Flowers and blue sky on the Isles of Scilly, UK
Travel Guide

Discovering the Isles of Scilly: beaches, wildlife and colourful flowers

Backpackingman

Contributing writer

Just a three-hour ferry ride from mainland U.K., the Isles of Scilly are a small archipelago of five inhabited islands. They are known for their warmer weather - the Gulf Stream that flows through them brings warmer waters allowing for a sub-tropical climate. Due to this, you can see plants there which won't grow elsewhere in Britain.

The Isles of Scilly are also a shipwreck divers paradise with one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks in the U.K. There are also stunning white-sand beaches and local wildlife including seals and puffins. History-lovers will also love exploring the castles, fortresses and ancient villages on the islands.

The Isles of Scilly make a wonderful addition to a trip to the UK, especially if you're heading to Cornwall. Here's a short overview of what you need to know before you visit.

Cromwell's Castle in the Isles of Scilly

How to get to the Isles of Scilly

There are two ways to get to the islands, by ferry, or flying. Both are fun and offer great views of the Cornish coastline on the way but flying in on a small 15-seater propeller plane is the best to get views across the islands from above.

You can get a ferry to the islands from Penzance Harbour in Cornwall to St. Mary’s on Scilly. The crossing takes around 2 hours, 45 minutes and the ferry operates March - November. The boat is comfortable with an on-board cafe and you'll see good views of the rugged coastline.

Otherwise, you can fly to the Isles of Scilly Airport on St Mary's from Land’s End Airport, Cornwall Newquay Airport and Exeter International Airport. Again, flights tend to operate between March - November and, as mentioned above, the views of the islands are spectacular from the air.

The coastline of St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly

Where to stay on the Isles of Scilly

Although the Isles of Scilly doesn’t have a “city” it does have its main settlement of Hugh Town on the largest island, St Mary’s. This makes an excellent place to base yourself for exploring the rest of the area and taking small open-air passenger boats to visit the other islands.

While you can stay on any of the five islands, St Mary's has more facilities and is where all the transport options to the archipelago arrive. St Mary's Hall Hotel in Hugh Town is a good option for comfortable accommodation in a convenient location.

The other islands tend to be quieter and you may choose to base yourself on one of these if you want to immerse yourself in nature or escape from the world for a few days. Below you'll find short descriptions on each island as well as a couple of accommodation suggestions.

Boats and houses at the harbour of St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

St Mary's

As mentioned above, St Mary's is the hub of the Isles of Scilly. Hugh Town is where you'll find most of the shopping options, as well as the all-important boats to the other islands. If you want to explore further, just head to the quay and pick a destination from the chalk boards displayed.

On St Mary's itself, you will find the Star Castle, with massive garrison walls that stretch away from it around a headland. Strolling along the walls makes for one of the best walks on the islands. Grab a bite to eat at the Strudel Cafe in town before heading up there. There are also many other walks to choose from on St Mary's - there are over 30 nature trails, or you can just follow the coast to discover hidden coves, historic villages and, of course, wildlife.

It takes several hours to walk around St Mary's at a leisurely pace. On your route, you'll see ancient ruins of villages and a more modern vineyard. Have lunch or dinner at Juliets Garden which overlooks the islands and has an excellent seafood platter.

Stay at St Mary's Hall Hotel in Hugh Town or Star Castle Hotel on the garrison itself.

Palm trees and colourful flowers in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco, Isles of Scilly

Tresco

A popular island to visit from St Mary's is Tresco, a privately-owned island. Tresco is famous for the the famed Tresco Abbey Gardens, which has a 19th Century garden with an extensive collection of sub-tropical plants. Stroll through pathways lined with palm trees and colourful flowers, and you'll feel like you're a thousand miles from the rest of the UK.

Wander further around the island to the Ruin Beach Cafe for some of the best food on Scilly with an excellent view out onto white-sand beaches. If you have the time and inclination, you can also explore some of Tresco's miliary history. Some of the old forts date to the 16th century and others to the English Civil War.

Stay in one of the traditional cottages dotted around the island.

A row boat on Par Beach in St. Martin's, Isles of Scilly

St Martin's Island

Much quieter than the previously mentioned islands, St Martin's Island is perfect for a beach escape. There are many stunning coves, white-sand beaches and rock pools to discover and you can go out with Scilly Seal Snorkelling to get in the water with seals between April and September.

Most visitors will also feel compelled to walk to the Daymark, the most visible landmark on the island. The old navigational tower was built on the ruins of an old chapel, some of which are still visible today. Grab lunch at the Polreath Tea Room before you go (try the homemade soup).

St Martin's is known for it's tranquil atmosphere and with no large towns, it's also a wonderful place to admire the night sky. There's an observatory on the island which is well worth visiting on clear nights. If you enjoy a tipple, you can also find a winery and rum distillery on St Martin's.

Stay at Karma St Martin's for comfortable rooms right on the beach.

Small passenger boat on St Agnes Island

St Agnes Island

St Agnes Island is the best one to experience raw nature as it's more rugged and overlooks the Western Rocks and deep into the Atlantic Ocean. St. Agnes is completely unspoilt and a haven of serenity. It measures just a mile or so across, and at low tide a sand bar links it with Gugh, a neighbouring island.

Despite it's size, there's plenty to explore on St Agnes. Discover the stone cairns in Wingletang Down, find the circular maze of rounded beach stones and have a picnic at Periglis Beach. From there, you can admire the beautiful views of Annet, the bird sanctuary. Another highlight is the Old Man of Gugh, who stands three metres tall and is believed to be associated with Bronze Age rituals. 

When you need a break from walking around the island, head to the Coastguard Cafe for a toasted sandwich and a coffee with some of the best views. Have a beer at the old Turks Head Inn while waiting for a boat back to St Mary's.

Stay at Troytown Farm where you can camp or opt for a spacious, self-contained cottage instead.

A white sandy beach with clear waters on Bryher Island in the Isles of Scilly

Bryher Island

Lastly, there is Bryher Island with its quiet ,relaxed atmosphere. On one side of the island, you'll find the wild Atlantic, on the other calm waters and sandy beaches. Stroll around the island and admire the scenery or, if you have time, hire a kayak and get out on the water to discover the hidden coves and bays.

For the best views, hike up the granite hills, or at scramble over the rocks at low tide to watch the Atlantic waves crash into Hell Bay. There are also many excellent places to eat on Bryher. The Hells Bay Hotel has the best burger on the islands and the Fraggle Rock Bar is great for a drink after a walk around the island.

Stay at the Hells Bay Hotel for a relaxing getaway with a view.

Sunset from St Mary's Island

Final thoughts

The Isles of Scilly are a wonderful place to stop and relax for a few days. While they're just off the coast of Cornwall and easily accessible from the mainland, visiting there feels like you've gone somewhere else entirely.

If you're travelling around the UK, the Isles of Scilly makes a great addition to your itinerary. During your stay there, you'll also experience a completely different side to the country.

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Backpackingman

Author - Backpackingman

Backpackingman has visited the Isles of Scilly many times and has family from there.

Last Updated 14 December 2022

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