Best places to visit in Cornwall: top attractions and prettiest places
Updated: 14th February 2023
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Cornwall is gorgeous – especially when the sun is shining and you’re enjoying a perfectly chilled beer or wine on a pub’s terrace overlooking the glistening ocean. However, the best places to visit in Cornwall aren’t just restricted to the coast, and Cornwall’s attractions span Tudor castles, prehistoric ruins, seal sanctuaries and futuristic botanic gardens.
Of course, in the summer months, us Brits make a beeline for Cornwall’s best beaches, meaning crowds and higher prices are a given. However, out of season, the incredible array places to visit on South West England’s shorelines – especially along the Lizard Peninsula – are just as inviting, albeit more for rambling than sunbathing.
With a fascinating history related to the UNESCO-listed old mining sites, a rich and storied culture thanks to the Cornish language and the region’s independent past, and those beautiful golden sands, Cornwall’s charm is infectious no matter where or when you visit.
Whether you’re planning a long weekend or an extended vacation, here are some of the best places to visit in Cornwall to get you started.
Where to stay in Cornwall and other FAQs
Cornwall offers a variety of accommodation options ranging from small B&Bs to lavish castle stays. Cottages and holiday homes are popular options, with companies such as Aspects Holidays providing a local and specialist alternative to Airbnb.
Picking where to base yourself will depend on if you want a quaint town (Penzance), a coastal retreat (The Lizard), an isolated village (Mousehole) or a larger hub like Truro. For more ideas, see my guide on where to stay in Cornwall.
Cornwall is one of the prettiest regions of England with an interesting history due to the mining and national minority language. However, the main reason to visit is for surfing, sand, seafood and the dramatic coastline.
For the weather alone, summer is the best time to visit Cornwall. However, in the peak summer months of July and August, and also UK school holidays, the region becomes busier. I suggest visiting in spring for wild-flower-lined trails or late September for a more peaceful, yet hopefully still sunny, beach break.
Cornwall is ideal as both a long weekend break or a one-week road or beach trip – it really depends on how much time you have. With a car, you could ‘tick off’ some of the main attractions in three days, but you’ll want to take it slower for a beach holiday.
The region’s coast is certainly the star. Personally, I find the most scenic part of Cornwall to be the Lizard Peninsula, especially spots such as Kynance Cove.
Mevagissey, Port Isaac and Polperro are some of Cornwall’s prettiest villages. St Ives is the prettiest town, while the prettiest beaches include Kynance and Porthcurno.
If you only have time for a short visit, then don’t miss Tintagel Castle, St Ives, St Michael’s Mount and The Eden Project. These four attractions are some of the top places to visit in Cornwall. However, it’s a region best explored slowly so that you can see many more places on this list.
Port Isaac and Tintagel Castle
Snuggled around a small harbour in North Cornwall, Port Isaac is your typical dreamy coastal village and one of the best places to visit in Cornwall for first time visitors. A cluster of white-fronted homes atop a low-slung cliff, the village looks down on the pocket-sized beach and bobbing fishing boats below.
Port Issac’s history is tied to fishing – an industry that peaked here in the early 19th century – and thankfully, due to the protected status of the harbour, the fishing village has remained quaint and historic, even if the industry is less prominent.
Further north, around a 30-minute drive along the coast, is one of the most famed Cornwall attractions, Tintagel Castle. However, the best way to arrive is by following the Cornish Coastal Path, which links the two locations together. This 10-mile stretch takes in dramatic rock formations and lesser-visited beaches. It’s particularly spectacular in spring when the wildflowers arrive.
While not much remains of the castle itself, the legend of King Arthur and the dramatic footbridge between two dramatically-rising cliffs make this spot unbeatable. Being one of the most popular attractions in Cornwall, you will want to book your tickets in advance, especially during holidays or weekends.
St Michael’s Mount
Perhaps you’ve heard of Mont St Michel, the Abbey-crowned island which is a popular weekend break in France. Well, did you know Cornwall has its own ‘little sister’ to this famed location?
