There are many fun things to do in Cornwall.
Cornwall is one of the most popular counties in the United Kingdom, particularly in summertime. It is famous for its incredibly beautiful coastline which features sandy beaches, historic fishing villages and numerous seaside towns. There is history, both ancient and modern; beautiful gardens; enigmatic ruins; and delicious seafood.
If you are planning a trip to this part of the country and are stuck for ideas on what to see and do, worry not – you have come to the right place. Continue reading this post for a selection of the top things to do in Cornwall, including things to do in Cornwall with kids and best things to do in Cornwall for couples.
The Best Things To Do In Cornwall
Visit some of the UK’s best beaches
Going to the beach is obviously one of the things to do in Cornwall.
Beach lovers are spoilt for choice in Cornwall. The long coastline is dotted with hundreds of fabulous beaches to explore. Deciding on the best beaches in Cornwall is a very subjective thing and it very much depends on whether you are looking for wild beaches, family friendly options or somewhere to go surfing.
However, there’s a general agreement that Kynance Cove with its rocks and caves, the sheltered arc of sand at Portmeor, Perranporth with its natural swimming pool and the wide expanse of Sennen Cove are some of the best beaches in the county. Another one you’ll love is Watergate Bay, a fantastic, long sandy beach not far from Newquay. If you prefer something more secluded, there are plenty of hidden gems waiting to be explored too.
Check out my post The Best Beaches In Cornwall.
Visit St. Piran’s Oratory
St. Piran’s Oratory really is one of the best hidden gems in Cornwall. You will find it close to Perranporth – more precisely at Penhale Sands, half buried in the sand dunes. Dating back to the 6th century, St. Piran’s is known to be one of the oldest Christian sites in England. It was founded by Irish saint Piran, who arrived in the area after being exiled from his homeland.
The church was used until the 10th century, when sand got the best of it and it was abandoned in favor of a new church that had been built more in-land and which was in turn also abandoned in 1804, after it followed a similar fate.
You can visit both the Oratory and the Church, but they are only open on special occasions. However, you can still get a pretty good idea of them from outside the walls. To get there, you’ll have to drive to Perran Sands Holiday Park, where you can park your car and then continue on foot following the path to Penhale Sands.
Dine in one of the UK’s most famous fish restaurants
Dining out is certainly one of the best things to do in Cornwall for couples – but not only. You see, many decades ago, Cornwall’s most famous culinary export was the Cornish pasty. However, things have changed, thanks in part to a certain celebrity chef. One of the UKs most well-known chefs, Rick Stein, opened the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow in North Cornwall back in the 1970s.
Since then, Cornwall has become a very foodie destination with desirable restaurants popping up all over the county vying for the attention of the summer tourist crowds. Padstow and the surrounding area still seems to have the greatest concentration of foodie joints but Falmouth, Penzance and Porthleven are snapping at its heels.
Learn to surf in Newquay
You may not know, but one of the top things to do in Cornwall is surfing. The beaches here offer some of the best surfing in the UK. Surfers from all over the world have been enjoying Cornwall’s waves since the 1960s. Most well-known is Fistral Beach on Cornwall’s north coast at Newquay. Here you will find lots of surf schools and shops – so whether you are a beginner or a pro, there will be something here for you.
Due to Cornwall’s position, jutting into the Atlantic, there are plenty of other beaches around the county which offer good surfing. Some other popular spots include Sennen Cove near Land’s End and Porthtowan, south west of Newquay. If you are staying on the south coast of Cornwall, try Praa Sands. Finally, check out the amazing surf at Gwithian Beach.
Enjoy an open-air theatre production (and then walk to the beach)
Set on the cliffs in far south west Cornwall is the stunning Minack Theatre. Carved by hand by its owner Rowena Cade and her gardener, the theater overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Frequently performers find themselves upstaged by pods of dolphins leaping through the waves.
The Minack offers open air productions for visitors of all ages. Attending a show is probably one of the best things to do in Cornwall with kids, as there are shows specifically targeted to children. If you are traveling with your better half, you can enjoy music and drama for grown-ups including opera productions and Shakespeare.
