Fuelled by the sea and charmed by a Celtic culture, there are a host of wonderful things to do in Cornwall. See them all in our guide to getting the most out of Britain’s sunny county.
The picturesque triangle of southwest England is defined by the elements.
Golden sun-soaked beaches, coastal trails framed with heather, spring-fed natural swimming holes, wooded glens teeming with wild garlic and the remnants of Cornwall’s mining industry.
With a justified reputation for being one of the best places to visit in the UK, there are a host of interesting things to do in Cornwall.
Go off-grid on the wild open moors or wander the manicured grounds of manor houses with subtropical gardens. Capture the mighty rock formation on the rugged coastline or stroll bohemian villages with a cool, independent art scene.
Our guide to Cornwall covers some of the most popular attractions, as well as off-the-beaten-track activities. Try our latest food finds, enjoy the best outdoor activities, wander the most authentic villages and enjoy this beautiful corner of England.
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THINGS TO DO IN CORNWALL
01 – EXPLORE BOHEMIAN ST IVES
Squeezed in the middle by two sandy beaches, the bohemian hub of St Ives continues to nurture its creative, independent spirit despite its increasing popularity.
After the decline of the fishing industry, disused lofts behind Porthmeor Beach were transformed into artist studios; a re-purposing which gave St Ives a new lease of life. Artists have been coming here ever since, seeking inspiration from this beautiful seaside port.
The main strip along the front contains the bulk of the restaurants, bars and cafes. But just a street or two back, wander white-washed laneways and discover contemporary art, discreet wine bars and some of the best coffee you’ll find outside London.
After exploring the town, relax on one of the two excellent beaches on either side of the narrow promontory. Read more in our guide to the best things to do in St Ives.
02 – UNCOVER DESERT ISLAND BLISS AT PEDN VOUNDER
Cornwall is blessed with magnificent beaches – golden arcs of sand lapped by turquoise waters. There are family beaches with gentle waves; secret coves pummelled by rising tides; bays swept by surging surf.
However, for our pick, the most perfect beach would be Pedn Vounder. Tucked under the cliffs in a remote location, it could easily be the most beautiful beach in the UK.
At high tide, you wouldn’t even know it was there, but at low tide, mother nature transforms a rocky cove into a beautiful untouched corner of paradise. On a nice day, light glistens off a central sandbar with hidden coves in rocky walls and jagged headlands overhead.
Getting to Pedn Vounder involves a 15-minute walk and a short scramble down rocks. But, if you are up for an off-the-beaten-track adventure, this is a wonderful thing to do in Cornwall.
FULL GUIDE / VISITING PEDN VOUNDER
03 – EAT AT HIDDEN HIPSTER HAUNTS IN PORTHLEVEN
Every year half a million people descend on Padstow, Cornwall’s food capital. But the packed streets with queues at the most ubiquitous chain outlets left us underwhelmed.
A much more satisfying foodie experience can be found in the humble fishing village of Porthleven, where a host of diverse food joints are dotted around the working fishing harbour.
Kota is quality Asian dining which has been awarded a Bib Gourmand – Michelin’s quality at affordable rating accolade – every year since 2013. For similar flavours in an even more affordable setting, Kota Kai Bar & Kitchen is just a few doors down.
We recommend the coffee and pastries from Origin and an on-the-go lunch from Ced’s Bagels, a cool hole in the wall bagel shop. There are a few small outlets in Shipyard – a warehouse-style market – including Radish, with a great vegetarian menu. Porthleven is one of our favourite things to do in Cornwall that’s still a bit of a secret. Go before it’s too late.
FULL GUIDE / HIDDEN GEMS OF CORNWALL
04 – SURF THE WAVES AT WATERGATE BAY
There are few finer surfing beaches in the UK than Watergate Bay. Facing southwest towards the Atlantic rollers, the gently sloping sandy beach and consistent swell is a mecca for wave-riding enthusiasts looking for fun adventure activities in the UK.
But you don’t need to be a pro to surf here. Different parts of the beach have different levels of swell and beginner lessons are available. We went with Extreme Academy and while we didn’t quite enter the Blue Room (inside the curl of the wave) they did at least get us standing for a few seconds.
