The far, south-western reaches of Britain have nature, culture, and a local food scene to rival the capital. It’s a long way from, well, anywhere to get to Cornwall but that’s exactly why it’s one of the best places to visit in the UK.
Hidden away in its own secluded peninsula lined with a rugged coastline, Cornwall’s wild landscape begs to be explored. It’s perhaps best known as a place of pirates, smugglers and sea shanties. The mining of tin and copper was once the biggest employer in the county, and scars and remnants of the industry litter the landscape.
Nowadays though, it’s tourism that Cornwall relies on.
The once-secret smuggler coves are a haven for beach-goers, the small fishing hamlets are now filled with fine seafood restaurants, and the pirates have been replaced with rafts of surfers as well as sustainably-minded fishermen and food producers.
Cornwall is a big county and there are countless coastal towns and scenic beaches to visit. Here, we take a look at some of the most popular destinations, along with a few hidden treasures and a couple of truly unmissable foodie spots.
Explore the birthplace of legendary King Arthur at Tintagel Castle, a 13th-century ruin balanced precariously on the rocky cliffs of the Cornish coast. Uncover Merlin's Cave, and learn about the tales of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, including stories from the mid-12th century telling of the knight's mystical quest for the Holy Grail.
Then, in Tintagel village visit the quaint Norman Church of St Materiana, where you can find solitude, stained-glass windows and a Roman milestone.
Further south, the 14th-century fishing village of Port Isaac makes for a good base to stay in. Head to the Golden Lion for locally sourced food with views over the bay, then set off along the coast to discover unspoiled beaches, quiet bays, and areas of outstanding natural beauty - like the River Camel Estuary by Padstow.
There are plenty of places to get fresh seafood in Cornwall, but none are more famous than the small town of Padstow. With no less than seven sandy beaches (all less than 5 minutes' walk from town), Padstow is the perfect British seaside getaway.
TV chef Rick Stein lives here and his ode to the sea ‘Stein’s Fish & Chips’ is just one of the many well-respected seafood restaurants in the town. You can also visit the National Lobster Hatchery to learn more about sustainable seafood and the conservation efforts in the area.
Newquay is the surf capital of the UK, facing west towards the choppy Celtic Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, it draws huge crowds in August with festivals like Boardmasters. The surf’s always up at Fistral Beach, known for its perfect barrels and pro surfer crowd.
For beginners, Watergate Bay is the ideal place to try bodyboarding - the wide patrolled bay and long, shallow beach means there’s plenty of room to find the perfect wave.
The Beach Hut at Watergate Bay Hotel is the best spot to refuel. You’ll find local, seasonal produce with a 50% plant-based menu, as well as sweeping views over the bay. Favourites include the ‘Extreme Hot Chocolate’, Cornish mussels, and local-beef burgers topped with gouda - Cornish made of course.
A little further south on the two-mile-long beach at Perranporth, the Watering Hole is a local institution with surfboards adorning the walls and ‘proper pub grub’. Enjoy a beer or cider on the sands along with a classic plate of fish and chips, there’s often live music too on the weekends.
From Penzance, the most westerly major town in Cornwall, take a trip to Lands End. There are restaurants, interactive exhibits, and lots of fun things to do for children.
Stray a little further from the iconic sign and you might be able to spot gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags, razorbills and the rare Cornish chough. Birds aren’t the only wildlife to see on the remote coast - you may also glimpse grey seals, basking sharks and dolphins in the rough seas below the cliffs.
If you prefer to avoid the crowds, Lizard Point gives Lands End a run for its money when it comes to wildlife-rich peninsulas. Head to the clear waters of Kynance Cove for a spot of snorkelling, or visit the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek to learn all about the conservation of grey seals on this stretch of coastline.
The South West Coast Walk links the two points, a hike that takes in some of the best views in the county, including St Michael’s Mount. Similar to Mont Saint-Michel in France, St Michael's Mount is a mediaeval castle situated atop its very own island.