There’s a cliff top path which leads from the Cornwall open air theatre down to neighboring Porthcurno Beach, a beautiful stretch of sand with impressive waves and high cliffs on either side. On a bright summer’s day, the view from the Minack of the beach and the turquoise sea is magical – make sure to visit.
Get away from it all on the Isles of Scilly
Part of Cornwall but apart – the Scilly Isles sit some 28 miles from the mainland and all the better for it. Reached by ferry, plane or helicopter this archipelago of five inhabited and countless uninhabited isles offers a holiday experience of yesteryear. There are empty beaches (even in August), relaxing restaurants and cafes and a blissfully slow pace of life. Day trips to the Scilly Isles are possible but you will regret not staying longer.
Despite their diminutive size, there are plenty of Isles of Scilly things to do including swimming with seals, stand up paddle boarding and horse riding. Visiting the Isles of Scilly is one of the best things to do in Cornwall for families but if you visit out of season, they are the perfect escapist destination with a clutch of delightful small and remote hotels, perfect for a romantic getaway.
Enjoy a Cornish cream tea in the most southerly cafe in the U.K.
Although Land’s End is the most westerly point in mainland Britain, it is not the most southerly. That title goes to Lizard Point, a less commercial and far more attractive spot than Land’s End and one of the prettiest places to visit in Cornwall.
And if you would like to indulge in that most British, and Cornish of traditions – the cream tea – where better to experience it than at Polpeor Café on the cliffs at Lizard Point. You will be rewarded with magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean as you munch on scones and sip your cup of tea.
Walk through the beautiful Lost Gardens of Heligan
The Lost Gardens of Heligan offer a heart-warming story of renewal. These beautiful, lush gardens, spread over an area of 200 acres on the south coast of Cornwall, were lost for several decades. Once part of a large family estate, the gardens fell into neglect and were forgotten about partly due to the lack of an heir to the estate and due to loss of local lives in the First World War.
However, in the last 30 years, a distant relative of the estate’s family took on the land and restored the gardens. Today, they are a magical place to explore with highlights including the Pleasure Gardens, an ancient woodland and a jungle area.
Learn about modern British art at St Ives
The Tate St Ives sits on the seafront of this pretty coastal town in north Cornwall. As well as significant temporary art exhibitions throughout the year, Tate St Ives displays artworks by 20th century British artists including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland. There’s also a separate gallery dedicated to Barbara Hepworth who spent most of her life working in Cornwall.
Play at smugglers and pirates at Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove is managed by the National Trust, and can be reached via a cliff top path which slopes steeply down to the beach. There are giant rock stacks on the sand, caves to explore and wonderful rock pools which children will love playing in.
This is the place of myths and legends and it’s easy to imagine smugglers hiding their ill-gotten gains in the caves. Just be careful of the tide – part of the beach is cut off when the tide comes in.
Read a novel by Daphne du Maurier
One of Cornwall’s most famous residents was novelist Daphne du Maurier. Her most well-known works – Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, are all set in Cornwall. Evocative, thrilling and full of tension, the books offer a rather alternative take on Britain’s popular holiday county. Try to read one before you visit Cornwall or pack one in your suitcase for a spot of holiday reading.
Learn about the myth of King Arthur at Tintagel
The ruins of Tintagel Castle on Cornwall’s north coast are swathed in mystery. This medieval fortification lies half on the mainland and half on a rocky island, the two parts – separated over time due to natural erosion – have once more been reunited by a recently constructed bridge.
Archaeologists believe there has been a settlement on Tintagel since the Roman era with the legend of King Arthur and his sorcerer Merlin appearing in books from the 12th century. They really are a must-see!
Bad weather? Head undercover at the Eden Project
The Eden Project is a vast garden created on the site of a former clay pit in southern Cornwall. The Eden Project contains two giant biomes. Visitors can walk through a steamy rainforest and experience a Mediterranean climate – with all the plants you would expect to find in these two diverse areas. Outside are extensive botanical gardens to explore and there are plenty of things to do for kids with interactive exhibits and seasonal entertainment.
