Cornwall is a county of contradictions and nowhere sums them up quite like far-flung Penzance. It’s both charming and rough around the edges. It’s not as polished and teeming with tourists as its neighbour St Ives, but there are loads of creative and culinary gems to be uncovered. Exposed to the elements, Britain’s most south-westerly town is prone to moody, atmospheric weather that brings its pirate-peppered past to life, but when the sun comes out and the palm trees bob in the breeze, this real-life fishing port can feel almost tropical.
RECOMMENDED: Explore the rest of Cornwall
Wander down Chapel Street, dipping into the indie, antiques and arts shops as you go. Browse beautiful homewares at No.56 and wacky retro relics at Steckfensters. Admire the gaudy Grade-I listed Egyptian House, a rare example of Egyptian Revival architecture from the 1830s, before ending up at the seafront, where art deco Jubilee Lido (open from late July) sits beside the surf.
Explore the exotic Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. You’ll find lush, sub-tropical greenery and outdoor sculptures in this sheltered spot. Grab a map and walk through the otherworldly gardens, past enormous perspex pinwheels and a wall of taps, and organic artworks that blend into their woodland surroundings. Don’t miss James Turrell’s peaceful, temple-like ‘Skyspace’, where you can watch clouds scudding across the blue overhead.
Order whatever fish has just arrived from the port, battered, with chips, buttered bread, mushy peas and unlimited tea at Fraser’s Fish & Chips. It’s all super-fresh and responsibly sourced. It’s not open until the evening, but you’d be remiss to skip a meal at The Shore. The bookings-only seafood restaurant has a surprising set menu that changes daily depending on what chef and owner Bruce sources at nearby Newlyn market and eating there is a totally dreamy experience.
Head a couple of miles out of Penzance to wander the narrow streets of Mousehole, an achingly pretty, well-preserved fishing village; skip around the Merry Maidens, a perfect neolithic stone circle in a sloping field; admire the wild and rugged Cornish coastline at Porthcurno; and see a play with the ocean as its backdrop at the uniquely dramatic Minack Theatre.
Settle in for a surreal evening at historic boozer The Admiral Benbow. This seventeenth-century pub, which is name-dropped in 1883 novel ‘Treasure Island’, has character by the barrelload. Nurse a local ale among masts, figureheads and other maritime artefacts salvaged from local shipwrecks – or swing by on Cornish traditional music night for extra nautical vibes. Sample Cornish gin at The Turks Head just up the road. Said to date from 1233, the pub boasts of an old smugglers’ tunnel leading down to the harbour.
Walk out along the causeway to St Michael’s Mount, which is only accessible during low tide. Take a tour of this tiny island, topped with a medieval church and castle, wander in the gardens, or soak up the scene beside the harbour as the rising tide cuts you off from the mainland. It’s like something from a fairytale.
A Georgian townhouse on artistic Chapel Street, Artist Residence is like a Londoner’s home away from home, with a buzzy bar and rooms decorated with bold art and tasteful flea-market treasures. For a real treat, book The Lookout suite on the top floor, where you can curl up in a well-worn leather armchair beside the log burner or, on fair weather days, admire views of the bay from your private roof terrace with just the local seagulls for company. From £85 a night.