Little Fortress of Tenby

Tenby, one of Wales’ most iconic seaside resorts, is situated on the wild and rugged coast of Pembrokeshire. Renowned for its colourful picture-postcard harbour, imposing ramparts and narrow cobbled lanes, the town is an extremely popular short-break holiday destination.

Read on as we now take a look at top Tenby visitor attractions and explore its eventful past.

History of Tenby

The first recorded reference to Tenby can be found in a poem called Etmic Dinbych, which is preserved in the Welsh manuscript, the Book of Taliesin. Although the manuscript dates from the 14th century, the actual poem is thought to originate from the 9th century.

Norse Settlement

Tenby probably developed as a Norse settlement during the 8th century thanks to its westerly location and natural sheltered harbour. However, the town’s reputation as a major trading centre was firmly established following the Norman invasion of the early 12th century, during which time it also became an important seaport.

Construction of Tenby’s Walls

Despite the construction of a stone-fortification on Castle Hill (Tenby Castle), the region was successfully incorporated into Norman territory and became known as Little England beyond Wales.

However, repeated attacks by Welsh forces eventually compelled William de Valence, the First Earl of Pembroke, to order the construction of defences in the late 13th century. Upon completion, the walls enclosed most of the town rendering Tenby Castle obsolete.

Defences Strengthened

As Tenby began to truly flourish as an economic centre, further efforts were made to fortify the town against marauders. In 1457, with funding from Jasper Tudor the Earl of Pembroke and local merchants, the walls were heightening to accommodate an extra tier of vertical apertures, as well as new turrets which abutted the cliff edges. A wide moat was also added outside of the main walls.

Major Medieval Port

During the late Middle-Ages, Royal grants were awarded to Tenby. These helped finance the upkeep of its defences and allowed for improvements to the harbour.

Thus, by the mid-to-late 15th century Tenby had become a prosperous, bustling town with seaborne trade contributing handsomely to the town’s economy. Wool, coal, iron and oil were exported throughout Northern Europe as imports also started to flood in from Portugal, Gascony and beyond.

Sudden Decline

Sadly, Tenby’s prosperity came to an abrupt and desperate end in the mid 17th century. During the English Civil War, it became embroiled in the struggle between the Royalists and Roundheads.

After declaring for Parliament the town was attacked by Royalist forces, eventually succumbing to the armies of Charles Gerard, First Earl of Macclesfield in 1648. Two years later, an outbreak of the plague decimated half of the population.

With Tenby in ruins and its economy shattered, local merchants and traders gradually abandoned the once-proud maritime centre. There then followed an extended period of decline.

Rejuvenation as a Spa Town

Just as military conflict helped bring about Tenby’s demise in the mid-17th century, armed struggle played a role in the town’s rejuvenation some 160 years later. By 1798 large swathes of Europe had fallen under the rule of one Napoleon Bonaparte following a series of triumphant campaigns.

Unfortunately, this proved something of an inconvenience for well-to-do British tourists who had taken to visiting continental spa towns during this period.

To solve the problem, local businessman and politician Sir William Paxton invested heavily in Tenby with the aim of creating a fashionable resort fit for the British upper classes. In 1806, sea-bathing baths were opened which were soon followed by luxury lodgings in the form of cottages and a coach house.

The health-giving properties of the coastal location were further exploited with the creation of seaside walks connecting Castle Hill to the town’s beaches. Eight years later and with additional funding from Paxton, a connecting road built on arches was opened.

Tenby’s reputation as a fashionable resort endured throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras. And today, much of this infrastructure remains in place with more than 300 listed buildings found throughout town.

Tenby's Georgian Houses

Modern-Day Tenby

Largely because of its tumultuous history, modern-day Tenby is a delight. Narrow cobbled streets lined with shops and good restaurants, hark back to an intriguing medieval past while the enclosed harbour, backed by multi-coloured Georgian houses, is among the most recognisable seaside settings in the UK.

Large sections of the imposing 13th century walls also remain intact and still dominate parts of the town. Additionally, there are no less than four quality beaches in the local vicinity.

Tenby Visitor Attractions

Read on as we now take a closer look at some of the most popular Tenby visitor attractions includes excursions, activities and places of cultural and historical significance. 

The Town Walls

Tenby’s Grade I-listed walls are considered one of the best examples of medieval city defences in the United Kingdom. They were constructed by the Earls of Pembroke and originally comprised four gates and up to 24 towers.

Today, only the impressive Five Arches gate remains together with six towers. The most intact sections are to be found between South Parade and St Florence Parade and comprise a semi-circular bastion and square tower respectively. A well-preserved shorter section also runs from White Lion Street to Upper Frog Street.

Tenby Castle

A 13th century watchtower and ruined gateway are all that remain of the original Norman keep. Situated at the top of Castle Hill, both can be accessed via steps from the harbour area and afford outstanding views of the town and coastline.

