If you’ve ever watched Poldark, chances are you’re familiar with charming Charlestown in Cornwall. If you haven’t watched Poldark… do it. Right now. The views (and I’m not talking about the Cornish coast here) are to die for. I mean, a charismatic man of the people with looks that could kill, gallivanting around the Cornish countryside? Yes, please!
Ramblings about Poldark’s beauty and charm aside, Charlestown is perhaps best known as the backdrop for the city of Truro in the show. It makes sense, since modern day Truro is a little too, well, modern for a period drama.
Charlestown, on the other hand, fits the bill perfectly. This village is pretty pint-sized, but it’s utterly charming. Narrow streets are clustered around the beautiful old harbour, which is set off with gorgeous tall ships tempting you to embrace the life of a pirate.
Add in a fascinating museum, plenty of great food and drink options and some fabulous shopping, and it’s no wonder that this is one of Cornwall’s most popular tourist attractions.
History of Charlestown in Cornwall
Like many of the coastal villages in Cornwall, Charlestown’s history can be traced to the decidedly unsexy industry of pilchards. Fishing, along with mining, was once the lifeblood of Cornwall, and many villages relied on it.
Originally, the village was known as West Polmear and was made up of just a few small cottages who housed fisherman and their families. By the census in 1790, there were just three families living there.
As well as pilchards, the village also dealt in the clay, copper and tin that was mined from nearby St Austell.
As time went on, the fortune of the village grew thanks to its strategic location. This attracted the attention of a local businessman, Charles Rashleigh, who decided to invest in the town and build a harbour.
Little did he know that more than a century later, that harbour would still create fame and fortune for the little town.
The harbour was built, and West Polmear continued to grow in fortune. As well as plenty of industry, it soon had a population of over 3,000 people.
Around this time, it was decided to change the village’s name to honour Charles Rashleigh. The name Charles’s Town was suggested, but it was soon altered to Charlestown. Although he’s somewhat of a legendary figure with the town, his own fortunes were pretty dodgy.
Unfortunately, he was the victim of an embezzler who managed to steal away much of his fortune. He was eventually bankrupt – luckily, the fortune of Charlestown continued.
As a filming location
Eventually, as we all know, the fortune of Cornwall’s mining and fishing industries turned and went into a rapid decline. Luckily, Charlestown had its good looks to steer it through the storm.
As well as tourism, Charlestown has become known as a filming location. It’s gorgeous, old world charm adds charm and charisma to many films.
Amongst the movies and television series that have filmed at Charlestown is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Doctor Who and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
Perhaps most famously though (at least to me) is the BBC drama Poldark. The sight of the broodingly handsome Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) and his beautiful bride Demelza wandering down the streets of “Truro” (aka Charlestown) has turned the town into mecca for fans.
Since Poldark has recently wrapped up filming, we will have to wait and see if any new shows decide to make Charlestown’s tall ships their backdrop!
Where is Charlestown?
Charlestown is located about a mile east of St Austell in north Cornwall.
How to get to Charlestown from St Austell
St Austell is a major hub in Cornwall, so it is well-connected to the rest of the county and even the rest of England. There’s a large train station and it’s also serviced by the National Express and Megabus.
From St Austell, you can get the 24 or 25 bus to Charlestown. The entire journey only takes about 15 – 20 minutes, and the size of Charlestown means it’s super easy to get around on foot.
If you have a car, driving is really easy. The only problem is the parking, especially in high season. There is a fairly large carpark right opposite the Shipwreck Centre (prices from £2.50 for two hours, and it only takes coins – no card, and no notes) however it can get pretty crowded.
Things to do in Charlestown
I wouldn’t go to Charlestown expecting there to be a huge town full of things to do. It’s small and quaint, but there is more than enough to keep you busy for a few hours.
Explore the harbour
Charlestown is a relatively petite village, centred around the beautiful harbour. It’s no wonder – it’s totally charming.
