This Cornish harbour town is not far from the most westerly and southerly points of the British mainland at Land’s End’s and the Lizard.
The town is protected by the beautiful Mount’s Bay, around St Michael’s Mount, a magical tidal island.
Cornwall is one of the few places in the country where subtropical and Mediterranean plants do well in the open air.
Give yourself time to amble in the gardens around Penzance, among the palms, ferns and outsized leaves of the gunnera (Chilean rhubarb). There are beaches, picture book villages made from local light grey granite, and enlightening culture at galleries, a sculpture garden and the awe-inspiring Minack Theatre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Penzance:
1. Minack Theatre
Nestled in a gully with staggering views over the water and rugged Porthcurno Bay, Minack Theatre is a spectacle all of its own.
The theatre stages 20 plays in the summer season, receiving companies from across the UK and America, and is open to the public at all other times.
This Classical-style open-air venue was founded in the late 1920s by Rowena Cade in the garden of a home built just after the First World War.
The seating, boxes and stage were cut from the granite cliff, while succulent plants bring a sprinkle of colour to the grey stone.
Book well in advance to watch a Shakespeare play, or just as appropriately, Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan.
2. Penlee House Gallery and Museum
In the late 19th century the Newlyn School was an art colony based around the namesake village just south of Penzance.
This museum in the Victorian Penlee House is enriched by works from the foremost artists in the movement, like Walter Langley, Norman Garstin, Stanhope Forbes and Lamona Birch.
The Penlee House Gallery has no permanent exhibition but organises shows drawing on its collection of local art, and is normally closed between these exhibitions.
The museum recounts six millennia of history in west Cornwall, from Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, tools and weapons, to navigation instruments, coins and a 17th-century carving from a ship.
In front of the house is the granite Penlee Cross, which was carved in the 11th century and once stood at Penzance’s Green Market.
3. Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens
Opened in 2012, this 22-acre garden is in a secluded valley and has subtropical and exotic plants interspersed with works of art.
James Turrell, Tim Shaw, Richard Long and David Nash are some of the artists of international renown to have contributed works that interact with this mosaic of bamboos, ferns, succulents and palms.
The gardens are also on raised ground and between the trees you’ll catch sight of St Michael’s Mount in the bay.
You can also purchase art, from sculpture to paintings, ceramics and prints, at the newly opened Tremenheere Gallery.
4. Morrab Gardens
A stone’s throw from Penzance’s town centre there’s a enchanting three-acre garden surrounding a stucco villa.
The ensemble was designed in the 1840s and then bought by the local council in 1888 and opened to the public.
The house became the Morrab Library, while the garden was endowed with Victorian structures like a fountain and bandstand, both of which are now listed.
All kinds of subtropical and Mediterranean plant species grow here, flourishing in Cornwall’s mild climate and planted in the late 19th century after donations by nearby estates.
5. Long Rock Beach
Just east of Penzance, Long Rock beach is on the northern curve of Mount’s Bay, between the town and St Michael’s Mount.
Being so close to the centre of Penzance, Long Rock Beach is a favourite with local families, not least because the shore is so shallow and the surf is light.
The beach is made up of sand interrupted by a band of pebbles in the wash.
In summer the eastern end of the beach is watched by lifeguards, and across the A30, just behind there’s a commercial estate with supermarkets and eateries.
6. Market House
A noted landmark and Grade I-listed building, the Market House is easily recognised by its dome and Ionic portico.
Construction took place in the second half of the 1830s, and this multi-use building contained the town’s market hall on its west side and guildhall (town hall) on the east.
The latter sat on top of prison cells, while above the market there was a corn exchange which doubled as a theatre.
Today the Market House is occupied by a branch of Lloyds Bank, whose logo can be seen on the dome and pediment.
7. Jubilee Pool
An Art Deco masterpiece, the Jubilee Pool (1935) is on Battery Rocks, poking out into Mount’s Bay.
This lido took serious storm damage in 2014 but is such a fixture of the town that it reopened in 2016 after a restoration project that cost almost £3m.
The pool is open all summer long , when the sunbathing terraces are screened from coastal winds by high walls and you can relax in deckchair, gazing over the bay to St Michael’s Mount.
The pool has a cafe, designated baby area and a busy schedule of activities from yoga to paddleboarding.
8. St Michael’s Mount
A Cornish equivalent to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, St Michael’s Mount is a spectacular tidal island, accessed via a man-made granite causeway at low tide and home to 30 permanent inhabitants.
