Intriguing old buildings, narrow streets and steps, and a whiff of smuggled spirits on the salty air… Welcome to Falmouth, the elegant Georgian town that's the heart of Cornwall's maritime heritage.
From the small fishing boats at the Prince of Wales pier to the bespoke yachts in Pendennis Shipyard, Falmouth's harbour serves all manner of vessels. Falmouth grew around one of the largest and deepest natural harbours in the world, and you'll often see a visiting cruise ship or naval vessel in its deep-water docks.
If you love the sound of masts jingling in the evening breeze, or the joy of travelling by water instead of road, this seafaring town is the perfect place to come.
But Falmouth has more strings to its bow and is also known for its artistic heritage. Falmouth School of Art opened in 1902, and by the time it became a university in 2012, was an internationally renowned art college. Today, the two Falmouth campuses and their 7,000 students help to give the town a fresh and vibrant feel.
Add to this Falmouth's sandy beaches, its museums and an almost bewildering choice of places to eat and drink, and you can easily see why it's such a popular visitor destination.
A History of Falmouth
Until the middle of the 16th century, the only building in Falmouth was Arwenack, the home of the Killigrew family. While today it may seem like the location would be ideal for a harbour town, back in those days these assets made it vulnerable to attack from pirates or warships from across the channel. However, Henry VIII recognised the value of one of the world's finest natural harbours and built Pendennis Castle on the headland. Across the estuary, he established a sister fortress in St Mawes, forming a forbiddingly well-defended harbour. The Killigrews took the opportunity to begin developing a second town in this strategically important site.
Before the founding of Falmouth, Penryn was the main settlement in the area. Although there were objections from Penryn, Falmouth received a charter from Charles II in 1661 (being on the Royalist side in the Civil War eventually paid off) and there was soon a cluster of a few hundred homes around the new Church of King Charles the Martyr. (The church is worth visiting as it has some interesting Cornish medieval windows.)
Early in the life of the port, the Falmouth Packet ships began to carry mail to distant parts of the world. This hastened the development of Falmouth until the 1820s when mail delivery was taken over by the Admiralty. However, the advent of the railways brought a new kind of trade to Falmouth: by the end of the 19th century, Falmouth was already a thriving tourist destination.
There's a lot to see in Falmouth. If you're staying in Cornwall but not in the town itself, you may want to allow more than one day to do Falmouth justice.
Where's the best place to start? We reckon it's by getting your bearings, which means exploring Falmouth on foot.
A Stroll Around Falmouth
There are now two main hubs: the older Moor, which is a large outdoor space at the top of the town, surrounded by Victorian buildings, and the much more recent Discovery Quay at the far end of the main shopping area. Both are surrounded by bars and restaurants, and host various music and food-based events.
Between these spaces is the main shopping drag through Falmouth - but that's really underselling this jumble of Georgian, Victorian and even earlier buildings, with views down to the sea on one side and intriguing little passages. Follow your nose along the High Street, Market Street, Church Street, Arwenack Street and Bar Road, which all run into each other and are lined with independent shops and eateries.
Take some time to see the newer side of Falmouth at Discovery Quay (maybe grab some chips from nearby Harbour Lights?). Opposite the car park, look out for an older building at the roadside. This is Arwenack House, Sir John Killigrew's home and the oldest building in Falmouth.
Still walking? Carry on out of town past rows of townhouses, until you reach the road to Pendennis Point. If you fancy a longer walk, take the path around the headland, looking down over the impressive docks, which eventually emerges on the other side of town. In contrast to the narrow alleyways and old taverns of the Georgian streets, you're now in Victorian seaside territory, with bay-windowed hotels and sandy beaches.
Along the way, divert to walk along Prince of Wales Pier and look out over the boats, or to climb Jacob's Ladder near The Moor. This is a flight of 111 stone steps known as Jacob's Ladder. This isn't in reference to the Biblical tale, but in fact is named after local businessman Jacob Hamblen who commissioned the steps. There's a good view of the town for those who have the energy to climb up there.
