In southeast Cornwall, Looe is both a favourite family escape and a real working fishing port.
The town is in hilly landscape at the mouth of the Looe River, and sheltered along the river is the harbour where fishing boats bob on the water and you can test your crab-catching skills on the quayside.
Looe has a snug old town, with rows of straight, narrow lanes hiding quaint local shops, cafes and restaurants.
In the 18th century some of these establishments would have been the haunt of smugglers, who brought rum, brandy and tea ashore along this rocky coastline.
In front is East Looe Beach, which is the soul of the party at the Looe Music Festival in September.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Looe:
1. East Looe Beach
You don’t have to go far for the best of the seven beaches near Looe.
Right in front of the old town and at the foot of Mount Ararat, the lively East Looe Beach is protected on its west side by the Banjo Pier at the mouth of the Looe River.
This sandy beach shelves very gently, and when the tide goes out it’s perfectly safe for people with less than perfect water skills.
Being so close to the old town, lunch, ice creams and any supplies you might need are just a short walk away.
You can also stroll along Banjo Pier to look across to Looe Island and watch the fishing boats coming in and out of port.
2. Looe Island
From Easter to the end of September you can board a boat on the floating pontoon next to the RNLI slipway to explore Looe Island for a couple of hours.
These crossings take place either side of high tide as the channel can’t be navigated when the tide is out.
You’ll have a busy time ashore as there are some interesting stories squeezed into these 22.5 acres.
The island is a reserve, owned by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, so you can’t make crossings alone.
Up the hill you’ll find what’s left of the Medieval Lamanna Chapel, on the site of a Celtic monastery that was founded in the 500s.
The island’s religious significance goes back to a supposed visit by none other than Joseph and a young Jesus, who set foot here to trade with Cornish tin merchants.
3. Old Guildhall Museum and Gaol
Raised around the turn of the 16th century, Looe’s Guildhall now houses the town museum, dedicated to historic activities like shipbuilding, smuggling and fishing.
The building itself is a treat, with centuries old features like a magistrates’ bench sporting the Royal Coat of Arms, preserved prisoners’ cells and a genuine cat o’ nine tails whip.
The court has a beautiful timber-framed roof, and contains the official weights and measures to ensure fair trading in the town.
Looe’s fishing heritage is represented by a historic pilchard press, nets, boots, model boats and other knickknacks.
Some other curiosities are Looe’s first ambulance (essentially a cart), a collection of minerals and a mastodon tooth dating back two million years.
4. Talland Bay
Just west of Looe you’ll be on the Polperro Heritage Coast, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The first stop is the twin coves of Talland Bay, which are separated by a headland of extremely old Devonian sandstone, siltstone and slates.
On the west side is the accommodating Talland Sand Beach, while the smaller Rotterdam Beach in on the east end, and both are backed by cafes.
When the tide goes out you can see the boiler of the French steam trawler, “Marguerite” which ran aground on the rocks in 1922 at the cost of no lives.
Talland Church is known for a strange 18th-century vicar, Rev Richard Dodge, who caused a stir by whipping headstones in the churchyard to drive evil spirits away.
One explanation for his behaviour might be that he was causing a distraction to help smugglers bring contraband ashore.
Looe’s south-facing beaches have clear blue waters for kayak, canoe and paddleboard trips.
You can get hold of equipment a few places like the boat shop in Looe, Black Rock Beach Hire at Millendreath and the cafe at Talland Sand.
Black Rock Beach Hire offers laid-back, friendly tuition before you set off, and life jackets, wetsuits and waterproof pouches for valuables are all included in the price.
If you’re visiting as a couple you could hire a double kayak and work as a team, paddling to secluded beaches.
6. South West Coast Path
Praised as one of the best walks in the world, the South West Coast path is a National Trail tracing England’s southwest coast from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset.
Even through the path is on the coast it can be gruelling, as you descend from rocky cliffs to river valleys and climb again.
But at Looe you can take a mostly undemanding 5.7-mile walk west to Crumplehorn and catch the bus back.
The route takes you past beaches with rockpools and into the cosy fishing village of Polperro.
Set off in autumn and you can spot diverse migrating birdlife, including skuas, terns, finches, warblers and maybe a sooty shearwater, rarely seen on these shores.
7. Monkey Sanctuary
Managed by a charity, the Monkey Sanctuary has provided a habitat for rescued monkeys since 1964. In 2018 there were over 35 individuals, kept in humane enclosures, and you can come and see them from Wednesday to Sunday in the summer months.
Among the inhabitants are marmosets, Barbary macaques, South American woolly monkeys and Capuchin monkeys.
