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13 best things to do in St Ives, Cornwall

St Ives, Cornwall, is a charming seaside town built around a small crescent bay, at the most south westerly tip of West Cornwall. There’re plenty of things to do in St Ives so let’s explore this pretty seaside town.

St Ives, Cornwall
St Ives, Cornwall

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I have to agree with everyone who told me that St Ives is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Cornwall. Quaint fishermen’s cottages, pubs and restaurants are just a short stroll along cobbled roads from the granite quayside, while colourful fishing boats bob on the water, and fishermen unload their catches onto the quay.

Our 2-day stay in St Ives was a total contrast from working our way around the rugged Cornish coastline the day before. Soft golden sands replaced brooding, craggy rocks, and clear blue waters took the place of steel-grey seas.

But it wasn’t just the scenery that had changed. The weather conditions were also completely different, and we spent two glorious October days exploring the town.

If you’re planning to visit St Ives, Cornwall, there are so many things to keep you occupied. So to help you plan your visit, here are some of the best places to visit, the best beaches and top things to do.

Boats in the harbour at St Ives

What to see in St Ives

Our base for our two-night stay in the seaside resort of St Ives was the Tregenna Castle Hotel,, which enjoys stunning views from its perch on the hill overlooking the town. You might like to read my review of Tregenna Castle Resort. A short walk through their pretty landscaped grounds will take you down to Porthminster Beach.

On the opposite side of St Ives Bay, a wide arc of pale sand stretches into the distance, and Godrevy Lighthouse stands on a small rocky island, accompanied only by seals and birds. This beacon was Virginia Woolf’s inspiration for her novel ‘To the Lighthouse’, but we headed in the opposite direction towards the heart of St Ives and its cheerful little harbour.

St Ives Harbour

St Ives Harbour at low tide and Smeaton’s Pier

A crescent of fishermen’s cottages and small dwellings cradle the sandy harbour in St Ives. Palm trees bow gracefully in the wind, and at low tide, the small boats lie stranded on silken sands.

St Ives was originally a pilchard fishing port, and although the fishing industry is smaller now, you can still see fishermen landing their catches on the town’s quayside.

Smeaton’s Pier

Smeaton’s Pier is the reason why there are two lighthouses in Sts Ives. You see, when 300ft was added to the length of the pier in the 1890s, they built a new lighthouse at the end of the extension.

The pier has three arches which circulate seawater so that sand can’t build up. There’s also a reservoir that fills up at high tide, helping to ensure calm waters in the harbour. Clever, eh?

Then follow the tangle of narrow cobbled streets leading away from the port, known as The Downalong. Along the way, you’ll spot other unusual street names like Teetotal Street, Fish Street and Virgin Street.

Be sure to call into the Sloop Inn, which you’ll find on the wharf. This iconic establishment opened in 1312 and is one of Cornwall’s oldest inns.

The Sloop Inn, St Ives, Cornwall

Beaches in St Ives

If you love beautiful beaches, you’ll adore St Ives. This town is beach heaven, with three main beaches, then the harbour beach and yet more sandy beaches further afield.

St Ives Harbour is a lovely place to enjoy a swim or just watch the local fishermen land the day’s catch. Once you’ve walked along the harbourside, head to the end of Smeaton’s Pier to see the lighthouse before heading over to Porthgwidden Beach.

Porthgwidden Beach

Porthgwidden Beach

This sheltered sandy beach is lapped by turquoise waters, and along the back of the sand runs a two-storey row of brightly coloured beach huts that are available for hire.

The size and sheltered position of Porthgwidden Beach make it a family-friendly beach, and it’s also a bit of a sun trap in the summer months!

Postcode: TR26 1PL

Lifeguards: No lifeguard service.

Parking: The Island car park is nearby but fills up quickly.

Dog Friendly: No dogs allowed on the beach between 10am and 6pm from 1st July to 31st August.

Toilets: Public toilets are available next to the beach.

Cafe: Porthgwidden Beach Cafe is next to the beach, plus more options in town.

Porthmeor Beach

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives

Porthmeor Beach is a long stretch of golden sands popular with surfers and swimmers. Many say it’s the best beach in St. Ives, which probably makes it one of the best beaches in Cornwall.

This sandy beach is a frequent winner of the coveted Blue Flag award, meaning it’s clean and safe. It also has excellent facilities, which makes it an ideal family beach but means it does get busy, especially in the summer holidays.

Porthmeor’s position ensures it faces the full brunt of the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s a perfect spot for surfing, and St Ives Surf School operates from this beach. Porthmeor beach café, where we enjoyed an ice cream in the sunshine, has spectacular views.

Postcode: TR26 1JU

Lifeguards: Seasonal lifeguard service: Easter bank holiday, April weekends, daily from 5th May to 30th September and October weekends.

Parking: Parking is difficult in St Ives. There’s a large car park that fills quickly, but it may be easier to park in St Erth or Lelant and take the train to St Ives.

