Is there anywhere else in the UK where a skateboarding Jack Russell or an over-rouged octogenarian in tatty black Edwardian clothes would seem just a part of ordinary everyday life? In Brighton, the annual naked bike ride raises a cheer rather than a jeer, and nobody gives a fig when the bearded young man in fishnets and tartan mini flashes a cheeky twirl. Brighton has colour and character in droves, and it’s hard not to be wooed by its inclusive impulsive vibe.
Of course history has played a part in the city’s offbeat character: Victorian sea bathers, ‘Prinny’ and the Indo-Chinese extravaganza of his Royal Pavilion, 1950s theatre luvvies and Graham Greene’s portrayal of its seedy underbelly have all shaped the anything-goes Brighton of today. To get the best sense of its alternative vibe, factor in leisurely strolls through villagey Kemptown, hip Seven Dials, and the colourfully boho streets of North Laine.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do.
Begin your day by mingling with Brighton’s hipsters and hippies among the indie shops of North Laine. It’s just downhill from the railway station and Snooper’s Paradise in Kensington Gardens is particularly fab for retro flea market finds. Fancy a cool Sixties look? Jump the Gun in Gardner Street sells the best in snazzy Mod gear, and from here, the dazzling Royal Pavilion is only five minutes’ walk away. Topping the bill inside is the dragon-festooned scarlet and gold music room, and the ‘Princess and the Pea’ multi-mattress bed upstairs. It’s also got a great little gift shop for original presents.
Hungry? If it’s Friday, make a beeline for Street Diner in Brighthelm Gardens on Queens Road. Here, you’ll find the hottest street food in the South, including filipino noodles, yummy Turkish boreks and falafels, and gobstopper burgers and burritos.
Next up, it’s got to be the beach – and no worries if the weather is unseasonal. A cobweb-blowing walk along the promenade is hugely atmospheric (check out those dramatic waves hitting the sea groins) and once dusk settles, watch the starlings zooming around in a dreamy cloud formation over the ruined West Pier.
Brighton’s beaches have acquired a hip new look in recent months, with newcomers like Shelter Hall offering a line-up of artisanal local food, craft beers, cakes and live music within an attractively converted Edwardian rotunda. Or why not book a sauna or a steam on the pebbles, followed by a dip in the briny? Perfect for a mates get-together, Beach Box Spa has a clutch of mobile saunas housed in converted horse boxes. You can also pre-order ice baths, clay masks and massage leaf whisks.
Alternatively, simply stroll along the stretch, stopping at artisanal bakers, The Flour Pot or mooching around tiny galleries like Atelier Brighton before enjoying the sight of the city at play: everything from skateboarders and volleyball enthusiasts, to hula-hoop champs and salsa dancers.
Time now for a 20-minute pod ride in the skies on the British Airways i360. On a clear day the views over the city’s rooftops and back gardens towards the Downs and Seven Sisters cliffs are Instagram gold. On certain dates, you can book a Nyetimber Sparkling Wine Tasting Flight, or, new for this year, abseil down its tower or try an adrenaline-fuelled Sky Walk around its viewing pod.
As for your drinks, you’re spoilt for choice in Brighton – the city majors on cool cocktail bars and snug, eccentric little pubs. Near the West Pier is The Queensbury Arms. Blink and you’d miss this, the smallest pub in Brighton. Fondly known as ‘The Hole in the Wall’, it’s friendly, camp and incredibly cosy. It’s also where Sir Laurence Olivier would escape his fans for a quiet drink among pals.
If you’re after a trendier vibe, GungHo! serves up craft ales, biodynamic wines and inspiring seasonal cocktails with ingredients culled from the owner’s allotment. This buzzy drinking den features a bar made of reclaimed wood and fab tongue-in-cheek 80s disco music
Afterwards, dine at Murmur on the seafront where award-winning chef Michael Bremner magics up fishy treats such as lobster croquettes, clams with chorizo or chermoula silver mullet, from his atmospheric base in one of the converted boat builders’ arches.
Dawdle through the cobbled alleyways of The Lanes. Originally the city’s fishing village from which Brighton evolved, these Dickensian walkways are now given over to jewellers and antique shops. Some lanes are so narrow you’ll rub shoulders with fellow gawkers, but this historic area is worth an exploration, particularly those alleys that encircle Meeting House Lane. Alternatively, join a Blue Badge guide on a Secrets of the Lanes Walking Tour by Only in Brighton for scoops on smugglers, local riots, Victorian sea bathing and where to find Brighton’s oldest pub.
You’re not far from Bartholomews here, so pop into Plateau whose scrummy sharing plates and organic wines by the glass make an ideal light lunch. Loads of veggie and vegan choices here – and don’t miss the gorgeous Pan Haggerty stacked potatoes served with rosemary mayo.