At a small attraction like this you can find out about the personality of each individual, and learn about the sanctuary’s work and what goes into caring for its residents.
The park also has a wildlife room covering the insects, birds, mammals, plants and amphibians that live in these nine acres, as well as gardens shaded by tall beeches and sycamores.
8. Old Sardine Factory
In July 2018 the former Sardine Factory on the quayside in West Looe reopened as a heritage centre, with an exhibition, activity centre, a training restaurant and fishermen’s stores.
The derelict former building dated back to Victorian times and was partially demolished and rebuilt in a £1.5 million scheme.
In the immersive exhibition there’s a large map of Looe’s coastline, measuring 13 m x 11 m on the floor, a virtual reality station that puts you in the boots of an RNLI lifeboatman and insights about the fishing industry and smuggling activity in Looe.
For a bit of old-fashioned family fun you can go crabbing on the port’s quayside in East Looe, or near the Ferry Steps in West Looe.
The best time to come is on either side of high tide when the river’s water level is up, otherwise the crabs will let go before you can land them.
You’ll need some bait, a net, a weight and a bucket, and a little patience to catch a crab, but it’s a skill even children can master.
Once you’ve landed one, you can carefully pick it up and inspect its abdomen to determine if it’s male (triangular shape) or female (rounded). Afterwards, set your catch free and see it scuttle back to the water.
The Looe Marine Conservation Group has lots of tips on taking family rockpooling excursions in the town.
Easily the best place to go rockpooling is the craggy shore at Hannafore Beach in West Looe.
Download the local tide times, and try to get down to the beach an hour before low tide.
Then you’ll have a good hour to look for crabs, starfish, sea anemones, sponges and fish like shannies, gobies and Cornish suckerfish.
Bring a camera, pocket wildlife guide and a couple of buckets to record your discoveries, before releasing them safely back to their homes.
11. Adrenalin Quarry
A gorge-like former quarry a few miles north of Looe has been adapted as a centre for outdoor adventure, offering all kinds of exhilarating activities.
There’s a Giant Swing, so tall you have to be winched up and released to freefall, while Wipeout at the Aquapark is a huge floating inflatable playground with slides and tricky obstacles.
The zip-line at Adrenalin Quarry is almost half a kilometre long, 50 metres high and reaches speeds of 40 mph.
You can also pick from a range of guided activities like axe throwing and coasteering, where you’ll put on safety gear and climb, jump, dive and swim through this rugged environment.
12. Millendreath Beach
As an alternative to East Looe Beach, Millendreath Beach is a steep-walled cove on the way to the Monkey Sanctuary.
Check out the tide times before you come: At low tide the cove is a delight, with spacious soft sands and rippling, shallow water for children to play in.
But at high tide there’s almost no beach at all! Millendreath Beach fronts a once forgotten seaside village that is now going through a renaissance as the Black Rock Beach resort, and resting on a platform just behind the beach is a sociable cafe and bistro with a scenic terrace.
13. Trenant Wood
For a brisk walk without straying too far from Looe there’s a patch of ancient broadleaf woodland more than four centuries old on a peninsula between the West and East Looe Rivers.
Trenant Wood is on raised ground, and resilient walkers will be paid back with views of West Looe and the Quay in the clearings.
In spring the bluebells are glorious, while the meadows are embroidered with wildflowers in early summer.
Trace the West Looe River valley back, and on its south bank are the Kilminorth Woods, the largest parcel of western oak woodland in the region, inhabited by roe deer, foxes and badgers.
14. Looe Music Festival
The mild climate in Looe lets it host one of the last big outdoor music events of the summer.
The Looe Music Festival at the end of September and is unique in the way that it happens all around the town.
The main stage is on the beach, but stages pop up all over the place, in tents, on temporary platforms and even on top of vans.
Looe’s pubs get in on the fun and host sets, so it’s the kind of event where you’ll be rewarded by indulging your sense of curiosity and wandering around.
The musical palate at Looe is as varied as it gets, from punk to folk, hip hop, soul, jazz, blues and world music.
The headliners are normally classic rock, punk and indie artists, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Waterboys and Bryan Ferry have all played the festival in the last few years.
15. New Year’s Eve
Being a seaside town, Looe becomes quite sleepy in winter.
That is until New Year’s event when a big fancy dress party breaks out.
Looe is often listed as one of the best places in the UK to see in the New Year, and its narrow streets are packed with revellers, as bars and restaurants take part in the fun.
Gradually everyone migrates to the seafront promenade for a fireworks display from Banjo Pier on the stroke of midnight.
Just so kids don’t miss out on the fun there’s an early fireworks display at six.