The civil parish has an area of 16.31 km² and in the 2001 census had a population of 2,451 in 1,205 households. For the purposes of local government, the parish falls within the district of North Norfolk, within the Norfolk Coast AONB.
Wells is situated about 15 miles (24 km) to the east of the resort of Hunstanton, 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Cromer, and 10 miles (16 km) north of Fakenham. The city of Norwich lies 32 miles (51 km) to the south-east. Nearby villages include Blakeney (famous for its bird sanctuary), Burnham Market, Burnham Thorpe (the birthplace of Horatio Nelson), Holkham (with its famous stately home Holkham Hall), and Walsingham (a major medieval pilgrimage site).
The name is Guella in the Domesday Book (Latinized from Anglian Wella, a spring). This derives from spring wells of which Wells used to have many, rising through the chalk of the area. In 1580, there were 19 ships over 16 tons burden operating out of Wells, making it the major port in the area: the main trade was corn The town was known as Wells-next-the-Sea in the early 1800s to distinguish it from other places of the same name. When the Wells & Fakenham Railway was opened on 1 December 1857, the terminus was given the name of "Wells-on-Sea" In 1956 the Wells Urban District Council voted to (re-)adopt the name Wells-next-the-Sea, and this has been the official name since then.
More pinewoods exist to the east of the beach over the shipping channel at an area called the East Hills. This can be accessed on foot at low tide though all of the tidal sands in the area are extremely dangerous due to the speed and currents of the rising tide. It is not advisable to cross the channel without detailed local knowledge.
The town stretches nearly a mile inland. The majority of shops and other such businesses are now found on Staithe Street but up to the 1960s commercial premises were also to be found along High Street which continues south towards St Nicholas's Church. The church burned after a lightning strike in 1879: the exterior shows the original stonework, but the interior is sparse and lacks interest. John Fryer, Captain Bligh's sailing master on HMS Bounty was born at Wells, and is buried in the churchyard.
The distinctive landmark of the seafront is the granary with its overhanging gantry on the quay, finished in 1904. This is now converted to flats. The maritime tradition of the town meant it used to have a remarkable number of public houses for a town of its size although many of these have since closed. The northern end of the town used to be notable for parallel "yards", narrow rows of cottages similar to the northern "ginnels", which could be relics of Danish occupation. These were largely lost in the terrible 1953 flood damage, and subsequent "slum clearance".
A feature of the town is the area known as The Buttlands – a name suggesting archery practice historically – which is a large green ringed by lime trees. Large elegant Georgian houses overlook The Buttlands, as do the Crown Hotel, Globe Inn and the Wells Catholic Church. If you exit The Buttlands down the hill at its south-west corner you can see Ware Hall, which was rebuilt over a period of years from the 1970s by Miss May Savidge, who brought it in parts when she moved from Ware in Hertfordshire.
Formerly the town was served by Wells-On-Sea railway station and was connected to the national rail network by two lines. The line westwards towards King's Lynn was never reinstated after damage in the 1953 East Coast Floods, while the line to Norwich via Fakenham, Dereham and Wymondham was a victim of the "Beeching Axe" of the 1960s. The Wells and Walsingham Light Railway, a 10¼ inch-gauge railway (the longest of such a gauge in the world), now uses part of the track-bed.
The Wells Harbour Railway is a separate 10¼ inch-gauge railway that takes passengers from the harbour behind the sea wall towards the beach and caravan site.
Near the centre of the town is a field studies centre in buildings that were formerly Wells County Primary School (linked by School Lane from High Street). The junior school was relocated to the former Secondary Modern school when a new secondary school was built in the late 1960s, using the former railway line to the west towards King's Lynn.
In 1880, Wells was the scene of the Wells lifeboat disaster, in which 11 of the 13 lifeboat crew drowned, leaving 10 widows and 27 children without a father. A memorial to the crew stands adjacent to the old lifeboat house, now used as the harbour offices, at the western end of the quay. The current lifeboat station, housing both an all-weather lifeboat and an inshore rescue boat, is at the harbour entrance.
A local delicacy is samphire or glasswort (salicornia europaea), a fleshy edible plant which grows in the intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes. Samphire is collected by locals and can be seen for sale in the town in summer. The locals boil the samphire, then serve it hot with butter or malt vinegar. The fleshy parts are held in the mouth and the flesh removed from the stalks by dragging them through your teeth. Rock samphire (crithmum maritimum) is a different plant.
Wells is famous for its fish and chips. There are two dominant fish and chip shops facing the quay which supply the hordes of tourists and daytrippers who flock to Wells throughout the year. While it is possible to eat in, in good weather most people chose to sit on the low wall that runs along the length of the quay eating their chips from polystyrene trays. Its somewhat odd to note that many will sit facing the nondescript buildings and shopfronts rather than the attractive views over the quay and marshes. Eating "chips on the quay" is a popular pastime in Wells.
Local fishermen continue to land crab and other shellfish on the quay. Good quality fresh seafood is available on the quay and in a local wet fish shop. In the 1950s and 1960s, a set of sheds at the end of the East Quay were the focus for a whelking industry. Whelks (shellfish) were caught by a small fleet of whelk boats. The whelks were boiled before being sent (originally by train) to market.