The best seaside towns near London
Bamburgh in Northumberland has just been named the UK’s best seaside resort for the third year running. To which many Londoners may well say: where? Let’s face it, we’re never going to go, and not just because we have no idea where Northumberland is, never mind Bamburgh. But also because we have many fine resorts within relatively easy distance of the capital.
One of the merits of London is that it’s very easy to leave: we have a Monopoly board’s-worth of train stations from which to flee. So whether you’re after oyster shucking in Whitstable or the art scene in Margate, pack the SPF and get out of here.
Obviously, you’ll want to come back — that sea air’s so pure it hurts your lungs — but you can tolerate a day at the beach before you get homesick.
Here, we've rounded up some of the coolest coasts within easy reach of the capital.
What is it? Margate is the perfect example of the decaying seaside town that’s been part reclaimed by hipsters, while still retaining the kind of “gritty” spirit immortalised in song by Chaz and Dave. It’s played artist’s muse throughout the eras: Turner painted Margate, Tracey Emin grew up here, and T S Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land from a shelter in the town centre. Locals call us DFLs (Down From Londons) but are broadly friendly.
Where to go: Drop into the Turner Contemporary (turnercontemporary.org) — once you’ve concocted a half-baked sentence about its sculptural lines, Fort’s Café (fortscafe.co.uk) is five minutes down the road. One visitor describes it as a Hackney café with Margate prices. Pick the mac ’n’ cheese, or make it in time for the “amazing breakfasts”: heaving full Englishes and dollops of condiments. The Lifeboat (thelifeboat-margate.com) is a proper alehouse dispensing Kentish cider and cheeseboards. The Great British Pizza Co (greatbritishpizza.com) also recently opened on the sea front. Then wander through the old town and discover the vintage furniture shops, rich in mid-century gems. St Mildred’s Bay is the best beach and Ambrette (theambrette.co.uk) is a knockout Indian. And obviously, there’s Dreamland (dreamland.co.uk) — Margate’s crowning jewel (sorry, J W Turner): a retro amusement park dispensing new-age fun with a vintage feel.
Where to stay: The Reading Rooms (thereadingroomsmargate.co.uk) — a boutique B&B in a converted Georgian townhouse.
Perfect for: Dalstonites who’ve explored all the Ginger line has to offer and hanker for more.
Getting there: Train from Victoria, which takes under two hours.
What is it? Formerly regarded as the less ritzy neighbour of Margate and Broadstairs, this maritime town is slowly offering London weekenders more than attractions specifically designed to torture holidaying school kids (boat trip to the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, anyone?) and multiple pound shops. Live music and a burgeoning craft-beer scene could yet make it the year, or at least the summer, of the Ram.
Where to go: Penge brewers and south London micropub heroes Late Knights opened only their second bar outside London here last year. The Ravensgate Arms (@ravensgatearms) boasts great beer, cider and burgers, a rowdy atmosphere and a bottleshop next door for takeaway drinks. In joining the nearby Ramsgate Brewery (ramsgatebrewery.co.uk) they’ve brought hipster hops to the seaside. Elsewhere the Ramsgate Music Hall (ramsgatemusichall.com) is luring all sorts of hot young things down for gigs (East India Youth and Sleaford Mods recently performed there, as did Dan Snaith from Caribou) and the Granville Theatre contains a grand 1940s cinema with pleasingly 1980s prices. You should also gawp at the Sinclair C5 in the kitsch computer-themed Micro Museum (themicromuseum.org).
Where to stay: The owners of The Barrel Store (barrelstoremargate.com), a new boutique self-catering house in Margate, have also put their Ramsgate home, the Gothic Villa (complete with basement cinema), on Airbnb. Prepare to fight like a chip-starved seagull to get it.
Perfect for: Eighties nostalgia-lovers and Trappist-quaffing beer nerds.
Getting there: The train from St Pancras takes one hour 15 minutes.
What is it? A charmingly historic town famous for its pier, castles, streets of higgledy piggdely Fisherman’s cottages, pebble beach and non-naff promenade - think pretty pubs and quaint cafes rather than arcades and theme park rides. Earlier this year, it was voted one of the best places to live by the sea. Clearly Deal-ites are onto something.
Where to go: Deal’s high street is full of hipster-friendly independent gems - there’s a needlework shop, a wine merchant, an antiques shop, a fishmonger, an organic butcher and a vinyl-record shop that also stocks rare craft beers. Once you’ve worn your feet (and your wallet) out, head to Victuals & Co (victualsandco.com) - an unassuming little foodie haven down an easily missed alley that’s gotten the nod of approval from the Michelin Guide.
Where to stay: The Admiral’s Rest (dealcottages.co.uk) is a boutique bolthole in a pretty pastel Victorian cottage, with the seafront right on your doorstep.
Perfect for: Doortrait Instagrammers looking for a quiet seaside escape.
Getting there: Trains run from London St Pancras to Deal and take 1 hour and 22 minutes.
What is it? A classic English resort that’s humble about its record-breaking landmark: the world’s longest pier. It’s got a faded hipster glow to it — in the early noughties the “Southend scene” was well documented in Vogue, the NME, Dazed & Confused and Rolling Stone. Its seascape isn’t as beautiful as one of the Kentish vistas but it has its fun: the amusement park Adventure Island and Sea Life aquarium are worth an “ironic” visit.
