Situated a mere fifty minutes from London by train, the cosmopolitan seaside city of Brighton is perfect for a day trip or weekend break from the capital. Alternatively, for those who prefer a more laid-back vibe than London offers, Brighton makes an ideal base from which to explore both the capital and the beautiful surrounding countryside of Sussex.
The city itself is known for its free-spirited attitude and vibrant nightlife combined with a big dose of traditional seaside fun. From the street art and indie shops of the North Laine to the city’s famous pebble beach and Victorian Pier, Brighton’s attractions are abundant and diverse.
Having been based in Brighton for more than twenty years between travels, I am familiar not only with the city’s more well-known landmarks but also with the hidden treasures which tourists often overlook. Here’s my guide to one of England’s favorite seaside destinations.
A Stroll along the Seafront
Brighton’s seafront spans an impressive seven miles, encompassing the colorful beach huts of Hove to the west, all the way to the marina, and the quaint village of Rottingdean to the east. The Palace Pier is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and is home to an amusement arcade, food stalls, and a funfair offering an assortment of thrilling rides. Heading east from the pier, you pass beachside shops, galleries, and bars before arriving at the futuristic 450-foot i360 Tower. Soar into the skies in a large pod, from where there are spectacular panoramic views of the city and rolling hills of the South Downs. As the sun sets, enjoy a glass of wine at one of the beachside bars and watch the murmuration of starlings as they swoop around the skeletal remains of the West Pier severely damaged by fire in 2003.
The Exotic Royal Pavilion
The domes, pillars, and minarets of this splendid palace would look more at home in India than in the heart of an English seaside city, but then part of Brighton’s charm is that it is full of surprises. Architect, John Nash, was commissioned to build the Royal Pavilion by playboy Prince Regent (later King George IV) in 1815. The prince was a flamboyant character who loved to visit Brighton and was also advised by doctors that taking a dip in the nearby sea would benefit his health. In later years, Queen Victoria occasionally stayed at the palace, and during the First World War, it was used as a hospital for Indian soldiers. These days, visitors can explore the interior of this stunning building as well as appreciate it from the outside. The rooms within have all been restored to their former opulent glory.
North Laine, just east of the railway station, is the city’s hippest shopping area. Brimming with small independent stores, antique shops, and vintage clothing stalls, it’s a fascinating place to spend an afternoon. Explore the surrounding side streets and be rewarded with vibrant and innovative street art aplenty. One of the most striking pieces of street art is on the side of the Prince Albert Pub, a portrayal of deceased musicians from Jimi Hendrix to Glen Campbell. Sit outside one of the many organic cafes with kombucha in hand and watch the world go by. You may just spot one of the city’s many eccentric characters as they pass. Don’t miss having a rummage in Snooper’s Paradise, a sprawling indoor antique market with over a hundred eclectic stalls selling everything from vintage comics to funky sixties shirts. On Saturdays, a flea market takes place on Upper Gardner Street, where local artists set up stalls next to traders who sell second-hand clothing and knickknacks.
In ancient times this neighborhood, tucked between the North Laine and the seafront, was a fishing village known as Brighthemstone. These days, it’s a thriving labyrinth of atmospheric lanes and alleyways overflowing with restaurants, cafes, and pubs. There are curiosity shops and high-end gift shops, as well as a particularly high intensity of antique and jewelry stores. It’s fun to get lost amongst the hidden squares and narrow lanes (locally known as twittens), and some of the buildings date back to the sixteenth century. The Cricketers Arms is one of the oldest pubs in Brighton, having been established in 1547. Said to be Graham Greene’s favorite pub, it is also rumored that Jack the Ripper planned his crimes while staying there. Indeed, Brighton Lanes are full of history, and there’s a surprise around every corner.
A Foodie’s Paradise
Brighton has more restaurants and cafes per head than any other city in England outside London. You can feast on locally sourced seafood, dig into delicious Gujarati street food or tuck into a tasty Thai curry. The city is also considered the national capital of vegan and vegetarian food. Even eateries that aren’t exclusively veggie or vegan offer a generous array of alternatives. Being the convivial city that it is, Brighton also has a wealth of pubs, most of which serve up hearty pub grub along with a pint of the local brew. In addition to exotic foods from all over the world, there’s always the much-loved British favorite of fish and chips, best eaten on a sunny day on the beach.
Brighton hosts a myriad of festivals of all types, which run throughout the year. Brighton Festival, which takes place for three weeks in May, celebrates the arts in its many forms and is an exciting time to visit the city. A fringe festival showcasing an array of weird and wonderful acts runs alongside the main event. Local artists open their houses to the public, performance spaces spring up throughout the city and entertainers take to the streets. In August, rainbow flags can be seen fluttering throughout the city, and a huge parade hits the streets for Brighton Pride. Roll on to December, and the Burning of the Clocks Festival brings a sprinkling of pagan magic to Brighton. On the winter solstice, a procession of locals carrying handmade lanterns winds through the city center. The lanterns are then burnt on a beach bonfire, signifying the end of the year, followed by a firework display. Indulging in a hot mulled wine next to a log fire in a nearby pub is the ideal way to round off the evening.
When the Sun goes down…
Renowned for its lively nightlife, Brighton has something for everyone. Bars and pubs teem with people, especially at weekends and during the summer months when punters often spill out onto the streets. Kemptown is a hub for the LGBTQ+ community, and there are drag shows and pre-club bars galore. Many of the world’s top DJs head to the clubs of Brighton and large-scale beach parties are a regular occurrence in the summer. For those who enjoy live music, there are multiple performances and venues to choose from on any one night of the week. Whether it’s an international pop artist playing at Brighton Centre or psychedelic folk in a grungy pub basement, the city is alive with music. The delightful Theatre Royal, dating back to 1807, hosts pre and post-West End productions.