Visit St Ives, Cornwall: Best Things To See And Do

St Ives profile Chester Robinson
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St Ives is a quaint fishing village with cobbled lanes and old cottages, and a stunning natural setting. But there is more to the town than this: it is also home to a long artistic heritage, the home of artists and galleries. So why should you visit St Ives, and what are the best things to see and do there?

Why Visit St Ives?

St Ives is a lovely unspoilt seaside town with a maze of old streets, independent shops and restaurants, and a picturesque harbour. It is also surrounded by the natural beauty of Cornwall’s north coast and offers sandy beaches, coastal walks and fabulous conditions for surfing.

It also has a thriving art scene. This is a place that attracts both artists and art lovers. Even if you are not a painter or a photographer yourself you will be seduced by the light and the setting. And, of course, you can visit the world famous art galleries. All of this makes St Ives one of the best places to visit in Cornwall.

Narrow street with old houses on either side. Colourful bunting has been strung between the houses.
The narrow streets of St Ives (photo copyright Chester Robinson)

Explore The Art

Two of St Ives’ major tourist attractions are the Tate Gallery and the Barbara Hepworth Museum. But these are just a part of a long established heritage. It all started when J M W Turner arrived at the beginning of the 19th century, drawn by the light, the landscape, and the attractive village. Since then artists have flocked to St Ives, hoping to capture that elusive beauty in their work.

During the 19th and 20th centuries many artists, including sculptors and ceramicists, based themselves in St Ives. These included Alfred Wallis, a self-taught artist and fisherman who painted ships and port landscapes, and Ben Nicholson, who composed abstracts and local scenes. The town remains a centre for contemporary art, with several small independent galleries.

Interior of art gallery with pictures along a curved wall. There is a gallery above the wall and beside the wall are sculptures on plinths.
Inside the Tate St Ives

Tate St Ives

The Tate St Ives is the town’s best known and most popular visitor attraction. It is housed in an award-winning building on the site of a former gasworks overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The collections are mostly based on artists who lived in the town in the 20th century, and their later influence. There is also a changing programme of special exhibitions.

It is recommended to book your tickets in advance.

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Barbara Hepworth Museum And Sculpture Garden

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth lived and worked in St Ives for many years until her death in 1975. Her home was at Trewyn Studios, which has now been preserved as the Barbara Hepworth Museum And Sculpture Garden. Visitors can tour Hepworth’s home and studio, which have now been set out as a museum. Outside the house is a small but attractive sub-tropical garden incorporating many of the sculptor’s larger works.

Again, it is recommended to book tickets in advance.

Garden with grass and a variety of plants. There are two sculptures abstract sculptures to be seen.
In the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden

Enjoy The Natural Attractions

You will want to spend some time exploring the landscape that inspired all that art. The town is set on St Ives Bay, with sandy beaches and a picture-perfect harbour. To the north is “The Island”, not actually an island but a peaceful peninsula that you can walk to and discover the natural setting and the 15th century Nicholas Chapel. Wherever you walk you will be rewarded with spectacular sea views and – just possibly – a glimpse of the dolphins that frequent these waters.

Take A Boat Trip

There are lots of opportunities for boat trips to enjoy the coastal scenery and to spot the wildlife – not just dolphins but seals and sea birds too. A particularly popular trip is to Seal Island, which has a colony of grey seals (it is also home to sea anemones, a variety of fish, and an old shipwreck…)

Two adults and a child walking along a path towards a sandy beach and the sea. There are fences and bushes on either side of the path.
Walking is the best way to enjoy the coastal scenery (photo copyright Matt Jessop)

Walk The Coastal Path

The South West Coast Path follows the coast of Cornwall, passing around St Ives. Walk along the path in either direction for breathtaking views of the sea and the town, taking in cliffs, beaches and hidden coves along the way.

Explore The Town

In the town centre, between the harbour and The Island, you will find a tangle of tiny streets known as Downalong. Make sure you spend some time just wandering around and looking into the independent shops with their locally made crafts. And now is the time to enjoy a Cornish pasty or some genuine St Ives ice cream!

People looking into a shop with sign saying "St Ives Bakery" and a big window piled up with baked goods.
The St Ives Bakery – for cornish pasties, and more! (photo copyright Matt Jessop)

Planning Your Trip To St Ives

  • Driving into St Ives is not recommended, as the roads are narrow and at peak times you will struggle to find anywhere to park. However you can park at St Erth station and take a short (18 minutes) train ride to St Ives.
  • Trains also run to St Erth from Penzance, Exeter and London Paddington.
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  • Depending on where in Cornwall you are staying, it is possible to visit St Ives as a day trip. However you might not be able to fit everything into a single day!
  • If you would like more time to explore have a look at the overnight accommodation options on booking.com.

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