Ideally situated on the north tip of the island, Cowes is the main ferry terminal to the mainland and a short drive from many of the island's historic sites and family friendly attractions, including ancient castles, stately homes, museums, adventure parks, fairgrounds and wildlife parks.
Cowes Marina © Travel About Britain
The town is divided into the distinct areas of East and West Cowes, separated by the River Medina. A floating bridge (chain ferry) crosses the harbour from east to west. The main part of the town is on the west side, where West Cowes Castle (the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron) and the principal boat yards and moorings can be found. The large marina is regularly stocked with an intresting mix of bobbing yachts and sailing boats, and plays host to the world's largest sailing regatta 'Cowes Week'. A key stage of the Admiral's Cup race also sails from here every few years.
The east side of Cowes is mainly boat yards and industry. During Nelson's day, a steady stream of wooden battleships rolled down its slipways, and so later did the iron battleships of both World Wars. In the 1950s the revolutionary hovercraft was designed and built here. Regular hovercraft services still operate from the port of Ryde, just along the coast.
The port area is steeped in maritime heritage and the home of British yachting. It provides a regular ferry and hydrofoil connection with Southampton and boat trips round the island.
At the Maritime Museum, in Beckford Road, you can discover more about the islands long seafaring history, and read about the first English settlers for Maryland, USA, who sailed from Cowes in 1633.
The town contains many fine Georgian and Victorian buildings and has a good selection of bars, restaurants and family entertainment. The main shopping centre is a vibrant pedestrianised area with a mix of national stores, small boutiques, nautical emporiums and gift shops.
Near to the town are a number of award-winning beaches, offering spectacular views across the solent. The Parade to the west is an ideal place for a stroll, leading to other scenic walks.
West Cowes Gun Battery © TAB
West Cowes Castle (not open to public) was built by Henry VIII to defend the Solent against the threat of invasion from France. The castle was repurposed by the Royal Yacht Squadron as their headquarters in 1854. Just outside is a row brass cannons (originally the guns of the Royal sailing ship Adelaide), arranged in line, ready to fire Royal Salutes or start yachting races. A twin fortification once stood on the east side of the river but nothing remains of it today. A later Gothic folly was built on the east side by the foremost British architect Sir John Nash in the 18th-c. Severely damaged in WWII, it was pulled down in 1960s. His remains are interred in nearby St James Churchyard.
Further to the east, behind Old Castle Point, lies the turreted Norris Castle, set in attractive grounds. It was once open to the public but is currently being redeveloped into a hotel complex.
For those looking to stay on the island there are plenty of hotels, guest houses around the town, plus a number of quality campsites and caravan parks in the vicinity.
This small museum, located in the town library, described the long maritime history of the island with models, photographs, paintings and books.
Opening times: Friday
to Tuesday from 10am (closed Wed & Thur) - Free
Location: Cowes Library, Beckford Road, WEST COWES, Isle of Wight, PO31 7SG
Tel: 01983 823433
A tree-lined road leads out from the town to Osborne House, the favourite country residence of Queen Victoria, who died there in 1901. The house (open to the public) is packed with relics of the queen and her husband, Prince Albert. For further details see the IOW attractions page.