Dog Friendly: No dogs allowed on the beach between 10am and 6pm from 15th May to 30th September.

Toilets: No public toilets nearby, facilities available at the Beach Cafe.

Cafe: Porthmeor Beach Cafe is next to the beach, plus lots of options in the town centre.

Porthminster Beach

Porthminster Beach, St Ives

Porthminster Beach is right next to St Ives’ train station, so if you arrive by train, this is the sight that will greet you. It’s certainly one of the best beaches in Cornwall and a regular contender for Blue Flag awards.

The crescent of golden sand is sheltered by a grassy hillside swathed with woodland and dotted with Edwardian villas. Porthminster Beach is very popular with people visiting St Ives, especially families and water sports lovers. This is one of the best places in St Ives for water activities, with sea kayaking, SUP and coasteering available from the excellent water sports centre. There’s also an 18-hole mini-golf course behind the beach.

And when you’re in need of refreshments, the excellent Porthminster Beach Café offers outdoor seating. Enjoy the view while you tuck into some of their delicious seafood.

Postcode: TR26 2EB

Lifeguards: Lifeguard service is available daily from 19th May to 30th September.

Parking: As with the other beaches, parking in St Ives is difficult.

Dog Friendly: No dogs allowed on the beach between 10am and 6pm from 15th May to 30th September.

Toilets: Public toilets are available next to the beach.

Cafe: Porthminster Beach Cafe is next to the beach, plus more options in town.

Visit the Island

St Nicholas’ chapel on The Island at St Ives

‘The Island’ isn’t really an island but a steep hill on a small headland jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. The coastal views are spectacular, and it’s a stopping point for migratory birds.

Seals, dolphins and porpoises can sometimes be seen basking here, although we didn’t spot any during our visit.

There’s also an old coastguard station and church on the hill at the top of the island. It’s a great spot to drink in the spectacular views across Porthmeor Beach and the Cornish coast.

Climb the path to St Nicholas’ chapel on ‘The Island’

No one knows for sure when this little chapel was built, although it’s believed to be older than St Ives Parish Church, which dates back to 1434. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, so it’s reasonable to think that this chapel was dedicated to him in the hope it would keep the local sailors safe.

As well as being a place of worship, the chapel was a lookout point for customs officers and smugglers alike and also stored munitions during the 19th-century war with France. In 1904, the chapel narrowly escaped demolition and was finally restored to commemorate King George V’s coronation in 1911.

Art in St Ives

They say the light in St Ives has a particular clarity, and I’d agree. The light is something special, and the town has a magical atmosphere that draws many artists here.

As we meandered through the maze of cobbled lanes, we called into various little art galleries, studios and workshops. St Ives has as many of these as it does cafes, pubs and restaurants, if not more.

Because I travel so frequently, I don’t often buy souvenirs, but I made an exception for a piece of Jo Downs’ gorgeous glassware.

Jo Downes Crafts
Jo Downs Glassware

If you’re looking to do some regular shopping then Fore Street, which runs one road back from the harbour has plenty of cute shops and galleries. You’ll also find some more mainstream shops there too.

 The Tate St Ives

Tate St Ives is right next to Porthmeor Beach and is certainly worth visiting when you are in St Ives. The gallery opened in 1993 on the site of a former gas works, and it’s an imposing building that blends modern architecture with beautiful natural surroundings.

A visit to the Tate St Ives is one of the best things to do on rainy days, especially if you love modern art and is one of the more popular local attractions.

The Tate, St Ives

The gallery is a testament to the town’s artistic heritage. It highlights the works of modern artists with links to St Ives, such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, and has an ongoing programme of exhibitions alongside the permanent collection of contemporary art.

And their rooftop café enjoys panoramic views across St Ives Bay, so be sure to call in once you’ve finished browsing the artwork. Tickets to Tate St Ives are limited, so advance booking is highly recommended.

  • Open every day, 10.00am to 6.00pm.
  • Entrance: £12 with donation, concessions available.
  • Free entry for under 18s and Tate members.
  • Address: Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1TG

Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden

If you love sculpture, you should definitely make time to visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St Ives, Cornwall. It’s a great place for art lovers.

Barbara Hepworth was a 20th-century sculptor who purchased this site in 1949. She lived and worked here until her death in 1975, and the museum preserves the studio and garden much as they were at that time. The garden was laid out by the artist herself, and most of the bronze sculptures are still in their original positions.

Tickets are limited, so advance booking is recommended.

  • Open every day, 10.00am to 5.20pm .
  • Entrance: £8 including optional donation, concessions available.
  • Free entry for under 18s and Tate members.
  • Address: Barnoon Hill, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1AD
St Ives Old Green Door, Cornwall
The Old Green Door

St Ives Old Green Door

Make sure you stop off to see the Green Door at the back of the St Ives Bakery on the corner of the Digey and Virgin Street.

