18 amazing things to do in Cornwall

·11-min read
Trebah garden
Trebah garden

Cornwall is defined by its magnificent coastline with over 300 miles of dunes and cliffs, medieval harbours, and oak-forested creeks – every mile accessible on foot and with plenty of things to do along the way. There is surfing on the north coast, sailing and paddle boarding on the south and all kinds of water craft for hire from picture-book harbours. Tucked away in sheltered valleys are the county’s justly celebrated sub-tropical gardens stocked with specimens from five continents collected by Victorian planthunters. Many have a country house attached, which is open to the public and has activities for children to keep everyone engaged.

West Cornwall

The beautiful remote Land’s End and Lizard peninsulas are Cornwall in microcosm: heather-covered moorland rich in Iron Age standing stones, recovered villages and forts; sandy coves that can be reached only on foot; a wealth of Georgian manors and tin mines, and a strong community of artists and craft workers. Visit in the last week of May when artists open their studios.

Discover the artistic legacy of St Ives

The special quality of the light here has drawn artists to St Ives for over a century, particularly in the post-war years when its avant-garde abstract works were acclaimed worldwide. To celebrate this legacy, an extension to Tate St Ives opened in late 2017 enabling the gallery to show a permanent collection of works by Hepworth, Nicholson, Gabo and Frost as well as seasonal exhibitions.

Insider tip: To see excellent works by contemporary artists, visit the New Craftsman and The Porthminster Gallery in Fore Street, and the Penwith Gallery in Back Road West.

Contact: tate.org.uk
Price: ££

Tate St Ives - MATT CARDY
Tate St Ives - MATT CARDY

Climb to the top of a tidal island

The special quality of the light here has drawn artists to St Ives for over a century, particularly in the post-war years when its avant-garde abstract works were acclaimed worldwide. To celebrate this legacy, an extension to Tate St Ives opened in late 2017 enabling the gallery to show a permanent collection of works by Hepworth, Nicholson, Gabo and Frost as well as seasonal exhibitions.

Insider tip: You can walk across the causeway for 90 minutes either side of low tide, otherwise take the ferry. Check tide times at metoffice.gov.uk/weather.

Contact: stmichaelsmount.co.uk
Price: ££

St Michael's Mount - MANFRED GOTTSCHALK
St Michael's Mount - MANFRED GOTTSCHALK

Disappear down a tin mine

Geevor, one of Cornwall’s last working tin mines, closed in 1990 but the interior remains as if the miners have just finished their shift. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides – some are former workers – bring the buildings to life with anecdotes of the miners’ lives as they take visitors through the ore processing works and into one of the underground tunnels. The café serves an excellent pasty.

Insider tip: Walk along the cliffs to the National Trust’s Levant Mine on the cliff’s edge to see a working 1840s beam engine as featured in Poldark. Guided tours are scheduled for 11am from April to October.

Contact: geevor.com

Geevor
Geevor

Peep at parrots

Aptly named, Paradise Park in Hayle began as a conservation and breeding centre for parrots and macaws but has now spread its wings. As well as more than 100 species of parrot housed in large aviaries in a sub-tropical garden, there are endangered red pandas, penguins and otters. Children will love the petting farm and Jungle Barn indoor play area. The Otter Cafe serves good food.

Insider tip: Time your visit to catch the Eagles of Paradise show at noon (Easter-Sept) when Archie the Bald Eagle and Andros the Harris Hawk put on a flying display.

Contact: paradisepark.org.uk
Price: ££

Paradise Park
Paradise Park

Walk around Britain’s most southerly point

The National Trust, having failed to secure Land’s End, redeemed itself by buying Lizard Point. The only buildings on this flower-covered headland are two old-fashioned cafés. The walking here is some of the best on the Cornish coastal footpath: head west to explore the red serpentine marble caves at Kynance Cove or east to thatched Cadgwith and its crab-fishing fleet.

Insider tip: Pick up a pasty from Ann’s Pasties in Lizard village. They are sold from an egg-yellow house on Beacon Terrace, and are handmade using local beef, potato, turnip and onion in the traditional way.