Even if you don’t surf, Watergate Bay is one of Cornwall’s premier attractions and a beautiful place to visit in England. The beach is excellent, the coastal path on the cliffs has superb views and it’s one of the best locations in the UK to catch a magnificent sunset.
RELATED / BEST WEEKEND BREAKS IN THE UK
05 – POTTER THE FISHING VILLAGE OF POLPERRO
For centuries Cornwall was sustained by the ocean. Returning with their catch, fisherman would seek shelter from the tumultuous seas in tiny harbours tucked into rocky coves. Today, many of these sanctuaries are now working fishing villages with a side-hustle in tourism. While some have suffered from commercialisation, others successfully married their dual industries.
In the north of Cornwall, Port Isaac is a narrow maze of tiny alleyways wedged between cliffs and hidden behind a tiny harbour. In the west of the county, the village of Mousehole has a relaxed untouched vibe with a few great places to eat.
Our favourite fishing village in Cornwall is Polperro. From the Crumplehorn Inn and Mill, narrow lanes navigate towards the sea collecting charming flower-adorned cottages. The alleyways get tighter forming a labyrinth of medieval buildings surrounding the small harbour filled with bobbing boats.
The plethora of souvenir and gift shops hasn’t yet destroyed the beauty of this quaint old fishing village but come early in peak season to avoid the crowds.
06 – SWIM AMONGST THE ROCKS OF KYNANCE COVE
The entire Cornish Coast is rugged and dramatic, but nowhere is more picturesque than Kynance Cove. Battered by the surging surf and blustery winds, the coastline forms a curve of multi-coloured rocky outcrops.
As the tide retreats, swathes of sand appear between the rugged crags. Investigate hidden caves, leap off rocks into the ocean or head over the headlands for a coastal hike. It’s one of our favourite places to wild swim in Cornwall and the hidden Mermaid’s pool is a great spot to explore.
Kynance Cove is owned and run by the National Trust. There’s a café and toilets above the beach and the car park is 10 minutes’ walk along the coastal path. At high tide the beach is entirely covered, so the best time to visit is either side of low tide. Although the car park is big, in peak season it fills up quickly so come early or late if possible.
FULL GUIDE / WILD SWIMMING IN CORNWALL
07 – PHOTOGRAPH ST MICHAELS MOUNT
Crowning a rocky island rising out of the sea the medieval church and castle of St. Michaels Mount is one of the iconic things to do in Cornwall. Building on the church and priory began in 1135 but over time the priory was converted into a castle. Today it is run jointly by the St Aubyn family and the National Trust.
At high tide the island is cut off from the mainland, but at low tide a causeway stretches across the water from Marazion to the castle. It’s well worth strolling over the causeway to explore the island and you can pay to enter the castle itself.
The best way to capture this castellated Cornwall attraction is to explore the lanes along the seafront in Marazion. There are several good vantage points near the start of the causeway that are especially good for sunrise photography.
08 – HIKE THE WILDS OF BODMIN MOOR
Bodmin Moor, one of the wildest and most remote places in England, is a wilderness area right in the centre of Cornwall. Swathes of heather and bracken are broken only by rocky tors and ruined tin mines. Hiking on the moor is a wonderful remote thing to do in Cornwall.
The highest point is Brown Willy, where on a fine day you can see a good deal of Cornwall. To the south and east is the Cheesewring where natural slabs of granite have been smoothed into strange towers. Nearby, Goldiggins Quarry is a deep and wide spring-fed quarry which is a great place to swim on a sunny day.
One of the highlights of Bodmin Moor is Golitha Falls, a tranquil section of a secluded wooded glen. Pack some sandwiches and head off for a scenic picnic. All the details about getting there are in our guide to swimming in Cornwall.
09 – CATCH A SHOW AT THE MINACK THEATRE
Porthcurno Beach is a beautiful part of Cornwall with excellent beaches and scenic coastal paths. Carved into the cliff face, the spectacular Minack Theatre is an unmissable attraction in Cornwall.
The first performance at Minack was in 1932 and continual improvements over subsequent decades have seen it listed as one of the world’s most spectacular theatres. Following the natural contour of the bay the grand outdoor terraced seating set amongst beautifully maintained gardens welcomes around 250,000 visitors a year.