This popular attraction is one of St Ives’ most quirky landmarks and apparently dates back to 1802.

Legend has it that the door’s owners once received an offer for the door from someone who wanted to put it in the Tate Gallery. They politely declined, asking, ‘Where would we get another 200-year-old door?’

The door now has Listed status, so it can’t be altered too much.

Walk the South West Coast Path to Godrevy Head

The South West Coast Path stretches 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset, along the Devon and Cornwall coasts to Poole Harbour in Dorset. It’s a National Trail and England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath.

Don’t worry; I won’t suggest hiking the entire 630-mile trail when you visit St Ives, but there are some great coastal walks in the local area. And a walk along the section of the South West Coast Path up to Godrevy Head will give you some stunning views over St Ives Bay.

You can park at one of two National Trust car parks at Godrevy (pay and display, parking is free for NT members), and then it’s a 20-minute walk to Godrevy Head.

This is a fairly easy walk with wide pathways. Don’t forget to take your binoculars, as you may see some seals at Godrevy Head! Walking the South West Coast path is one of the best things to do in St Ives.

The South West Coastal Path in Cornwall

Take a boat trip to Seal Island

If you want a better chance of spotting seals, why not book a boat trip to Seal Island?

Seal Island is a small island 3.5 miles west of St Ives, over in the direction of Zennor. A colony of Atlantic grey seals make their home there, and the waters surrounding the island are filled with dogfish, anglerfish and sea anemones.

There’s even a shipwreck, the Enrico Parodi, which sank in 1916 and now provides a popular diving site for experienced divers.

Boat trips to Seal Island run from St Ives Harbour throughout the day, and while there’s no guarantee of a seal sighting, there’s a good chance that you’ll spot them. You might also catch a glimpse of basking sharks and dolphins or maybe even a humpback whale.

And even if you’re really unlucky and don’t see any of the local sea life, a boat trip is still a great way to see St Ives from a different perspective.

Eat a Cornish Pasty

There are lots of places to eat in St Ives, but if you’re looking for a quick bite, it can only be a Cornish Pasty. This delicious treat originally provided a complete, hand-held meal for Cornish tin miners, and its pastry casing is stuffed full with meat, potato, onion and swede.

The distinctive thick, crimped edge allowed miners to hold the edge and eat their meal without getting poisoned by the arsenic on their fingers. Once they’d finished the pasty, they could just throw away the edge.

I ate my Cornish pasty on a bench by the harbour, watching the rising tide while a beady-eyed seagull eyed my pasty intently.

Have a Cornish cream tea

Olives Cafe, St Ives, Cornwall
Cream teas and cafes in St Ives

A cream tea is the other traditional Cornish treat you must sample when you visit St Ives.

You’ll enjoy a pot of hot tea or coffee alongside some freshly baked scones, topped in the Cornish way with jam first and then a dollop of thick, yellow, clotted cream.

This is the traditional way to eat a Cornish cream tea; you’ll have to head over the border to Devon if you want to put your cream on first!

We were lucky to have gorgeous autumn weather in St Ives. This small town’s southern location puts it right in the path of the Gulf Stream, ensuring it has more than its fair share of sunshine and mild weather.

That’s a great reason to visit St Ives at any time of year. We had a great time and will definitely be heading back to Cornwall at the first opportunity.

More Cornwall inspiration..

10 beautiful places to visit in Cornwall

Discovering West Cornwall

Cornwall’s wild west coast

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Wednesday 7th of September 2016

Excellent article, there is plenty of things to do in St. Ives. I have recently returned from a trip there and the number of beaches (4 or 5 I think) all within a few minutes from the town centre is amazing.

Suzanne Jones

Wednesday 7th of September 2016

Yup, the beaches there are pretty amazing :)

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Sunday 23rd of August 2015

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Monday 17th of November 2014

[…] St. Ives, Cornwall- beaches, boats and the Old Green Door […]

Johanna Bradley

Monday 10th of November 2014

I feel a bit like I'm running a contest for the world's best beach on the Monday walks, Suze. :) These are definitely in with a shout. It's so long since I was there that I remember very little of the place and I'm sure it's moved on a lot since I was in my teens! D'you know, I'm sure they have that green door in Tavira? Or maybe it's a blue one :) :) Loved your guide, Suze, and definitely coveting the glassware. Many thanks!

Suzanne Jones

Monday 10th of November 2014

Portugal and Northumberland seem to have some fabulous beaches Jo. Maybe we should start up a door theme like your Lingering Look at Windows - I'm always taking pics of doors - the older and more aged the better!

Kathryn Burrington

Saturday 8th of November 2014

I'm still yet to make it to Cornwall. Shameful I know. St Ives, especially The Sloop Inn, sounds wonderful and your story about the old, green door did make me chuckle.

Suzanne Jones

Sunday 9th of November 2014

I was the same - how I got to my age without visiting before I'll never know! That green door had loads of character and the Sloop Inn was overflowing with characters....!

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