Built on the site of old boat building sheds, in the new Discovery Quay development, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall is as much about its location as it is its collection. Unlike its Greenwich counterpart, this five-storey museum shares the history and tales of small boats rather than naval battles, and demonstrates how these vessels and the Cornish people have shaped each other's histories.
NMMC makes the most of its waterfront location: climb up to the Look Out at the top of the tower for the best views over the Fal, before heading downwards into the Tidal Zone for a fish-eye view of the harbour. In the middle, there are excellent permanent galleries (check out the Flotilla collection of small boats) as well as a range of world-class temporary exhibitions. Recent touring shows have arranged from Titanic to tattoos. Find out more about the NMMC.
Head up to the headland to explore Falmouth's Tudor fortress, Pendennis Castle. Along with its twin, St Mawes Castle, Pendennis has guarded the harbour from sea attack since the days of Henry VIII. You can visit the Tudor keep along with the later garrison buildings and the 20th century war defences. Look out for English Heritage's regular programme of events at Pendennis (Cornish for “top of the town”).
Falmouth Art Gallery
As you'd expect, Falmouth has an excellent town art gallery, and it has the added bonus of being free (check for special exhibitions though). Falmouth Art Gallery is in The Moor at the opposite end of town from NMMC hosts a varied range of temporary exhibitions, and while it may not be the world's largest gallery space, it certainly knows how to create a fascinating display.
Does Falmouth have good beaches?
Falmouth may be better known for its harbour and docks; however, head south across the town, and you'll encounter a lovely series of sandy, family-friendly beaches.
This is the perfect family beach: soft sand, year-round facilities, clean and sheltered swimming… Try a SUP lesson in the calm waters, then call into Gylly Beach Cafe for well-earned refreshments.
This sheltered beach is a bit further away from town. Like Gylly Beach, it has a cafe and a watersports centre, and it backs onto Swanpool Lake Nature Reserve.
Again, you'll need to head a bit further from Falmouth, but there is a car park right on the beach. The gently sloping sands and shallow waters make this a popular spot among families. Look out for the shipwreck at low tide.
The River Fal starts near St Austell and joins the sea at Pendennis Point. At Sett Bridge, the river becomes a tidal estuary, and at some points, reaches depths of over 30 metres. Before reaching the Channel, the estuary widens and deepens into one of the world's largest natural harbours: Falmouth.
The area just north of Falmouth is known as the Carrick Roads, and is the place to go for birdwatching. There are around 30 tributaries flowing into the estuary at this point, forming an intricate network of waterways that make the perfect habitat for all sorts of water birds.
One of the loveliest things to do in Falmouth is to walk up to one of the town's many viewpoints to gaze out at the estuary (or save the climb by admiring the Fal from a waterside pub). However, the best way to experience the Fal is by boat. You can pick up a cruise from the Prince of Wales Pier in town, or catch the ferry across to St Mawes or Flushing, or even skip the traffic by sailing up to Truro.
Don't want to park in Falmouth? Not a problem. Leave the road at Penryn, and catch the splendid Park and Float service into town (just check the boat is operating first. The bus service is great, but it's not quite the same…).
Places to visit close to Falmouth
There's more than enough to do in Falmouth itself; however, if you're staying here for a few days and want to explore further, here are some of the closest places to visit.
This is another pretty village across from Falmouth, known for its luxe accommodation and waterside restaurants. St Mawes is a popular upscale holiday destination, and it's also a great place for a day out from Falmouth. Catch the ferry over, find a good place for a spot of lunch, then spend the afternoon visiting the castle or relaxing on one of the village's nice little beaches.
Don't dismiss Penryn and head straight into Falmouth. The smaller town still has plenty to offer; and because it's home to the University's Tremough Campus, it has a young and lively feel. It's a hub for the sailing community, while landlubbers will love its narrow old streets. Oh, but if you should see a ghostly coach in the distance, don't look directly at it. It will spirit you away…
If you look across from Falmouth and spot some handsome houses among the trees, those will be the old sea captains' dwellings in Flushing. The pretty village was a chosen spot for the wealthier seafarers. Originally settled by a Dutch community, Flushing has distinctive architecture and a slightly different feel to the nearby villages. Catch the ferry across from Falmouth for a lovely day trip.