You can visit via the causeway, when the tide allows, and explore the castle and the sub-tropical gardens. Or simply marvel at the view from Marazion (one of Cornwall’s oldest towns), by perching yourself in one of the quaint coffee shops dotted along the cobbled street.
There are so many great places to visit, but which is the prettiest village in Cornwall? Looe is one of Cornwall's most adorable fishing ports that is still active to this day.
Take to the old harbour walls to go crabbing and catch your own lunch, or head to the fish auction first thing every morning on the quayside - a central mainstay of community life. There are plenty of great places to eat in Looe, try The Sardine Factory, The Fish Market, or Smugglers Cott Restaurant - built in 1420 with timbers from the Spanish Armada.
Just south of Looe, follow the South West Coast Path to Polperro Beach, a hidden cove famous for smugglers from the 12th to the 18th centuries. This whole stretch of coast was a hotspot for smuggling, with hidden caves and secret tunnels.
Then take a boat trip to St. Georges Island to spot wildlife on a self-guided tour. The island, managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, is home to a colony of grey seals as well as many species of seabird.
For something a bit different, head to Wild Futures; a monkey sanctuary that rescues Macaques, Capuchin, Marmosets, and Woolly monkeys from the UK pet trade.
Bodmin Moor is full of stone circles, Bronze Age cairns, and wild ponies. It’s a great place to take a stroll unless, of course, you are scared of The Beast.
Around 60 reports and sightings have been made on Bodmin Moor of a large cat-like creature roaming around and attacking livestock. Theories of an escaped panther have been spread far and wide, but nothing has ever been verified.
Other more reliable sites around Bodmin Moor include the peaks of Rough Tor and Brown Willy (Bronn Wennili in Cornish), and the Golitha Falls Nature Reserve with ancient woodland and a gently cascading waterfall.
No trip to Bodmin is complete without a stop at Bodmin Jail. Dating back to the 1700s, it was the first institution to put prisoners in separate cells. Learn about the dark souls that haunt the prison walls on the tour, as well as grim sights like the Victorian hanging pit.
For younger children, the Bodmin Keep Army Museum or the Super Tramp Bodmin Trampoline Park are better options.
Near the small town of St Austell, just south of Bodmin, the Eden Project was an ambitious project to turn a disused china clay pit in the South of England into a tropical rainforest. Huge geometric biomes were constructed to provide temperature-controlled spaces where plants could thrive.
Visit the rainforest biome, the Mediterranean biome, and the expansive outdoor gardens to see how they got on. Learn all about nature and deepen your understanding of our complicated relationship with plants.
There are also engaging exhibitions and adrenaline-fuelled activities like base jumping, zip-wiring, and ice skating in winter.
Further south, the Lost Gardens of Heligan are the most romantic gardens in Cornwall, and are my favourite gardens in the whole of England. Reclaimed by nature after the outbreak of WW1, the 200-acre Victorian gardens weren’t rediscovered until 1990.
A huge restoration project ensued, earning the gardens several accolades and awards over the following years. But the true wonder of the estate is the untamed, unmanaged wildness that remains to this day - something impossible to recreate anywhere else.
Falmouth Docks is the third deepest natural harbour in the world – and the deepest in Western Europe. Its place as the first and last major port of the UK mainland makes it the perfect spot for the National Maritime Museum - a collection of boats, fishing relics and maritime artefacts exploring our history with the oceans.
The docks have also played a part in some more recent events, like the successful world record attempt for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. Dame Ellen Macarthur landed in Falmouth Docks after 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds sailing around the world single-handedly.
Falmouth is worth a visit just for its docks, but it’s so much more than just a port town. Falmouth is gaining recognition on Cornwall's food scene with farm-to-fork restaurants focusing on local and sustainable produce.
Mine Restaurant partners with small farms to produce a weekly rotating menu of the freshest local produce like crab, kale, wild mushrooms and trout. While the Verdant Seafood Bar on Quay Street, showcases its local Verdant Brewing IPAs alongside tasty Cornish fish dishes.
While not as picture-perfect as the touristy St. Ives, Falmouth retains its liveable-town charm even in the winter months.
Last Updated 16 March 2023