The island is looked after by the National Trust and is topped with a castle and chapel dating from the 1100s and the seat of the St Aubyn family for more than 350 years.
You can tour the castle, appreciating the historic weapons in the Garrison Room and the plaster frieze in the “Chevy Chase Room”, before heading up to the turrets to survey Mount’s Bay.
The castle’s gardens have sub-tropical species on steep terraces benefitting from the salty air, while you can also head to the village green for a meal and to catch some live music in summer.
9. Tanglewood Wild Garden
Four miles west of Penzance you can see the magnificent plant life nourished by Cornwall’s climate at an informal garden that is designed to attract nature, from butterflies and bees to herons and kingfishers.
You can even bring dogs to Tangleood Wild Garden and take picnics on the lawns.
The garden has mostly native plants, but includes a few exotic species, while brambles, nettles and thistles are left where they are to give a food source for insects, and in turn birds and mammals.
The woodlands are inhabited by birds like woodpeckers, snipes, buzzards, owls and jays, and you’ll see plenty of waterfowl enjoying the ponds in spring and summer.
10. Praa Sands Beach
Some way east of the town, Praa Sands Beach is a worthwhile 15-minute drive and lies between two headlands, Hoe Point and Rinsey Head.
One mile long and bounded by dunes, the beach has unusually white sands, composed of sea shells pounded into soft grains by the waves.
There are lifeguards from April to September, and the light slope allows children and inexperienced swimmers to paddle in the shallows, while surfers can take on the breaks further out.
To the rear, the village has shops and places to eat, while there are some interesting sights to investigate, like a 1,500-year-old peat bed and a 16th-century tower that belonged to Pengersick Castle.
11. Chapel Street
Be sure to walk this street, which cuts through the centre of Penzance and is fronted by handsome flat-fronted houses and no lack of restaurants, galleries and boutiques.
Heading east down the slope you’ll see the tower of St Mary’s Church, which is actually newer than it looks, dating from the 1830s.
On the west end of the street is the Grade I-listed Egyptian House, also believed to have been built in the 1830s.
This colourful building can’t be missed thanks to its pillars, busts, window frames and bold stucco mouldings in a style that came into fashion after Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.
12. Trengwainton Garden
In the grounds of a country house on the edge of town, Trengwaiton Garden is planted with exotic shrubs and trees suited to Cornwall’s mild climate, but also has arresting views over Mount’s Bay and across to the Lizard.
The estate has been run by the National Trust since 1961, while its walled gardens date back to Elizabethan times and boast some species that you won’t find growing outside anywhere else in the country.
Some are hybrids descended from Georgian botanical expeditions to Assam and Burma, while there’s a eucryphia from South America, a styrax (normally found in tropical Asia and South America) and a stewartia (also from Asia and North America).
13. South West Coast Path
At Penzance you’ll be on this National Trail, which the coast for more than 600 miles around Britain’s South West Peninsula.
This is great news for hikers, as every inch of the coast is served by a waymarked and well-maintained path.
For an easy local walk you make the two-mile trip east to Marazion, basking in the vistas across Mounts Bay and down to the Lizard and the village of Mousehole.
If you’re feeling intrepid you can plan a trip to Land’s End, which may require an overnight stay, but warrants the journey to be able to say that you’ve been to England’s most westerly point.
There you can glimpse nesting guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars on the cliffs in spring.
Along the coast from Penzance is the picturesque fishing village of Mousehole, which has held onto its traditional character.
This tangle of narrow streets has houses built from local granite, now occupied by tearooms, local family-run shops and galleries.
The harbour is steeped in this old-time charm and has just a tiny opening between its walls, which is shielded with wooden beams during winter storms.
During a Spanish raid in 1595 the entire village was sacked, leaving just one house standing, the Keigwin Arms pub.
This building survives today as a private home, with a plaque recounting the story of a squire killed defending the building.
15. Golowan Festival
Midsummer celebrations involving bonfires and arcane rituals took place across Cornwall until the 19th century and have distant pagan origins.
The Golowan Festival in Penzance was revived in 1991 and has become the biggest event on the town’s calendar.
This ten-day event overlaps with the Summer Solstice and features a series of atmospheric processions, including one down to the quayside behind a figure with the skull of a horse, known as Penglaz.
This takes place on Mazey Eve, St John’s Eve on 23 June, but all through the celebration there are impromptu street performances and markets.