Situated in the south west of England, the county of Cornwall is blessed with a wild coastline, stunning beaches and mild climate. It’s not surprising that it’s become a firm favourite amongst UK holiday destinations. However, the best things to do in Cornwall are not limited to seaside activities. This region boasts rich history, abundant wildlife and creative gems that are waiting to be discovered.
I hope this article on the top things to do in Cornwall becomes a starting point for your adventure in this glorious part of the country.
Visit the Eden Project
It’s hard to imagine that just over 20 years ago, the place where the futuristic looking domes of the Eden Project now stand, was an exhausted china clay pit with no greenery in sight. Thanks to the vision of entrepreneur Tim Smit and a team of architects and engineers, the barren land was transformed into a spectacular global garden.
The goal of this epic project is to explore the close-knit relationship between humans and plants, as well as the things we need to do to protect our natural world. The two domes, or biomes, that dominate the landscape, are enclosures for two strikingly different natural environments. One of the biomes contains the largest indoor rainforest in the world. The other is home to a Mediterranean garden brimming with fragrant fruits and herbs. There is also a vast outdoor garden with over 20 themed plant exhibits.
You can easily spend a day exploring the gardens and the exhibits. To add more colour to your experience, I would recommend downloading a free app called Candide with an audio tour of Eden. For someone like me, who is not too familiar with the world of plants, this tour helped to better understand what I was seeing and why it was special. Make sure your phone’s fully charged if you do decide to use the app.
You can pre-book your timed slot on the Eden Project website. General admission starts with £32.50 (40 USD) per adult.
Connect With Your Artistic Side in St Ives
Tucked away in the far west of Cornwall is a quaint seaside town of St Ives. With its picturesque harbour, narrow cobbled streets lined with independent shops and cafes and beautiful beaches, it is not surprising that the town has become a major tourist destination.
The beauty of St Ives has also been a magnet for artists, sculptors and ceramists, many of whom have made the town their home. Today, you can enjoy their legacy by exploring the work of iconic artists at the likes of Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum. There are also plenty of small galleries displaying works by contemporary Cornish artists and makers. They could be a source of a unique souvenir from this beautiful part of the world.
If you’d like to flex your creative muscles, why not take a painting lesson? St Ives School of Painting has been running classes since 1938. They are led by practicing artists, so you’ll be in good hands. There is a selection of 2- and 3-day courses that could easily fit into your travel itinerary.
Explore Stunning Beaches
Although there are plenty of things to do in Cornwall, the region’s gorgeous beaches are undoubtedly the jewel in its crown. Whether you’re after a perfect spot for a relaxing family day out or looking to get away from it all, Cornwall will deliver.
No matter which part of Cornwall you’re visiting, chances are there will be a great beach nearby. The picturesque Porthmeor beach is the perfect option if you’re visiting St Ives. It’s sheltered and suitable for swimming with a great selection of cafes and shops nearby. If you’re in the Penzance area, be sure to check out the stunning Porthcurno beach. With its golden sands and clear waters surrounded by tall granite cliffs, it’s a must-visit for beach lovers.
My personal favourite is Sennen Cove beach in West Cornwall, near Land’s End. It’s a beautiful long stretch of sand perfect for both surfing and swimming. There is a village there with cafes, shops and galleries for when you need a respite from the sun.
Gorge on Delicious Seafood
Cornwall punches well above its weight when it comes to dining. It is especially famous for its excellent seafood, so tasting some should definitely be on your list of things to do in Cornwall. From humble fish & chips to fine dining, there are options for every budget. With so many excellent eateries, including over 40 featured in the Michelin guide, one article simply can’t cover them all. Instead, I’ll focus on my personal favourites.
In St Ives, I recommend stopping by The Seafood Cafe. Located right in the heart of St Ives, the cafe serves a great selection of local seafood in a relaxed setting. We visited for lunch and enjoyed delicious oysters, sardines and whitebait. Don’t worry, there are non-seafood options on the menu too.
Foodies also flock to Padstow, a picturesque seaside town on the North coast of Cornwall, where world-class chefs have set up shop. Padstow has a strong association with celebrity chef Rick Stein who has a number of eateries in the area.
We went to Stein’ St Petroc’s Bistro for dinner and thoroughly enjoyed it. The bistro’s menu combines traditional French cooking techniques and the best of Cornish produce, with a focus on seafood. The place has a cosy atmosphere and the food, including scallops, monkfish salad and tuna steak, was lovely.
Take a Surf Lesson in Newquay
With its collection of white sand beaches, Newquay, a town on Cornwall’s Atlantic Coast, is one of the best surfing destinations in the UK. It hosts major competitions and attracts pro surfers from around the country. There are lots of opportunities for newbie surfers too.
If you’ve always wanted to try surfing, Newquay is a great place to do that. The spectacular Fistral beach is a great starting point for a lesson. Considered to be the home of British Surfing, it offers consistent surfing conditions and great facilities including cafes and shops. You can arrange a lesson at the Fistral Beach Surf School. It is the only school located at Fistral.
