The magical beauty of the UK can be found when visitors head outside of their comfort zone and explore places generally frequented only by die-hard locals and stereotypical British travels who prefer to stay within the confines of the island. The South-West corner of the UK, notably home to the counties of Devon and Cornwall, is a hidden gem that visitors to the UK need to become more aware of. The idyllic town of Ilfracombe, located on the northern coastline of Devon, was a place we recently visited and it’s no surprise to hear that we quickly fell in love with the inherent beauty here. Whether you are visiting during a day trip as we did or you are staying in close proximity, there are plenty of things to do in Ilfracombe that will keep you occupied throughout the day.
Destinations such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds will always attract travelers from across the globe but since leaving England in 2006, I have been focused on trying to inspire folks to visit places like the beautiful county of Devon.
Whether you are experiencing the best things to do in South Devon or heading to the northern coast to explore gorgeous seaside towns such as Ilfracombe, Devon is one of those quintessential British regions that should be on everyone’s radar. Let’s take a look at why Ilfracombe quickly jumped to the very top of our favorite Devonshire destinations.
Where is Ilfracombe?
Ilfracombe, Devon? Ok, I get it…probably not the first place you think about visiting when you are contemplating a trip to the UK. It’s also worth noting that even if you reside in the UK, Ilfracombe is not likely to be a destination on the tip of your tongue as there are many other places that you would likely consider visiting first.
Frequently left in the shadow of some of Devon’s more iconic locations such as Torquay and Dartmoor National Park, Ilfracombe is a seaside resort located on the northern tip of the county. Easily accessible from nearby larger towns such as Barnstaple, Tiverton and even Exeter and Torquay further afield, Ilfracombe is a town that is well worth visiting if you are planning a trip to South-West England.
5 Best Things to Do in Ilfracombe
Regardless of your interest in archetypal British heritage, you cannot help but fall in love with the gorgeous setting as you approach the coastal town of Ilfracombe. We decided to take a day trip from South Devon which lead to a 90 minute drive before arriving in the stereotypical Devonshire country lanes that saw us reach Ilfracombe. As you drop down into the town, the breathtaking beauty of this destination immediately strikes you and brings back any memories or thoughts that you may have about a typical British seaside town.
Ilfracombe may not be the bustling seaside resort such as Blackpool or even Torquay but what it does possess is a distinctive blend of natural beauty combined with traditional British seaside architecture that makes it a place you won’t want to leave.
From historic architecture to breathtaking views across the Bristol Channel and a rugged coastline similar to what you may expect to find at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, Ilfracombe is a resort that we want to give the recognition we think it deserves. Here are some of the best reasons to visit Ilfracombe along with a few things you wont want to miss during your next visit.
- South-West Coastal Path
- Ilfracombe Harbor
- Chapel of St. Nicholas
- Lundy Island Experience
- Enjoy a Devonshire Cream Tea
Let’s take a look at each of the above experiences and perhaps you will be inspired to visit a place that truly epitomizes the magical beauty we associate with England. This is far from an exhaustive list of things to do in this part of North Devon but if you are able to experience each of these, you will certainly realize why we quickly became enamored by Ilfracombe.
South-West Coastal Path
If you love the great outdoors, Ilfracombe’s stunning coastline is going to immediately capture your attention and make you want to explore further. This gorgeous rugged coastline is home to a myriad of spectacular overlooks and also the iconic South-West coastal path, England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath which stretches for 630 miles all along the coasts of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.
Although visitors to Ilfracombe today may be enamored by the idyllic harbor or perhaps the towering “Verity” statue, you cannot help but constantly gaze over to the coast with the collection of amazing viewpoints. We spent a couple of hours hiking along the coastal path, frequently stopping for pictures but mainly to admire the natural beauty in front of us. Be prepared for some steep gradients along this hiking trail but this workout is well worth the effort.
After walking in Jersey during our last trip to the UK, we realized that the best way to explore the UK is on foot. For the really adventurous folks that visit Ilfracombe and are planning to stay for longer than a day, why not consider hiking this coastal path for 8 miles all the way to the nearby village of Woolacombe. But for those that prefer to stay in and around Ilfracombe, you will be amazed by the number of coves as you navigate the challenging but incredibly rewarding landscape.
