Brighton is hip, colorful and, unusually urban for a seaside resort. Nicknamed "London's beach" and located 60 miles from the capital, Brighton is a year-round day trip or short break destination with plenty more to offer than its seafront. Shopping, dining, a fantasy palace, a brilliant aquarium, great nightlife and theater, block after block of Regency houses — not to mention the most scenic pier in Britain — combined with a tolerant and breezy ambiance make Brighton a very cool place to visit and an even cooler place to stay awhile.
Have Seaside Fun on the Brighton Palace Pier
Brighton's late-Victorian pleasure pier opened to the public in 1899 and has been a feature of the town's year-round family entertainment ever since. It has operated pretty much without interruption except for the period of WWII. In 1940, the Grade 1 Listed building was ordered to close and a section was removed in case the Nazis decided to use it as a landing stage for men and equipment.
After the war, it returned to its original purpose providing innocent pleasures. While the pier is a lovely place to take a scenic walk it also has plenty of entertainment. There's an amusement park at the end with a small roller coaster and a range of traditional carnival rides. You can play arcade games — computer based as well as old fashioned seaside favorites — in the covered areas. And there's plenty of opportunity to eat and drink. Everything from a full, sit down meal to a bag of fish and chips.
The Prince Regent, who later became King George IV, spent much of his time entertaining friends and mistresses in Brighton away from his estranged wife and the judgmental eyes of the court. The Royal Pavilion was his extravagant, fantasy summer "cottage". Built like a theatrical set around what was originally a smallish (by Royal standards) farmhouse, the Royal Pavilion sits in the center of town, surrounded by some miniscule lawns and fencing, with Brighton traffic swirling around it. As was common of the time the Pavilion is decorated with Chinoiserie—European imitations of East Asian artistic tradition. Queen Victoria found it too small and too close to the common people so she gave it to the town of Brighton.
In more recent times, the current Queen has returned some of the original Chippendale furniture on permanent loan from the Royal collections. But the best things to see here are the outstanding kitchens (the Prince Regent even took his dinner guests on a tour of them), and the dining room, where you can admire the hand painted glass chandeliers and read the menus prepared for his guests by the first celebrity chef, Marie Antonin Careme. This was a party house so there's no much to see in terms of living accommodations, but the entertaining rooms are splendid.
Brighton is a very walkable place and the town has no shortage of walking tours — some free — led by entertaining, knowledgeable guides. Tour the splendid Regency terraces (what the British call runs of attached homes), a distinctive feature of the waterfront and Kemptown area. They are now mostly divided into posh flats for commuting Londoners but, in their day, they were where socialites came to spend weekends and enjoy the summer air. Try history tours, shopping tours, Regency tours or foodie tours. VisitBrighton can point you in the right direction for lots of guided walks.
"Fly" over Brighton on the BA i360
Take a 20 minute ride on Brighton's very cool "eye in the sky," billed as the world's tallest moving observation tower. If you enjoy fabulous views from high places, this is one you should not miss. The i360 rises more than 530 feet above Brighton Beach between the skeletal remains of the Victorian West Pier and Brighton's Regency Square. Passengers travel to a height of just over 450 feet in a glass pod that offers spectacular views of the city.
Visit a Victorian Aquarium at Sea Life
Brighton's Aquarium first opened in 1872 as a kind of wonder attraction for Victorian visitors. The building, hidden except for its entrance under the shore road and the sea wall, has been a nightclub and a motor museum. During WWII it was requisitioned for military purposes by the Royal Air Force.
It was a dolphinarium until 1991, when attitudes towards dolphin attractions changed and the dolphins were eventually freed. Since the 1990s, the Aquarium has been operated by Sea Life with a motto of "Breed, Rescue, Conserve." They've spent millions on refurbishing the recently reopened ocean tank. Part of the refurbishments involved restoring the original Victorian arches and decorations. This is a smallish aquarium and really, at the moment, a rainy day attraction but the restored Victorian decor is impressive and offers a fascinating insight into what 19th century audiences enjoyed.
Go Antiquing in the Lanes
Brighton was originally a medieval fishing village, Brighthelmstone. The original village was burned down by the French in 1514 leaving behind only the skeleton of the original village's streets around which modern-day Brighton grew. Now called the Lanes, it's a network of impossibly narrow alleys and and even narrower "twittens." The original fishermen's cottages are now filled with jewelry, antiques and gift shops, cafes and small fashion boutiques. This is the place to find beautiful antique jewelry, fabulously expensive Tiffany lamps, or Art Deco statuettes. You'll also find the odd pub here and there as well as a cupcake shop and a chocolatier. The assortment of retailers change often though the antique dealers in the Lanes never seem to.
Bohemian, New Age and chic stores jostle each other and the hundreds of pedestrians who fill the streets of the North Laines. This is a part of town where you can probably still find 1970s tie-dye clothing and dark little head shops selling hookahs. But you can also find interesting costume jewelry and see fashion stylists sniffing out vintage designer wear. If, when it comes to shopping, you love the hunt as much as the find, this is the area for you.
Explore the Water
Getting into the water at Brighton Beach can be a challenge. The so-called "shingle" beach is covered with very large stones that you have to wear shoes to navigate. Because the English Channel is pretty cold, a lot of water sports enthusiasts wear wet suits for most of the season. That said, if you are hardy and like a challenge, there are plenty of water sports suppliers in Brighton. On the tamer side of the spectrum, you can try paddle surfing or stand-up paddle boarding in the shallows and relatively sheltered water around the pier.
The South Downs Way, Britain's prehistoric long distance footpath — traveling 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Eastbourne to Winchester — passes close enough to Brighton to make excellent day walks a great thing to do. The South Downs is made of a series of chalk hills. It's very hot during the summer, making walking quite unpleasant, but spring and autumn are excellent for walks with views that go on for miles. On clear days, you can even see France from some of the higher spots on the Downs. To make it easy, The National Trust, The South Downs National Park Authority and Brighton&Hove Buses have created a network of Breeze Up to the Downs buses that will get you from Brighton to some of the most scenic spots in 30 minutes. Destinations include The Devils Dyke, The Ditchling Beacon and the woodland walks of Stanmer Park.
A wide, flat walkway beneath white chalk cliffs atop a 1930s sea wall, called the Undercliff Walk, stretches from Brighton Marina to the village of Rottingdean. It was built to protect the cliffs from erosion. In good weather, this is yet another way to enjoy the fresh sea air without going very far from the city of Brighton. The walk, at a leisurely pace, can take about two hours. On the return, the cliff top walk offers terrific views and, in spring and summer is covered with wildflowers.
Eat the Best Fish and Chips in Town
It goes without saying that if you are beside the sea, that English speciality, fish and chips, is going to be plentiful and tasty. In fact, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has called Brighton's Palace Pier the spiritual home of fish and chips. These days, though, the best fish and chips in Brighton have moved a few hundred yards west along the seafront to the edge of Regency Square. Try either Melrose or The Regency, local favorites, located right next door. Handily, both are just across the street from the British Airways i360 and there's reasonably priced, underground municipal parking in Regency Square.
Brighton is, among many things, Britain's gay capital. There has been an active gay community there for decades with some LGBT history going all the way back to the 19th century. So it stands to reason that this is a great place to celebrate Pride and Brighton does it big. Brighton Pride is the UK's most popular Pride event and is ranked among the best in the world. The festival, in early August (August 2-4 in 2019), includes a concert, parade, a family-friendly LoveBN1 Fest and a huge Pride Village Party in Kemptown.