The beachy, arty town of St Ives is one of the most popular towns to visit in Cornwall, for very good reason.
It has beautiful beaches, world-class food and enjoys a laid back lifestyle.
The charming winding streets of the town are full of character, leading to the picturesque harbour, which look straight off a postcard.
If you’ve planned to visit this gorgeous town on a Cornwall staycation, you might be wondering what are the best things to do in St Ives? We’ll go through them all in this blog post!
History of St Ives
St Ives is named after an Irish princess and Christian missionary named St Ia, who arrived here after sailing from Ireland. The town began life as a small fishing town, growing around the pilchard trade.
In the 1800s, a new dynamic moved to St Ives. Artists began populating the town, starting with J M W Turner, who wanted to paint the pink lights that St Ives is famous for.
The Great Western Railway arrived in town in 1877, which meant that tourism to St Ives soared. The St Erth to St Ives rail route remains the most scenic in the country and one of the best things to do in St Ives.
In the mid 1900s, Barbara Hepworth and other artists visited St Ives. Hepworth created many sculptures that are now exhibited in her sculpture garden, along with the house where she tragically died in a fire in 1975.
St Ives remains a touristy town, famous in artistic circles but loved by people from all walks of life. It’s one of the most popular towns in Cornwall and one of the best places to visit in South West England.
Best things to do in St Ives
Boat Trip to Seal Island
St Ives’ neighbouring seal colony is one of the reasons that this tiny Cornish town has become such a popular tourist destination. Seal Island is part of a group of islands called The Carracks. It is located about 3.5 miles from St Ives and boats leave throughout the day during the summer.
As well as seals, you might spot dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks and – if you’re lucky – humpback whales.
The trip takes around an hour and costs 20 with Dolly P Boat Trips, who are wildlife safe operators. Click here for more information.
If you’re an experienced diver, why not dive in Seal Island? There is a popular diving site by the Carracks; the Enrico Parodi was a WW1 shipwreck that sank in 1916. If you want to dive, you’ll need your advanced certification.
Walk around the town
St Ives town has its own dynamic character, which you’ll sense on a walk around the town.
The harbour is dotted with chic eateries and seaside cafes, but inland the streets are historic, cobbled, and have whitewashed cottages typical of Cornwall.
Make sure you check out Fore Street and all the fantastic independent stores!
Get your surf on
Surfing is one of the best things to do in Cornwall, and St Ives is a great place to take to the board. Whether you are a surfing newbie or a professional on the waves, you’ll enjoy taking to the water at St Ives!
Porthmeor Beach is largely considered to be the best of the bunch when it comes to catching some waves. However, if you want to venture somewhere quieter, Godrevy Beach in St Ives Bay also has some great waves!
Also, get your stand-up-paddle on
St Ives has several beaches, not all of them suitable for surfing. However, those that aren’t surfable are better for stand up paddleboarding!
St Ives Surf School (which also offers surf lessons) can take you out on the water for a stand up paddleboarding session from their watersports centre at Porthminster Beach.
Check out art at the Tate
No trip to St Ives would be complete without visiting Cornwall’s very own Tate. Due to the town’s artistic connections, the council decided to build a major art gallery in the late 80s.
Building began in 1991 and the museum opened in 1993; with a refurbishment and expansion opening in 2017. The Tate has a strong focus on St Ives and Cornwall’s art, with pieces from artists who have called this town home. It’s one of the best things to do in Cornwall on a rainy day!
See more art at the Barbara Hepworth Museum
Barbara Hepworth was the sculpturist who really put St Ives on the map. She died in a devestating fire in 1975, and her home has since been restored to its former glory, with many of her sculptures in the garden.
A look around her house details her unique life and why St Ives was so special to her. If you’re into art or want to learn more about the town, it’s a must-visit.
Walk to the island
The Island is not actually an island at all – it’s a headland connected to the town by ‘the Down a Long’, which is a historic alley lined with rustic whitewashed cottages.
The Island is one of the best things to experience in St Ives. From this vantage point, you’ll see epic views of all of St Ives and over the seafront, as well as plenty of sand! It’s a great spot to walk to to see another side of the town.
If you are visiting St Ives in autumn, The Island is a stop off for migratory birds, so it’s a great birdwatching spot – bring your binoculars!
Try a Cornish pasty and cream tea
When you’re in Cornwall, you’ve gotta try local Cornish cuisine, right? If St Ives is your only stop in Cornwall, make sure that you sample both a Cornish pasty and a cream tea while you’re here!
