Penzance (and a bit of Newlyn too) – a sub-tropical bohemian paradise, perhaps?
Penzance (the Cornish Pennsans means “holy headland”) is the westernmost major town in the UK. It sprawls into the neighbouring port of Newlyn and is close to the villages of Gulval, Heamoor, Madron, Mousehole and Paul. Penzance faces south-east across Mount’s Bay, looking directly at St Michaels Mount, the island fortress that seems to float in the green waters off Marazion.
The A30 trunk road runs all the way from London to Land’s End, but most join it after the M5 motorway runs out in Devon. The Chy-an-Mor roundabout is about a mile (1.6km) east of Penzance, from whence you are guided into the town. Penzance is also the end of the mainline railway from London Paddington, and the Night Riviera train is an overnight sleeping car service that’s quite magical in its romanticism – something akin to the Orient Express. The nearest airport in Newquay International, some 40 miles (65km) away. Unusually, perhaps, Penzance is ideal for those who do not travel by car – the public transport is excellent, making it easy to arrive or explore by bus or rail. There are shuttle buses to Newlyn and Mousehole and prolific taxi services.
Penzance might owe much of its wealth and status to becoming a royal market town in 1404 – this ensured prosperity for over three hundred years – but the history of the settlement goes back much further. The chapel that gave the holy headland its name was made from greenstone. This stone called, Elvan hereabouts, is native to West Cornwall and features in the myth of the giant Cormoran – a huge slab of it lies on the causeway to the Mount.
Around four hundred greenstone axes from the Stone Age (known as Group 1 prehistoric axes) have so far been discovered all over Britain, and all appear to have come from Cornwall. Although the source has not been categorically located, it’s believed that a site called The Gear, an island now submerged off Penzance, may be where they were quarried. It lends another angle to the story.
On the 1st of November 1755, the tsunami from the Lisbon earthquake struck the Cornish coast. The sea rose eight feet (2.5m) in Penzance, but this was not too dramatic for a port that has a 20′ (6m) tidal range, and is accustomed to storm-driven waves much larger than that!
The fishing heritage of the area continues to this day, with many fishing boats still bearing the PZ registration, and the legacy of the mining industry of the 18th and 19th centuries is still very much in evidence. Indeed, Sir Humphrey Davy, inventor of the Davy lamp found on mining helmets, was a Penzance local.
No.25 Chapel Street was the dwelling of Maria Branwell, the mother of Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë, and just down the road is the old Admiral Benbow Inn, which features in the first few pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous seafaring novel, Treasure Island.
The weather in Penzance is rather unexpected. Warm seas (the Gulf Stream) and its southerly location conspire to make this corner of Cornwall borderline sub-tropical. Many exotic species of trees and plants flourish here, and they in turn lock in a humid and tropical feeling all the year round. For the quantitative among you, expect average highs of 19ºC and lows of around 13º (10º and 5º in winter), and one of the finest sunshine records in the UK. For more about the intricacies of the Cornish climate, why not wander over to our weather page, here?
Penzance has a smattering of clubs and late night drinking, but they are perhaps of a slightly transient nature. Probably it’s because there are so many good pubs, and pubs stay open late these days. The Alexandra Inn and the King William IV rank particularly highly, as do the Longboat Inn and Lugger Inn. But there are about thirty bars and pubs in Penzance, so an exhaustive list is here…
Many of the Penzance pubs are fab for food. The Mexico Inn, The Admiral Benbow, The Turk’s Head and The Dolphin, as well as the Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn, are all really charming inns that deliver exceptional eats. For the more restaurant-oriented eater, our top tips are The Old Lifeboat House Bistro, The Shore Restaurant and The Bakehouse Restaurant. Coco Loco Mexican is slightly loco like its name, but it’s worth going. Quirky decor-wise, but with an at-home all day eating vibe, is The Front Room in Market Jew St. Archie Brown’s cooks and sells wholesome vegetarian food, frequently organic and vegan. Mackerel Sky in Newlyn is a superb seafood bar and café in Newlyn if you’d like to venture away from the centre of Penzance. Perhaps one should also consider fish and chips; The Pirate’s Rest and the Captain Fish Bar are both excellent.
Shopping for Food
Penzance is well served by large supermarkets as well as an Oriental supermarket in Alverton St. The town also holds a farmers market every Friday (and also Sundays in the season), with around fifteen stalls selling things like organic beef, free range pork or duck, organic rare breed lamb, home baking wares, flowers, herbs and plants, Indian snacks, chocolate and vegetables. The Granary is a wholefood store, and some other deli’s and farm shops sell organic and whole foods, too.
Penzance and Newlyn have several festivals throughout the year to celebrate aspects of their cultural and artistic traditions. These are held dear by the locals in these parts, since they take their heritage very seriously, and provide a great spectacle and entertainment for visitors too.
Golowan Festival & Mazey Day
Gol Jowan means “Feast of John’ in the Cornish language. This is a recent revival of an ancient pagan festival, celebrated in former years to mark the summer solstice. It runs for ten days in June, with Summer Fire on a Friday and Quay Day on Saturday. Street performers, processions and the Serpent Dance. Don’t miss it.
Newlyn Fish Festival
Usually on the August Bank Holiday Monday– more fish than you could shake a mermaid’s tail at!
A pagan winter solstice festival celebrating the death and rebirth of the sun. Join the torchlit processions forming “Rivers of Fire” to Lescudjack Hillfort, the highest point and ancient beacon site. The Lord of Misrule lights the beacon, and dancing, drumming and fireplay ensue. All parade back to St John’s Hall in Penzance in one great River of Fire. The music and festivities continue into the night.
