17 unmissable things to do in Cornwall
Whether it's your first time in Cornwall, or you're a local looking to explore something new, here are some things to start planning. We've rounded up Kernow's unmissable beaches, days out, attractions and places to while away an afternoon or two.
Planning your Cornwall staycation? Expecting fam down for the weekend as soon as lockdown lifts and need some new ideas? Exhausted all your super local options and now looking for something outside your usual haunts?
We’ve raided the Muddy archives and rounded up the unmissable things to do in Cornwall – there’s so much good stuff around that this barely scratches the surface. Even if you’re here for a month you won’t fit it all in! (Note – most things are not yet open, most re-open 12 April or 17 May 2021).
Have we missed your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
(Looking for food, bars and pubs? Head to our Eat Out in Cornwall ideas).
1) HEAD TO THE BEACH
Being a coastal peninsular, the beach comes top of most lists, but with more than 200 to choose from, across 400 miles of spectacular coastline, making a decision can be tricky.
The very best beaches are the ones that you have to work a little to find, or at least walk to rather than drive up. Some of our favourites a little off the beaten track are Lundy (near Polzeath) Polly Joke and the wild flower meadows at West Pentire, Nanjizal near Land’s End, Gwenver near Sennen and Lantic Bay between Fowey and Polperro.
Brood in tow? Check out our guide to the best kid friendly beaches in Cornwall including Porthmeor in St Ives (above).
2) LEARN ABOUT CORNWALL’S HERITAGE
Cornwall has an immense heritage, both gritty and magical and so is spoilt for museums exploring the past – including (and not limited to) sea-farers, smugglers, pirates and sailors, tin miners and arthurian legends.
Some excellent places (and not just for rainy days) include:
National Maritime Museum, Falmouth
Explore the centuries-old myths and legends, when chance sightings and odd appearances led to tall tales of deep sea creatures. Learn how, even today, these stories continue to capture imaginations, fuelled by fake news and conspiracy theories.
Pendennis Castle, Falmouth
Set on a headland with breathtaking views out to sea, Pendennis Castle is one of Henry VIII’s finest coastal fortresses (English Heritage).
The Shipwreck Treasure Museum in Charlestown is a museum of peril and possibility, where a seabed of salvaged stories waits to be explored – Life and loss at sea. The lure of the search. The reveal of the find.
Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle
Home to the largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts held anywhere in the world, this tiny museum on the harbourside at Boscastle explores history of witchcraft and magic in Cornwall and also Britain. Note, currently closed due to Covid.
Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno
This communications museum is set in what was once the largest telegraph station in the world. Most people think of the beach at Porthcurno as the star attraction (and it *is* gorgeous) but is also the location of a communications revolution since 1870. With sub-tropical gardens, underground WW2 tunnels and extensive exhibitions to captivate enquiring minds, it makes a great afternoon out. Note, currently closed due to Covid.
Geevor Tin Mine, Lands End
Set in the wide open spaces of the Lands End peninsula on the dramatic Atlantic coast, the stunning Cornish coastline around Pendeen was once at the heart of the Cornish tin and copper mining industry. Geevor Tin Mine gives you the opportunity to visit a real mine and learn what life was like for a Cornish miner.
Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum, St Austell
An interesting insight into china clay production and very kid friendly.
Tintagel Castle, Tintagel
Immerse yourself in history, myths and stunning scenery at Tintagel Castle set high on Cornwall’s rugged north coast. Inextricably linked with the legend of King Arthur, for centuries this dramatic castle and coastline has fired the imaginations of writers, artists and even the brother of a king. Now it’s your turn to be inspired – and the new bridge is open!
Plus loads more of Cornwall’s castles here!
3) GET SOME GARDEN INSPO
The Lost Gardens of Heligan has jungle boardwalks, rope bridges, hidden art and swings, making it a fab day out, but if you’re after inspo for your own garden, head to the walled gardens, kitchen garden and ogle the potting shed of dreams.
Cornwall’s unique British climate also makes for some exotic gardens, mostly found more towards the south-west of the county. We love Trebah (and nearby Glendurgan) at Mawnan Smith, which also has a stunning beach at the bottom and Tremenheere Sculpture Garden (above) near Penzance- at times you could be in California not Cornwall. In addition to the art the cafe & plant shop with sweeping sea views make it a favourite place.
The National Dahlia Collection grows 1600 + varieties of dahlias, many of which it also sells, as well as a two acre display garden located close to the A30 just outside Penzance with views overlooking St Michael’s Mount. The garden is free to visit and perfect for scoping out ideas for your garden. Further up on the north coast, Trenance Gardens in Newquay is also free to visit.