Cornish pasties are large pastries traditionally containing beef, carrot and swede. They were created as something transportable that Cornish miners could take down to the mines with them. The crust acted as a handle to eat the bread, and was left down below as an offering to pixies – an old superstition that people believed kept them safe in the mines.
Nowadays, you can easily find vegetarian and vegan pasties all over Cornwall, particularly in St Ives. Try St Ives Bakery or S.H. Ferrell and Son for delicious pasties.
If you’re eating a pasty while walking on the seafront, look out for the seagulls. They are trained in pasty-stealing. If you take your eyes off it for a millisecond, they WILL snatch it out of your hand. You have been warned.
Cornish cream tea consists of scones, jam and cream, as well as a pot of tea. If you’re in Cornwall, make sure that you put your jam on first and then your cream – but if you’re in Devon, do it the other way round!
Take the scenic train to St Erth
The train from St Erth to St Ives is largely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. This is useful if you’re doing any day trips from St Ives, as a lot of the time you will need to connect in St Erth! St Erth is the penultimate stop on the London – Penzance line.
The train takes just 10 minutes, but it’s worth it – sit on the right-hand side if leaving from St Erth, or the left-hand side from St Ives for epic views over St Ives Bay. The train costs just £4, and there are two an hour, seven days a week apart from 25th and 26th September.
Hike to Zennor
The South West coast path runs through St Ives and leads on towards Lands End. If you’ve got time to hike more of the South West Coast Path, it’s well worth it – but if not, you can take a hike from St Ives to Zennor and back through the countryside in one day.
The stretch beyond Zennor is considered by many to be the hardest section of the South West Coast Path, and there are some indications of the increasing difficulty as you reach Zennor. However, as long as you are of moderate fitness, you shouldn’t find it too difficult!
Zennor is famous for mermaid mythology and has a Mermaid Chair to mark this. It also has a popular pub – the Tinner’s Arms – where you can enjoy a beer or lunch after the hike.
This guide shows you how to turn it into a circular walk, hiking to Zennor on the South West Coast path initially and then heading back through the countryside to St Ives.
Try food scene (watch out for seagulls)
As well as a thriving art scene, St Ives is great for foodies. Some restaurants to try are:
- Moomaid of Zennor for local Cornish Ice Cream
- Sourdough pizza from West Beach Bakery
- Seafood at Porthminster Beach Cafe or The Mermaid
- Burgers at Blas Burgerworks – which has been rated one of the best burger joints in Europe
- Brunch at the Searoom
Bask on the beaches
Of course, you likely came to St Ives to spend some time on the beach, and there are plenty of them to enjoy!
- St Ives Harbour Beach spans the main beachfront area of St Ives. This isn’t a huge beach compared to others in the town, but it’s close to the bars and restaurants, so it’s easy to grab a takeaway and sit on the beach!
- Porthmeor Beach is, as we’ve discussed, one of the best places to surf in St Ives. It’s also popular with sunbathers and surfers.
- Porthminster Beach is a more laid back beach where you can stand up paddleboard! Some people prefer swimming here as the waves are quieter.
- Porthgwidden Beach is one of the smallest beaches in the area, however, it is quite popular as it’s a sun trap in the afternoons!
- Porthkidney Beach is a quieter beach to the two miles from St Ives with a north-facing beach.
Travel over to Carbis Bay
If you want to enjoy more beaches, head over to Carbis Bay. Carbis Bay is also located in St Ives Bay, and is on the scenic route from St Erth. It doesn’t have any surf, but it’s really popular with day-trippers, sunbathers and swimmers and there are lots of subtropical plants dotted around the beach.
Carbis Bay used to be quieter than St Ives, but it has also increased in popularity in recent years – so much so that the G7 summit is being held there in 2021. However, it’s still worth visiting to see a different side to the town.
St Ives September Festival
If you’re visiting St Ives in September, check out the St Ives September Festival. It runs for 15 days with events focused around poetry, music, art, literature and theatre.
If you’re not visiting St Ives in September, consider St Piran’s Day on March 5th. This is a fun time to visit all of Cornwall; the nearest large parade is in Redruth, but there will be festivities in St Ives as well.
Best St Ives Attractions
I hope that this list of fun activities in St Ives has encouraged you to visit this beautiful Cornish town! Check out all of my Cornwall posts for more information on visiting this beautiful part of the UK.