On the North Devon coast, Ilfracombe is a pretty harbour town and seaside resort encircled by massive slate cliffs.
The working harbour dates back to the 12th century and is protected by a hill capped with the oldest functioning lighthouse in the UK. Walkers can negotiate one of the trickiest but most spectacular stretches of the South West Coast Path, climbing to 100-metre cliffs and dropping to little coves.
The town is strewn with enchanting historical buildings, like a Norman manor and a working corn mill from the 16th century, as well as lots of fine Georgian and Victorian houses.
Families can venture out a bit further for amusement parks and zoos, all within a 15-minute drive.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ilfracombe:
1. Ilfracombe Harbour
Ilfracombe has the largest harbour on the North Devon coast, sitting snugly in a recess in the shore.
There’s a wild majesty to the harbour, as the terrain rises suddenly at Lantern Hill and across the water at Hillsborough.
As a natural harbour Ilfracombe developed early, and there has been a port here since the 1100s.
And while a lot of the traffic these days is for tourism, this is still a working fishing port and you can see the boats come in with the high tide.
You can embark on cruises to the unpopulated Lundy Island, or board the Ilfracombe Princess for nature-spotting trips along the coast looking for dolphins and seals.
On terra firma there’s a line of inns, cafes and fish and chip shops along the Quay at the foot of Lantern Hill.
2. Tunnels Beaches
In Victorian times a system of tunnels was cut into the contorted slate cliffs on the west side of town.
These lead down to a series of sand and shingle beaches, each well protected from the open sea.
The seascapes here are amazing, looking back at the dark, craggy cliffs topped with greenery.
The Victorians also built a tidal swimming pool here, as well as a landscaped area with benches and sun loungers and parasols for hire, and a restaurant on a platform over the coast.
The tunnels are the only way down to these bathing areas and there’s a small fee.
3. Chambercombe Manor
This house in a peaceful valley on Ilfracombe’s eastern periphery is so old that it was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. This belonged to an estate that has long since disappeared, and eventually the manor became a farmhouse.
In 1979 it was donated to a charitable trust and opens Sunday to Friday between March and October.
There are loads of exciting features left behind by centuries of occupants, like furniture from Tudor to Victorian times and a priest hole, used to hide Catholic clergy in the 16th and 17th centuries.
There’s a tearoom for a Devon cream tea and four-acres of well-tended gardens to relax in, while Chambercombe Manor has also made lots of TV appearances as supposedly one of the UK’s most haunted buildings.
At the harbour entrance is one of a couple of Ilfracombe landmarks that everybody has an opinion about.
Verity, by the world-famous sculptor and installation artist Damien Hirst, was erected in October 2012 and is typically uncompromising.
This 20-metre stainless steel and bronze statue is an allegory of truth and justice, showing a pregnant woman standing on a pile of law books, holding the Sword of Justice aloft in her left hand and carrying the Scales in her left.
The left side of the figure is naked, with the right is anatomical, with skin peeled away to show fatty tissue, muscle fibres and even the foetus in her womb.
5. South West Coast Path
The 630-mile South West Coast Path is known for being demanding because of the coasts many indentations, and lofty cliffs that are broken by steep river creeks.
Ilfracombe is on the 13.9-mile section from Combe Martin to Woolacombe, one of the most forbidding parts of all.
There are some seriously stiff climbs, especially at Lee Bay and Morte Point on the peninsula a few miles west of Ilfracombe.
But for all the effort, the scenery is jaw-dropping and the coast is steeped in smuggling history, with names like Brandy Cove and Breakneck Point.
On cliff-top paths there are far-off views to the island of Lundy and across the Bristol Channel to the Welsh Coast.
At Rockham Beach you can spot seals, as well as the wreck of the SS Collier from 1914 when the tide goes out.
Watch the sea in summer, as dolphins and basking sharks make regular appearances.
6. Watermouth Castle
The regal Watermouth Castle is a Gothic Revival stately home, built for the Bassett family in 1825. The Bassetts departed in 1945 and the castle has become an acclaimed and wide-ranging family attraction.
You can visit the interior for a splendid array of antiques like furniture, old-time amusement machines, workshop tools and suits of armour.
In the vaults are the Dungeon Labyrinths and out in the grounds there’s a world of fun across themed areas like Gnome Land and Adventure Land.
Youngsters can solve a giant maze, choose from nine different rides, have a water fight at the safe Water Wars Zone, play crazy golf and run wild in the Great Adventure Playground.
7. Ilfracombe Museum
An exciting stash of curiosities, the town museum (1932) also has an intriguing location, in the Victorian laundry of the Ilfracombe Hotel.
