England’s surfing paradise, Newquay has astonishing Blue Flag beaches lashed by the North Atlantic.
Surfing is a year-round proposition at the resort, but there’s a special energy in summer, when the population quadruples and events like the Boardmasters Festival hit town.
The surf beaches draw a young and hip crowd, but there are also inlets where families can build sandcastles and bathe in crystalline waters.
Newquay has an affluent air, and celebrity chefs like Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver have opened beachside restaurants.
And away from the beach there’s an Elizabethan National Trust house at Trerice and a sequestered harbour built 200 years ago for Newquay’s old mineral mines.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Newquay:
The word “Newquay” is a byword for surfing in England, and the town was discovered as early as the 60s by Australians and Americans.
They were the first to conquer The Cribbar, which also goes by the name of the Widow Maker.
This reef break off Newquay’s Town Headland gets up to ten metres around December and January.
For mere mortals, Newquay’s main surf spots at Fistral Beach, Watergate Bay and Crantock Beach have surf schools and camps that combine accommodation with tuition for a week or more.
And if you already know your way around a board, there’s a whole directory of hire shops, while all the surf beaches around Newquay are patrolled by RNLI lifeguards.
2. Fistral Beach
Hands down the best surf beach in England, Fistral Beach points west and catches the full weight of the North Atlantic’s swells.
Fistral deserves to be seen, even if you don’t plan to ride any waves, as it’s a marvellous 750-metre strip of golden sand, traced by dunes and watched from the north by the grand Headland Hotel.
There’s no better place for seasoned surfers and newbies to catch some waves, and the International Surfing Centre has a surf school, shops, hire companies and restaurants.
If there’s a surf competition happening in Newquay, chances are it will be at Fistral, whether it’s the Quiksilver Skins, stages of the UK Pro Surf Tour, the Boardmaster Festival or the BUSA Championships.
And after an exhilarating day on your board, you can watch the sun setting behind the waves.
3. Porth Beach
A go-to for family holidays at Newquay, Porth Beach differs from the other beaches on this list for its gentle surf and mostly safe swimming.
The beach is on a long inlet, screened by two long headlands and Porth Island to the north.
In summer surfing isn’t even permitted here, so Porth Beach is the choice of families with children, building sandcastles on the gently-sloping golden sands, rockpooling and having the time of their lives in the shallow water.
There’s a footbridge from the cliff-top to Porth Island, where you can investigate the earthworks of an Iron Age fort and a set of Bronze Age barrows.
At mid-tide on windy days there’s also an astonishing blow hole on the south side of the island.
For a break from the North Atlantic, this captivating Elizabethan house looks a lot like it did when it was built almost 450 years ago.
Trerice has the classic E-shaped footprint and was commissioned by Sir John Arundell, the High Sheriff of Cornwall.
The National Trust has looked after the property since the 1950s and invites you in to view a collection of more than 1,000 pieces of art, furniture and decorative objects.
Look out for the two contrasting gable designs on the facade, the 16th-century glass in the windows of the Great Hall, romantic views from the Great Chamber to St Newlyn East Church and a grand old barn that now has a restaurant.
Outside is a recreated Elizabethan formal knot garden, planted with yews in 2013 and an orchard with historic varieties of fruit trees.
5. Crantock Beach
Also in the care of the National Trust, Crantock Beach on the Gannel Estuary inspires the same sense of awe as Fistral.
The shore is guarded by Pentire Point and West Pentire, two long grassy headlands fringed with cliffs, and behind are dunes rising up like a miniature mountain range.
The beach is angled towards the ocean, and so has healthy breaks that might suit newcomers to the sport.
The Big Green Surf School can help get you started or hire out equipment for kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.
Like many beaches in Newquay, Crantock pitches very steadily into the sea, and despite the high waves has relatively safe swimming.
There are RNLI lifeguards present from May to September.
6. Watergate Bay
For pure cinematic grandeur, it’s hard to match the vast Watergate Bay, three miles up the coast from the centre.
The beach is bound by a tall cliffs that dip into a valley where there’s a small beachfront community with surf hire shops and restaurants.
Watergate Bay is also open to the full power of the North Atlantic, and has two miles of golden sand.
Surfers travel a long way to ride these high-quality breaks, while the puts kite-surfing on the agenda, and good old kite-flying if you have children in tow.
7. Newquay Harbour
The town grew around its cloistered little harbour, which has been here since 1439. But the harbour didn’t take on its current scale until the end of the 18th century, as a way to ship the rich local deposits of mineral ore to smelt mills in South Wales.
A tramway and tunnel allowed wagons to be hauled down the cliff from the town to the harbour’s piers, and you can still see the tunnel entrance, now used to store traditional Cornish six-oared pilot gigs.
Amble to the end of the north pier for a great perspective back of the harbour in front its cliffs and to see the boats come into port.
You can also feel the sand between your toes on the harbour’s little beach and if the sea air has piqued your appetite, there’s a cluster of cafes, inns and restaurants right on the harbour.