First imagined as a pilgrimage site and initially owned by France’s Mont St Michel, Benedictine monks constructed the first church here in 1135. Later the island became a fortress before becoming one of the most popular Cornwall attractions.
Accessed from the town of Marazion, a sometimes slightly submerged brick causeway links the mainland with the island. While St Michael’s Mount doesn’t have quite the same level of grandeur as its French counterpart, the medieval castle atop – now a family home – adds something special, making it one of the best places to visit in Cornwall.
The Lizard Peninsula
The Lizard Peninsula is one of my favourite stretches of coast in the whole country, second only to the Jurassic Coast in my home region of Dorset.
Situated in south Cornwall – Lizard Point claims the title of the most south-westerly point on the mainland – the whole peninsula has that get-away-from-it-all vibe. Indeed, there are two things you’ll want to bring here: walking shoes and a camera.
Thanks to limited road access, little development and swathes of unadulterated verdant-backed coast, it retains all the charm of a time gone by. Idyllic villages such as Coverack and Cadgwith are the perfect places to stop for a fish and chips lunch, while turquoise-lapped coves like Kynance Cove are some of the very best places to visit in Cornwall for a dip.
If you want a Cornwall holiday with a relaxing vibe, you might want to consider staying on the peninsula rather than in one of the larger towns. Book a beach stay in Porthleven for a proper bolthole experience. It’s one of the most dreamy spots on the Cornwall coast, and your morning coffee will taste even better with those breezy sea views.
Cornwall is a place you usually visit for the coast and quaint villages. However, if you want museums and urban comforts, head to Truro, the region’s only city.
While the cathedral towers above everything else and is worth a visit, the city still keeps a laid-back Cornish vibe. There are plenty of independent pubs and coffee shops – Lemon Street Market is a gem – and it’s a good base or place to pick up supplies, especially from the fresh produce market.
The main reason to visit Truro is for the more significant cultural offerings than elsewhere. Head to the Royal Cornish Museum, where you can learn more about the region’s history and a little about the Cornish language. Visit the Victorian cathedral – unusual for its three spires. Or even try to catch a show at the Hall for Cornwall, a popular performance venue.
For centuries St Ives has been one of the most popular places in Cornwall for a UK staycation, and the second you lay eyes on the expansive beaches – particularly impressive at low tide – you’ll see why.
For many people, this is the best place to visit in Cornwall, as it has a lot. There are numerous breathtaking beaches, both in and a short walk from the town. Small cobbled streets link cute corners, seaside pubs, fish and chip shops and, of course, pasty makers together. Then, you have boat trips to spot dolphins or see the Godrevy Lighthouse up close and the modern art collection in The Tate. You’ll also find the gorgeous Tregenna Castle close by which I visited when my cousin got married here – a very beautiful experience!
If you’re seeking a dreamy Cornwall base, you can’t go wrong here. Opt for one of St Ives’ exclusive holiday cottages to rent and you’ll have everything you need on your doorstep. This does mean it’s popular in summer, but it’s a beautiful destination you can enjoy year-round. Even when I went for a quick getaway in January it was a delight; the prices and near-empty streets made the off-season visit – even with the slightly grey skies – a worthwhile trade-off.
The Eden Project
Since opening in 2001, the Eden Project – a collection of enclosed botanic gardens – has established itself as one of the best places to visit in Cornwall for those with a curious mind and a passion for exotic plants.
Beloved by both adults and kids, the expansive space is home to striking exhibitions, interactive experiences, and plant species from around the world which can be found in the biodome-enclosed gardens.
While it will cost you to enter The Eden Project, I’d say it’s worth it – especially as you could easily spend more than half a day taking it all in.
For decades Newquay has been crowned as England’s surf capital, making it one of the best places to visit in Cornwall to ride the waves or learn to surf. Still, there are plenty more reasons to add a stop in Newquay to your itinerary.
