A harbour town on the North Cornwall coast, Padstow sits snugly in the Camel Estuary.
Now a magnet for tourists, the port was a centre of trade for centuries, and the base for a lucrative pilchard industry in the 1800s.
Holidaymakers flock to beaches on the estuary and the Atlantic coast, where newbie surfers can gain some confidence on a board.
The harbour is extremely picturesque, and provides boat trips and ferry rides over the estuary, while the South West Coast Path and Camel Trail show off the best of the green Cornish coastline and countryside.
Padstow has had an RNLI lifeboat station since 1825, making rescues on the Doom Bar, a sandbar across the mouth of the Camel that has caused more than 600 shipwrecks in two centuries.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Padstow:
1. Padstow Harbour
Lodged in the only river estuary on the North Cornwall coast, Padstow Harbour is at least as old as the Domesday Book (1086). The town was constructed on reclaimed land as the port grew down the centuries, and the Strand, North Quay and South Quay all took shape in the mid-16th century.
Padstow’s fishing days are mostly in the past, but the quaysides are abuzz with activity in summer and have a gallery, Cornish ice cream parlours, restaurants, shops, tearooms and pubs.
The outer dock, crossed by a walkway, was built in 1910 to cater to the demand for fresh fish, which at that time could be delivered to London’s Billingsgate Market in a few short hours.
2. Prideaux Place
Completed in 1592 and then reworked over the following centuries, Prideaux Place has been occupied by one family for more than 400 Years.
Posted above the harbour, the basis of the building is Elizabethan, and shares the telltale “E” footprint with other stately homes from this period.
In the early 19th century the south facade was reworked in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style.
Outside you can survey the Camel Estuary and the village of Rock in the distance, and take a turn in the restored Victorian formal garden, viewing the Gothic Revival dairy, stable courtyard and 18th-century temple folly.
In the house there’s masterful Elizabethan plasterwork in the Great Chamber, as well as a rich porcelain collection, period furniture and portraits depicting members of Prideaux family and royalty.
3. St George’s Cove
Barely half a mile from Padstow Harbour, this sandy beach on the estuary has a few advantages over its Atlantic neighbours.
One is the proximity to the town, but St George’s Cove is also tucked away from the ocean winds, and only has ripples instead of crashing waves.
Because of estuary’s currents it’s not a good idea to swim at this beach, but you’ll be safe wading in up to knee height.
When the tide goes out the beach is enormous, and you’ll be able to walk around to Hawkers Cove and Harbour Cove.
Like many of the beaches at Padstow, the St George’s Cove is backed by lush countryside.
4. Camel Trail
Up to 1964 Padstow had a direct rail connection to London via the Atlantic Coast Express.
The disused line has been turned into an 18-mile greenway between Padstow and Wenfordbridge through pastoral Cornish countryside.
The Camel Trail is great for younger cyclists as only a tiny fraction of the route is on roads, and the soft gradients needed for trains at the turn of the 20th century make for effortless cycling today.
The trail is broken down into three roughly equal sections, so you can decide whether you want to ride to Wadebridge, Bodmin or all the way to Wendfordbridge.
There are lots of places to stop, take picnics and admire the Camel River, and you’ll find lots of vestiges from the railway, like platforms and signs.
5. Rock Ferry
The Black Tor sails across the Camel at 20-minute intervals to the village of Rock on the east bank.
Although the service is regular, check tide times as the departure and arrival point in Padstow moves downriver to St Saviours Point at low water.
The journey takes seconds, and once ashore you’ll be in one of the poshest villages in the country.
Rock is the haunt of millionaires and is the village with the highest ratio of second homes in Cornwall.
There’s a charming terrace of whitewashed Victorian houses facing the estuary, and the pubs and seafood restaurants cater to high-earning clientele.
Rock and Daymer Bay are also a watersports hotspot, and sailing, windsurfing and waterskiing are all on offer in the Camel.
6. Stepper Point
The South West Coast Path, which runs through Padstow, is well-known among hikers for its onerous climbs and descents.
But in Padstow things are much lighter on the way up to the headland at Stepper Point on the western mouth of the River Camel.
As you go you’ll see Hawker’s Cover and the Old Lifeboat Station, built in 1931 with its own slipway, and now a holiday rental.
Nearby is the aptly named “Rest a While Tea Garden” where you can pause for refreshment before continuing your hike through the greenery.
Just above Stepper Point there’s a solemn stone tower, a “daymark”, helping seafarer’s navigate during daylight hours.
7. Surfing and Watersports
While the Camel Estuary on Padstow’s harbour is perfectly tranquil, you don’t have to go far to find North Cornwall’s famous surf beaches.
At high tide, Trevone Bay, Harlyn Bay and Treyarnon Bay are all superb for novices, and Harlyn has a well-rated surf school to get you started.
