There’s a certain quality to the North Devon coast that makes it special – a blend of clear light, unique topography and glistening water. So it’s no surprise that Ilfracombe attracts many visitors in search of sun, sea and sand, all in an idyllic setting.
A traditional fishing village, Ilfracombe became a trading town by virtue of its harbour, a refuge from the tides of the Bristol Channel; however, by the mid-20th century, the key industry was tourism.
Visitors are drawn to the harbour and the famous Tunnel beaches, carved out in the 1820s to allow access to the beach and two tidal pools, which enabled Victorian men and women to swim in segregated modesty.
Today there’s a thriving arts and restaurant scene, and access to nearby surf beaches and the South West Coast Path.
Where to stay in Ilfracombe
Sunnymead Farm is a well-placed site between Woolacombe and Ilfracombe welcomes families and pets, and offers a choice of touring and static pitches. Alternatively, Hele Valley Holiday Park is a wildlife-friendly campsite that is not far from beautiful Hele Bay, with a variety of pitches and accommodation options.
Another option is Ilfracombe CAMC Campsite. This peaceful location three miles inland is in a beautiful rural setting. Note there is no toilet block at the site.
If you’re thinking of heading to another part of Devon instead, be sure to take a look at our best caravan park in Devon guide, where we share our top picks.
What to do in Ilfracombe on Day 1
9am – Head to the harbour
Grab a delicious snack at the Pasty Bakehouse and wander down to Ilfracombe Harbour, where you can watch the boats – there’s been a port here since the 12th century.
A number of wildlife cruises leave from here, as well as boats for beautiful Lundy Island, owned by the National Trust.
Full day trips to Lundy are available on MS Oldenburg, but for a shorter outing, the Ilfracombe Princess provides one- and two-hour cave or wildlife cruises from £14.
While you’re spending time at the harbour, pause to view Verity, Damien Hirst’s 20.25m stainless steel and bronze statue depicting a pregnant woman brandishing a sword.
1pm – Lunch Thyme!
Treat yourself to a tasty lunch at the Take Thyme restaurant in nearby Fore Street, which specialises in locally caught fish with dishes such as pan-seared scallops, River Fowey mussels and Lundy dressed crab.
2.30pm – Take a stroll to the Nature Reserve
Walk off that luxurious lunch by heading east along the South West Coast Path for a couple of miles to Hillsborough Nature Reserve, where you can see the remains of an Iron Age fort. On the way, you pass Rapparee Cove, a popular bathing beach in Victorian days. Take in the views before pausing for a paddle in Hele Bay.
4pm – Afternoon tea
Combine a trip to the historic 16th-century Hele Corn Mill with a delicious Devonshire cream tea. It’s free to see the mill, which dates back to 1525 and was used to mill flour until the 1930s. Now restored, it has the bonus of being home to the award-winning tearoom, serving traditional cakes and cream teas.
7pm – Sunset views
After all that fine food, why not forgo a big dinner? Instead, you can revel in the glorious sunset views from Capstone Hill, half a mile west of the harbour.
What to do on Day 2
9am – To the lighthouse
Just by Ilfracombe Harbour, you’ll find Lantern Hill, home to St Nicholas Chapel, named after the patron saint of sailors and dating all the way back to 1321. A beacon has been set here since the 15th century and it is still a working lighthouse today.
10.30am – Into the Tunnels
Arguably Ilfracombe’s most famous attraction, these four hand-carved tunnels, created in the 1820s, provide access to sheltered bathing areas, a Victorian tidal bathing pool and a café/bar. There’s a £3 charge for adults and note that at times, the ‘Gentlemen’s’ beach is closed for private wedding functions.
1pm – Buon appétito!
Head back into town to enjoy old-school Italian classics at Giovanni & Luca restaurant. Expect a packed menu of pizza, pasta and rice dishes, along with meat and fish. All authentically Italian, too, right down to the smart gingham tablecloths!
3pm – Local history
Poke around in the past with a wander through some of the curiosities and collectables to be found in the fascinating Ilfracombe museum, which gives a unique insight into the town’s history, combining military memorabilia with newspaper archives and collections of natural history.
6pm – Sunset surf
This part of the world is famous for its surfing, so before you leave, take a 20-minute drive west to the three-mile beach at Woolacombe, for a glorious sunset surf. Beginners can sign up for lessons at Woolacombe Surf Centre – a half-day is £35.
Head to our Best of British: Weekends Away section for more great touring ideas.
Lead image: Alamy
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