Being one of the larger towns in the region, you’ll find many excellent restaurants and ample accommodation. As such, Newquay makes for a decent base. Just keep in mind in summer, the population of 20,000 can multiply some five times.
Whether you’re staying here or visiting for the day, it’s well worth exploring the town and surrounding areas. If chasing swell isn’t your thing, then fret not, for there are plenty more adventure activities, such as coasteering experiences along the low-slung yet dramatic cliffs.
Other Cornwall attractions in Newquay include the family-friendly Zoo, dazzling Fistral Beach, and some National Trust manor houses slightly inland. By night, especially in summer, there’s also some fairly decent nightlife here, another reason it’s a good Cornwall base.
Unique and fascinating, the Minack Theatre is one of my favourite places to visit in England and certainly one of the more unusual of Cornwall’s attractions.
Nearly 100 years ago, Rowena Cade set about to create something extraordinary. Chiselling the theatre into the cliff face herself, the Minack Theatre was born, bringing a unique spectacle to the south coast of Cornwall.
What makes the Minack so special is the backdrop of the ocean and the sea breeze throughout the open-air performances in the summer months. Even if there isn’t a show scheduled during your visit, you can still visit the theatre during the day. It’s a wonder, both for the ingenious design but also the magnificent setting.
While most visitors to Cornwall will enjoy their treks and rambles along the coast, a special mention is reserved for inland Bodmin Moor.
A vast moorland in northeast Cornwall, Bodmin is a wild place which will be of particular interest to those interested in geological history. What makes Bodmin stand out as one of the best places to visit in Cornwall, though, is its history.
Amongst the granite slabs and barren pastures, you can find an abundance of ancient monuments. In fact, the location is noted as one of the best places in all of Europe for Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. King Arthur’s Hall, a megalithic ceremonial site, is one of the most famous.
St Austell and Mevagissey
These two cute spots not far from the Devon border can be easily combined, as Mevagissey is just a 20-minute drive or bus from St Austell’s train station.
An old market town, St Austell has played an essential role in the region’s mining and China Clay industries. You’ll still spot reminders of the town’s historic importance, such as the bygone Cornwall Coliseum. Nowadays, it’s the gateway to some of Cornwall’s best attractions, and home to the St Austell brewing company, which you can visit for both a tour and a pint.
Coastal Mevagissey, however, is the postcard-perfect Cornish village. It’s one of the best places to visit in Cornwall to devour fresh seafood in a wooden-clad pub, with the colourful homes and boats around the harbour being the cherry on top.
This Cornwall landmark has long been a place of myths and legend – even the ancient Greeks adored this spot and named it ‘Belerion’, meaning the place of the sun. This history, and the spectacular vistas, have ensured that Land’s End has firmly cemented its place as one of the best places to visit in Cornwall.
Nowadays, it’s become a little too ‘theme park’ for my liking. However, there is no denying it’s a magical spot to enjoy the sunset with a cold one. Pop into the 17th-century pub for a pint and myths of seafaring pirate history, or take the kids to one of the child-friendly attractions.
Just be aware that it’s not the cheapest place to visit in Cornwall. Between the car park, attractions and higher-priced foods and ice creams for a family, the costs can quickly add up.
Cornish Seal Sanctuary
Cornwall is home to plenty of seals, and on some beaches – such as Padstow Harbour and Mutton Cove – you’ll see them basking on the sand or jetties. Sadly, some seals become injured due to fishing boats or other ailments and are treated at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary.
While it’s always best to see wildlife in the wild rather than captivity, this spot isn’t one of your typical Cornwall attractions like a zoo as the primary purpose is rehabilitation rather than entertainment.
So, while it’s great to visit and admire the seal’s and pups’ healing, it’s even better to know that once they are strong and healthy again, they will return to the wild to enjoy life in nature.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Close to Mevagissey you’ll find The Lost Gardens of Heligan, something of a hidden gem in Europe. Even if you’re not a ‘garden person’, you may find your interest piqued by one of Cornwall’s best attractions, especially when you learn its story.