4) FLEX YOUR NATIONAL TRUST CARD
Lanhydrock, Nr Bodmin
Magnificent late Victorian country house with garden and wooded estate. The house is still closed at the mo, but the estate makes excellent woodland walking and the river at Respryn is extremely peaceful if you want somewhere inland to switch off.
Trelissik, Nr Truro
Country house and garden set in an estate with stunning maritime views and lovely woodland walks, again, the house will be closed but the extensive gardens overlooking the Fal estuary and down to the shingle beach are just what you need if you’re over near Truro.
Cotehele, Nr Saltash
Ordinarily at Cotehele you can visit the atmospheric Tudor house with Medieval roots and the working mill on a historic quay, but for now you’ll need to be content with the glorious garden with valley views and an expansive estate to explore.
St Michael’s Mount, off Marazion, nr Penzance
The island itself is privately owned, so you’ll need to pay or be a National Trust member, but at low tide you can 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. You’ll find the beach and harbour where you can explore free -but with no public boats running at the moment you’ll have to make sure you keep an eye on the tide and leave enough time to walk back.
5) GET YOUR WALKING BOOTS ON
The whole of Cornwall is framed by the SW coast path, and quite honestly, any part of it is going to be rewarding, particularly quiet stretches to enjoy the myriad wildflowers and sea birds. With that in mind, favourite stretches include The Rumps (above), near Polzeath, where you can see puffins and razorbills if you bring binoculars, Treen Cliff on the Penwith Peninsula, the dramatic tin mining ruins at Wheal Coates (nr St Agnes) , and the wild flower meadows at West Pentire (nr Newquay) where the whole cliff is ablaze with poppies in the early summer.
Other favourites are Saints Way, a picturesque ramble from Padstow to pretty Fowey; St Anthony’s Head, at the southernmost tip of the Roseland Peninsula which passes near the lighthouse and Carrick Roads, one of the largest natural harbours in the world and Cape Cornwall and Botallack (nr St Just) for walks along the wild tin coast.
If you’re reliant on wheels, the flat parts of the SW coast path at Falmouth and Penzance make nice walks, as does Bude canal. More accessible walks here.
Inland, on Bodmin Moor, you can walk up Brown Willy (nothing rude to see here, just Cornwall’s highest hill!) to 420 metres above sea level, giving you, on a clear day, panoramic views across the county. Slightly further north near Plymouth you’ll find Kit Hill, Callington, which is 334 meters above sea level at the summit. You’ll be rewarded with 360 views around Cornwall and Dartmoor, look towards Plymouth and you’ve Devon on your left and Cornwall the right, divided by the river Tamar.
6) ON YER BIKE!
Well known is The Camel Trail, which is beautiful but not the only flat cycling trail suitable for a family ride.
Also try 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!
More of a mountain biking type? The woodland trails at Cardinham and Lanhydrock are very popular. If it’s a track-type setting and you’ve got all the kit (helmets with face protection are mandatory, body armour recommended) you can book the Old Hill Bike Park near Wadebridge for a half or full day’s riding.
7) DAYS OUT WITH THE KIDS
Obviously Cornwall is home to the amazing Eden Project and while, yes, it is a little touristy, it’s still well worth an explore. Did you know the centre has the longest zip wire in the country?
For water based adrenaline try Retallack Aqua Park, Saint Columb, a Total Wipeout-style waterpark, plus you might spot a celeb (Romeo Beckham visited last year) – and if you’re looking to occupy an hour or two, head for the Camel Creek Adventure Park, Tredinnick, Wadebridge. We are also hoping that the Giant Slip and Slide, St Endellion will be opening again this summer.
Speaking of adrenaline, Via Ferrata Cornwall at Penryn has Cornwall’s ultimate high-wire and climbing route around a disused granite quarry – and new for 2021 has activities including kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding as well as coasteering and archery.
8) RIDE THE WAVES
Giving surfing a go is a must on a Cornish getaway (no, dipping your toes in wearing a wetsuit doesn’t count). George’s Surf School (below) at Polzeath is great for individual coaching, or there’s Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay and the Sennen Surfing Centre, near Land’s End.
Try Stand Up Paddleboarding at Polkerris or Gylly Beach in Falmouth, and there’s also Cornish Rock Tours based at Port Gaverne, near Port Isaac, which will take you kyaking, SUP, coasteering or open water swimming. Check out Camel Ski School at Rock for waterskiing and sailing schools operate in Fowey, Rock, Mylor and Falmouth. Porthoustock, on the eastern side of The Lizard peninsular, is a great spot for kayaking.
9) TAKE A DIP
The Jubilee Pool, an Art Deco saltwater lido which will soon be opening a naturally heated area of the pool using geothermal heat is a Muddy fave for a relaxing seawater swim without the waves.
