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The best things to do in Cornwall

While it’s the beaches and coastline that put Cornwall on the list as a holiday hotspot, there’s much more to do here than go surfing and build sandcastles. Plunge into coastal adventures on a coasteering or monster SUP adventure, take a spin along cycle routes criss-crossing World Heritage landscapes, cast away by boat and feel the wind in your sails, or walk in the footsteps of pilgrims, artists, writers and film makers.

Coastal scenery and countryside delights

One of the best ways to sit back and take in the scenery is aboard one of the county’s stunning railway journeys. Hop on the scenic coastal railway from St Erth to St Ives and you can take in the coastal scenery that inspired so many of the artists that have lived here over the years. Or why not try the Looe Valley Rail Ale Trail – stopping to sample local ales in a series of characterful country inns along one of the Great Scenic Railways of Devon and Cornwall?

The Maritime Line Rail Ale Trail between Falmouth and Truro is also a pretty and popular route, or you can choose to travel between these two towns by ferry with Fal River Links. Get your hands on a Fal Mussel Card and you can enjoy unlimited travel on any of the Fal River Links services, so you can float to Flushing, Mylor or St Mawes, cross the river on the King Harry chain ferry, or take a river cruise to Trelissick Gardens.

Other scenic ferry hops include the Black Tor ferry from Rock to Padstow, and the boat cruise from Cawsand to Plymouth’s waterfront Barbican. New for 2019, the Talland Bay Hotel is launching half- and full-day cruises to Looe Island and Fowey on its Princess 40 Flybridge Cruiser. If you want to explore further afield book a day trip on the Scillonian Ferry from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly – a paradise archipelago 28 miles from Lands’ End.

Train spotting along Bodmin & Wenford Railway

Train spotting along Bodmin & Wenford Railway

Upping the ante on water-based adventures, surfing is at the heart of Cornwall’s beach culture – and from the Lizard Peninsula to the northern reaches of Bude there is no shortage of surf schools, hire outlets, and surf shops to ensure you are kitted out and ready to ride the waves. Yet it’s not just the surfing industry that’s booming; there are plenty of other water sports to try. Head to Newquay Activity Centre for a range of adventures where the land meets the sea – from stand-up paddleboarding to coasteering. Or castaway from Carbis Bay on a Hawaiian canoe with underwater viewers, gather a group of friends for some sidesplitting fun on a giant stand-up paddleboard, and brave a power-coasteering adventure from Port Quin.

Not all water sports take you out to sea: at Adrenalin Quarry you can fly down the zip wire, make a splash at the aqua park and go wild swimming in a flooded quarry. At Retallack Resort you can ride the FlowRider wave, try wakeboarding or attempt the total-wipeout inflatable course around the lake. For something more relaxing head to the Art Deco Jubilee Pool in Penzance, where you can bask in the brand new geo-thermally heated section of the pool, which is being opened in spring 2020.

Hop on the scenic coastal railway from St Erth to St Ives and you can take in the coastal scenery that inspired so many of the artists that have lived here over the years

Attractions for all the family

With the Cornish weather being so unpredictable, there are plenty of all-weather attractions, too. If the kids are climbing the walls, let them loose on the walls of Penryn’s Granite Planet or Clip and Climb at Cornwall Services.

Dive into the underwater world without getting wet at Newquay’s Blue Reef Aquarium, or discover Cornwall’s seafaring heritage at the National Maritime Museum. Camel Creek Adventure Park in Wadebridge is a year-round, all-weather attraction, with heated indoor play for the coldest winter days and an array of rides and animal attractions for the whole family.

Arguably the best-known and most popular all-weather attraction is the Eden Project. Here amidst the iconic biomes where you can ice skate in winter and visit the rainforest in every season, recent developments include the major new exhibition Invisible Worlds exploring planetary phenomena beyond our senses, and a Western Australia Garden in the Med biome.

There are plenty of other garden wonderlands blooming in the county’s sub-tropical climate, including the historic Lost Gardens of Heligan, where you can tunnel through bamboo, banana palms and gigantic rhubarb plants, to ancient woodlands and water meadows. Lost to the brambles of time since the outbreak of World War 1, this sleeping beauty was re-awakened in 1990 to become Europe’s largest garden restoration project. Another firm favourite with families – and dogs, too – is Trebah Garden, where you can wend through colourful foliage to a divine sandy beach perfect for skimming pebbles.

Other must-see gardens include sub-tropical Glendurgan, which tumbles to the edge of the Helford River, and Trelissick’s stunning 500-acre estate, where you wander along the banks of the River Fal and climb magnificent beech trees before afternoon tea in the courtyard.