The harbour is Grade II listed, and offers gorgeous views out over St Austell Bay. Perhaps the highlight is the tall ships that are moored there… it really makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time a century or two.
To get down to the tall ships and have a closer look, you’ll need to pay an entry fee to the harbour. However, you get a pretty great view from above for free – so I don’t think it’s strictly necessary.
Keep in mind that entry to the harbour is included if you buy tickets to the Shipwreck Centre!
Go to the Charlestown beach
If you go right to the end of the harbour, you’ll come to a pretty – if very pebbly – beach. Honestly, it’s not the prettiest beach in Cornwall, but the water is calm and the views are lovely.
It’s a nice beach for having a paddle or even launching a kayak or paddleboard out from. Or, you could always pick a spot on the pebbles and settle in for a picnic with those dashing views!
Apart from the harbour, the highlight of visiting Charlestown is the amazing Shipwreck Museum. It’s one of the premier museums of its type in the world, and has more than 8,000 artefacts!
These have all been recovered off of shipwrecks off the coast of Cornwall as well as further afield. There’s lots of cool stuff, from ancient Egyptian artefacts to more modern coins and everyday objects.
The museum is a bit ‘look don’t touch’ due to the nature and age of many of the objects. As a result, I’d say it’s probably better for adults and older visitors who are interested in shipwrecks, rather than kids.
That said, your ticket does let you out onto the tall ships – and sometimes one of them has a pirate! What kid (or kid-at-heart) doesn’t love a pirate?
Charlestown is located along the South West Coastal Path, one of the most famous walks in all of the UK. Every year, thousands of people who are better at life than I am, decide to walk some or all of the 630 miles of coast in the south west.
Charlestown is located along it, and a popular section of the walk is between the village and Mevagissey. This is another picturesque Cornish town, and the views between the two villages are (I hear) absolutely gorgeous.
In my opinion, anything longer than 400 metres, you take a bus.
At 5.5 miles or just under nine kilometres, the walk takes about one and a half to two hours if taking it slowly to enjoy the views. As well as the beautiful coast, you might also spot some English wildlife along the way!
Shopping for arts and crafts
Thanks to Charlestown’s popularity as a tourist destination, it has a host of cute little shops selling Cornish art and souvenirs. Many of these are found in the old harbour buildings, just a stone’s throw from the water.
If you’re looking for some souvenirs made by local Cornish artists, then definitely check it out. There’s also a beautiful antique store selling all kinds of vintage jewellery, furniture, art and more.
Where to eat and drink in Charlestown
Charlestown is the perfect spot to enjoy a casual lunch or cake with coffee.
We discovered this little gem and totally recommend stopping by for a coffee and a panini. Its name is hard to spot – so you’re better off looking out for the large sign advertising Cornish pasties and the brightly coloured table cloths.
They do a great selection of sandwiches and paninis, as well as sausage rolls and Cornish pasties (of course). The food is not totally revolutionary, but it’s tasty and freshly prepared. They also do fun specials like crab rolls (yum!).
The service is great and the setting is so pretty. It really feels like you’re tucked away in a little terrace, which adds to the good vibes in Charlestown. Plus, the coffee is really good! Hurrah, it’s a miracle!
Charlie’s Coffee House
Another option for a charming light bite is Charlie’s Coffee House. Nestled inside a beautiful old building, this coffee house offer a lot of vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options if that’s your deal.
They’re particularly well-known for their indulgent breakfasts, complete with pancakes smothered in cream and maple syrup (just how they should be!).
The staff here are also really loved and very understanding of dietary requirements. It’s a great place to stop by, especially for brunch!
Tall Ships Creamery
This isn’t really a cafe or restaurant so much as it is a little hole-in-the-wall stall, but if that’s what you’re looking for then you’re sure to love it.
The atmosphere and views in Charlestown are perfect for a delicious cream tea, and Tall Ships does a fabulous one! Just make sure to put the jam on the scone FIRST, as this is Cornwall, and doing otherwise may cause a diplomatic incident.