Some of the weirder things to see are the zoological specimens from a different age, like preserved bats, a two-headed cat and an African python.
There are eight rooms in all, and you can view all sort of seafaring artefacts relating to Ilfracombe in the Maritime Room, get glimpses of Victorian domestic life, look at vintage home appliances from the early 20th century, see antique craftsman’s tools or try tapping out morse code at the ship to shore radio station.
Nicknamed “The Sleeping Elephant”, this immense green hill has jagged cliffs plummeting to the water, giving Ilfracombe’s harbour a dramatic backdrop when you see it from the west side.
Hillsborough had a hill-fort in the Iron Age posted on the promontory, 115 metres above the sea, and its site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The hill has been a nature reserve since it was bought by the town council in the late-19th century to avoid development.
The South West Coast Path runs along the cliff-top, and you can get down to little sheltered beaches like Raparee Cove and Hele Bay, a bit further east.
9. Hele Corn Mill
A little way back from Hele Bay in the Hillsborough Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty there’s a working 16th century corn mill, grinding and selling wholemeal flour.
You can take a tour of this picturesque whitewashed building to see the National Diesel Engine in action and have a go at grinding your own flour with a quern-stone.
Hele Corn Mill also has an award-winning tearoom preparing tempting homemade cakes and scones for cream teas using the mill’s own flour.
The mill is right by the South West Coast Path and a scenic walk from the harbour.
10. Landmark Theatre
After the Victorian Pavilion Theatre burnt down in the 1980s the Niemeyer-esque Landmark Theatre took its place.
Looking like a pair of kilns or cooling towers on the promenade, the theatre clashes with the otherwise historic townscape.
If you’re in need of some light entertainment there are musicals, tribute bands and touring classic rock and pop artists.
The Landmark also books stand-up comedians well-known to UK audiences, like Jimmy Carr and Jason Manford.
For a spot of high culture there are also live screenings from Royal Shakespeare Company performances.
11. Holy Trinity Church
Ilfracombe’s parish church is a 14th-century Gothic building on the site of earlier Saxon and Norman churches.
For avid antiquarians there’s a lot of interesting historic detail to discover.
The most obvious is the nave’s very decorative 15th-century wagon roof, one of the finest in the region, with cross-ribs and painted keys.
Also track down the square Norman font from 1160, carved with rosettes and ears of wheat, as well as the 16th-century Elizabethan oak pulpit, which has Renaissance arches and floral motifs.
12. Chapel of St Nicholas
Atop the grassy Lantern Hill on the north side of the harbour is what is believed to be the UK’s oldest working lighthouse.
This seafarer’s chapel dates from 1321 and sometime in the 15th century it was equipped with a beacon to guide boats in the harbour.
During Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries the chapel lost its religious role and became home to lighthouse keepers, including a Mr John Davey who raised 14 children in this small space.
The building was derelict by the mid-20th century but was restored in 1962 and is a cherished landmark, welcoming visitors and occasionally holding religious services.
13. Water Activities
With lots of little bays and coves close by, the coast around Ilfracombe is safe and fun to explore from the water.
Based at Ilfracombe or a short way east in Watermouth there’s a selection of companies offering the equipment and tuition for all manner of activities on the coast.
H2Outdoor and Active Escape offer stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and wild swimming in these coves, but also organise surfing trips and something called coasteering, which involves both climbing and swimming along the rugged shore.
You can organise single sessions or combine activities for an invigorating adventure package.
14. Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park
In 28 acres of subtropical parkland landscaped with waterfalls and streams, this crowd-pleaser has rich wildlife from the present and distant past.
Hiding in the foliage are accurately rendered animatronic dinosaurs, like a neovenator, family of triceratopses and what is considered to be the UK’s most accurate full-sized T-rex.
There are also some exciting palaeontology exhibits like a complete allosaurus skeleton and one of the largest batch of fossilised dinosaur ever found.
For live animals you’ll find sea lions, penguins, meerkats, a diversity of primates and packs of wolves rarely seen at UK zoos.
At the park you’ll find boards advertising a timetable of talks and feedings with sea lions, lemurs, wolves, penguins and meerkats.
15. Ilfracombe Aquarium
On the harbour inside the Old Lifeboat House, the Ilfracombe Aquarium studies North Devon’s aquatic life.
You’ll get a close look at a wide assortment of fish, crabs, starfish, octopuses and sea anemones that live in the Lundy Marine Conservation Zone and Ilfracombe’s harbour and rockpools, as well as the species inhabiting North Devon’s streams and rivers.
There are more than 75 species to see, while the experienced fish keeper guides have interesting insights and put on regular feeding demonstrations.
In 2018 the aquarium’s Pier Cafe was updated with a harbourside view deck.