy. Honey-coloured stone buildings, small independent stores, and the River Avon combine to create a postcard-worthy destination. One of my favourite places is the 18th-century Pulteney Bridge which crosses the river, as it’s one of only a handful of bridges in the world with enclosed shops on either side.
Whether you want to snuggle up in a forest tree house, check in to a converted cart, or spend your days wistfully gazing at the ocean from your cabin’s bed, you’ll find plenty more unique places to stay in the region on the Unique hideaways website.
What a blast from the past! Growing up in Cardiff, we’d always visit the South West on holiday. Now I need to re-discover these places as an adult. Thanks for the reminder
Thanks for sharing
all these places are going to my to visit places in england they are amazing
glad i found this blog