Gardens Near Falmouth
The gardens near Falmouth are so spectacular that they deserve their own special section! The Gulf Stream ensures that we can grow beautiful subtropical plants here, and the sheltered environments around the Fal and the Helford River make the climate even better.
These popular gardens are about seven miles from Falmouth. Explore the lush, sub-tropical valley as it winds down to the river - and make sure that you don't miss the cafe. Trebah Garden is known for its dog friendliness, so it's a great place to bring a four-pawed companion for a walk.
The National Trust garden is practically next door to Trebah. Glendurgan is known as “the one with the maze” (surprisingly tricky), but don't let that distract you completely from the stunning planting. The cute little cove is another highlight.
Don't put your National Trust card away yet. Trelissick is another lovely National Trust garden near Falmouth. This estate feels more classically English than the sub-tropical Glendurgan, with its sweeping parkland and pleasant woodland walks.
Welcome to one of Falmouth's best-kept secrets… Enys Gardens is close to Penryn and is open during the main season. Pull on your boots, and head out to explore its woods and pathways - just bear in mind that some of its routes aren't easily accessible.
Falmouth University & Student Life
Over 100 years of teaching experience, 7,000 students, two lively campuses and a choice of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees… Falmouth University is a big part of the town's life. It started out as Falmouth School of Art in the early 20th century, and has always embraced all the directions the arts have taken. Today, it's the place to come to study animation, filmmaking and game design as well as more established subjects such as art, drama, creative writing, music, and media. Look out for the university's programme of performances, events and exhibitions.
And of course, having a uni in the town means there's going to be a vibrant social scene. From The Poly, an arts hub/theatre/bar/creative space to Beerwolf Books, a bookshop-slash-pub, Falmouth is full of lively and unique venues.
Annual Events in Falmouth
There's always plenty going on in Falmouth, and unlike more traditional seaside resorts, it doesn't close down in the off season. Try to catch one of the town's major annual events if you can.
Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival. Each June, singers gather from all over the world to celebrate the songs of the sea together. And yes, this was happening long before shanties had remixes and downloads
Sailors and lubbers alike get together in August for Falmouth Week. There's plenty of action on the water with seven days of racing, as well as music, food and drink, and many other events going on ashore
In October it's time to pay homage to the Fal's most famous produce, at the Falmouth Oyster Festival. There's food, drink and even more shanties - and you don't even have to like oysters…
As the name suggests the Castle to Castle Swim involves swimming between two castles. Held in September this open water swim sees hundreds of swimmers crossing the mouth of the Fal from Pendennis Castle to St Mawes Castle, a distance of just over a mile.
Falmouth: Good to Know
Looking for some practical information about staying in Falmouth?
Getting to Falmouth
Falmouth by road
The easiest way to get to Falmouth from “upcountry” is to follow the A30 from Exeter. At Truro, take the A390 to Falmouth.
Falmouth by Rail
Falmouth by Bus
First Kernow is one of the operators who run a service to Falmouth. There's a route between Penzance and Falmouth, as well as regular buses from Truro.
Parking in Falmouth
There are several large car parks in Falmouth. For long stay, look out for The Dell, Town Quarry, Church Street, or Gyllyngvase.
Want to catch the Park & Float or Park & Ride from Penryn? Set your sat nav to TR11 2SE.
Where to Eat in Falmouth
Where to start? As a large (for Cornwall) town, a thriving visitor destination with a busy university, Falmouth is full of places to eat. The square at Discovery Quay has a row of bars and restaurants, and the main thoroughfares have everything from pasty shops to chic little brasseries.
For something traditional, try one of the town's old pubs, many of which lead down to the harbour. Again, the square at The Moor is surrounded by pubs, cafes and restaurants, as well as takeaways.
Where to stay in Falmouth
There's a great choice of places to stay in Falmouth, from traditional seaside B&Bs to the luxe St Michael's Resort Spa. The many tall townhouses in Falmouth make perfect boutique hotels and AirBandB apartments, and there's always a good choice of accommodation. Search our Cornwall accommodation listings to find out more about accommodation in and around Falmouth.