Enjoying a bag of fish and chips on the pier is a century old pleasure, but modern Brighton continues to add more and more strings to its bow, be they Bohemian boozers or spring Fringe festivals. Marc Elles is our guide on the south coast.
Every city has its reputation. Take Venice for example, forever draped in romance and stripy t-shirts, or Rio de Janeiro, with more parties than you can shake a giant pink feather at. So when it comes to Brighton, the British seaside’s jewel in the crown, what is it that draws the crowds and packs the promenade?
Defined by its location on the UK’s southern coast, it combines everything that is adored about the English seaside (think fish and chips and deckchairs) with the cutting edge progression of nearby London. Long associated with pleasure seekers and smog escapers, your weekend break itinerary could be as dancefloor filled or beach walk chilled as you like.
‘London by the sea’ is a label the city has gotten used to, as plenty of overworked capitalists (pun intended) come to catch some rays and gulp down rejuvenating sea air. However, since Brighton has been a salt rusted magnet for creative types and the LGBT community for many years, the locals are a liberal and inclusive crowd, many bohemian to the core.
So, as far as reputations go, Brighton invites you to make your own mind up. Just don’t be surprised if you end up leaving with a bunch of new friends and a tight fit vintage leather jacket.
Best of the Beaten Track
One of Brighton’s biggest fans was the royal raver, Prince George VI. He was big on parties in the early 19th century, so he commissioned what is arguably one of the most distinctive buildings in the United Kingdom to host them in. The Royal Pavilion, nicknamed the ‘Pleasure Palace’ at the time, is perhaps not quite as rocking these days, but still packs a weighty cultural punch. You can tour its interiors decked out with exquisite French, English and Chinese period furniture, whilst the exterior was designed to imitate the great Indian architecture of the time.
Winding away from the Royal Pavilion to the east are a den of narrow alleys, The Lanes. A sardine tin of independent shops, excellent small restaurants and traditional pubs, all packed in to criss-crossing walkways. The best way to find your way out is to follow the sound of the waves that crash on to Brighton’s pebble beach. Once there, it is impossible not to notice the 115 year old Brighton Pier, an all wooden structure with a mini theme park at the end. From the pier and looking back at the coastline, there is a landmark that is quintessentially English in its chalkiness. The brilliant white cliffs of Seven Sisters rise and fall to the west and provide a popular day out from Brighton (any vertigo sufferers may want to hang back from the edge).
The folk in Brighton’s North Laine are cool, dosed up on vegan desserts and clad in customised vintage gear. As in most respectable hip hoods, street art is ubiquitous, with the best found along Trafalgar Street. Upper Street Flea Market has been a Saturday fixture for over 150 years and keen bargain hunters usually consume the entire street. There’s also Nerd Night, which sees three passionate presentations on typically niche areas of research or interest, all in a room above a pub. Expert speakers, unusual topics and a great crowd make this unorthodox evening a compelling delight.
For ‘kick arse coffee and life changing cake’ scoot over to Marwood Coffee House in The Lanes. It nails the ‘furnished with completely random stuff’ approach expertly, including a huge shark head on the back wall, replete with bloodied Starbucks Grande cup thrust defiantly between its jaws.
Unconventional culture comes in spades at The Booth Museum, exhibiting a Victorian collection of questionable but entertaining taxidermy with ‘hands on’ activities. If you’re after somewhere to roll out your new hemp yoga mat, then head west along the promenade to Hove beach. It is undoubtedly more peaceful than Brighton beach and ideal for a boozy picnic or group meditation.
For more offbeat ideas check our Secret Seven things do in Brighton.
Experience & Events
Brighton is one of the few places in the UK where surfing is easily accessible. If you didn’t happen to bring your board along, then head to the respected local experts at Brighton Water Sports for lessons and equipment hire. Water-skiing and stand up paddle boarding around the pier are also on offer and will give happy snappers a top notch panorama of the seafront.