They also do delicious icecream that you can get in a cone and enjoy as you wander around Charlestown. It’s the perfect addition to a sunny day!
The Pier House
If you’re looking for a more fancy dinner or lunch in Charlestown, then The Pier House is one to impress! Although it’s technically a pub, it feels more like a restaurant. It has a gorgeous view of Charlestown Harbour and the menu is pretty fab as well.
As you’d expect from a restaurant near the sea, the menu is particularly heavy on seafood (no complaints here!). They have lots of fancy options including delicious mussels, plus a decadent dessert menu.
This place is definitely going for the ‘fine dining in Charlestown’ approach, so prices are more on the pointy end than at the laidback cafes and diners. However, Charlestown is definitely a good place to splurge if you’re celebrating (and sometimes you can just celebrate being in a gorgeous place!)
If you’re looking for a good pub meal, a pint or even a place to stay, then the Rashleigh Arms in Charlestown is your best bet. This is a beautiful pub that’s been renovated inside so that it’s charming but modern.
The menu is generally made up of classic pub fare like burgers, but they do also do a mean curry night if you’re looking for something more spicy. They also have your usual selection of St Austell brews — not my absolute favourite, but the Tribute isn’t bad.
The pub itself is really comfy and there’s a big decking area to catch the sun when you can. Plus, it gives beautiful views of Charlestown! A pretty good place to drink, I reckon.
You can also stay at the Rashleigh Arms overnight if you’re looking for accommodation in Charlestown.
Things to do near Charlestown
Once you’ve explored Charlestown, you might want to head out and see even more. There are a few great attractions within close proximity of the village.
The Eden Project
It’s the world’s largest greenhouse, with a collection of huge biomes that contain an amazing variety of plants and flowers from all over the world. There are also over 30 acres of outdoor gardens to explore as well.
The Eden Project was set up with the aim of advising people on environmental sustainability and conservation, and it does a great job. Throughout the year they hold lots of different events that are fun for all ages.
It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for things to do around Charlestown!
St Austell Brewery
If you’ve spent much time in Cornwall’s pubs (like yours truly), then chances are you’re plenty familiar with the St Austell Brewery. They are probably the most well-known brewery in the area and on tap in most pubs in the county.
You can find out more about the brewery’s history and beer at their visitor centre in St Austell. It’s about ten minutes from Charlestown, so an easy trip to make.
At the brewery, you can take a tour to learn more about the production process and also taste some beer (of course.) They also have a restaurant where you can have a meal, perhaps accompanied with a tasting flight.
Lost Gardens of Heligan
There’s something so romanting and fascinating about anything that was lost and then found. Think Machu Picchu, Petra… and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall!
Okay, maybe they’re not quiiiiite on that level. But if you are looking for something to do near Charlestown, then these charming gardens are a great pick.
The garden belonged to the powerful Tremayne family in Cornwall, who created an expansive and beautiful oasis. However, war and financial woes meant the gardens were all but forgotten. When they were discovered in the early 1990s, they were overgrown beyond recognition.
Instead of destroying the gardens, a team worked together to bring them back to life. Today, they are charming and romantic, and open to the public to visit. It’s a great place to go and explore, especially if you love nature!
Practical tips for visiting Charlestown in Cornwall
- Parking is, frankly, a total pain in Charlestown. There is one large car park that is opposite the Shipwreck Centre (near the harbourside art/antique stores), but it gets pretty full in peak season. Also, apparently the council are still living in the 90s, and the only thing it accepts are coins. Come prepared!
- Charlestown is very small, so it is incredible easy to explore on foot. Catching public transport from St Austell may be a better bet, as then you won’t need to worry about trying to find space for your car.
- You are totally welcome to visit the harbour, especially if you’ve already paid your entry fee via your ticket to the Shipwreck Museum. However, you get a pretty good view from above – so if you’re trying to save some money, it’s not strictly necessary!