10 free things to do in Cornwall this summer
On a budget? A bit of insider knowledge (open gardens, cultural gems, where to play sports...) is all you need. Don't miss these 10 free things to do this summer in Cornwall.
If the purse strings are tighter this year and you’re wondering how on earth you might elicit some joy from the next few weeks, you’re in the same boat as us. Precisely why we’ve been rummaging through the internet for free things to do. Light of pocket but still pumped for summer fun? Look no further.
Check out someone else’s dahlias
The National Dahlia Collection grows 1600 + varieties of dahlias, many of which it also sells. It also used to have a two acre display garden located close to the A30 just outside Penzance with views overlooking St Michael’s Mount, which was free to visit and perfect for scoping out ideas for your garden – in May 2021 the collection was relocated to the Kehelland Trust near Treswithian Downs, Camborne. Trenance Gardens in Newquay is also free to visit.
Wild flowers more your thing? Check out The Flower Field by Roskilly & Henwood – just the thing for an Instagrammable afternoon. No bookings, turn up and make a donation for entry.
Alternatively, for the price of a £4 donation per adult (kids go free) you could visit one of The National Garden Scheme Open Gardens – in which over 3,500 private gardens in England and Wales open for charity. This is brilliant for two reasons: firstly, you can indulge in a bit of real-life garden porn (begone Right Move), and you can pick up clever border design ideas while sending a few quid (normally around £4) to highly worthy charities such as MacMillan. Kestle Garden near Helston looks lovely, as does Gardens Cottage near St Blazey- booking essential.
Don’t like dahlias – if you’re quick, you could book a visit (or even afternoon tea) to the Cornish Lavender Farm, free to under 12s, £5 for those over, and pretend you’re in Provence, not Kernow.
If you’re up for spending just a few more quid and making a day of it, Cornwall has a plethora of gardens to choose from – our favourites include Trebah, at Mawnan Smith, which also has a stunning beach at the bottom and Tremenheere Sculpture Garden near Penzance, as well as everyone’s potting shed of dreams at The Lost Gardens of Heligan (booking essential for all).
Get your art fix
Big up our lovely local museums and galleries! Check out Newlyn Art Gallery (a reasonable £3.30 for entry) and Falmouth Art Gallery (free, but you’ll need to book) as well as a host of smaller art galleries in every coastal town. Locals can bag a pass to the Tate St Ives for £5 if you have a Cornwall postcode, although booking is still essential.
As for museums, they undeniably make a good day out, but in most places it will cost the adults accompanying them – the best value ones are the little local ones offering insights into Cornish life and culture. Under 18s go free to the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro and the adult pass is only £5 – this bijou museum is in the Duchy’s capital. Bodmin Town Museum is free, but also sadly closed due to Covid restrictions, so give that a swerve, but the Museum of Cornish Life in Helston is open as long as you book a time slot.
Under 5s go free to the National Maritime Museum although the adult ticket will set you back £14.50, likewise the Wheal Martin Clayworks where a family pass is £28, the King Edward Mine Museum in Camborne, £20 for a family pass.
Play al fresco tennis
Game, set and match! There are plenty of tennis clubs and leisure centres in our ends where you can pay to book a court for an hour but we’ve scoped out some free options, all you need to bring are racquets and ball. Or balls, plural, if your serves are as wayward as ours. Recreation Grounds including Hayle operate on a first come, first served – head over for an early morning match to nab a court with no queues, otherwise check out Truro and Perranporth (£5 per hour) and St Mawes (£10 per hour).
Pack a picnic & head to the beach
Ah, summer beach picnics. Got your basket packed full of strawberries, champagne and salmon sandwiches, with a flask of tea in case it gets a bit chilly (or perhaps more likely, a bag-for-life with a box of sausage rolls, a can of coke and a couple of Kit Kats). And if you come prepared with your wind-break, waterproofs and rainproof rug, you’ll have a good time whatever the weather throws at you. See our kid-friendly beach guide for some location inspo and pick up some of this eco-friendly Cornish picnicware to take with.
