Brighton is well known for raucous hen and stag parties and chip-scoffing kids feeding pennies into the cruelly tantalising penny falls machines on its famous Palace Pier.
Lately, however, this classic seaside resort has seen a new wave of refined restaurants, craft beer purveyors and a chic extension to the labyrinthine Lanes shopping and eating district.
Its newest attraction, Sea Lanes – the National Open Water Swimming Centre – has recently opened on Madeira Drive, bringing six 50m lanes of open-air, heated swimming pool to the beach.
A popular summertime destination for its pastel-coloured beach huts, busy promenade and fairground rides – and this weekend, for the UK’s biggest Pride festival, taking place in Kemptown and Preston Park and with a Saturday parade starting in Hove – the city has more than enough to entice a visit out of season too, from its cosy pubs and attractive restaurants to the Brighton Festival and Fringe in May.
How to get there and around
Southern Railway services from London Victoria or London Bridge take just over an hour to reach Brighton. There are also direct Thameslink trains from Bedford or Cambridge to Brighton, and Southern services from Southampton to the west or Ashford International to the east. If you’re travelling by car, it could take at least two hours from central London and about 40 minutes from Gatwick Airport.
You can walk along the seafront from Brighton to Hove in about 30 minutes or hop on a bus to get there in five.
The historic market town of Lewes is 17 minutes away by train, picturesque Stanmer Park and village are around 30 minutes away by No 25 bus, and the magnificent walking trails of Devil’s Dyke in the South Downs National Park are a 20-minute drive from Brighton city centre (or take No 77 bus from the pier). For more Downs views, hop on the No 79 bus from Old Steine to Ditchling Beacon.
Where to stay
For the traditional Brighton experience with a fresh lick of paint, the Hilton Brighton Metropole is one of the city’s elegant seafront hotels that’s just undergoing a major refurbishment. Its seafront rooms have expansive views of the beach through gigantic windows and huge squishy beds. Doubles from £104.
Brighton Harbour Hotel also overlooks the beach, offering a subterranean spa in smuggler’s tunnels, nautical-themed bedrooms and complimentary gin and sherry. Doubles from £115. Alternatively, stay at a boutique hotel such as 27 Brighton Guesthouse – a Georgian terrace in hip Kemptown (B&B from £115) – or the stylish Ginger Pig pub and restaurant in Hove. Doubles from £147.
Up with the sun
Tucked under the promenade, the airy Flour Pot Brighton Beach serves up delicious coffee, pastries and grilled sandwiches in a bright, contemporary space with an outdoor terrace looking out at characterful local fishing boats. Grab a cinnamon bun or vegan croissant, and swing by again later for sourdough pizza and cocktails.
Head to The Lanes to explore twisty streets filled with independent boutiques, cosy cafes and high-end fashion outlets. Try Aquila for travel-inspired, handmade jewellery that riffs off Brighton’s bohemian past or They Made This for affordable modern art prints. Hanningtons Lane, which opened in late 2019, is home to designers, artisans and makers – visit Bousham Gallery for arts and ceramics, Cult Hero record store and Ayten Gasson for sustainably made lingerie.
Take a wander around the sumptuous Royal Pavilion, built in the 18th century as a seaside palace for the future King George IV. Designer John Nash, commissioned in 1815, was responsible for the distinctive Indo-Islamic domes and minarets of the spectacular and exotic building, with the fantasy interior displaying strong Chinese and Indian influences.
Nearby is the idiosyncratic North Laine, packed with vintage clothes shops, record stores and chilled-out cafes. Pick up an organic and vegetarian feast at Infinity Foods for a picnic by the beach.
If you have children, let them blow off steam on Wrap Play Cafe’s two-level eco-themed slides, ropes and bridges made from sustainable Scottish timber, while you grab a few minutes’ peace with fresh coffee, salad and cake.
Time for a sundowner
Drop into Unbarred Brewery to try local, award-winning craft beers such as flagship Joosy pale ale, or branch out with the Bueno Shake or Blackberry Cobbler. There’s also natural wine which you can soak up with a fried aubergine and smoked ricotta pizza and fries.
Riddle and Finns is a Brighton seafood institution. Its original Champagne & Oyster bar in the South Lanes jewellery district – once the centre of the old fishing town of Brighthelmstone – is walk-ins only, or book a table at its elegant beachfront rotunda for a banquet of locally sourced shellfish and sustainable fruits de mer platters.
If you’re in the mood for a nightcap, Brighton’s buzzing nightlife scene has you covered. It pulsates with live music at venues such as Concorde 2 and an array of clubs under its beachfront Victorian arches, plus LGBTQ+ favourite Revenge and stalwart comedy venue Komedia.
These Brighton favourites have been joined by a groundswell of refined hangouts in recent years, from the stylish modern British restaurant The Salt Room to fine dining from an open kitchen at 64 Degrees to wood-fired grazing dishes and ruby negronis at Burnt Orange.
Hit the beach
Experience the full spectrum of life at the city’s bustling beach, from Palace Pier’s cornucopia of kitsch and stripy sticks of rock, all the way to the elegiac melancholy of the crumbling West Pier.
For a more elevated take on the seaside, zoom 450ft into the air on the i360 for a magnificent panoramic view of the city, coastline and South Downs – glass of fizz optional.
Children will love the other-worldly glow of the Sea Life Centre just opposite the pier, built in 1872 and populated with starfish, seahorses and sharks.
Curry Leaf Cafe is the perfect hippy Brighton hangout, serving generous portions of authentic South Indian food, craft beer and Darjeeling Mojitos in a colourful setting.
Try the punchy prawn and crab cakes with ginger, green chilli and coriander with masala pineapple salad and lime pickle raita.
Time to relax
Glide into Floating Feather for an aromatherapy or ayurvedic massage or tailored vegan facial using organic Neal’s Yard Remedies products. If you take your chill time a little more literally, dive in for a cold water swim with England’s oldest swimming club at Sea Lanes, where you can book a session for £11.
A final treat
Stop by the adorable Sugardough cafe to unwind over the superlative range of teas (I recommend the orange and eucalyptus rooibos) with a chunky slice of raspberry, lemon and elderflower cake or chocolate and apricot tart.
Three things you might not know about Brighton…
1) Brighton was originally known as Beorthelm’s-tun (“Beorthelm’s farm” or village) after the Saxons conquered the kingdom of Sussex in the fifth century.
2) Brighton is rumoured to have a network of lost tunnels, and one can still be seen connecting the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Dome concert venue. This was reputedly used by the unpopular Prince Regent to move around without people seeing how overweight he had become. A house on Lewes Crescent has a tunnel down to the beach that is reputed to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s “down the rabbit hole”.
3) Brighton’s historic Duke of York’s Cinema at Preston Circus, built in 1910, is said to be the oldest cinema in continuous use in Britain.