Firstly, the gardens are vast, covering more than 200 acres when you include the woodlands. Suspended bridges and moss-covered statues dot the gardens, which, until around 30 years ago, were being reclaimed by the elements.
While the Heligan estate’s history dates back to the 13th century, the gardens were landscaped and planted in the 18th century. Then, around 1915 and the start of WWI, the gardens were forgotten and ‘lost’. Thankfully, following restoration works and the passionate work of horticulturalists, Heligan has nearly been restored to its former glory.
This town in west Cornwall is perhaps most famous for its pirate past, highlighted in the opera The Pirates of Penzance, dating to the days of Queen Victoria. Yet, while the real-life pirates are long gone, the town retains plenty of other reasons to visit.
With plenty to see and do, from galleries and gardens to museums and the open-air lido, Penzance has established itself as one of the best places to visit in Cornwall. Of particular interest is the Egyptian House, a listed building with an interesting facade. Penlee House, home to some excellent paintings from the nearby art school’s alumni, is also worth a visit.
While Penzance is a popular base in Cornwall, thanks to the many amenities, I’d suggest booking a cottage near the harbour. This way, you can have the best of both worlds; a waterfront view with all the benefits of being in a town.
Padstow and Bedruthan Steps
On Cornwall’s north coast, two of the best places to visit in Cornwall can be easily combined. Either by a 20-minute drive or an approximately 17-mile trail around the Trevose Headland. While it’s one of the longest stretches of the South West Coast Path, the incredible scenery makes it well worth rising early for.
In Padstow, you’ll find a tranquil coastal town fronted by a still-working fishing port. These regular catches ensure it’s the go-to for fresh seafood dishes served by celebrities. Both Rick Stein and Michelin-starred chef Paul Ainsworth have restaurants here.
At the trail’s end, Bedruthan Steps Beach awaits one of the most breathtaking in Cornwall. However, the real magic is found along the path, with sheltered coves and rocky vistas aplenty. If this long stretch is too much, the turquoise waters of Porthcothan Beach are just as splendid. From Padstow, it’s around 13 miles one way to this point, or there’s a circular six-mile route from Bedruthan.
Life in Falmouth – like much of Cornwall – is all about the sea. However, in this coastal town, it’s taken a little further thanks to the National Maritime Museum.
Inside this impressive space, you’ll find plenty of stories of Cornwall’s seafaring past and full-size replicas and real boats from days gone by. Sadly, the ticket prices are a little steep, in my opinion, as London’s outpost is free, but they do allow entrance for one full year.
Nearby, you’ll also find the Tudor Pendennis Castle, one of Cornwall’s best attractions. Henry VIII constructed this fortification to defend the nation from the French, and much of the original structure – mainly the keep – still stands today. You can walk the extensive grounds, complete with historic cannons, visit the museum, and learn more about the outposts’ role in WWII.
Isles of Scilly
Welcome to arguably the best islands to visit in the UK, the Isles of Scilly. This (often) sun-kissed archipelago of some 50 isles is breathtaking, earning it the title of the most magical place to visit in Cornwall.
To arrive, you’ll need to take a short flight or ferry – the latter being my personal tip. Not only is it less carbon intensive than flying, but the short journey offers great perspectives of the coast and can often be cheaper.
The main bonus of making the slightly further journey is that seeking out quieter beaches than the mainland is a much easier task. The sands are a gorgeous salt-like white and on a sunny day, the waters sparkle and become almost Caribbean-like (if you squint). While only a handful of the islands are inhabited, many more can be visited, making island hopping very much a welcome treat.
If you’ve made it this far south, you’ve likely covered all of Cornwall’s best places to visit and earned yourself another celebratory fish and chips on the beach! Next up, it’s time to discover some of the other best places in South West England!
*Article produced in partnership with Aspects Holidays, written from my own experiences travelling through Cornwall
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