One of the most sparkling jewels in Cornwall’s crown, St Ives is famous across the globe for its winding cobbled streets, striking modernist art, golden beaches and an unmistakable sense that is it the place to be seen in summer.
Is it getting crowded? Undoubtedly. But it is still an absolute must-see destination for any trip to Cornwall. We’ve picked 10 of the best things to do in St Ives, including a few that will take you away from the hurly burly and deep into the heart of what makes this iconic town so special.
1) Beach hopping
Why have one world-class beach when you can have four?
- Porthminster has glorious views across to Godrevy Lighthouse and a distinctly Mediterranean vibe.
- Porthgwidden is a little beauty with a lovely beach café and snack kiosk nearby.
- Harbour Beach is a great spot for an impromptu sit down or to while away an afternoon with your feet in the sand, watching the boats and the world go by.
- Porthmeor is a surfer’s paradise with great swell and acres of sand to soak up the rays.
Which to choose? It’s a fine problem to have.
2) Pint sipping
It’s an unspoken rule of visiting St Ives that every arrival must, at least once or twice, take a pew outside the famous Sloop Inn with a pint, glass of vino or soft drink. It’s called Having a Moment in St Ives and, yes, everyone else is going to be doing it too. You know why? Because it’s the most glorious spot for liquid refreshment in town.
3) Back street pottering
One of the most curious things about St Ives is that within a few steps the throngs and crowds of the main streets can utterly disappear. In fact, one of the best things to do in St Ives is to step into the cool of the shadowy backstreets and cobbled alleyways on a summer’s day and enjoy a blissful sense of peace. There are lovely little nooks and crannies to explore among the terracotta pots and flaked out cats. In these quiet moments away from the main streets, you really feel you are almost touching something magical from times gone by.
4) Button mashing
St Ives is a holy grail for lovers of seaside amusements. To a cacophony of ‘place your bets’, clattering coins, and alien gunfire, kids and nostalgic grown ups can immerse themselves in an essential part of British seaside culture. This is a beaut of an arcade and it’s a piece of St Ives’ bucket and spade past that’s still going strong – show us a visitor with kids who hasn’t had a go at the iconic Hillybilly Moonshine shooting gallery? We’d say this arcade is as big a cultural must-do as any museum or art exhibition.
5) People watching
One of the best things to do in St Ives? Nothing. Seriously. Just take a pew, sit still and gaze at the flow of humanity passing by. This once-parochial Cornish town is now a fascinating parade of London scenesters, local skaterboys, straw-boatered dads, young couples, artists, hipsters, street musicians, thieving seagulls, and a few old local boys and girls from times past. Step out of the flow for a mo –and take it all in.
6) Gallery visiting
It’s incredible to think that during the 1950s St Ives was one of the centres of global visual arts, rivaling New York in influence. Pioneers of abstraction Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Bryan Wynter all worked from St Ives. Zip back a few years earlier to the 1920s and Bernard Leach was rocking into town and revolutionising pottery; and by the late Thirties legendary sculptor Barbara Hepworth arrived. Incredible stuff! All of these artists’ legacies are reflected in a rich museum culture: The Tate St Ives, The Barabara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and The Leach Pottery. Several world-class galleries in one titchy town!
7) Island strolling
And then, suddenly, the Island… This prominent peninsula is like a bonus level to St Ives. You spend an hour or two amid the winding streets and then discover this lovely expanse of dewy green. One of the best things to do in St Ives is to take the pleasant climb to the top, which will reward you with spectacular views back towards Hayle and Godrevy Lighthouse. The Chapel of St Nicholas at the peak dates back originally to the fifteenth century. From the top, descend on the seaward side and take a walk around the coastal side of the island. Dramatic on stormy days!
8) Boat riding
Doesn’t the sea look gorgeous? It’s fortunate, then, that there are just so many ways to get out on the water at St Ives. Take a tour to Seal Island, a rocky outcrop near Zennor; go dolphin spotting; or experience a trip to iconic Godrevy Lighthouse. Or you can enjoy the scenery with added hi-octane thrills on a rib ride. It’s a crazy, G-force-tastic trip. (Don’t say we didn’t warn you.)
9) Cone licking
Watching tourists lose their ice creams to maniacal seagulls is something of a spectator sport in St Ives. Don’t want to be the next victim? Here’s a top local tip: keep your back to a wall and they can never surprise you from behind, which is their favourite attack strategy. With that out of the way, on to the ice cream! Getting stuck into a creamy treat is definitely one of the best things to do in St Ives, given the sheer variety of top-quality ices on offer. In fact, no one can really say they’ve experienced St Ives until they have sampled at least a couple of the locally produced masterpieces. Just walk along the harbour front and take your pick. And for goodness sake, backs to the wall, people!
10) Train going
Parking can be a bit of a mare in St Ives, so we highly recommend taking the branch line. Not only is it convenient, it is also one of the most stunning train rides in the UK. If you’re starting in Penzance, hop on the train to St Erth Station. Here you’ll take the branch line. The journey begins alongside the Hayle Estuary towards the open wilderness of Lelant beach. Then, you’ll hug the cliffs above St Ives Bay and spot the glittering waters and dreamy sands of Carbis Bay before arriving above Porthmeor Beach in St Ives. A spellbinding trip.
You know it, we know it, so why resist it – you’re going to have to take a trip to St Ives on your Cornwall trip. Why not avoid the crowds, tricky parking and overbooked restaurants by staying in nearby Penzance. Just eight miles away, this iconic, spacious portside town has lots of piratey atmospheres, the stunning historic Chapel Street, world-class dining, atmospheric harbourside pubs and a beautiful promenade. It’s also well-placed for day trips to other top spots including Sennen, Mousehole, Marazion and more.