Work off lunch with a walk along the promenade heading east, and if you’ve children in tow, stop off at Sea Life Brighton. This is the world’s oldest operating aquarium, and it’s stuffed with exotic fish such as an octopus called Pumpkin and Pacific sea nettle jellyfish. Book ahead for the exclusive ‘behind the scenes’ tour where experts guide you around their working quarters.
Villagey Kemptown is next – the heart of the city’s LGBT+ community. It’s a pretty district of grand Regency Squares (look out for the Blue Plaque homes of theatre greats) and seaside cottages. In between you’ll find flea markets, tattoo parlours, laid-back coffee houses and quirky pubs. Browse its streets for bric-a-brac emporia and quirky delis, then meander majestic Sussex Square, Arundel Terrace or Lewes Crescent.
If you’re only a wee bit hungry, Isaac At is ideal for dinner – the low-mileage set menu dishes are small, the flavours zingy and the creations mind-blowingly original. Booking is essential. If it’s Sunday however, you can’t beat some fine pub grub. Try The Basketmakers; it’s buzzy, with dozens of whiskies, ales and craft beers alongside Sussex fish and meat dishes.
Finish with a show. Big-name musicians and comics such as Eddie Izzard, Nish Kumar, and Russel Kane have all performed at the Dome, or if live music, alternative magic or cabaret in an intimate setting is more your thing, check out The Latest Music Bar for everything from swing and rock, to ska and reggae.
Hove, where Regency crescents back a quieter seafront, has seriously hip artisan shops, gin bars, niche restaurants, and wine bars along Church Road. Try the retro-styled Gin Tub for the fun Gin Sliders’ tasting experiences, and Fourth & Church for fab wines by the glass with yummy tapas.
Save money on attractions with a three-way combi ticket that allows up to 20 per cent off the entrance fees for the Royal Pavilion, British Airways i360 and Sea Life Brighton.
Fancy touring with a local expert? Brighton Greeters offer free two-hour city walks tailor-made to your interests. They’ll even bring umbrellas.
Both Brighton Harbour Hotel and The Grand Brighton have fabulous spas that you can access without being a guest. Half-day passes at Brighton Harbour Hotel start from £65, and a two-hour pass at The Grand is just £30 for two people. If you’re on your own, the entry is £19.50 and includes a glass of Prosecco.
Did you know?
Brighton has lots of history-packed tunnels and vaults including a 60 metre tunnel beneath the Royal Pavilion, built in 1821 when the Prince Regent was losing favour and needed to access his stables without being seen by the public. Tours can be booked through Brighton Museums.
More places to stay
The Grand is located between Brighton pier and the ruined west pier in a position that affords it uninterrupted ocean views. Aside from its fabulous location, highlights include the tasteful, Art Deco-inspired bedrooms and significant culinary achievements at its restaurant, Cyan.
The fabulous boutique Drakes Hotel is said to be a favourite of Cate Blanchett’s, and a seaside pad for both Kylie Minogue and Woody Allen. It spans two late-Georgian townhouses almost opposite the pier, and is packed with gorgeous bedrooms and Art Deco-style detailing alongside a cool cocktail bar and restaurant.
You need to be a fan of Art Deco to enjoy Paskins Brighton. Though generally small in size, many of the rooms feature Art Deco wallpaper, 1920s junk shop finds, and period furniture. Breakfast is a highlight with homemade vegan sausages and veggie fritters, as well as organic meat, eggs and tomatoes from local farms.
What to bring home
Stop by Pecksniff’s to pick up perfumes, shower gels and bespoke blends from Brighton’s very own fragrance makers.
You should also make time for a visit to Julien Plumart for a box of fresh cream macarons in rainbow colours – they are some of the best you’ll ever taste.
When to go
Brighton is a fiercely all-season city. Of course it can be packed on a hot summer’s day – but come the shoulder seasons, the crowds thin and the locals take back their town. Join them snacking and slurping on Sussex treats at the April and September Brighton and Hove Food and Drink Festival.
December can be wonderfully atmospheric – the wind-whipped seafront exudes a moody charm of its own, and starlings rise in a black cloud above the ruined West Pier. At weekends throughout December you can trawl the ever-expanding Christmas Artists Open Houses Festival – a perfect opportunity to snoop around those Regency homes, enjoy mulled wine and pick out a handmade present or two.
Above all, don’t miss a visit in May when the celebrated Brighton Festival, the largest multiform art festival in England, takes over the town – though thankfully, not to the point of bursting its seams.
Know before you go
Brighton’s Tourist Information Office
Address: Town Hall, Bartholomew Square, Brighton BN1 1JA
Contact: 01273 290337
Louise has never regretted moving to this fun-fuelled city since she did 23 years ago. Her favourite pastimes include people watching at Pavilion Gardens Café and out-of-season seaside walks.