Where to go: Mangetout (mangetoutgrill.co.uk) is the best burger joint with Henry Burgers a close second (henryburgers.co.uk). The Pipe of Port (pipeofport.com), has “huge” tasty pies, and it also does fine wines and rare ports. Old Leigh is the best place to go on a hot day: get soaked in The Peterboat (eastangliapubs.com), The Crooked Billet (nicholsonpubs.co.uk) or Ye Olde Smack (taylor-walker.co.uk). Black Cat is a cocktail bar hidden round the back of an Italian pizzeria (and so secret it doesn’t have its own website — try irmaspizzeria.com to pinpoint its location). It serves Essex classics (the “Canvey Island iced tea”, for one).
Where to stay: The four-star Roslin Beach Hotel (roslinhotel.com) is situated on the Thorpe Bay seafront, overlooking the beach.
Perfect for: Authentic seaside explorers who want more than just Haggerston-on-Sea.
Getting there: It takes just under an hour from Fenchurch Street, or about an hour from Liverpool Street.
What is it? A petite seaside town most notable for its harbour (worth Instagramming) and its oysters — the annual festival started this week. The small streets are teeming with day trippers hunting through charity shops, and the beach is overflowing with boaties and windsurfers.
What to do: Mainly, you’re there for the seafood and the Great Outdoors (and boy does it smell fishy): head to the harbour where you can get oysters and whelks for as little as 20p. The Whitstable Oyster Fishery (whitstableoystercompany.com) dishes up molluscs and crustaceans. If that’s a bit slimy for your taste, you probably shouldn’t have gone to Whitstable to start with. Go to Michelin-starred pub The Sportsman (thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk) to ruminate on your mistake.
Where to stay: The Crescent Turner (crescentturner.co.uk) is boutique and British — the opposite of London. And isn’t that what this whole project was about?
Perfect for: Outdoors types who aspire to graduate from London Fields lido to the open waters of the Channel.
Getting there: Under 90 minutes from Victoria or St Pancras.
What is it? A quintessentially English fishing village with traditional cockle sheds, working boats and a tiny sandy beach is London’s closest coastal patch, in neighbouring Essex.
What to do: Head to Cockle Row to munch on local seafood from the clapboard sheds, sink a pint or an artisan gin in the famous Crooked Billet pub (nicholsonspubs.co.uk) and try a black sesame ice-cream at Poco Gelato (pocogelato.co.uk).
Where to stay: The Westcliff Hotel (westcliff-hotel.co.uk) is a classic Victorian inn dating back to 1891 with pretty sea views.
Perfect for: Last-minute Londoners who want to make the most of the sunny weather.
Getting there: Trains from Fenchurch Street to Leigh-on-Sea take 50 minutes.
What is it? “The new Brighton” — drop that back home to make people feel small and mainstream. Its pier has just been tarted up to the tune of £14 million, and it’s throwing on film festivals and farmers’ markets. In fact, screw Brighton — you could basically be in Peckham.
What to do: Visit the Jerwood Gallery (jerwoodgallery.org), resplendent in black: current exhibitions include a Quentin Blake and a two-room Lowry extravaganza. The Old Town is full of independent shops: insiders mutter in fevered tones about Warp & Weft (warpandweftstyling.com). Get fresh seafood at Rock a Nore Kitchen (facebook.com/rocakanorekitchen) and sink drinks at First In Last Out (thefilo.co.uk).
Where to stay: The tiny Old Rectory (it has just eight rooms) opens onto a walled garden (theoldrectoryhastings.co.uk).
Perfect for: Grown-ups who are getting a bit too old for Brighton (isn’t that what you really mean when you say something is the “new” anything?).
Getting there: It takes 90 minutes from Charing Cross.
What is it? Broadstairs is Whistable on a grander scale: set in a broad sweep of coastline, it’s dramatically craggy and has a bigger sandy beach and better pubs. Its pursuits are quainter than Margate’s or Southend’s: it holds a Dickens festival every year (people dress up) and a Folk Week music festival in the second week of August (people probably dress up).
Where to go: Do things back to front and start with dessert: Morelli’s ice cream (morellisgelato.com) is famous (and comforting if you’re already feeling homesick — it has a concession in Selfridges). Then Wyatt & Jones (wyattandjones.co.uk) on the seafront for seafood, followed by a drink at the Chapel (thechapel-broadstairs.com), which does ale, wine and cheese sourced from the Garden of England (Kent — make sure you know that). Peen’s Café Bar (facebook.com/peens.gastrobar) is a modern jewel in the Victorian seafront — good for watching sunsets.
Where to stay: The Royal Albion (albionbroadstairs.co.uk) has been around since the 18th century and has an air of (very) gentle ruin.
Perfect for: Culture vultures with esoteric tastes; anyone who fetishises faded Victorian glamour.
Getting there: Takes just under two hours from St Pancras or Victoria.
What is it? Not the power station, though that’s nearby. Dungeness is on a head of land in east Kent, near an area called Romney Marshes. Admittedly this doesn’t sound promising — but hang in there. Its airstream trailers — a highlight — are like Winnebagos before they went mainstream and even your auntie had taken one to Glasto. It’s in a nature reserve that has a peculiar sparse, bleak, English beauty.
What to do: Visit the late artist Derek Jarman’s cottage (gardenvisit.com) — the modular, unusual garden is a vivid gem. The lighthouse is also worth a pilgrimage; and The Pilot Inn (thepilotdungeness.co.uk), is “world famous” — it’s the fish and chips wot won it.
Where to stay: To be honest, you could do most of it in a day — though if you insist, try Castaways B&B — you can see France on a clear day (castawaysdungeness.com).
Perfect for: Getting away from it all — specifically civilisation as you know it (in its urban form).
Getting there: No direct train, so go to Rye (one hour 15mins from St Pancras) and get the bus from the station.