For something a little more controversial, take a spy at the brand new i360 Viewing Tower – standing tall at 450ft, it isn’t hard to miss. It provides superb views over the rolling South Downs National Park and far across the English Channel, just don’t ask a Regency Square resident what they think of it (as its rise has unceremoniously split their sea view in two).
As far as UK arts festivals go, Brighton Fringe is second only in scope to its world famous equivalent in Edinburgh. Held over a month during Spring, the celebration blankets the city in cultural events and showcases exciting local and international talent. Plan a trip for August and you’ll see one of the largest Pride events in the world descend on Brighton. With folk from across the spectrum attending this ginormous weekend street party, be prepared to dance like you just don’t care, absolutely anywhere. (And if you’re an LGBT traveller, check out our list of the best gay breaks around Europe and beyond!).
History, tradition and luxury often find themselves in the same elevator. The opulent Grand Hotel has them all in spades and, if assassination attempts are your thing, there was a particularly devastating one on Margaret Thatcher here in 1984. Burrow down the narrow streets that lead away from the seafront and you’ll find a bit more home comfort, as bed and breakfasts (of wildly varying quality) are about as common as the seagulls. The pick is The Neo, where the boutique rooms have fine fittings and a superb English breakfast thrown in. If you are on a shoestring budget, or don’t plan on spending that much time in bed, then the central YHA hostel has clean, basic dorms and private rooms. To quickly compare prices and ratings of 100s of hotels and book safely check out Laterooms.com.
Looking for a more local experience? Readers of Urban Travel Blog get a 5% discount whenever they book a hosted apartment via one of our links to Homestay.com
Seafood is king on the coast and the shellfish in particular is worth sampling. Riddle and Finns is the locals’ go to, where the oysters are sensational. The beef burger is on the up in Brighton, so avoid the gastro pubs (who wants to eat a burger with cutlery anyway?) and sidle up to the Burger Brothers takeaway in North Laine. The various fillings and meat patties are remarkably tasty; try the ‘Benetton’ with wasabi mayo for mammoth flavour. As you would expect, the fish and chip game is also strong. Many outlets along the seafront are substandard and tough on your wallet, so head inland to Bardsley’s for crispy chips and tasty, sustainable fish.
Spending the afternoon outside a beach bar at the weekend is a must. Try the Fortune of War, where local musicians perform outside while the sunset splashes in to the water. Later on, wander up West Street to the Hope and Ruin. It is impressively adorned with a collection of retro audio/visual gear and 70’s sofas with a super beer selection. Catch the latest upcoming bands at The Green Door Store, where post gig club nights are a hit with locals (generally with free admission too). Kemp Town, home to the throbbing LGBT scene is a good place to stumble around for late night clubs, just be ready for karaoke at any moment.
With Gatwick Airport and London nearby, Brighton is easily accessible from almost anywhere. Norwegian and Easyjet airlines offer the best rates from European starting points. From London, the train from Victoria takes just under an hour and runs early morning until late, so no need to hurry back to the capital if you’re enjoying your craft beers.
Visit Brighton is an excellent guide to what is happening in town, with links to all the major attractions and tips on how to get the most from your stay. For the local’s eye view on the food and drink offerings, check out the comprehensive The Graphic Foodie blog.
If you like things a little less formal, then pick up the Cheeky Guide. It is lighthearted and funny with a genuine understanding and affection for Brighton’s vibe. For some good fiction, look no further than Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and its sociopathic teenage gangster Pinkie.
Taking a look at the movie Quadrophenia won’t do you any harm either. Watch British 60’s subcultures form feuding gangs and clash on Brighton’s streets in a classic movie of youthful rivalry, not to mention a cracking soundtrack.
Soundtrack to the City
Looking for more great weekend destinations around Britain? Head to our City Breaks page for more UK travel inspiration (not to mention the best cities around the rest of the world!).