Falmouth isn’t a city, but it does have the facilities of one. With a “proper” shopping centre including brands like M&S and Boots, as well as lovely independent shops, it has everything for the family and the watersports enthusiast alike. There are many bookshops, shoe shops, clothes shops and several art galleries selling local artists work. It’s particularly convenient to buy locally produced foodstuffs, from meat and vegetables to freshly caught fish.
Falmouth University (formerly Falmouth College of Art) has campuses in the centres of both Penryn and of Falmouth. The presence of a large art student population adds momentum to the art credentials of the town as well as a certain youthful enthusiasm to the nightlife and general “scene”. There are over twenty pub/bars and clubs and there is often a party atmosphere, but without being too “lairy”.
Falmouth is an industrial port as well as leisure and fishing base, because of its south-westerly location far out towards the Atlantic as well as its vast natural deep-water harbour, which is the third greatest in volume in the world.
The depth and sheltered location of Falmouth Bay makes it a good place to spot big ships, and it’s a regular anchorage point for historic tall ships and ocean liners too!
The harbour is formed by the conjunction both of the Rivers Fal and Penryn and the large creeks of Mylor, Restronguet, Channals and Percuil. The Truro River bolsters the aquatic energy just a little further up the estuary. So it’s a sort of starfish-shaped explosion of creeks and inlets! Or in grown up geology-speak, multiple rias or “drowned rivers”.
With several modern marinas, Falmouth is a favoured destination for sailors but also for walkers and family groups, the six conjoining estuaries and other streams and creeks providing an excellent playground. With a rich maritime history, and to this day still visited by historic tall ships and other classic boats, Falmouth is a diverse and educational place to spend a holiday.
Unusually, the name of Falmouth is English. Most Cornish towns have names that are anglicised versions of Cornish names. It has been said that the old Celtic name was Peny-cwn-cuic (which anglicises to Pennycomequick) but that is also a region of the Devon town of Plymouth, so the waters of toponymy are muddied, here.
Historically the main settlement in the area grew up around the Penryn estuary, but King Henry VIII built Pendennis Castle at Falmouth to defend the waters known as Carrick Roads from invasion, and subsequent development of infrastructure meant that the main conurbation grew up there.
Falmouth Harbour has always been of industrial, social and military importance. It was the home of the Falmouth Packet Service from 1689 to 1851, delivering mail to everywhere in Britain’s expanding empire. It’s the preferred start point/landfall for many an adventure, from round the world trips to Atlantic crossings (and part of the D-Day landings) and was a large US Navy base during World War II. Somewhat tangentially, much of the Brad Pitt movie World War Z was also filmed here.
Penryn, which is Cornish for “promontory”, was the major port and a monastic centre long before Falmouth grew up around the castle. The harbour there, now tastefully redeveloped, still has some of the remains of medieval Glasney College. The old streets are full of winding alleys called opes. This ancient part of town bears witness to centuries of Celtic history.
The A39 trunk road or Atlantic Highway terminates in Falmouth at the end of its sinuous and sensational journey from the M4 corridor which connects London to Bristol and Bath. Falmouth is not on a mainline railway but is easily reached on the branch line (the Maritime Line) that connects it to Truro. The London train passes through Truro on its way to Penzance, with tickets remarkably good value compared to those in the south-east or for North-South travel! A regular coach service also serves the town with direct buses to Bristol, Birmingham and London.
Falmouth, like the rest of coastal Cornwall, enjoys both warm summers and very mild winters. The town’s location near the western tip of Cornwall, jutting out towards the warming Gulf Stream, creates the pleasant climate that keeps visitors to Cornwall coming back again and again. For more information on the very particular microclimate that Cornwall’s unique geography generates, why not take a look at our dedicated Cornish weather page, here?
Pendennis Castle, we have mentioned – it’s a super place to visit, or just listen out for the noon-day gun! It’s one of a pair, so it can be fun to take in St Mawes Castle across the water (there’s a ferry), which is also open to the public.
Jacob’s Ladder is the name given to the 111 step granite staircase leading up from the town’s main square. The views from the top are certainly worth the walk, which is not for the weak-hearted. The young and irresponsible, however, are prone to racing up the steps after a night out.
Falmouth’s beaches can catch a bit of surf on the right day, but it’s not regarded as Cornwall’s premier surf destination. On the good days, the water can get quite crowded as the student population weigh in. It is, however, close to some of the stonking breaks of Kernow’s south coast, including the three P’s – Porthcurno, Praa Sands, and the heavy-duty Porthleven. Falmouth does have its own surf school and there is also the excellent WESUP, a dedicated stand-up paddleboard (SUP) centre operating on Gylly(nvase) Beach.
Falmouth’s sheltered location means that it’s possible to find a good spot in most tide and wind/swell conditions. The clear water combines with a plethora of excellent dive sites and facilities. There is both shore diving and some shallow wrecks, which makes it ideal for both beginners and experienced divers alike.
Whether beach fishing, taking one of the many hire trips or even kayak fishing, Falmouth is good for many fish varieties including Bass, Bream, Pollack, Cod, Ling, Coalfish, Mackerel, Plaice and Rays.