Special Things to Do and Visit
St Michael’s Mount
You can’t really ignore the Mount – a fairytale island fortress that is visible from many parts of the town. It’s possible to walk there across a causeway at low tide, but at high tide, it’s a boat trip.
The Egyptian House
Perhaps one of Cornwall’s maddest and most flamboyant pieces of architecture. The Egyptian House features an ornate facade of lotus columns and stylised cornices, but set in amongst the Egyptian styling and sphinx-like oddities is the royal coat of arms of George III/William IV. It is said that the facade was inspired by a museum in Picadilly, London built in 1812, itself influenced by the Temple of Hat-hor at Dendra in Egypt.
The Penlee House Museum and Gallery is an introduction to the artistic side of Cornwall, with its renowned collection of paintings by the Newlyn School of Artists as well as some interesting displays of local artefacts and antiquities. There’s also a very good café famous for its excellent cakes. At the other end of the timescale, experience cutting-edge contemporary art at The Exchange Gallery. Since its inception in 2007, this large exhibition space features national and international works, along with the best of those produced in the local area.
Penlee Park Theatre is a theatre in the Park in the heart of Penzance presenting both professional and amateur theatre as well as opera, comedy and music of the highest standard from both national and local touring companies.
The Minack Theatre is an open-air amphitheatre, carved and built into the granite of Porthcurno’s spectacular cliffs. It’s a great place to visit at any time, but particularly to see a performance.
Screening some of the finest independent films from the UK and around the world, the Penwith Film Society also shows non-blockbuster movies at Penzance’s Savoy Cinema. It’s thought to be England’s longest running cinema.
There are lots of lovely gardens in West Cornwall, for those of a horticultural persuasion. The Lost Gardens of Heligan with its sleeping giant, Trebah, Pencarrow and Mount Edgecumbe are all de rigeur for the green fingered fan of flora. But Penzance has its own lovely Morrab Gardens, near the seafront, which was landscaped in the Victorian era and became a municipal park in 1889, full of many sub-tropical plants. Trengwaington and Trewidden are also quite magical. St Michael’s Mount, too, has tropical gardens with oversized plants and more besides.
Also a sort of a garden, but much more besides. Wherever you visit in Cornwall, you must go to the Eden Project with its tropical rainforest and other indoor biodome environments, and any number of transient events and exhibits. From Penzance, Eden is about an hour away – or you could drop in on your way to/from Cornwall to break the journey!
Penzance can offer sea fishing – shore or boat, as well as coarse fishing. It’s no coincidence that it’s one of Britain’s leading commercial fishing ports, and the hobby angler can make the most of the biodiversity and the boat trips. Try Bite Adventures for a record-breaking catch.
Fishing or otherwise, there are lots of boat trips running out of Penzance as well as neighbouring Newlyn and Marazion. Marine Discovery and Mermaid Pleasure Trips both offer wildlife-watching cruises. Seals, seabirds, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks await you.
Praa Sands Golf Club, located at Mount’s Bay, is a well-laid out nine-hole course, with a golf par of 62 and yardage of just over 4,100, and known for its breathtaking sea views. West Cornwall Golf Club is an 18 hole, par 69 links course situated in Lelant. But the jewel in the crown is Cape Cornwall Golf Club, nine miles (14km) to the west. This beautiful 18-hole course stretches for around 5,700 yards and enjoys an outstanding position, perched up high on a cliff top with sea views all around.
The excellent facilities of Penzance’s Leisure Centre include a gym and a 25m swimming pool as well as fun pool and flume, dance and aerobics and an outdoor football pitch.
If outdoor swimming is more your thing, take a plunge in the art deco Jubilee Lido swimming pool located on the promenade which looks out over Mount’s Bay. Built in the 1930’s, it’s a nostalgic construction harking back to more gracious times. Opening hours are 10.30am-6pm from June until the end of August.
This is a fantastic place to base yourself if surfing is your passion. Sennen is not far to the west, catching all the Atlantic can throw at it. To the north, we find consistent Porthmeor and the multiple breaks of St Ives Bay. Fast and hollow Praa Sands and Porthleven for the pro’s can be found to the east. All are just about half an hour away.
We all love to take our furry friends down to the sand for a frolic and play, and many of Cornwall’s beaches are dog-friendly all year round. Promenade Beach has a seasonal dog ban from Easter until October 1st, as does Marazion, but all the other local beaches are fair game!
All of the above beaches are child-friendly too, from a water safety point of view, but check for lifeguard cover unless you’re taking that upon yourselves. Promenade and Battery Rocks are the best for amenities, with toilet facilities, parking and café’s nearby.
The South West Coast Path‘s St Ives to Penzance section takes us around the very tip of Cornwall, including Land’s End of course, and featuring some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the UK. Heading out towards Marazion from Penzance is an easy walk that provides stunning vistas over the sea to St Michael’s Mount, The Lizard and Mousehole. Or for a less physical and time-consuming but entirely quintessential Cornish moment, take a walk along the promenade. You can grab some fish and chips from the Captain Fish Bar and perch on the seafront to enjoy the views across Mount’s Bay.
We have self-catering holiday cottages in Penzance and the surrounding area. If you want to find Penzance cottages that are suitable for accommodating your party you can do so from our search page using the filter on the left.
Self-catering in Cornwall has never been so good! Check out our Cornwall Guide to discover more about what’s on, places to eat, places to visit and things to do in the surrounding area, from your Penzance cottage.