8. Gannel Estuary
Before the River Gannel meets the North Atlantic at Crantock Beach it opens out into a tidal estuary for more than a mile.
In the past the estuary was dredged to ship pilchards or coal up to the town to load onto the railway.
Although this section of the river is subject to the tides, the water is very sheltered, so is a serene place to go kayaking away from the roaring Atlantic.
Walking on the banks, there are a few footbridges over the river, though these may be flooded by the tide when you visit.
Go carefully and you should come across wading birds like little egrets, godwits and redshanks, while smelt, bass, salmon and trout swim in the shallows.
9. Lappa Valley Steam Railway
Something younger members of the clan will love, the Lappa Valley Steam Railway is a train park with three minimum and miniature gauge lines.
These lines are traversed by vintage steam and diesel locomotives, and the lines sit inside a park with a range of side activities.
The main stretch of line, from Benny Halt to East Wheal Rose, goes back to 1849 and was laid for silver lead mine, with an engine house and chimney stack looming still looming over the park.
Since the 1990s, two new lines have been opened, both of which run from the station at East Wheal Rose.
As well as riding on the three trains, kids can solve the brick path maze, play crazy golf, paddle on the lake in canoes and clamber over the playgrounds.
10. Cornwall Aviation Heritage Centre
For most of its history Newquay Airport has had a military presence, until the last RAF squadron was relocated in 2008. The Cornwall Aviation Centre is set against the powerful outlines of former RAF HAS (Hardened Aircraft Shelter) buildings, used by Coastal Command.
It’s an evocative place to inspect some beautiful British-made aircraft from the Post War years, like the iconic Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jet, the only fighter ever capable of vertical take-off.
There are two airliners, a Vickers VC-10K3 and a BAC 1-11, alongside two Hawker Hunter fighter bombers and an English Electric Canberra, the Royal Air Force’s first jet-powered bomber, introduced in 1951.
11. Newquay Zoo
The largest zoo in Cornwall and the only one to house lions, Newquay Zoo has more than 130 species, some of which you may never have seen before.
The zoo takes part in breeding programmes for rare and endangered species like Owston’s palm civets, Sulawesi crested macaques and red-fronted macaws.
In the Tropical House you can enter a humid rainforest environment to see skinks, poison dart frogs, a sloth and a variety of insects and reptiles.
There’s a schedule of feeding times and keeper’s talks for some insider information, and youngsters will get the chance to hand food to meerkats and Humboldt penguins.
12. South West Coast Path
The 630-mile South West Coast Path is a National Trail twists along Newquay’s craggy coastline on its long route to Poole in Dorset.
Starting out at Newquay station you can walk a beautiful stretch west to Pentire Point.
The path will guide you to two headlands for views and photos to treasure.
You’ll start along on the line of Newquay’s old horse-drawn tramway, which transported coal up to 1926. After a good look at Newquay Harbour you’ll come to Huer’s Hut, and we’ll talk about this underneath.
You’ll carry on around the rocky Towan Head and down past the neo-Gothic Headland Hotel (1897) and Fistral Beach.
South of there, Pentire Point has signs of human occupation going back 8,000 years and Bronze Age barrows up to 4,500 years old.
13. Huer’s Hut
The whitewashed stone structure on the cliff-top a little way up from Newquay Harbour has an interesting story to tell.
In the 1300s this was a hermitage inhabited by monks who would light a beacon to warn ships of the rocks at the foot of the cliff.
Later it became the ideal vantage point for fishermen to spot the immense pilchard shoals that would enter Newquay Bay.
On this roost the “Huer” would direct the vessels below with hand signals, and the boats would encircle the fish with weighted vertical nets (Seine nets).
14. Japanese Garden
In the Vale of Lanherne, a little way past the airport, is a small but beautifully formed Japanese Garden open March to October.
In this one-acre plot there’s a Zen Garden, Stroll Garden and Water Garden, arranged in the Japanese tradition and planted with exotic species that flourish in Newquay’s climate.
The garden has a bamboo grove, azaleas, rhododendrons, Japanese Maples, as well as a Zen pavilion, a waterfall, ponds inhabited with koi carp and a tea house where you can bask in the serenity.
15. Boardmasters Festival
In mid-August Boardmasters Festival is a five-day music and extreme sports extravaganza unfolding at two locations in Newquay.
Most of the artists perform at Watergate Bay, and it’s hard to think of a more scenic place to watch live music.
The lineup has something for most tastes and in 2018 the bill was topped by George Ezra, The Chemical Brothers and Catfish and the Bottlemen.
The fun continues long into the night at Boardmasters After Parties at clubs in the middle of Newquay.
Fistral Beach is where the festival’s international surf competitions are held, and in between you can poke around the Surf Village, Cornish Market and watch skate and BMX demonstrations.
As the sun sets at Fistral Beach there are live sessions, barbecues and dj sets on the sand.