The traditional Celtic Pilot Gig is popular in many coastal towns of Cornwall, and Falmouth Gig Club is one of the most active and successful in the county. So don’t be surprised to see 19th-century type six-oared boats being rowed in Falmouth waters. If you have time during your visit, you might even be able to have a go!
Falmouth has an exceptional range of cafés and restaurants, from traditional Cornish seafood to specialist tastes – Indian, African, Caribbean or Japanese; you can find it all here. There are too many eateries (and drinkeries) to list them all, but most who visit the town will mention the lovely Gylly Beach Café.
Falmouth hosts some very special events throughout the year. Check out the Sea Shanty Festival, Falmouth Oyster Festival, the Fal River Festival, or for the nautically minded, Falmouth Week, Falmouth Dinghy Week and the occasional visits of The Tall Ships. There’s also a Fish Festival and a Beer Festival!
National Maritime Museum
The National Maritime Museum, winner of many awards, has 15 galleries distributed over five floors. The intention is to illustrate the past, present and future of the maritime activity of our island nation. Climb the 100ft (33m) Lookout Tower and see Falmouth Harbour from the air. Or, dive into the Tidal Zone to appreciate one of the only three natural underwater galleries in the world.
The Town’s art collection is superb, one of the most significant in Cornwall. Falmouth Art Gallery features works by a large number of Britain’s most acclaimed artists.
The docks are of commercial importance but it’s also interesting to see them. A working port since the 1860’s, Falmouth Docks is still filled with impressive ships and craneage and has an astonishing 2.5km (1.5 miles) of wharfs.
The Falmouth Working Boat is a historic sailing boat class that goes hand in hand with the oyster fishing for which the region is famous. Originally called River Oyster Dredging Boats, the sturdy gaff-rigged cutters have not changed much in 200 years! Except for the name.
Some acclaimed gardens are open to the public around Falmouth. Kimberly Park Municipal Garden in the town itself dates from the 1870’s! Gyllyngdune Gardens with its Princess Pavilion is also in the centre. Trebah Garden and its outdoor amphitheatre are at Mawnan Smith, close to Falmouth.
Glendurgan Garden, above Durgan Beach, is a jungle-like experience with sunny upper slopes and a particularly special experience even for the less horticulturally inclined.
South West Coast Path
The South West Coast Path offers magnificent views to the intrepid walker. Crossing the Falmouth Harbour using the ferry to St Mawes, one can enjoy a solid 14 mile (22km) march east to Portloe, or 10 miles (16km) west to Helford. For more information on this famous coast path which encompasses the entire Cornish coast and more, take a look at our dedicated page here…
Falmouth has its own Golf Club (since 1894) and welcomes visitors to the established par 70 golf course. It wends its way across the Cornish cliff tops with exceptional views across Falmouth Bay. The facilities of this 18 hole course cater for all standards of golfers from beginners upwards.
Gyllyngvase, a large and very popular sandy beach, is ten minutes walk from the town centre and the South West Coast Path connects it to Swanpool Beach and Nature Reserve – a beautiful walk. Gylly Beach, as it’s called, is the place for SUP, kayaking and sailing dinghies. Home of the Gylly Beach Café, with another shack next door that sells take-away food, ice-creams and beach stuff.
Swanpool is a lovely sandy cove on the outskirts of town. It’s good for scuba diving and snorkelling as well as sailing, windsurfing, and occasionally surfing. Its Nature Reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the beach has a great café and restaurant as well as an activity centre and hire shop.
Castle Beach is smaller than the other Falmouth beaches but no less attractive. As the name implies, it’s below the castle headland and commands spectacular views across the bay.
Maenporth Beach is two miles away from the town but is stunning and very popular. There are plenty of rockpools as well as the extensive sand, and a shipwrecked trawler becomes visible at low tide.
Durgan Beach is a lovely spot. Four miles from Falmouth, at the end of a luscious valley and next to the tiny hamlet of Durgan, it’s ideal for swimming, kayaking and sailing. Quite hard work to access down the valley as the car park is ten minutes away.
Flushing faces Falmouth from the north. Only at low tide are small areas of beach exposed, but the views are fabulous. A lovely little ferry provides transport to and from town.
The beach at Helford Passage is south-facing, a mix of sand and shingle. The beach is only accessible at low tides and lies below the Ferry Boat Inn with beautiful views of the Helford River.
Nansidwell is an east-facing sand, shingle and stone beach between Maenporth and Mawnan Smith. The beach is accessed by an attractive footpath through a forest. For this reason, the location is sometimes called “Woodlands”.
Many visitors to Falmouth may wish to bring a canine companion, and picture their pet bouncing around on the sand or in the shallows. So it’s nice to be able to report that Nansidwell, Helford, Durgan and Flushing beaches are open to our furry friends all the year round. Maenporth, Gylly, Castle and Swanpool have a seasonal dog ban from Easter to the 1st of October.
All of the Falmouth beaches are child-friendly, because of the sheltered nature of this part of the coast. Pay attention to offshore winds, though, and don’t forget to wear sunscreen!