Bude Sea Pool (above) is probably the most well known of the more low-fi tidal pools (where the water is caught as the tide drops) but off the radar of most tourist trails is Priest’s Cove, just south of Cape Cornwall, which is well worth a visit with little ones. It’s a small lido, carved out of the rocks.
Fancy something more inland? Near Tintagel there’s St Nectans Glen, home to a whopper of a 60ft waterfall, plus two others and lush woodland to explore.
10) SEEK OUT A CULTURAL FIX
For theatre, the Minack Theatre is Cornwall’s favourite outside theatre venue, carved into the rocks above Porthcurno. There are great theatres in most of the towns – check out our what’s on guides for deets – but a true Cornish favourite with or without kids is the magical, wild and entrancing Rogue Theatre in Tehidy Woods.
For art, the best known is the Tate St Ives (FYI it has a super-chic gallery restaurant with views of the Atlantic) and the less flashy but still fascinating Barbara Hepworth Museum, also in St Ives (above), but Cornwall is full of artist endeavours – and other galleries worth checking out include Newlyn Art Gallery in Penzance, Falmouth Art Gallery, Tremenheere Sculpture Garden, also near Penzance, the Jackson Foundation, St Just and Leach Pottery, St Ives.
11) SPOT SOME WILDLIFE
For seal spotting without the crowds (they’re super-cute, all doe eyed and whiskered) head to the village of Gweek for the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, or Gwithian where you’ll see them lying right on the beach.
If birds are more your interest, Screech Owl Sanctuary and the Cornish Birds of Prey Centre are both near St Columb, where you can learn about majestic birds and watch flying demonstrations.
Newquay Zoo is home to lions, meerkats and over 1,000 of the world’s rarest and endangered animals, or if you’re interested in smaller and local, try Fowey Aquarium (above) on the harbour where you can find marine life found nearby, or adopt a lobster – when it re-opens – at the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow.
12) CATCH A TRAIN
Cornwall has some of the most scenic railways in Britain – soak up the views of glorious beaches, estuaries and wooded valleys – we like the The St Ives Bay Line (from St Erth to St Ives) and the The Atlantic Coast Line crosses some of the finest countryside traversing the county from Par on the south coast to Newquay on the north. Fancy a more old-fashioned kinda trip – hitch a ride on the steam railways at Bodmin (above) or the Lappa Valley.
13) POTTER IN A FISHING HARBOUR
Quintessentially Cornwall, the tiny fishing harbour offering shelter from the storms, home to ancient communities, winding alleys and history galore, plus makes a great IG snap, and at high tide a place to crab, or even jump off the wall, Cornwall has fewer idyllic picturesque harbours than you’d expect.
Favourites for whiling away an afternoon include Boscastle, Mevagissey. Mousehole, Cadgwith, Polperro and Port Isaac. The Helford, Fal and Camel estuaries are also gorgeous, and even Newquay harbour has work-like charm and don’t miss our insider guide to St Ives (above).
14) RELAX IN A CLIFF-TOP HOT TUB
Find some much-needed calm with a glorious sea view – some of our favourites include The Scarlet at Mawgan Porth (above) and Watergate Bay Hotel, both of which will be open for day visits as well as residents.
15) WATCH THE SUNSET
Anywhere that has a wide, west facing vista is going to be a great place to catch the sunset but some of the best beaches to catch the final rays of the day are the north coast beaches of Watergate Bay, Porthmeor in St Ives, Godrevy, and Fistral in Newquay.
South coast sunsets while still dramatic and picturesque don’t have that quintessential sun dropping behind the sea holiday vibe, but the Gribben Head lighthouse and looking over to St Michael’s Mount from Marazion make some good spots to try (also think about sunrise In these spots if you’re after an iconic photo opp).
16) EAT A PASTY
You can’t come to Cornwall without trying a pasty. The title of ‘best’ is fiercely contended (and there’s even a Cornish Pasty championships each year), but our favourites can be found at Ann’s Pasties in Mullion, Chacewater Bakery near Truro, the St Ives Bakery (above) or a more classic one from Malcolm Barnecutt’s in Wadebridge (they all also send them nationwide). Boscastle Farm Shop also make a goodie from their own red ruby beef steak and their cheese & onion version features local Davidstow cheese.
17) HEAD OFFSHORE
Cornwall meets the Caribbean on this unspoilt archipelago just 28 miles from Land’s End.
The Isles of Scilly’s stimulating landscapes and super safe environment make it a natural playground for children and an amazing place to reconnect as a family.
Perfect for kids, foodies, walkers, wildlife enthusiasts and anyone seeking a little peace, Scilly offers up deserted beaches, fresh seafood and the screen-free, simple life.
First published August 2020, updated March 2021 – still awaiting opening dates.