Spend a day on the Helford River
Of all the things to do on the Lizard Peninsula, one of the quieter parts of the county, make sure to take to the water on the Helford River. This peaceful stretch of water is best explored by stand up paddle board or kayak. It is a real hidden gem in Cornwall with excellent old pubs for a slap up lunch, tiny villages and epic riverside retreats to gaze at.
Walk along the Great Flat Lode trail
If you are into hiking, one of the best things to do in Cornwall is heading to the Great Flat Lode Trail in Central Cornwall. This 12 km (7.5 miles) route along the hill overlooking the former tin mining towns of Redruth and Camborne goes around Carn Brea, where you’ll find a Neolithic hill settlement complete with prehistoric huts such as the “Cup and Saucer Rock”. You can climb up for stunning views of the north coast.
Most mines in the area were actually closed more than 100 years ago, except for King Edward Mine, was was only closed in 2005 and where you’ll now find an interesting mining museum with original equipment on display.
Other interesting sights along the way include mining buildings such as large engine houses, chimneys and the miners dry at South Wheal Francis Mine, where miners would enjoy a bath after resurfacing from the mine.
Walk to St Michaels Mount and take the boat back – or vice versa
Set on a rocky island in Mounts Bay is the tidal island of St Michael, one of the best places to visit in Cornwall. Reached at low tide via a 500-meter (1,640 feet) granite pathway that starts from the beach at Marazion and which disappears beneath the waves as the tide comes in, this delightful settlement comprises a medieval church and castle along with several residential buildings.
At high tide, little motorboats ply the waters surrounding the castle ferrying visitors to and fro. Managed by the National Trust, St Michaels Mount has a surprisingly lush garden to explore – the Gulf Stream provides mild weather which allows a wide range of plants to thrive on this rocky outcrop.
Explore Cornwall’s ancient past on Bodmin Moor
One of the hidden gems in Cornwall, Bodmin Moor is a wild and relatively bleak expanse of land in the interior of the county – but it is full of history. There are Neolithic and Bronze Age remains on the moor and it holds many stories and legends including those of King Arthur. It is an excellent place for hiking with Golitha Falls on the River Fowey being a popular destination for walkers.
Visit Bodmin Jail
Bodmin Jail is definitely one of the most interesting places to visit in Cornwall. Found on the edge of Bodmin Moor, construction of the building started in the early 1770s and the building was finally inaugurated in 1779, during the reign of King George III and following the important Prison Reform by John Howard.
The building was designed by Sir John Call, a prominent military engineer at the time, to reflect the reform which saw individual cells, segregated male and female areas, hot water and plenty of open air spaces for prisoners, who would also work in the prison and were paid for any products sold.
By the 1820s the cells were actually overcrowded, and this – as well as subsequent prison reforms which demanded segregation of remand and convicted prisoners, felons, etc (there were more than 20 different categories of prisoners) led to new buildings being added until 1850.
The prison was closed between 1911, when the last remaining female inmates were moved to Plymouth, and 1916, when male prisoners finally left. Bodmin Jail was finally decommissioned in 1927.
To visit Bodmin Jail, make sure to book a time slot for on the official site here. It’s open every day. During your visit, you will learn about the prison’s dark secrets, including the 55 executions that took place there (8 of them were women), to which the public was allowed to assist.
Enjoy a local festival
Attending local festivals is one of the best things to do in Cornwall.
Throughout the year but particularly in summer, there is a wide selection of festivals to enjoy in Cornwall. Music fans should check the listings at the Eden Project where international music stars play on an outdoor stage. Foodies will enjoy the gastronomic experiences of the Falmouth Oyster Festival, Porthleven Food Festival and the St Ives Food Festival. And if you’d prefer a more off the beaten path experience, the Scilly Isles has a more low key foodie fest.
There are also plenty of traditional local festivals to discover such as the May Day celebrations and the intriguing winter Montol festival at Penzance which sees parades of masked folk celebrating the solstice.
