10 Reasons to Stay in Penzance

Penzance is a town of contradictions – quaint historic buildings and cobbled streets are home to a plethora of upmarket restaurants, independent shops and a thriving contemporary art scene to rival that of its glamorous cousin, St Ives. This buzzing hub is surrounded by nature – the sunset sea views across Mounts Bay are stunning, and you’re a stone throw from idyllic beaches, beautiful coastal walks and tropical gardens. Exposed to the elements, Penzance takes the brunt of the frequent inclement sou’westerlies, but the town’s selection of centuries-old pubs and modern eateries are great places to stormwatch and soak up the moody atmosphere. When the sun comes out, there’s an almost tropical vibe as you stroll past palm trees bobbing in the breeze. Yes, it’s very far-flung – practically Land’s End – but with so many cultural, creative and culinary gems to discover, it’s well worth a visit. 

Here are our top 10 reasons why Penzance should be at the top of your list for your summer staycation. In these pandemic-stricken times, we advise checking in advance to ensure your destination is open before visiting.

1. It has a geothermally heated art deco lido

Jubilee Pool, Penzance

For a seriously stylish swim, head to the Jubilee pool, Penzance’s art deco lido built on a traditional bathing spot at the Battery Rocks near the town harbour. Opened in 1935 to celebrate King George V’s Silver Jubilee, it is the largest surviving seawater lido in Britain, cleverly designed to be triangular in shape with gentle curves to withstand the Cornish sea. And if you don’t like the current trend for cold water swimming, no matter – a geothermally heated pool opened in summer 2020, the first of its kind in the UK. Relax, unwind and enjoy the view in natural salt water heated to a balmy 30-35 degrees by its own subterranean geothermal well – just like the Romans did 2,000 years ago in Bath!

2. It has a thriving arts scene

Creatives have always drifted to Cornwall, drawing inspiration from the county’s spectacular coastline, atmospheric weather and ethereal light. St Ives is a magnet for most visitors, well known for its Tate and Barbara Hepworth sculptures, but Penzance can also pack a punch when it comes to modern art – expect exhibitions from Grayson Perry to local artists. Newlyn Art Gallery has been flying the flag for contemporary art since 1895, sitting at the end of Newlyn Green in a small, unshowy village just a 2km walk along the promenade from Penzance. Its sister venue, The Exchange, is a huge contemporary art space in the centre of Penzance that opened in 2007. Formerly the town’s telephone exchange, it features a large t-shaped gallery and a striking undulating glass facade that runs the entire length of the building.

3. You can walk to St Michael’s Mount... 

… or take a magical, short ferry ride across the causeway if it’s high tide. Rising out of the water like something out of a fairytale, National Trust-owned St Michael’s Mount is just three miles from Penzance. Take a tour of this tiny rocky island – explore the medieval church and castle, filled with history and mystery, wend your way around the cliff-clinging gardens or enjoy an ice cream down at the little harbour. If that’s all too much trouble, you can wake up with your morning coffee to brilliant sunrises across to Mounts Bay from Penzance town, too. 

St Michael's Mount

4. It is known as Cornwall’s gourmet capital

From cafes and bars to high-end restaurants, chippies and historic pubs, Penzance has become a real foodie destination. For Michelin-starred seafood, head to the Shore, where the menu changes daily depending on what chef and owner Bruce Rennie has sourced locally, or try the Tolcarne Inn at Newlyn for unpretentious, seriously delicious fare. Fish and chips are ‘done ‘proper’ at Fraser’s on the promenade. And you can’t visit Cornwall without enjoying an ice cream. Jelberts reportedly serves the best ice cream in the county. The unassuming, family-run shop in Newlyn serves just one flavour (vanilla) with a dollop of clotted cream or a flake. 

