Originally a very small fishing village, the unbelievably picturesque St Ives has grown into a larger town without losing any of its original charms. With palm trees and other exotic flowers, an almost sub-tropical climate and sea temperatures that rival the Med, a good day in St Ives can feel distinctly un-British. Indeed, TripAdvisor has ranked the beaches of St Ives above those even of Spain, France and Italy. It can be a beach orientated destination or a hub for the increasingly eclectic art scene, but the diverse range of attractions means that it appeals to visitors of all inclinations.
St Ives (in Cornish Porth Ia which means Ia’s port, haven or harbour) is one of the most beautiful seaside towns on the north coast of Cornwall. In medieval times the most important fishing port on the north coast, it’s now a popular holiday resort, and still maintains a working harbour and an active, but much smaller, fishing fleet. St Ives has been awarded Best Seaside Town by a number of different publications in recent years.
The origin of St Ives is attributed to the arrival of the Irish Saint Ia, who arrived in Cornwall in the 5th century. The parish church is in her name and that of St Andrew, the patron saint of fishermen. Two Spanish ships from the Armada were captured there in 1597, and there has been a lifeboat stationed in St Ives since 1840. The railway came to the town in 1877 and was in no small part responsible for the development of the town into a Victorian seaside resort.
St Ives benefits from warm summers and very mild winters. The town’s position near the tip of Cornwall, jutting out into the warm Gulf Stream, guarantees a pleasant climate that visitors to other parts of the UK can only dream of.
The St Ives branch line is one of the most wonderful short railway journeys in the world. Leave the London/Penzance train at St. Erth for St. Ives. For visitors with cars, St Ives is well served with car parks near all the beaches, and can be found by leaving the A30 trunk road (which connects Cornwall to the M5 motorway) at St Erth/Lelant – St Ives is just a few miles away, on roads with views almost as stunning as those from the train! Buses connect the town to nearby Penzance or St Just, and the coach service runs there from London Victoria Coach Station or London Airports. The nearest international airport is Newquay, but private planes/helicopters can use Perranporth Airfield.
St Ives is famous for being the epicentre of one of the biggest art movements of the 20th century. Artists have been flocking to St Ives since the 1880’s because of the unusual clarity of the atmosphere and a special quality of light that makes outdoor painting possible for much of the year. Local work is on display and for sale in the many galleries and craft shops situated along the old cobbled streets and alleys.
The Leach Pottery, founded in 1920 by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, is one of the most respected and influential studio potteries in the world. Potters, students and apprentices regularly come from all over the world to train there, and they have exhibitions, family activities and classes to suit all ages and abilities.
Tate St Ives is a famous art gallery overlooking Porthmeor beach, displaying British and international modern and contemporary art. Exhibitions change about three times a year. The Tate also includes the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, which give us a fantastic insight into the work and philosophy of one of Britain’s most important twentieth-century artists.
There is a small but fascinating and historic chapel, St Nicholas’, on the “island” of Pendinas. It’s worth the walk to see this piece of history, and the views both up and down the coast are inspiring.
The old lighthouse on Smeaton’s Pier is particularly endearing, built in 1890 to move and replace an even older light when the original pier (dating from 1770) was substantially extended.
There is a whole host of shipping memorabilia to be found around the town, which once had its own shipping line (the Hain Steamship Company, now part of P&O). Seafaring has always been a big part of the community of St Ives and the tin and copper industry, in particular, brought a lot of business to the region.
Eating and drinking
One can find an exceptional number of restaurants and cafés within the narrow cobbled streets of St Ives. Try some delicious fresh caught fish or other seafood, often landed from the harbour that very day, or sample a Sunday (or any other day) roast dinner or a takeaway picnic!
The Sloop Inn is dated as “circa 1312”, making it one of the oldest pubs in Cornwall. It can be found on the wharf – predictably it was a fishermen’s/seafarer’s pub for many centuries. Pub-wise, it’s also worth trying The Lifeboat, the Castle Inn, the Union and the Three Ferrets. The Rum & Crab Shack, however, is spectacular. Described by The Sunday Times as “The sort of bar you dream about” and selling over 50 varieties of rum as well as Cornwall’s only soft-shell crab burgers!
There are also many, many other cafés, bars and tea rooms. One holiday to St Ives is not really enough to sample them all. Restaurants, too, are plentiful in the town. Try the Cellar Bistro in Fore St for formal or informal dining with a welcoming ambience. The Hidden Kitchen is an interesting experience, with communal tables encouraging guests to mingle and chat. The roasts here are famous and the wine list excellent. The Digey Food Room is a great informal breakfast or lunch stop with a picnic/takeaway service and all at great prices!
