Brighton Rock. To be more precise, Brighton rocks, whether you’re thinking of the Quadrophenia days of Mods and Rockers, Graham Greene’s ode to seaside gangster life, or a lot of sticky confectionery. Just over a hour from London, Brighton’s been welcoming day trippers, holiday makers and visitors for centuries. I’ve been heading to Brighton since I was a mere tot, and over the years, I’ve grown to love her many and varied moods. From her stately shingle beach, dotted with deckchairs and bearing piers – both buzzing and claimed by the tides – to her quirky shops and chilled vibe, Brighton has charms aplenty.
Getting To Brighton
London Gatwick is the closest major airport and has a direct rail link. Other than that, you’ll probably be taking the train, either cross country or out of London. Trains from the capital run out of Victoria, or Farringdon and Blackfriars if you’re staying to the east of London. It takes just over an hour on a cool, comfortable train with plenty of carriages. If you’ve taken the Blackfriars train, you should note that you’ve boarded at the only station with platforms that extend across the River Thames. The train has overhead screens that tell you which of its carriages are least crowded, so check this out, and move to the comfy zone if needed.
Arriving in Brighton and Getting Your Bearings
Brighton Station is at the top of a gentle hill that leads down to the seafront. So just follow the signs, and you could be dipping your toes in the water in about 15 minutes. As you arrive at the beach, look to your right and you’ll see a tall tower with a silver doughnut looped around it. We’ll talk more about that later. Closer to your right is the remaining structure of the West Pier, now lost to the sea. Look to your left, and you’ll spot the Palace Pier, very much open for business. Let’s start exploring.
Promised stormy weather on the day of my last visit turned out instead to be a scorcher, and by 9am people were starting to arrive on the beach. This is not a sandy stretch, as the beach is made up of shingle, and a lot of pebbles. If you have tender feet, you’ll be needing some kind of footwear to make it to the water’s edge and beyond. The beach is full of deckchairs, striped and gently flapping in the breeze, ready for inaction. There are plenty of slopes down to the water, making it comfortable to sit directly on the shingle and watch a few boats go by.
There are lots of beachfront cafes, bars, and shops selling buckets and spades and beach toys. So settle in for a while, and soak up the sea air.
Brighton’s West Pier
All around the British coast, piers have been fighting a battle with the elements. Some, like the local pier of my youth in Teignmouth, Devon, have been reclaimed by the sea, as has the West Pier in Brighton. Built between 1863-1866, it was closed in 1975 and was subject to two fires. Now it’s a strangely atmospheric skeleton partly submerged by the waves, making it almost a ghost pier. It has a stark beauty that makes for great photos. It’s also a tribute to the majesty and power of nature, and the impact of wave action.
British Airways i360
You know I mentioned the silver doughnut on a pole earlier? The proper name for it is the British Airways i360, and every half hour the silver pod ascends to give fantastic views across Brighton and Hove to the South Downs and beyond. The structure is 162 metres tall, and the viewing platform, at 138 meters, is higher than the London Eye. There is room in the pod for 175 people to take in the view from the perimeter at the same time. On a clear day, you can see as far as Beachy Head and the Isle of Wight.
Brighton Palace Pier
The Victorians knew a thing or two about how to enjoy yourself at the seaside, and the Palace Pier is a great example of that. It’s not a small pier. At the start of the pier you’ll find shops and kiosks selling everything from gifts to food and drink. There’s also the smallest tourist information booth I think I’ve ever seen, in a little geometric hut with just enough room for three visitors if one’s carrying a backpack.
Further along the pier there are more traditional amusements including slot machines and air hockey. Then right at the end, there’s a full funfair, complete with dodgems, a roller coaster and waltzers. Add in some well-fed and opportunistic seagulls, and you’ve got a truly traditional experience.
Don’t forget to allow yourselves plenty of time to enjoy all that the pier has to offer, including watching life on the beach, spotting the waves rolling in some distance below your feet and picking up some traditional refreshments.
The Royal Pavilion
One of Brighton’s iconic landmarks, the Royal Pavilion is a Grade I listed building, created in its current form by the architect John Nash. It was built in three stages as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent). And to be frank, who can blame him for enjoying the delights of Brighton from such a fantastical building. Brighton was a place where the Prince could enjoy all the benefits of the sea air, said to be good for his gout. He also took pleasure there in liaisons with his long term companion, far from the eyes of court.
The Indo-Islamic exterior of the Pavilion is unique. Inside you’ll find decor inspired by Chinese and Indian fashion, very distinct from the Regency style common elsewhere in Brighton. Queen Victoria was less enamored with the Pavilion, with the new train line to London meaning that she enjoyed less privacy in Brighton than her predecessors. In 1850, the Pavilion was sold to Brighton for £53,000.
One thing that surprised me at the Royal Pavilion is just how beautiful the gardens are. They are described as the only fully restored Regency gardens in the UK, and are maintained using organic practices. When I last visited, there was live music, and a whole lot of happy people just wandering around, eating ice cream and enjoying the sun. So factor in a bit of extra time to appreciate this gorgeous, airy and colourful space.
Madeira Lift Tower
Madeira Drive, a long straight road, runs at sea level below the east cliff. At that level, there is a long colonnade which hugs the cliff, and covers two storeys. The pagoda-structure you see above is the lift that rises the two levels up to the main sea front. It’s a lovely example of the traditional architecture that features all along the seafront in Brighton, making for great photo opportunities everywhere you turn.