Contact: nationaltrust.org.uk

Kynance Cove, Lizard Point - ADAM BURTON / ROBERT HARDING
Kynance Cove, Lizard Point - ADAM BURTON / ROBERT HARDING

Discover the most connected place on the planet

In the 19th century Cable & Wireless pioneered international telecommunications using undersea cables that connected Porthcurno, a sandy cove near Land’s End, with the rest of the world. The Telegraph Museum Porthcurno tells the extraordinary story – and why undersea cables remain important even in today’s wireless world. After a £2.5 million refit, which introduced many more family-focused activities, it’s a great choice for a rainy day.

Insider tip: Stroll down to Porthcurno Beach, one of the most photographed in Cornwall. On a very low tide you can walk all the way to Logan’s Rock, a natural climbing frame for older children.

Contact: telegraphmuseum.org
Price: £

Telegraph Museum Porthcurno
Telegraph Museum Porthcurno

Seek out Shakespeare on the cliffs

Few open-air theatres can boast a more impressive backdrop than the Minack, a natural granite amphitheatre curling around an azure bay. The story of Rowena Cade’s extraordinary feat in transforming her cliffside garden into a Greek-style theatre is told in the small museum. You can tour the theatre by day but it is at its most magical on performance nights. The café has wrap-around sea views.

Insider tip: Seats for shows are rarely available on the day. Book online well in advance and bring warm windproof clothes and a rug even on a summer’s evening.

Contact: minack.com
Price: £

The Minack - GIDEON MENDEL
The Minack - GIDEON MENDEL

The South Coast

Go birdwatching on the river

There’s a real sense of remoteness along Helford River where ancient oaks dip their branches into tidal creeks. Koru Kayaking has pioneered guided tours along its tranquil waters full of bird life in two-person sea kayaks. The trips are suitable for families with children over five. In summer there’s an opportunity to swim in Frenchman’s Creek, the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous novel, before paddling back to shore.

Insider tip: The kayaks set off from Budock Vean Hotel’s private beach. Afterwards book a soothing hot stones massage at its highly-regarded spa.

Contact: korukayaking.co.uk
Price: £££

Frenchman's Creek - JAMES OSMOND
Frenchman's Creek - JAMES OSMOND

Explore a garden for all seasons

Set in a deep valley winding down to the sea, Trebah has the appearance of a Himalayan cloud forest transported to Cornwall. Camellias, magnolias, azaleas and hydrangeas flood the 25-acre garden with colour. It’s particularly family friendly with an inventive adventure playground and special children’s plant-spotting trails. Dogs are welcome in the garden and on its private pebbly beach.

Insider tip: Locals flock to Trebah’s Kitchen restaurant for its Sunday roasts (advance reservations essential). A beautifully designed indoor-outdoor space it also serves fabulous homemade cakes and, naturally, Cornish cream teas.

Contact: trebahgarden.co.uk
Opening times: Daily, 10am-4.30pm
Price: ££

Trebah - OLAF PROTZE
Trebah - OLAF PROTZE

Find Eden in a transformed clay pit

The world’s largest rainforest in captivity is inside the Eden Project; there’s even a waterfall inside one of the massive ‘Biomes’ which are architectural wonders in themselves. The crowds can be tiresome on a dull summer’s day so visit in sunshine. It’s not all about the plants, though. Eden has Britain’s longest zipwire, the SkyWire, which is the nearest you’ll get to flying.

Insider tip: To get the most out of a visit prebook a private guided tour of the rainforest or the Mediterranean Biome. Call 01726 811903 to arrange; it costs £70 for up to eight people. Tours last 90 minutes and are led by staff.

Contact: edenproject.com
Price: £££

The Eden Project - JAX10289
The Eden Project - JAX10289

Rediscover a Victorian country house garden

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are magical. Rediscovered by Tim Smit, the man behind the Eden Project, this is an astonishing recovery of a full-blown Victorian country house garden. The site is extensive so it’s possible to find peace here even in high summer. Beyond the flamboyant Himalayan spring garden are productive Edwardian fruit, flower and vegetable gardens and, deeper in the valley, shady pools where damselflies dance.

Insider tip: Lobb’s Farm Shop, to the right of the garden entrance, is one of the county’s best farm shops with a superb selection of local meats and cheeses among its wide range of produce.