During the day you can pay £10 to look around in pre-booked slots between 10am to 4:30pm. However, it’s a much better experience to come and see a show. Tickets can be as little as £20 and it’s a remarkable experience to watch a performance as the sun sets on the ocean behind.
The season runs from May to September, and performances will continue in all weather (including rain) unless it’s dangerous. Bring a cushion to sit on and a blanket to stay warm. There’s a small bar where you can pick up snacks and drinks on the way in, but you can also take food and drinks in with you.
FULL GUIDE / VISITING PORTHCURNO BEACH
10 – GET LOST IN THE GARDENS OF HELIGAN
Cornwall is host to some of the finest gardens in Britain, with ideal conditions for a wide variety of plants rarely seen in the rest of the country. There are formal manicured gardens and wild woodlands; rainforest biomes and sculpture gardens; sub-tropical paradises and exotic blooms.
One of the best is the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Spread over 200 acres, walk through jungle terrain over raised wooden boardwalk past giant rhubarb plants and towering bamboo trees. Explore the lost valley and smell the colourful blooms in the English country garden; wander the kitchen garden bursting with herbs and stroll through the ornate Italian gardens.
Its magnificently maintained, gloriously diverse and teeming with quirky and unusual plants. Allow at least a couple of hours to explore, longer if you take a break in one of the cafes dotted around the grounds.
11 – VISIT THE GIANT STEPPING-STONES OF BEDRUTHAN ROCKS
There are few more dramatic coastal sights than Bedruthan. Pounding surf has split several enormous rocky stacks away from the main headland, leaving them stranded in the sea. Legend has it that a giant called Bedruthan used the giant stacks as stepping-stones to shorten his journey across the bay. Today, they make a great focal point for a photo or a hike around the headland.
The views are magnificent all the way along the clifftop walk and it’s well worth spending an hour or two strolling around. At high tide, the rocks rise out of the sea, but at low tide the bases are surrounded by sand.
Unfortunately, the main footpath down from Carnewas was blocked by landslides in 2019 and 2021 and is currently closed. There is another path down to the beach a little further north (see our map below), but you need to allow plenty of time to get back up before the tide comes in. Every year, someone needs to be airlifted off the beach, having underestimated the speed of the tide.
If you are unsure, stay on the stunning clifftop and soak in the views.
12 – HIKE THE CORNISH COASTAL PATH
The Southwest Coastal path stretches over 600 miles from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset. During its journey it passes some of the country’s finest scenery, including the iconic Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door.
Walking the entire route takes around 50 days, but many of the highlights are in Cornwall and it’s well worth picking off a few of the best stretches. Our favourites are:
1 – Lizard Point to the glorious rocky boulders and pinnacles of Kynance Cove;
2 – The wild heather-strewn clifftops of the St Agnes headland between Porthtowan and St Agnes;
3 – The clifftop path around the giant stepping-stones at Bedruthan Rocks;
4 – The magnificent sandy coves and hidden caves stretching between Mousehole and Sennen.
OTHER GREAT THINGS TO DO IN CORNWALL
We prefer to curate our guides so that we are presenting only the best things an area has to offer. The above Cornish attractions are the ones we think you shouldn’t miss. However, if you have the time, here are a few more great things to do in Cornwall.
HIDDEN GEMS & SECRET COVES
Dotted amongst Cornwall’s packed tourist attractions there are still plenty of places to get off-the-beaten-track. We have collected all our favourite less-visited locations including secret beaches and under-rated restaurants in our guide to Cornwall’s hidden gems.
COUNTRY HOUSE OF LANHYDROCK
Cornwall is blessed with grand houses and gardens, many run and owned by the National Trust. Lanhydrock is one of the finest. Explore this magnificent Victorian House set amongst manicured gardens before exploring the wooded estate with views over the river and estuary. For a family excursion, rent bikes at the entrance and try one of the relatively easy mountain bike trails.
KAYAK / SUP / COASTEERING
As well as surfing, there are several great water-based adventures in Cornwall. Join a coasteering guide at the Lizard Peninsula or near Watergate Bay; hire a kayak at Marazion to get even better views of St Michaels Mount; or enjoy Stand Up Paddleboarding on the calm waters of the Fowey estuary.