For our lesson, we opted for the West Country Surf School located at Watergate Bay, a stunning beach just a short drive away from Newquay. The beach is slightly quieter than Fistral and offers great surfing conditions as well. The lesson was about 2 hours long and we got to spend lots of time in the water with a great instructor. It was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend it if you’re visiting Newquay.
Go to St Michael’s Mount
One of the most iconic historic spots in Cornwall is St Michael’s Mount, located on the south coast of the peninsula. It is a tidal island that is home to a striking medieval castle, picturesque gardens and a small village. The island is linked to a town called Marazion with a man-made causeway which you can access during low tide. At high tide you can only reach the island by boat.
On your visit to St Michael’s Mount, you will learn about the history of the castle, stroll through the sub-tropical terraced gardens and enjoy spectacular views of Mount’s Bay. If you need some sustenance, there is a café serving sandwiches, pastries and traditional Cornish cream teas.
The St Aubyn family, whose ancestors originally purchased St Michael’s Mount in the 17th century, still live on the island today. The local village is home to a small island community of around 30 people. It’s fascinating to see how modern life intertwines with hundreds of years of history.
You can pre-book tickets to St Michael’s Mount via their website. General admission that includes both castle and gardens is £24.00 (US$31.59) per adult and £13.00 (US$17.11) per child aged 5-17.
Do a Section of the South West Coast Path
The epic South West Coast Path invites you to explore 630 miles (1,014 km) of stunning coastline. It starts in Minehead in Somerset, running along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, and ends in Poole Harbour in Dorset. Doing the full trail is a major undertaking which is not for everyone. Thankfully, those who are not into long-distance hiking can focus on specific sections of the path instead.
Since the path covers the whole of Cornwall’s coastline, you’ll be spoilt for choice in terms of available walks. From relaxing strolls to challenging hikes, there is something for every type of adventurer. You can find a comprehensive list of day walk ideas on the South West Coast Path website.
So far we’ve done a section of the path around the Newquay area which includes some great beaches, varied coastline and historic sites. If you’re staying in the area, I recommend including it in your itinerary. We also took the South West Coast Path to walk from Penzance to Marazion to visit St Michael’s Mount. It was an enjoyable easy walk but not as dramatic as other sections of the trail.
Enjoy a Wildlife Encounter
Cornwall boasts an abundance of wildlife both on land and at sea. There are many ways to experience it during your trip, from nature reserves and wildlife cruises to aquariums and animal sanctuaries.
Cornwall Wildlife Trust manages over 50 nature reserves that are scattered around the peninsula. These are perfect for a relaxing day out spotting wildlife and enjoying the varied landscapes of Cornwall. You can see the full list of the reserves on the Trust’s website.
If you’re looking for an indoor wildlife experience on a rainy day, you can check out the Blue Reef Aquarium in Newquay. Although compact, it showcases a good variety of marine wildlife, from local species to sea creatures from far away lands. It’s also a great opportunity to learn about the challenges that marine life is facing due to human activity and climate change. You can pre-book your tickets on the Blue Reef website. Adult tickets are £12.75 (16 USD).
So far, my favourite wildlife experience in Cornwall was a visit to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary. This charity rescues and rehabilitates seals from around the Cornish beaches. Most of them are eventually released back to the wild. Those who are unable to survive out there can continue living in the sanctuary.
Apart from the seals, the sanctuary is also home to a couple of sea lions, penguins, beavers and paddock animals. There are talks throughout the day that help bring the stories of the sanctuary residents to life. To top this off, the sanctuary is located in a picturesque area near a village called Gweek, making this a great spot for a day out.
Watch a Show at Minack Theatre
Another iconic landmark that is worth adding to your list of things to do in Cornwall is Minack Theatre. It is a famous open-air theatre that sits on top of the granite cliffs of Porthcurno beach.
Although Minack has an air of antiquity, it is actually less than 100 years old. It was created by Rowena Cade, an artist and theatre-maker who purchased the headland where the theatre now sits in the 1920s. Rowena and her team of helpers built the threatre pretty much by hand. It was such a huge undertaking that the construction work took the rest of her life.
As Minack is a living theatre, the best way to appreciate it is, of course, by seeing a show there. The theatre boasts a busy programme with over 200 performances a year including plays, musicals, opera and live music.
If attending a show is not possible, you can still visit the theatre to explore its picturesque surroundings and enjoy spectacular views over Porthcurno Bay. You might even be able to catch a rehearsal or workshop on your visit. You can pre-book your tickets for a specific time slot (£7.50 or 10.40 USD) on the Minack Theatre’s website.
Visiting Porthcurno Beach and Minack Theatre should be on your list of things to do in Cornwall.
As you can see, Cornwall is brimming with exciting activities and sites for every taste. From stunning beaches and unforgettable hikes to delicious food and world-class art, it’s no surprise that Cornwall is such a popular UK holiday destination.
If you are heading to Cornwall, I highly recommend staying in the historic town of Penzance. It is a great base for exploring the sites and beaches of West Cornwall. It also has a raft of art galleries, quirky shops, historic pubs and charming accommodation options for your next trip.
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