In terms of history, there are not many places in Ilfracombe more historic than the harbor which has a rich heritage dating back as far as the 12th century. This fully working harbor has long been protected by a hill that is home to the oldest functioning lighthouse in the UK. Day trips to Lundy Island and around the bay are available here but it’s the rich history of fishing in the area that makes this such an iconic harbor not only in Devon but throughout the UK.
Today, visitors to Ilfracombe harbor can spend time perusing the vessels that have plenty of nautical miles between them. Alternatively, head along the street to explore the quirky shops, home to a variety of local souvenirs, typical Devonshire fudge and of course, traditional English fish and chips.
When it comes to quirky landmarks in North Devon, Damien Hirst’s “Verity” statue located in Ilfracombe harbor is perhaps the strangest. Towering above the Ilfracombe landscape and essentially looking over the harbor, Verity is a stainless steel and bronze statue designed by Hirst in 2012.
There are plenty of mixed emotions among locals and visitors alike as many feel this statue is “out of place” given the depiction of a pregnant woman holding a sword while standing on a pile of books. It’s hardly the type of attraction you would expect to see in a typically Victorian seaside resort but you cannot help but visit this and have an opinion or two.
Chapel of St. Nicholas
When it comes to the history of Ilfracombe, there are not many landmarks more historic than the Chapel of St. Nicholas. Perched on top of a high rock, locally known as Lantern Hill, overlooking the harbor of Ilfracombe, this iconic chapel has been a place of worship for locals and visitors alike since 1321. In 1540, it ceased to be a working chapel but today, it serves as a working lighthouse given it’s location at the top of Ilfracombe for passing vessels.
The walk to the summit of Lantern Hill offers breathtaking views out to sea in one direction and back across the town of Ilfracombe in the other. With a number of benches scattered along this short trail, this is definitely a popular spot to capture epic photographs of the panoramic landscape.
Once you arrive at the summit, the quaint chapel is worth exploring. It won’t take you long to explore the interior but it’s the rich heritage of this place of worship that makes it such a special place. For a period of time in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, this chapel was neglected and it was only in 1962 that it was restored to the present day condition by the local Rotarians.
Lundy Island Experience
Ilfracombe is a popular spot for visitors not only because of the beautiful town but also because it is a great location to hop on a boat to take a trip to nearby Lundy Island. A day trip to Lundy Island is an unforgettable experience onboard the historic MS Oldenburg, a vessel dating back to 1958 that is still going strong to this day.
The crossing to Lundy Island takes around 2 hours each way and seasonally is available multiple times each week, both from Ilfracombe and the nearby town of Bideford. Visitors will have ample time to explore the island upon arrival, with around 4-6 hours allowed before sailing back to port.
We unfortunately visited Ilfracombe the day prior to the next scheduled sail but we were still able to admire the gorgeous MS Oldenburg resting in Ilfracombe harbor. Whether you are a sailing aficionado or simply want to experience the untouched natural beauty to be found on Lundy Island, a day trip here is well worth the price of a ticket.
Devonshire Cream Tea
It doesn’t really matter where you visit in Devon, it goes without saying that you cannot leave without sampling a local Devonshire cream tea. Many places around the UK will try and claim to have authentic cream teas but there is nothing that quite compares to sampling the real deal in Devon.
We stumbled across a real gem of a cafe and couldn’t resist sampling their cream tea. Aptly named “The Naked Cafe”, this is perfectly situated along the front in between the heart of the main town and Ilfracombe harbor. This is the perfect place to grab lunch or enjoy a late afternoon cream tea – we did both…it really is that good!
Served in traditional bone china cups and dishes, we were left wanting to sample more. The decadent menu of drinks (check out the collection of hot chocolates) and homemade cakes is amazing but the local pièce de résistance is the cream tea featuring a fruit scone, fresh clotted cream and strawberry jam, obviously accompanied by a pot of tea!
Ilfracombe is unlikely to be a place you would consider taking a trip to the UK for unless you had other places you wanted to explore. However, I would argue that this along with the rest of Devon definitely justifies taking a trip to this part of the UK.
Whether you consider camping in Devon or prefer to stay in a more luxurious B&B along the coast, there is a magic about this county (and I am not just talking about the delightful cream teas!) that deserves to be explored.
This was our first visit to Ilfracombe and we fell in love just as we have done with the rest of Devon. We look forward to returning again in the future and hopefully heading out on the MS Oldenburg to explore the gorgeous Lundy Island.
Have you visited Ilfracombe or any other parts of Devon?