WILD SWIMMING SPOTS
Cornwall not only has a wealth of magnificent coastlines but also rivers, natural pools and spring-fed quarries that are perfect for a dip. If you enjoy beautiful places in the great outdoors read our guide to swimming in Cornwall.
The rugged coast of Cornwall is blessed with castles. There’s not a lot left of Tintagel Castle, the mythical home to King Arthur, but its position on a rocky promontory gives it a mystical and eerie feel. Pendennis is a mighty Tudor fortress built by Henry VIII that dominates the rocky headland at Falmouth. Just across the estuary, St Mawes Castle is another of Henry’s artillery forts.
NOT SO GREAT THINGS TO DO IN CORNWALL
In our opinion, some of the more popular tourist attractions in Cornwall have succumbed to commercialisation and lost their original purpose. It’s a tricky business juggling high tourist numbers with economic necessities, but as our goal is to present the best experiences to our readers, these are the Cornwall attractions we think you can skip.
The Eden project opened to great fanfare 20 years ago. The large biomes which house a rainforest and Mediterranean gardens are remarkably impressive structures that bring an exotic array of plant life to the UK. However, the eco-warrior stance of their information boards is not backed up by the meat-heavy, institution-like cafes overflowing with plastics. We suggest you go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan instead.
Every year half a million people descend on Padstow, Cornwall’s food capital. The streets have become choked with queues forming in front of places like the Cornish Pasty Company which you can pick up at most services throughout the country. By all means book a restaurant for a top-quality lunch, but don’t turn up hoping to wander around a quaint gem. We suggest you head to Porthleven instead.
Land’s End is a beautiful piece of coastline, but queues for the expensive parking can be grim and it’s more amusement park than outdoor adventure. There are literally hundreds of great places to see Cornwall’s dramatic coastline for free. Head to one of the beautiful sections of the Southwest Coast Path instead.
MAP / THINGS TO DO IN CORNWALL
We have included our list of the best things to do in Cornwall on the below map to help you find all the main attractions dotted along this rugged & beautiful county.
TIPS FOR VISITING CORNWALL
01 – The National Trust owns a lot of land and houses in Cornwall. Members can visit their properties and park for free. If you have ever thought about joining, it might make sense to do so before you visit Cornwall.
02 – Driving times in Cornwall are often longer than you might think. At peak times the roads can get clogged and frustrating so try to arrive early or late in the day. Furthermore, keep to the main roads rather than follow the SatNav or Google Maps along single-lane tracks through tiny villages.
03 – Many car parks use the JustPark App. Download and enter your details before you travel to save some time. Also, some of the credit card facilities on the parking machines weren’t working on our last visit, so carry a bit of cash.
04 – It is not always possible to get mobile data in Cornwall. The headlands and coves create plenty of dead spots, so download any information (like navigation maps or things to do) before you head off.
05 – Time your activities with the tide. Many beaches and coves only reveal themselves at low tide.
BEST TIME TO VISIT CORNWALL
The best time to visit Cornwall is from May to early July when the days are long and dry, the gardens are at their most magnificent, and the school holidays have not yet begun. September and October are also good options.
From mid-July to the end of August the weather is at its best and the outdoor cinemas and shows are in full swing. However, this is also peak tourist season, and the area can get incredibly busy. If you plan to visit over this time, be prepared for queues and make sure to book your trip well in advance.
All our trip tools can be found on our book page.
Winter months can be cold and wet, but if you can book late and wait for a window of good weather, it’s particularly good for photography with lovely winter light.
FESTIVALS IN CORNWALL
Timing your visit with one of Cornwall’s amazing festivals is also a good idea. The internationally famous St Endellion Summer Music Festival is held in early August and includes everything from brass bands and Broadway to a symphony orchestra and choir. Boardmasters Festival is a combination of live music and surfing and generally takes place in Newquay around mid-August.
WHERE TO STAY IN CORNWALL
Spread over 1,300 square miles, it takes around 2 hours to drive from east to west or from north to south of Cornwall. With each area offering a different experience, it’s important to choose carefully where to stay. Find all the information you need to help you make the most of your Cornish holiday on guide to staying in Cornwall.
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