In a county so well endowed with flora and fauna, it’s no wonder that there are so many places where you can enjoy close encounters with wildlife. Watch playful otters at the Tamar Otter and Wildlife Centre, near Launceston, meet rescued seal pups dipping and diving their way to recovery at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, and witness lobsters at different stages of their life cycle at the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow. A day at Newquay Zoo is always a real crowd-pleaser, where you can stroll from the African Savannah to Madagascar, observing over 100 species of wildlife from lions to poison dart frogs. Both the Screech Owl Sanctuary (near Newquay) and Paradise Park (in Hayle) put on incredible free-flying bird shows, and, in addition to its many species of exotic birds, Paradise Park also has farm animals and a huge soft play barn that lures visitors on even the rainiest days.

There are plenty of other garden wonderlands blooming in the county’s sub-tropical climate, including the historic Lost Gardens of Heligan

Beautiful beaches

Despite its many visitor attractions, Cornwall’s stunning coastal scenery is still the highlight. Cornwall’s pockets of pearly sands have lured tourists since the early 1900s – and it’s still these beautiful beaches that attract holidaymakers today. From the Atlantic-lashed Sennen Cove to the sweeping sand and shingle of Sandymouth, there are beaches to suit everyone – from the bucket-and-spade brigades and bathers, to ornithologists and even naturists.

There’s no better way to experience the wave-hewn landscapes than at walking pace from the South West Coast Path. Some of the toughest, most dramatic, sections of coastline await on the northern fringes of the Atlantic coast between Bude and Morwenstow, where calf-busting climbs etch the rise and fall of cliffs that collapse onto rocky beaches. By contrast, the mile-and-a-half of well-maintained path between Daymer Bay and surfy Polzeath is easily accessible with a buggy.

Cape Cornwall

If you prefer a more rugged hike and want to avoid the camera-wielding crowds, head for Cape Cornwall

Also accessible with buggies and wheelchairs is one of most visited destinations in Cornwall – Land’s End. It’s at this most westerly tip of the UK that the mainland peters out into 3,000 miles of ocean rolling all the way to America. However, if you prefer a more rugged hike and want to avoid the camera-wielding crowds, head for nearby Cape Cornwall, where two oceans meet and seabirds swirl around the Brisons Rocks.
As well as its breathtaking walking trails, Cornwall is home to a diverse selection of cycle routes. Family favourites include the easy, traffic-free Camel Trail between Padstow and Bodmin Moor, and the 11-mile coast-to-coast trail from Porteath to Devoran.

National Trust’s Lanhydrock has a skills area and bike trails graded for all abilities – from toddlers on tag-a-longs to proficient mountain bikers, while intermediate cyclists will enjoy the more challenging Beast of Bodmin Trail at Cardinham Woods. If you’re serious about mountain biking, brace yourself for adrenalin-pumping downhills and the ease of an uplift at Cornwall’s first purpose-built bike park – Woody’s. Also worth checking out is the Tamar Trails, enticing all abilities to explore off-road on the border of Cornwall and Devon.

There’s no better way to experience the wave-hewn landscapes than at walking pace from the South West Coast Path

Castles galore

If you prefer sightseeing on foot, all members of the family will enjoy visiting Cornwall’s majestic castles. Wait for low tide to cross the causeway to St Michael’s Mount, walking in the footsteps of pilgrims and a legendary giant as you climb to the turrets of the mighty fortress.

Even more beguiling is the remains of Tintagel Castle, a crumbling edifice atop a rocky, sea-lashed promontory that is believed by many to be the place where King Arthur was magically conceived. If you want to experience the sights and sounds of battle, you’ll love the interactive exhibits at Henry VIII’s iconic Pendennis Castle, which protects the world’s third deepest natural harbour at the entrance to the River Fal.

While Falmouth stands out for its rich maritime history, and its scenery is dominated by the comings and goings of boats and cruise ships from the harbour, the town and its surrounding Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty offer a diverse platter of things to do in any season. A creative hub crammed with resident artists, a lively music scene and home to one of the UK’s leading art and media universities, you’ll find a menu of films, theatre productions, exhibitions and creative gatherings at The Poly, as well as a vibrant series of events from sailing regattas to the Falmouth Oyster Festival.

Flummoxed about which sights and attractions to take in on your day out in Cornwall? Why not tailor-make your own itinerary with Tour Cornwall? From Poldark and Doc Martin tours to garden and wildlife tours, you can witness the best of Cornwall on a private, small group tour in the hands of a knowledgeable, local expert.

Everything you need to know about Cornwall

Where to eat in Cornwall

The best shopping in Cornwall

The best nightlife in Cornwall

Your guide to arts and culture in Cornwall

Image credits: ©Annie Spratt/Unsplash; Bodmin Railway; Camel Creek Adventure Park; David Chapman/Trebah Garden; Digital Media Pro/; Hufton+Crow/Eden Project

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