Walk the South West Coastal Path
The South West Coastal Path is not particular to just Cornwall – it stretches along some 630 miles of British coastline through several counties. However, it is arguably at its most beautiful in Cornwall where it takes in some awe-inspiring views. The path takes walkers through tiny fishing harbors, past hard to access hidden beaches and rocky coves and along exposed windy cliff tops. It’s a particularly brilliant way to explore the best of Cornwall, off the beaten path.
Visit one of Cornwall’s pretty fishing villages
Cornwall is packed with picturesque fishing villages which will have you reaching for your camera at every bend in the road. On the south coast, Mousehole (pronounced mowzel) is a maze of narrow streets and white washed cottages; Cadgwith Cove has cottage gardens overflowing with flowers while Coverack has a tiny harbor packed with colorful fishing boats.
On the north coast, medieval Port Isaac with its characterful granite houses was used for many of the scenes in the BBC drama Poldark while Polperro – closed to vehicles in the summer months – has narrow winding streets with lots of enticing little shops to explore.
Make sure to read my post The Nicest Villages And Small Towns In Cornwall.
Learn about Cornwall’s maritime history at Charlestown Harbor
Part working harbor and part open air museum, Charlestown’s 18th century Georgian harbor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a brilliant destination for those interested in the history of Cornwall’s maritime and mining past. As well as the excellent Shipwreck Treasure Museum, there are rigger tall ships and historic tunnels to explore.
Top Tips For Visiting Cornwall
Guided tours of Cornwall
If you aren’t a fan of planning, opt for a guided tour of Cornwall. This 5-days tour of Cornwall departs from London and has excellent reviews. It goes to Devon and Cornwall and will allow you to explore Roman towns such as Exeter. You will stop at beautiful beaches and enjoy wild moorlands. Among the places you will visit, there are St. Ives, Saint Michael’s Mount and Tintagel Castle. You can book it here.
When to visit
Cornwall is a popular summer holiday destination that is most crowded in the months of July and August. Sometimes the tiny winding Cornish roads – many constructed before the age of the motorcar – are clogged with traffic. Likewise, restaurants and cafes are packed, car parks are overflowing, and attractions are busy too. Accommodation costs skyrocket in the peak summer months.
If you can avoid visiting Cornwall in August, do so – you’ll enjoy a much quieter experience. The UK schools finish for the summer in mid-July so aim to come at the start of the month or better still visit in June or September. These “shoulder” months typically have good weather but with fewer tourists and lower prices. September is perfect if you enjoy swimming as the sea is warmer at the end of summer.
Weather in Cornwall
Cornwall is lapped by the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the Mediterranean, the Atlantic is cold so if you’re not good at cold water swimming, consider bringing a wetsuit (there are plenty for sale in Cornwall in case you forget!). Rain and wind are common occurrences throughout the year, but the chances are definitely higher in the fall and winter months.
How to get to Cornwall
If you’re driving to Cornwall, bear in mind that there is one main road in and out – the A30 – and it gets very busy. It takes around 5 hours to drive from London to Cornwall but it can take a lot longer if you set off at the wrong time of day. Plan to set off at 5:00 am so you will miss all of the traffic and you’ll be on the beach by lunchtime! There’s a great town just off the A30 in Devon called Honiton which has some excellent independent cafes serving delicious brunch options.
Responsible tips for visiting Cornwall
One last but important note, Cornwall is not a wealthy county, its economy relies heavily on tourism so please shop local: buy food from local shops, not the big supermarket chains. Enjoy dining at independent restaurants and cafes, buy local gifts and souvenirs.
Are you traveling to the United Kingdom soon? Make sure to check out the following posts:
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This post was contributed by Annabel Kirk, owner of Smudged Postcard. After 10 years working in the travel industry selling and marketing holidays across the globe, Annabel decided to set up a blog to share her knowledge of family travel. The blog features adventure and cultural travel ideas with a focus on road trips and sustainable accommodation. Based in the UK, she writes about where to travel in the British Isles with kids, as well as ideas for European holidays, with Italy being a particular focus. You can also follow her on Instagram and Facebook.