Where hipsters, drag queens, hippies and families blend into a happy urban whole
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.
Hot right now . . .
Louise Roddon, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat and drink this season.
Think London has the hottest food scene? Think again. Brighton is fast matching the capital for culinary treats. Contemporary twists on all-things seafoody continue to wow at The Little Fish Market (10 Upper Market Street; 01273 722213), while at Etch. (216 Church Road; 01273 227485), where Masterchef-winner Steven Edwards is the man to watch, you’ll find glamorous, pared-back and seriously sexy seven- and nine-course tasting menus.
Meanwhile, the city has a couple of noteworthy newcomers: Wild Flor in Hove (42 Church Road; 01273 329111) punts comfort food at unassuming prices. It's strong on flavours (try the slow cooked brisket with Swiss chard), and serves innovative starters such as veal sweetbreads in a foamy pea and sherry cream broth. Naturally, this newbie has already become a locals’ favourite.
So too, The Flint House (13 Hanningtons Lane; 01273 916333): a cool but casual brasserie and bar in The Lanes. The latest addition of Ben and Pamela McKellar’s local Gingerman Group, this lofty space offers smashing cocktails upstairs and exquisite sharing plates downstairs. Don’t miss the yummy ham croquettes with saffron mayo.
Swapping its old North Laine premises for the hip Seven Dials, L’Atelier du Vin (87-93 Dyke Road; 01273 227502) majors on long-forgotten cocktails, Burgundian fine wines and Champagne from small producers. This newly minted version maintains LdV’s clubby prohibition-era vibe, but with loads more space, including a small patio at the rear.
48 hours in . . . Brighton
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 (01273 602558) in Kensington Gardens is particularly fab for retro flea market finds. Fancy a cool Sixties look? Jump the Gun (01273 626333) in Gardner Street sells the best in snazzy Mod gear, and from here, the dazzling Royal Pavilion (4/5 Pavilion Buildings; 03000 290900) 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? Stop by Cin Cin Italian Bar & Kitchen (13-16 Vine Street; 03000 290900) for the silkiest, most authentic pastas in Brighton. It's located in a tiny garage, you may need to queue and it’s elbow-nudgingly tight at the counter – but who cares with food this good? If you'd rather not wait, and it’s Friday, make a beeline for Street Diner in Brighthelm Gardenson 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.
Time now for a 20-minute pod ride in the skies on the British Airways i360 (Lower Kings Road). 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 evenings, you can dine in the pod during three 'flights' (one for each course) as Brighton twinkles below.
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 (Queensbury Mews; 01273 328159). 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, The Fix at The Artist Residence hotel (34 Regency Square; 01273 324302) is where you’ll find groovy sounds, cocktails with a healthy twist (think Beet Collins or Carrot Sours), and a cheery mob of locals.
Afterwards, dine at Murmur(91-96 King’s Road Arches; 01273 711900) 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 (email@example.com) for scoops on smugglers, local riots, Victorian sea bathing and where to find Brighton’s oldest pub.
You’re not far from Boyce’s Street here, so pop into The Coal Shed (8 Boyce's St; 01273 322998) where scrummy Sunday sharing roasts of 35-day aged beef come with all the trimmings. They also do a good value midday lunch for £10.95.
Work off lunch with a walk along the promenade heading east, and if you’ve children in tow, stop off at Sea Life Brighton (Marine Parade; 0871 226 6770). 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 (2 Gloucester Street; 07765 934740) 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 (12 Gloucester Road; 01273 689006); it's buzzy, with dozens of whiskies, ales and craft beers alongside Sussex fish and meat dishes.
Finish with a show. 2019 sees big-name comics such as Eddie Izzard, Nish Kumar, and Russel Kane performing at the Dome (Church Street; 01273 709709), or if live music is more your thing, check out The Latest Music Bar (14-17 Manchester Street; 01273 687171) for everything from swing and rock, to ska and reggae.
Where 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, an exquisite spa and significant culinary achievements at its fish restaurant, GB1.
Doubles from £100. 97-99 Kings Road; 01273 224300
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.
Doubles from £140. 43-44 Marine Parade; 01273 696934
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.
Doubles from £75. 18-19 Charlotte Street; 01273 601203
What to bring home . . .
Stop by Pecksniff’s (45-46 Meeting House Lane; 01273 723292) 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 (48 Queens Road; 01273 777412) 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.