5. Nearby beaches rival the Caribbean’s

Porthcurno beach

So far in Penzance, you have world-class restaurants, views and art – now it’s the beaches’ turn. First, head to Porthcurno, which is a relaxed amble along the coastal path or an easy 20- minute drive. This cove has powder-soft sand and limpid azure waters to rival somewhere far more tropical. It’s ideal for swimming, picnics and children who love building sandcastles. Just around the corner from Porthcurno is Porthgwarra, the cove where actor Aidan Turner took a semi-naked dip in the sea in the first series of Poldark. It’s a very picturesque, secluded spot, ideal for a cheeky swim, if you want to channel your inner Ross. There is a little cafe where you can find lunch or a hearty Cornish cream tea afterwards.

6. It has beautiful Georgian architecture and a rich history

Penzance, at the latter part of the 18th century, was not only a busy market town but a flourishing seaport and one of the coinage towns for tin. The old town had been sacked and burnt to the ground by the Spanish in 1595, and the new town that grew up on the site had noble Georgian terraces, regency stucco and beautiful cobbled streets. This diverse history can be seen on Chapel Street, a plethora of Georgian architecture, shops, pubs and restaurants, and the pulse of Penzance. The elegant red brick townhouse at number 25 was home to Maria Branwell, mother of the Bronte sisters, the Turks Head at number 47 is reputed to be the oldest pub in Penzance dating from the 12th century, while next door is the Admiral Benbow, an inn stuffed with shipwreck and maritime relics. Wander down Chapel Street, admiring the gaudy grade I-listed Egyptian House, a rare example of Egyptian Revival architecture from the 1830s.

7. It has an al fresco theatre 

Breathtaking scenery, an atmospheric setting and shows whatever the weather – the Minack open-air theatre is really special, and well worth a visit for the stunning views. Perched high on a cliff-top above Porthcurno beach, the bowl-like amphitheatre has the sea as its backdrop. You can visit all year round or book to see a performance in the summer months. Clamber about the theatre when there are no shows on, or explore the subtropical gardens that cling to the cliffs. Gazing out to sea, you might spot a seal bobbing about the rocks or even a pod of dolphins.

Minack Theatre

8. It has its own vineyard

Wine-lovers can celebrate – Penzance boasts an award-winning, artisan vineyard, orchard and winery, located on the hills overlooking Mounts Bay. Established in 2004, Polgoon produces a range of vegan Cornish wines, ciders and juices, and its first vintage in 2006 was awarded the Waitrose Trophy for the Best Rosé in the UK. It uses the méthode traditionelle to produce its sparkling wine, which you can learn all about by visiting the vineyard for a tour and tasting throughout the year. Enjoy an al fresco lunch at the Vine House restaurant – perfect for sunny days and blue skies, with an undercover area for shelter from light rain or more inclement Cornish weather. Bottoms up.

9. It mixes subtropical gardens with contemporary art

Lose yourself in a dreamy world of nature blended with organic artworks at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens in Cornwall. Wander through subtropical planting, woods and streams, interspersed with contemporary sculptures by internationally renowned artists who have created evolving works that harmonise with the landscape. The beautiful, sheltered valley overlooks St Michael’s Mount and is filled with otherworldly creations. James Turrell’s subterranean Skyspace is a must – watch clouds peacefully moving across the blue sky through the open oval roof. Keep your eyes peeled for glass honouring an ancient fissure in a rock, a wall of taps, a skip of light and a restless temple.

10. The shopping is fab

It's the quirkiness of the shops that stands out in Penzance. Sustainability is high on the agenda for all the independent retailers, too – Penzance was the first British town to be awarded plastic-free status by Surfers Against Sewage in 2017. The side roads off Market Jew Street boast little shops selling great individual gift and home items – try Pure Nuff Stuff on Chapel Street for fresh, natural skincare products, Mounts Bay Trading at 8-9 Causewayhead for an Aladdin’s cave of truly eclectic goods ranging from high-end big brand clothing to ethnic-style decor and soft furnishings, Circa 21 at 21 Market Jew Street for beautiful handmade silver jewellery and No. 56 on Chapel Street for soft grey and white linens, vintage-style kitchenware (think Kilner jars and light wooden utensils) and frosted glass vases.