What to See and Do at the Barbican in Plymouth

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

The self-styled Ocean City, Plymouth is rightly proud of its maritime location and background. 

While Exeter offers the administrative safety that becomes Devon’s capital city, Plymouth is its rebellious, cheekier sibling. 

And Plymouth’s the Barbican district very much characterises these traits: historically fierce, arts-driven, and up for a good time. 

A natural harbour that was once central to the city’s fishing trade, today the Barbican is a beautiful collection of shops, eateries, noteworthy spots, and sea-related larks.   

Mayflower Steps

Unassuming to look at but mighty in importance, the Mayflower Steps monument roughly the place from where the Mayflower ship sailed, taking the Pilgrims across the Atlantic to land on American soil for this first time, on 6th September 1620. 

While the monument could well do with some information about the effects of colonisation, the spot does inspire a strong sense of history.  

The added value is that there’s a good choice of boat trips that use the location as a starting point.

Sail out from here towards Plymouth’s Breakwater, up the River Tamar that forms a natural border with Cornwall.

Or for a look at Plymouth’s dockyard and naval vessels (known locally as the Dockyard and Warships trip).

The Dolphin Inn

The Dolphin Inn is an early 19th-century pub that has the words ‘The Dolphin Hotel’ inscribed above its doorway for reasons that no one can explain.

It’s not a hotel, and never has been. It’s a pub, and one that was once not for the faint of heart. 

The Dolphin’s key claim to fame is that local artist Beryl Cook used to drink there, and the pub provides the setting for some of her best paintings. 

Walls are adorned with newspaper clippings and photographs that help tell the story of the pub, its customers (including Beryl Cook), and the Barbican itself.

Ales are served directly from barrels and, as they don’t sell food, it’s rumoured that they’ll let you bring your fish and chips in to eat with your drinks if you ask nicely.

The National Marine Aquarium

The National Marine Aquarium is UK’s largest aquarium, giving watery lodgings to over 4,000 types of sea-based fauna with visitor numbers that warrant its size. 

Alongside its role as a tourist venue, the aquarium conducts ground-breaking research programmes.

It’s the base for the Ocean Conservation Trust, the charity that looks to link human beings with the sea.

In 2004, the trust sank an ex-naval vessel off the coast of Whitsand Bay in Cornwall to create a haven for local sea life and it’s that sort of act of sustainability that makes the aquarium much more than a holiday makers’ honey pot. 

Barbican Theatre

The Barbican Theatre is a tiny organisation with a big heart that’s been running since 1980 as a registered charity.

It’s no mean feat given the rocky position of the arts over the past decade or so. 

The space consists of a single, 100-seat auditorium with a couple of studios, and what’s notable about the theatre is its commitment to nurturing local talent.

It’s worth popping along to check its showcases of musical talent, both local and touring. Or even to grab a bite at the theatre’s B-Bar, an excellent, low-key Thai food joint. 

The Plymouth Gin Distillery

Situated on the Barbican’s main thoroughfare, Southside St, The Plymouth Gin Distillery has been hard at work since the 1790s, long before the current gin craze took hold.

The building that’s home to the business dates to 1431 (making it one of the oldest buildings in Plymouth) and was originally a monastery.

Plymouth is a crucial strategic base for all the British Armed Forces and, fittingly, Plymouth Gin is the official gin of the Royal Navy.

The distillery creates a special, naval-strength gin for sturdy sailors and the distillery is open for tours.

The Barbican Kitchen

Part of the Plymouth Gin distillery building, the Barbican Kitchen is an award-winning restaurant run by the Tanner brothers, James and Chris. 

One of Devon’s entries in the Michelin Guide, the Kitchen serves brasserie-style dishes in a relaxed and informal setting.

The usual rules apply about pricing, and the quality of food on offer makes it worth the treat. 

Also, the brothers should be commended for laying out an entire menu of vegan food courses, from starter to pudding. A special mention, too, for the very good cheeseboard.

Open for dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, and lunch from Wednesday to Saturday. We recommend you book ahead.

The Minerva Inn

Squeezed into Looe St on the Barbican’s edge, The Minerva Inn is Plymouth’s oldest serving public house, having poured its first pint in around 1540. 

The building is timber-framed, and much of the wooden structure is said to have been retrofitted using wood plundered from the Spanish Armada galleons.

The Minerva’s attraction lies in its age and Elizabethan architecture - even its staircase is supposed to have once been part of a Spanish mast.

So not necessarily a venue for an all-nighter, but interesting enough for a half or two.

Cap’n Jaspers

It’s impossible to overstate Cap’n Jaspers reputation among Plymouthians. 

Almost everybody living within the city (and further afield) has some story or another about what is essentially a food shack.

The setting for many a light-night liaison, post-pub nosh up, robust breakfast and snacky lunch, Jaspers has seen it all. 

The original building was built a few yards away from the current setting (next to the old fish market) and relocated to bigger premises in the 1990s. 

Much of the menu is meat-orientated, with burgers for under a fiver. Cheap and cheerful, a mug of Jaspers tea is still just 90 pence. Says it all.