Contact: heligan.com
Price: ££

Lost Gardens of Heligan
Lost Gardens of Heligan

Tread through a Tudor time warp

Tucked away on the banks of the River Tamar, the National Trust’s Cotehele is a jewel of a Tudor manor held in a time warp. In the hands of the Edgcumbe family for 600 years, its truss-roofed Great Hall and collection of embroidered fabrics and tapestries are worth the journey alone. The gardens are famous for their drifts of daffodils in spring and rare varieties of apple in autumn.

Insider tip: Don’t miss working Cotehele Mill beside the river. On Thursdays and Saturdays from March to October, millers grind organic wholemeal flour which you can buy to take home.

Contact: nationaltrust.org.uk
Price: ££

Cotehele
Cotehele

Wrestle with a shark

Professional fisherman Patrick Davis takes up to six anglers in his specially adapted boat Fortuna (£110 per person including equipment rental) out of Looe. Someone reels in a shark on nearly every outing or, if you’re unlucky, a bucketful of mackerel, garfish and whiting to take home.

Insider tip: Shorter two-hour mackerel fishing trips are ideal for families – the fish pretty much leap on to the hooks – but book well ahead.

Contact: fishing-cornwall.co.uk
Price: ££

Invictus
Invictus

The North Coast

Spend a day among the animals

One of Britain’s best, Newquay Zoo has 130 species including lions, meerkats, monkeys and zebras living in habitats that try to give them a feeling of home. The Tropical House is not for arachnophobes: it’s a den of hairy spiders, cute frogs and deadly snakes. Children will love it. Check the website for details of daily feeding times and keeper talks.

Insider tip: The Junior Zookeeper Experience lets children meet the keepers and feed and handle some of the animals. It costs £70 a child and is very popular, so book far in advance.

Contact: newquayzoo.org.uk
Price: ££

Newquay Zoo
Newquay Zoo

Master the waves

Newquay is the home of UK surfing but the waves can be big and the sea crowded on summer days. Instead head for the gentler swell at Watergate Bay, a few miles to the east, where the sand shelves gently into the sea and there’s plenty of space to hone your skill. Wavehunters’ teachers are all qualified lifeguards and the wetsuits fit properly.

Insider tip: Walk west from Watergate Bay towards Newquay to discover the beauty of its complex geology and discover slate cliffs laid down in myriad shades of blue and red.

Contact: wavehunters.co.uk
Opening times: Daily, 9am-5pm
Price: £££

Watergate Bay - SEB OLIVER
Watergate Bay - SEB OLIVER

Cook up a storm in Padstow

If you’ve ever wanted to know how to fillet a bass or rip apart a lobster, Rick Stein’s cookery school overlooking Padstow harbour is the place to head. The short courses, taught by Stein’s own chefs, are hugely enjoyable – even if you’re a beginner. It’s not all about fish either. There are day courses on Indian curries, Spanish tapas and Italian pasta.

Insider tip: In summer the cookery school offers one-day courses focusing on signature dishes from Rick’s Seafood Restaurant.

Contact: rickstein.com
Price: £££

Rick Stein's cookery school
Rick Stein's cookery school

Cycle the Camel Trail

The 18-mile, traffic-free Camel Trail along a disused railway line between Wenfordbridge on Bodmin Moor and Padstow is popular with walkers, cyclists, riders and wheelchair users. The loveliest stretch is from Wadebridge to Bodmin where, if you time it right, you can watch the Bodmin and Wenford Railway’s steam locomotive puff into Boscarne Junction (see bodminrailway.co.uk for timetable).

Insider tip: The award-winning Camel Valley Vineyard offers a Grand Tour and Tasting at 5pm on summer Wednesdays; advance reservation is essential. There's also shorter guided tours from Monday to Friday, April to October.

Contact: bridgebikehire.co.uk
Price: ££

Camel Trail
Camel Trail

Walk through a cornucopia of Victoriana

A grand house on a grand estate, Lanhydrock House vividly evokes High Victorian ideals: the careful segregation of public and private, male and female, master and servant. The Robartes family changed very little in the 20th century so it feels as if they have just stepped out for a while. There’s also a magnificent 17th-century plaster ceiling in the long gallery which has been beautifully restored.

Insider tip: You can explore the estate’s extensive grounds and woodlands by bicycle. Rentals must be prebooked through lanhydrockcyclehire@nationaltrust.org.uk.

Contact: nationaltrust.org.uk
Opening times: March to October: daily, 11am-5.30pm
Cost: ££

Lanhydrock House
Lanhydrock House