Tenby Museum and Art Gallery

Tenby Museum and Art Gallery is also located on Castle Hill and was opened in 1878. Inside, there are permanent displays exhibiting a rich array of artefacts including mammoth teeth, burial urns and Roman specimens.

The museum also houses the Tenby Gun – a nine-foot wrought iron cannon from Tudor times that’s similar to those found on the Mary Rose. There are also two art galleries displaying the works of celebrated local artists such as John Piper, Gwilym Pritchard and Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers fame.

Merchant's House

Tudor Merchant’s House

Tucked away down a side-street near the Old Harbour, this 15th century townhouse is the oldest building in Tenby. Protected by the National Trust, it offers fascinating insights into the life of a Tudor merchant and is furnished and decorated in the period style.

The building is set out over three storeys. On the ground floor is a shop and kitchen with the living quarters found on the second and third levels. Highlights include an elaborately carved four-poster bed, low-hanging beamed ceilings that are typical of Tudor times as well as traces of original wall paintings. Replica mullioned windows offer fantastic views out over the local rooftops.

St Catherine’s Island

This small island sits just of off Tenby’s Castle Beach and can be reached at low tide. Designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it is home to a WW2 gun emplacement and Napoleonic Fort. Although the island is open to the public, visiting times are subject to the changeable local weather conditions and tides. Further information can be found at:

Caldey Island

Caldey Island is less than a mile off the Pembrokeshire coast near Tenby. It’s owned and run by Cistercian Monks and comprises a collection of monastic buildings and a small village that includes a museum, tea gardens and gift shop.

Produce made by the monks including ice cream, clotted cream, shortbread and yoghurt can be purchased on the island. Boat trips operate seven days a week and may be arranged via a kiosk at Tenby Harbour.

Tenby’s Beaches

Tenby is renowned for its excellent beaches, all of which are situated close to the town.

Castle Beach

Castle Beach is set in a cove between Castle Hill and East Cliff. Within walking distance of Tenby, it provides access to St Catherine’s Island at low tide and is backed by cliffs that are ideal for rock-pool exploring. Although the tides can be quite strong, the beach is patrolled by a lifeguard from 10am to 6pm.

Harbour Beach

Next to Tenby’s harbour, between the town walls and boats, lies this small expanse of golden sand. With sublime views of the Old Town, Harbour Beach is well-suited to families looking to stay within touching distance of local amenities. It’s accessed via steps and paths that lead back up into Tenby as well as a raised causeway.

North Beach, Tenby

North Beach

Located between Harbour Beach and North Cliff, Tenby’s magnificent North Beach offers superb views out over Carmarthen Bay and features a wide expanse of golden sand punctuated by the odd rock-pool. Backed by a promenade as well as Tenby itself, the beach is well-sheltered, offering respite from the occasionally strong coastal winds.

South Beach

The award-winning South Beach stretches for two kilometres from St Catherine’s Island to Giltar Point and backs onto sand dunes. There’s plenty of space, especially when the tide is low and the gentle shelf is largely devoid of obstructions which makes the beach ideal for families – it’s also slightly more secluded that the busier North and Castle beaches.

Tenby Lifeboat Station

Tenby Lifeboat Station was established in 1835 by the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society. In that time generations of brave volunteer crews have embarked on countless rescue operations in the treacherous local waters.

The current state-of-the-art building was completed in 2005 and is operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). It houses an all-weather Tamar-class lifeboat that can be viewed via a public gallery when not on call. Visitors are allowed free access during the summer months with pre-booked tours available in winter. The station also includes an RNLI gift-shop.

Dinosaur Park

Tenby Dinosaur Park offers a fun day out for the whole family. The dinosaur trail is a particular highlight and features more than 30 realistic recreations of our prehistoric predecessors, including a giant stegosaurus, a brachiosaurus and of course a T-Rex.

There are numerous rides and activities found throughout the park such as go-carts, disco boats, trampolines and motorised tractors. Indoor and outdoor playgrounds are also available for youngsters while older visitors may want to try the adventure course and on-site crossbow range.

Manor Wildlife Park

The 52-acre Manor Wildlife Park is another major Tenby visitor attraction and is home to a wonderful array of animals including apes, tigers, monkeys and zebras. The single and multi-species enclosures have been cleverly created with as few boundaries as is possible.

As a result the animals have greater freedom to roam without sacrificing safety, while visitors can get up close and personal with some of the park’s more exotic inhabitants. Notable attractions include the Lemur Walkthrough, a recreated African Village complete with goats, sheep and chickens and the Valley of the Apes primate house which is home to Steve the Gibbon.

For further information about holidays in Tenby Wales visit:

Also, see our blog post on unusual visitor attractions in Pembrokeshire for some holiday planning ideas.

Images kindly provided by Pembrokeshire County Council.

Looking to stay in Pembrokeshire? Have a look at our featured holiday properties located in this magnificent region!

Dale Shelabarger

Dale is the owner and founder of Cottages to Rent which he launched back in 2005. As well as promoting holiday cottages, Dale blogs regularly about top UK holiday destinations, visitor attractions and places of historical interest.