The Attic is a fantastic music venue and cocktail bar in the harbour area, with a late license and a dance floor. Most of the other pubs and bars have a lively atmosphere in the evenings, too.
Holidays by the sea
We are all well aware of the physical, mental and spiritual (maybe) benefits of a holiday by the sea. But here in West Cornwall, St Ives is in an exceptional location. Surrounded by stunning golden sand and calm water, conditions are ideal for many watersports. Keep your eyes open, too, for sea life such as seals, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks – all regular visitors to this beautiful coastline.
St Ives has its own surfing beach of Porthmeor but is also close to most of the well-known surf spots of Cornwall – less than 20 miles (32km) from Sennen in the west up to Newquay which is only about 30 miles (50km).
St Ives is a superb place to visit for the New Year celebrations and is fast becoming a popular destination for revellers, many in fancy dress. The many bars and pubs in the town embrace such seasonal festivities.
Celebrating the end of winter and the birth of spring in a pagan tradition that stretches back thousands of years. The Grand Bard and the Mayor of St Ives will choose a May King and Queen, a Prince and a Princess, and Maypole dancing and “guising” ensue in a day of music and celebration.
St Ives September Festival
This is a festival of art, music and literature which features around 300 events over a two week period. Ticket prices vary for the different events, but there are a lot of free attractions including music in pubs and other venues and the party atmosphere is ubiquitous. There are also workshops and open studios, street entertainment, theatre and comedy.
Special Things to Do and Visit
Keep a sharp lookout out for dolphins on a walk around the chapel-topped promontory known as the Island or Pendinas. It’s not really an island at all, but a headland that was once fortified like the slightly more islandy one in Tintagel. The walk is steep but easier than it looks, and once on the peninsula commands great views all the way up the coast to Trevose Head, or down west to Zennor.
Visitors to St Ives typically also take in Lands End, the westernmost point of the country. Or visit St Michael’s Mount near Penzance, an almost fairytale island – a tidal walkway to get there, with a monastery and medieval castle. The Eden Project, home to two giant biodomes (sort of greenhouses) with an indoor rainforest and other exotic displays from around the world, is also just a short drive away.
Railway to/from St Erth
This single-track line was opened in 1877, and was the last section to be built in Brunel’s “wide gauge”. It was mostly used for transporting fish from the docks to the main line and was converted to the standard gauge not much more than a decade later. Nowadays its main purpose is tourism, and although it takes less than fifteen minutes to complete the journey, there are few prettier trips to be had anywhere, with the train trundling along the breathtaking cliff-tops of St. Ives Bay. The train comes to a halt at the top of some steps down to the stunning white sands of Porthminster beach.
Porthmeor is a popular surfing beach. It is patrolled by lifeguards in the summer, and there are restaurants, cafés and toilets nearby.
Porthgwidden, a small sandy cove, is a beautiful, all day sun trap with safe waters and toilet facilities. A shack on the terrace serves drinks and snacks.
Harbour Beach by the working port is very sheltered and also an excellent sun spot. All the facilities of the town are on your doorstep here, or you are on theirs, perhaps!
Porthminster, which has almost a half mile wide stretch of sand, is the most popular beach with families. There are places to eat and drink right on the beach, and you can hire beach huts for changing. The South West Coast Path runs along the beach and takes you around the cliffs to Carbis Bay.
Carbis Bay is a privately owned beach a couple of miles from St Ives. Public access is not restricted and the beach owners welcome families and children to the excellent facilities. Easy access to the train station and parking. The lovely Carbis Bay Hotel is open to non-residents for food and drinks.
All the St Ives beaches are doggy-friendly between the first of October and the Sunday before Easter. During the summer season, however, there is a 24hr dog ban on Porthmeor, Porthgwidden and Porthminster beaches.
Good news for early risers, though – canines are allowed on Carbis Bay beach from 5 am until 8 am. The harbour beach, too, allows early morning dog walking before 8 am as well as evenings after 7 pm throughout the summer period. These beaches are unrestricted out of season, as are all the other beaches.
There are two little tidal beaches in St Ives which do allow our furry friends access all year round. Bamaluz, which is found between the harbour and Porthgwidden at low tide, and Lambeth Walk beach which is just behind the Lifeboat station. At low spring tide, Lambeth Walk has exposed sand down to the Lighthouse at the end of Smeaton’s Pier. You can walk your dog around the other side of the pier, but you shouldn’t into the main harbour during the restricted day-time hours. Access to the beach can incidentally be a bit treacherous.
The St Ives bathing beaches are well known to be popular with families, and are very child-friendly, with safe, clean water, generally small waves, and good access to toilets and other facilities as well as amusements nearby.
We have a number of stunning holiday cottages in St Ives and the surrounding area. Cornish Traditional Cottages will have something to suit you and your companions in St Ives.