Even if you’re not in pursuit of retail therapy, exploring The Lanes gives you a great flavour of Brighton. The Lanes were part of the original settlement of Brighthelmstone, and were built up just after the Royal Pavilion was completed. The health giving benefits of the sea water clearly made shopping facilities necessary for visitors… This is an interesting area to explore, with plenty of cafes, pubs and bars in the areas bordering the narrow streets of The Lanes.
North Laine, situated near the rail station, was once a less developed area of Brighton. But now it’s described as Brighton’s cultural and bohemian quarter, full of cafes, museums, theatres and pubs. The word “laine” is the local dialect for a piece of open ground at the edge of the South Downs. There were originally five laines around Brighton, which were later used for development.
The area was saved from redevelopment, including a car park and a flyover, in the 1970s, and began its own more subtle regeneration. This part of Brighton was home to the first Body Shop, and today has retailers specialising in art, architectural salvage, books, music and retro clothing. You’ll also find the Komedia theatre. It’s a fascinating spot to meander, stopping off at a few cafes on your way.
Brighton’s Arty Scene
You may have gathered that Brighton has a certain arty and bohemian edge. It appears in so many works of literature, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to Greene’s Brighton Rock and Toby Litt’s Beatniks. It’s been the setting for films from Quadrophenia to The Man Whose Mind Exploded and Mona Lisa. The Duke of York Picturehouse has been in operation since September 1910, making it the oldest continuously operating and purpose built cinema in the country.
If you want to see more of Brighton’s arty treasures, you can investigate the Museum and Art Gallery, snuggled up right next door to the Royal Pavilion. Here you’ll find works by Gilbert and George, the Museum of Transology (Brighton being one of the UK’s most well-known LGBT+ friendly places) and a whole lot of permanent and temporary exhibits.
A lot of Brighton’s art – and indeed its politics and beliefs – can be seen just by wandering around. The area around the station, in particular, is full of statements to make you smile, be sorrowful, think, or sometimes all three.
Brighton’s Regency Vibes
Even if you’re not an architecture lover (as I most definitely am), Brighton’s buildings are a cause for celebration. From its elegant Regency terraces to the intricate seaside features, there’s much to catch the eye as you walk around the city.
From its original role as a medieval fishing village – parts of which can be seen in The Lanes – Brighton developed as a Regency resort, complete with pale stuccoed buildings, bay windows, balconies and a lot of grandeur.
Brighton and Hove
Just along the coast from the centre of Brighton is Hove, now part of the same conurbation. It was an ancient coastal settlement, and the census of 1801 records a scant 101 residents at the time. The Ship Inn is said to have been used by smugglers.
“Hove, actually” is believed to have been resident actor Laurence Olivier’s repeated response to being asked if he lived in Brighton. It caught on with the residents of Hove, and has been used as a slogan to promote tourism. Wander onwards past the skeleton of the West Pier, and you’ll soon find yourself in Hove. It has much to recommend it, including a lagoon, the museum and art gallery, the aforementioned Ship Inn and Sussex County Cricket Club.
Where To Eat
Brighton’s not short of plenty of delicious opportunities to fill your boots. And the range and scope of what’s on offer is exciting. You can go traditional, and eat fish and chips, followed by doughnuts and candyfloss on the pier. But there’s also a thriving food scene with plenty of options to eat creative vegetarian and vegan dishes too.
I’d eagerly spotted Purezza, a vegan restaurant, before I’d headed to Brighton, and it didn’t disappoint. Although I’m not actually vegan, I’d read that they offered gluten-free pizza (a rare treat for this coeliac) and I’d also not have to worry about being allergic to milk.
I asked for recommendations, and chose a pizza full of mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and vegan cheeses, with a side of coleslaw. I’d read that you could take away your leftovers, but – blush – that wasn’t necessary. This was pizza as I remember it from the days of gluten: puffy, crisp and glorious. And the vegan cheese was a revelation too; there was a smoky mozzarella-like cheese in slices partnered with a cashew based crumbly topping. Sadly I had no room whatsoever for my planned dairy-free tiramisu. Go early. It’s busy, and understandably so.
I explored my Brighton restaurant options here.
Where To Stay In Brighton
On previous visits to Brighton, I’ve had the pleasure of staying at The Grand. It has spectacular views and a calmness which serves well to recharge your batteries before heading out for more of Brighton.
For more of a Brighton-esque vibe, there’s the legendary Hotel Pelirocco. Larger than life, the Pelirocco describes itself – quite fairly I think – as England’s most rock and roll hotel. It has 19 individually decorated and themed rooms spread across two townhouses. You can stay in Pretty Vacant (dedicated to the Sex Pistols), Do Knit Disturb (a knitted room) or Modrophenia (featuring half a scooter).
More Things To Do In Brighton
Brighton could never be described as restful. It’s engaging, busy, charismatic, thought-provoking, vibrant and a full throttle experience. For more about everything on offer, check out Visit Brighton.
Want More Beaches?
I plead very guilty to an ongoing love for the coast. You can catch some of my sea fever here, or enjoy recommendations for the best beaches in England and Wales. You should also check out these recommendations by fellow travel writers for their best boat trips, ranging from cruises to yachts and dragon boats. If the Regency architecture made your heart beat faster, then you might like to visit Royal Leamington Spa, voted England’s happiest place to live.
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