"Not a pirate in sight!" Top 5 Page for this destination Penzance by leics

Penzance Travel Guide: 92 reviews and 272 photos

Many Brits automatically associate Penzance with pirates, mostly because of the Gilbert & Sullivan opera 'Pirates of Penzance'.

Some folk from other countries (no names, no pack drill :-) ) think Penzance is a figment of the imagination in the same way as Brigadoon is a Scottish figment.

It isn't. It's a real place, the most westerly large settlement in the UK.

But I was not seeking pirates, be they alive or dead...I simply wanted a sensible early-January base for an exploration of the extreme west of Cornwall. I know the UK and its foibles, and knew that in the dead days immediately after Christmas, at the lowest of low season, needed somewhere large enough to offer me a range of places to eat in the evening (I had thought, in Tiverton on a January Sunday, that I would be forced to McDonalds for my evening meal but, luckily, my hotel did bar food). Ideally, I wanted somewhere by the sea, with some historical interest, easy road access (I was driving) and decent, reasonably-priced accommodation. Penzance fitted all those criteria, so that is where I stayed.

I was lucky: I found an absolutely brilliant b&b/guesthouse, warm and cosy with free wifi, coffee and cake on arrival and the best breakfasts I've yet come across in the UK.

Penzance, although not especially pretty, has its areas of historical interest, some cracking pubs with decent food, wonderful views across Mounts Bay towards St Michael's Mount in one direction and Newlyn in the other, sandy beaches and a wide 'prom' along which to stroll and watch the sunrise or sunset (or, in my case, to watch the huge waves whipped up by the winter storm which passed over during my first night).

Being at the end of the line (literally)..it's the most westerly large town in England and where the rail network stops.....Penzance is well-used to visitors of all nationalities, and has remarkably good public transport options to meet the needs of those without a car. I was surprised to see double-decker buses trundling along the lanes on their way to Lands End (in January!) and equally surprised to share my wonderful b&b with a Belgian couple, two Americans and a Japanese couple.

My hosts said that this was quite usual...being accessible by rail means lots of overseas visitors find their way to Penzance, especially those who are afficionados of the Rosamund Pilcher books and TV series (very popular in Germany, it seems).

But I was on my home turf, and had a car, so I was up for explorations. This most westerly part of the Cornish peninsula is stuffed full of prehistoric sites (it is mild, and fertile, and the seams of tin and copper ore were being mined from as early as the Bronze age (roughly 2150BC). So prehistoric sites were high on the agenda, plus Lands End itself (I've been to John-o-Groats and wanted to visit) and as many bits of history, architecture and landscape as I could fit in.

I arrived in Penzance much earlier than I had expected: the roads, on January 2nd (a public holiday) were almost empty and I whizzed down the A30. Don't expect the same if you come in summer: Cornwall is a hugely popular holiday area and the A30 is notorious for its traffic jams, despite the fact that it is largely dual carriageway. In fact i passed a several-mile long traffic jam on the way down, near Bodmin, caused simply by the volume of going-home-after-the-holidays traffic filtering from two lanes into one. So be warned..getting to Penzance may take far longer than you hope!

I was lucky with the traffic and so had several hours to explore the town before I needed to check-in. Penzance central has all the usual chains which you will find in any English town (or city), and has, like most other English towns and cities, been blighted in the past by concrete-and-glass monstrosities. But enough of its original character remains to make a wander round the streets worthwhile, and I was very pleased indeed to find a goodly number of independent shops, selling everything from meat to clothes to pasties and cakes.

But, being a public holiday, almost everything was closed. Even so, I enjoyed wandering the streets and looking at the architecture..there are some real gems tucked away, especially on Chapel Street. I certainly never realised there was any link between Penzance and the Brontes...but there is (see tips).

Market Jew Street (the name comes from the Cornish 'Marghas Yow'..Thursday market) is the 'main drag', topped by the magnificent Market building and statue of Humphrey Davy, probably Penzance's most famous son and the saviour of thousands of miners' lives with his 'Davy lamp'. Leading off are various smaller streets, including the architecturally-rich Chapel Street and a couple of stepped streets which hint at what Penzance once looked like. For it has a long history indeed......

The first mention of Penzance comes in 1284, but it is impossible to imagine that the site was not settled for many centuries before this...and quite possibly back into prehistory. There were 8 fishing boats recorded in the 1300s (again, almost certainly for centuries beforehand) and the village (as it then was) was often raided by what were called 'Turkish pirates' but were actually Barbary Corsairs (mostly based in Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers). They wouldn't have raided unless Penzance had something worthwhile...and perhaps that is how the town later became associated with pirates. But other raids took place in later centuries, including by the Spanish. Penzance must have been a rather scary place to live in Medieval times!

Penzance was granted its market charter in 1404 and by the early 1800s was an important town for its region, with the railway arriving in 1852. Even before that date Penzance had been promoting itself as a tourist destination (bathing machines available to hire as early as 1823) and you can still see some lovely 'Regency' buildings which were erected as the town's popularity began to build in the early 1800s.

I liked Penzance a lot. It seemed to me, in the lowest of the low season, to be a very pleasant and friendly little town which still remains its own identity, despite its popularity as a tourist destination. The man in the wetsuit making his pre-dawn swim (in January!!), the elderly lady feeding the seagulls, the numerous dogwalkers and early-morning (or evening) joggers, the friendly greetings and chit-chat in which locals were engaged as I wandered...yes, it's still a proper community, where people know each other.

What it's like in the height of the high season, filled with visitors from all over the UK and elsewhere, I don't know. I'm sure I wouldn't like it much, for crowds and busy-ness do not appeal to me. But, out of season, I think it is an excellent base for a Cornish exploration.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Easy to access, sea, public transport, pleasant place.
  • Cons:Is probably very crowded in season.
  • In a nutshell:The end of the line...literally!
  • Last visit to Penzance: Jan 2012
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (14)

Comments (6)

  • alza's Profile Photo
    Mar 27, 2014 at 1:44 PM

    What a good write-up on Penzance! Thank you!

  • MalenaN's Profile Photo
    Jan 25, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    Penzance sounds to be a very nice place! I hope to stay there a few days in April.

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Jan 25, 2014 at 10:14 AM

      Thank you, Malena! I'm sure you'll have a super time in April Cornwall...but do remember to pack layers and your waterproof jacket! :-)

  • codrutz's Profile Photo
    Feb 29, 2012 at 3:06 AM

    very nice architecture, stone houses, various styles (incl that egyptian one), I checked Penzance for the first time to see where it is and it has a great location on the island of Great Britain .. that way I learn about Cornwall aso preparing my future tips for a UK trip :)

  • spidermiss's Profile Photo
    Jan 25, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    Love the tips and thanks for sharing! Booked Penzance in October for a few days (wanted to avoid the summer!). Have a travelled filled 2012:D x

  • csordila's Profile Photo
    Jan 8, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    Hi, J, it is really an interesting information of a very interesting place! One never can think that on an old place you find such an interesting eshtablisments!!!!!!!!!!!! It is a wonderful place. Thx for the nice informations. Best. L.

  • HORSCHECK's Profile Photo
    Jan 8, 2012 at 3:00 AM

    Fabulous start about Penzance here. I once stayed 4 days in the town and explored Cornwall from there. Places like St Michael's Mount, Marazion, Newlyn, Mousehole and many more where on my list as well. Warwick House really seems to be a good find. - Happy new year 2012.


“'Take clothes you can layer....' :-)”

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