Kirstie Newton scours the county to find the ten of the very best attractions to visit in Cornwall
Whatever time of year you visit, there’s always a plethora of fascinating things to do in Cornwall. From stately homes to galleries, narrow-gauge railways to zipwires, here are our top 10 attractions.
Once an exhausted china clay pit, since the turn of the millennium Eden has become one of Cornwall’s most breathtaking and innovative attractions, at the forefront of climate change awareness. Its otherworldly biomes house plants from the rainforests and temperate climes around the world, while garden and art exhibits encourage visitors to consider their role in the biosphere, from pollinator-friendly planting to reduce-reuse-recycle. In summer, it turns music venue – the Eden Sessions have already announced Crowded House, Suede/Manic Street Preachers and Fatboy Slim as headliners. In winter, an ice rink takes pride of place from October to February, with a magical Christmas in between. With tickets priced seasonally from £33 per adult, the Eden experience doesn’t come cheap, but it’s one you wont want to miss.
To visit the Lost Gardens is not just to marvel at exotic plantlife, but to remember the young men who gave their lives during the First World War. At the end of the 19th century, Heligan’s thousand acres were at their peak, but 1914 signalled the departure of its workforce to fight in the trenches, and the decline of the garden into wilderness when they failed to return. Fast-forward to the 1990s, and a tiny room was discovered beneath fallen masonry in one of the walled gardens: the Thunderbox Room, or outdoor toilet, where gardeners signed their names on the wall with the motto “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber”. In 2013, the Imperial War Museum designated it a Living Memorial. The garden itself serves as a living and working example of the best of past practice, growing over 300 varieties of heritage fruit, vegetables, salad and herbs which are used in the Heligan Kitchen.
Explore British magical practice and alternative belief systems, from ancient times to the present day, in this fascinating centre established by Cecil Williamson in 1960. Its permanent collection has grown to over 3,000 objects and over 7,000 books, with exciting new displays and temporary exhibitions – Canadian transdisciplinary artist and former museum resident WhiteFeather Hunter returns to curate the 2024 show. The centre welcomes the public from April, and comes into its own at Hallowe’en. Make a day of it by visiting National Trust-managed Boscastle harbour – look out for signs of how high the waters rose during the 2004 flood.
A show at the Minack is a staple of the summer season. Clinging perilously to the cliff edge, the amphitheatre enjoys ocean views every bit as fascinating as what’s happening on stage. It’s incredible to think it was built, piece by piece, by an ageing lady and her equally ageing gardener, but such was the vision and determination of Rowena Cade. Shows ramp up after Easter, hit a high in July and August, and slow down over the winter months. Shakespeare, musicals and own company productions are a real highlight. Dress for the occasion – stout shoes and warm clothing for evening performances – and take a picnic. A cushion is recommended – hire or bring your own.
From a stunning modern building overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, this most westerly Tate outpost showcases the work of pioneering 20th century artists who were captivated by the local surroundings. Barbara Hepworth, Marlow Moss, Naum Gabo, Patrick Heron – all contributed to international debates and developments in painting, sculpture and architecture, from this small Cornish fishing town. The gallery showcases pieces from its collection alongside a dynamic exhibitions programme. Tate St Ives also cares for the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, which displays some of Hepworth’s most important sculptures in the intimate setting of her former home and studio. Cornwall residents can get unlimited year-round entry to both with an annual pass that costs just £5.
The sanctuary’s mission is primarily as a charity to rescue and care for sick, injured or distressed seals and other marine animals found around Cornish shores, with the aim of releasing them into their natural environment once back to full health – rehabilitated seal pup “Judi Dench” made the national news in November when she was returned to her watery habitat. Those that can’t return to the wild have a permanent home here, and you can visit them, from seals and sea lions to Humboldt penguins. Permanent resident grey seal Ray even has his own Facebook page with over 7,000 followers who hang on his every fishy joke. Experiences include keeper for the day, breakfast with the seals and a guided photography tour.
Front entrance view of the Gatehouse from side at Lanhydrock, Cornwall
The quintessential country house and estate, Lanhydrock is Cornwall’s flagship National Trust property and offers an insight into the reality of upstairs-downstairs life in Victorian times, contrasting the luxurious family areas, including the elegant dining room and spacious bedrooms, with the hardworking kitchen and servants quarters. Especially poignant is the case and contents belonging to Capt Thomas (Tommy) Agar-Robartes, sent back to Lanhydrock after his death in France following the Battle of Loos in 1915, and discovered untouched in the luggage room in the 1980s. The house welcomes visitors from March, but the estate is open year-round and equally fascinating – and free to visit, with popular cycle trails to boot. You can even walk there from Bodmin Parkway station.
This seat of Cornish art and culture was founded by The Royal Institution of Cornwall in 1818 to promote excellence in science and art, and to shine a light on the county’s world-leading industries. Highlights include an Egyptian mummy, a painting of Cornwall’s tallest man Antony Payne of Stratton), and the Rashleigh mineral gallery which is set to be transformed by a £476,000 grant from Truro Town Deal. Currently on show until January 20 is Truro Open: Spirit of Cornwall, which encompasses this wild and rebellious county and those who live in it today, and includes Spyrys: a majestic tree spirit reaching out to welcome guests and branching up above the Main Gallery’s balcony. Next door, the Courtney Library (viewing by appointment) holds significant papers relating to Cornwall, including original manuscripts by Poldark author Winston Graham, and original correspondence from Camborne’s giant of steam, Richard Trevithick.
Lappa Valley near St Newlyn East was recently named Large Visitor Attraction at the prestigious Cornwall Tourism Awards, for the second year running. Judges praised the warm welcome, well-maintained facilities and friendly staff – train driver Ben Patrick was named Unsung Hero for helping visitors with disabilities and additional needs feel more comfortable. It’s gearing up to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2024, with a host of special events and the opening of a new station, as well as the naming of its new locomotive. As well as a narrow-gauge railway with several steam and diesel engines, you’ll also find the Engine Shed indoor soft play, adventure golf, boating lake and woodland walks.
Featuring climbing, rope courses and zip-lining, Via Ferrata Cornwall offers views last glimpsed by Cornwall’s granite quarrymen nearly 100 years ago. Follow the ‘Iron Stairway’ to ascend cliff faces, cross high-wire bridges, tackle high challenges and zip back down to ground level. Routes cater for adventurous eight-year-olds through to daring adult thrill-seekers. Not only was Via Ferrata named Small Visitor Attraction of the Year at the 2023 Cornwall Tourism Awards presentation, it scooped the Winner of Winners award, scoring highly in every aspect of the business.