Kids big and little find searching for critters in rockpools deeply fascinating, and all round Cornwall you’ll find wildlife groups and local National Trust rangers who put on free events and guided rockpooling sessions – usually at the lowest Spring Tides (when the tidal movement is the greatest so the largest expanse of beach is tantalising uncovered for a few precious hours).
Alternatively, grab yourself a tide table, white bucket and download a seashore guide and see what you can find yourself.
You’ll need a bike, obvs, so only totally free if you have one, but for an hour or two you can rent one reasonably cheaply. Cornwall has plenty of trails for cycling – including The Camel Trail, which is beautiful but not the only flat cycling trail suitable for a family ride. A Muddy favourite is the Coast to Coast Trail (11 miles) starting at Portreath on the north coast, to Devoran on the south. The route goes from the Atlantic to the channel, so you’re basically cycling across England in a couple of hours! There’s also the new West Kernow Trail which starts and finishes in Penzance, and budding Olympians (or Tour de France riders) might enjoy the so-called ‘Cornish Alps’ near St Austell.
These boots are made for walking
Try the coast path – not the whole thing, as that would take you months, but visit the South West Coast Path website and you can take a look at the various parts – the path stretches for 300 miles around Cornwall (and back up into Devon both sides too) and is always good for a free stomp. Most of it is rather up and down though, so not the best if you’re reliant on wheels and you’re after a level walk.
For level walks, try Bude canal, the aforementioned Camel trail, Cardinham Woods, Tehidy Woods, or parts of the actual coast path in Penzance and Falmouth which go from beach to beach along the town.
Tap up some regional heritage
Ah, the National Trust, where children under 5 go free and frazzled parents weep quietly in gratitude. Down here in Cornwall the adult membership basically pays for itself if you also like beach parking and also gives you (pre-booked) entry to various properties including Lanhydrock and Cotehele but most dramatic perhaps is St Michael’s Mount.
For the very free option you can time it right and start on a dropping tide to walk across the causeway from Marazion, “following in the footsteps of giants and pilgrims” and become your own part of the Cornish folklore with which the entire island is imbued (just make sure to leave enough time to also walk back or you’ll need to pay for the boat).
For something altogether free, try heading up onto one of the Duchy’s many moors to check out some megalithic structures and stones.
The four stones of megalithic structure known as Mên-an-Tol (above) or the “Crick Stone” can be found on the West Penwith moor between Morvah and Madron. Dating back to the Bronze Age it is thought to be related to burial rituals, although Cornish poet D. M. Thomas suggested Mên-an-Tol was “the wind’s vagina”. It is also thought the stones were used as a charm against witchcraft or ill-wishing, and could also for future telling. Apparently when two brass pins were laid crosswise on top of each other on the top of the stone they behave much like an ancient ouija board.
Still down in the far west you’ll also find Carn Euny (below) – an Iron Age village near to Penzance, with great views and an underground passage called a ‘fogou’. Up on Bodmin Moor meanwhile you’ll find The Hurlers, a standing circle of stones which date back to around 1500BC, as well as the (locally) famous rock formation The Cheesewring, which is basically a huge pile of large flat boulders precariously balanced on top of one another.
Go for a swim
For truly free options there is obviously the beach, or a tidal pool at low tide. But, if you’ve a few quid spare, the Jubilee Pool lido (above) in Penzance is also rather nice, and makes a good day out – pre-book slots up to an hour before. Sadly the geothermal part is fully booked, but check out their website and set your alarm for the ticket release days.
Pick your own fruit and veggies
Who doesn’t love a hand-picked punnet. It’s free to go and you only pay for what you pick which will, no doubt, be less than what you eat as you do the rounds. We like Trevathan Farm at St Endellion (for strawberries, also gooseberries, raspberries and come autumn, pumpkins), Trevaskis Farm at Connor Down near Hayle (soft fruit, peas and beans) and Mitchell Fruit Garden, right in the centre of Cornwall.