For veteran surfers, Constantine Bay’s vicious riptides, shallow reefs and fast breaks pose more of a test.
This has a reef break at the south end at low and high tide, while the point at the north end is safer, and best at mid or high tide.
The surf school at Harlyn also organises sea kayaking, paddleboarding and coasteering activities with experienced guides.
8. Harlyn Bay
A go-to family beach, Harlyn Bay is ten minutes from the centre of Padstow and has a broad arc of yellow sand and shingle, backed by verdant grassland.
The bay is in a deep recess in the coast next to Trevose Head, which puts it among the safest beaches in Cornwall.
There are RNLI lifeguards from May to September for extra peace of mind.
Take the trail up to Trevose Head for far-off vistas down to Newquay and up to Pentire Head.
On the beach children can busy themselves paddling in the stream, rockpooling and exploring the dunes.
9. Treyarnon Bay
Another of the calmer beaches around Padstow, Treyarnon Bay is screened from the full brunt of the Atlantic by Trethias Island, an outcrop on the south side and Treyarnon Point to the north.
This attracts families who can spread out on the sands at low tide, while children can paddle in the ocean and poke around rockpools that trap small fish, crabs and prawns.
The rocks on the north side also form a larger natural pool that you can swim in.
Once the tide starts to come in surfers arrive at Treyarnon Bay to ride the novice-friendly beachbreak.
10. Padstow Lifeboat Station
The town has had an RNLI lifeboat station since 1825, now set at Trevose Head in a cove on the western lip of Polventon Bay.
This modern facility was unveiled in 2006 and is a striking sight, elevated on piles and linked to the cliff-top by a footbridge.
The station is open to visitors at 10:00-16:00 on weekdays and was constructed to house the new, larger Tamar-class lifeboat, which you’ll get to see inside.
Named the “Spirit of Padstow 16-04”, this watertight vessel is able to right itself within seconds, even with up to 60 people on board.
There’s also an exhibition of medals, photos, newspaper clippings, while kids can dress up in uniform and pick up vital water safety tips.
11. Carnewas and Bedruthan Steps
On the way to Newquay, around seven miles from Padstow is a cinematic stretch of coastline safeguarded by the National Trust.
The trust maintains three walking trails in the area, and at Carnewas and Bedruthan the path carries you along the cliff-top to witness sheer bluffs and the Bedruthan Steps, which are towering stacks battered by the waves.
Below the cliffs there’s a sequence of rocky, west-facing beaches lashed by the Atlantic.
And while none are safe for swimming because of the unrelenting surf and dangerous rocks, you’re free to step down at low tide and experience the savage beauty of the shore close up.
12. National Lobster Hatchery
Essential for the sustainability of fishing communities in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, the National Lobster Hatchery is a marine conservation charity based on Padstow’s South Quay.
At the Visitor Centre you can view tiny juvenile lobsters being grown before release and get within centimetres from sea creatures, including an exceedingly rare orange lobster and a starfish that feeds on mussels.
There are windows opening onto the hatchery so you can watch the staff going about their work, while kids can take part in lots of hands-on activities.
13. Obby Oss
Cornwall’s strong sense of identity has helped the Duchy hold onto some ancient traditional celebrations that have died out in other parts of England.
And few are more ancient or quite as peculiar as Obby Oss, a May Day ritual predating Christianity and descended from the Celtic festival of Beltane.
At the heart of the event is the pair of Obby Osses or Hobby Horses, which are highly stylised horses gambolling around the town’s streets looking for maidens.
One blue and one red, the horses are followed by a procession of people in white outfits resembling Morris dancers, playing accordions and thumping drums.
At the end of the day there’s a customary farewell to the Osses at the Maypole.
14. Padstow Museum
On Market Place, Padstow’s small but interesting museum chronicles the history of the town and the harbour.
If you miss the Obby Oss celebrations there’s memorabilia from the event, including a former Obby Oss costume.
The museum also has an example of a clome oven, once found in homes across Cornwall.
These were made from clay and were actually built into the side of chimneys in homes.
There’s an array of maritime exhibits, like a pulley, fishing net, weights, paintings and models.
One of the stranger pieces on show is a genuine whale’s eardrum.
The British celebrity chef Rick Stein monopolises the restaurant business in Padstow, to the point where the town has even been dubbed “Padstein”. This has much to do with the abundant supply of fish and seafood from the Atlantic.
And while some people are concerned with the gentrifying effect he has had on the town, as a hungry visitor you may be tempted to call in at one of his four restaurants.
“The Seafood Restaurant” has a name as simple and straightforward as its menu, featuring fresh, unembellished fish and seafood prepared according to time-honoured recipes.
Tables are booked up a long time in advance, but you don’t need to reserve a seat at the “seafood bar” here, for a front-row look at the chefs at work, and which has its own à la carte menu.