Once utterly miserable, Margate is now a magnet for Hollywood actors

Sam Mendes, Olivia Coleman and Toby Jones in Margate
Sam Mendes, Olivia Coleman and Toby Jones at the Empire of Light premiere in Margate, 2023 - WireImage

All summer we will be taking the pulse of our most famous traditional seaside towns, examining the efforts being made to regenerate them, and opining on whether they are still worth visiting. This week, Rachel Mills explores Margate.

Margate feels like nowhere else in Britain right now. Pop into any pub, coffee shop or art gallery and you’ll likely spot an uber cool A-lister, from actors such as Pedro Pascal, Emma Corrin, Rami Malek and Olivia Colman to homegrown art icon Tracey Emin. As I write this, the Pet Shop Boys are on Margate Main Sands filming a new music video. After decades of decline, this seaside town is well and truly on the up.

Sea-bathing for medicinal purposes (rebranded “wild swimming” by today’s Walpole Bay devotees) first put Margate on the tourist map in the early 18th century. This was a genteel crowd, here for bracing cold-water dips – modesty protected by a bathing machine – and quaffing seawater (definitely not advised today). Steamboats from London started to arrive in the early 19th century, and then came the railway in 1863. Margate as a seaside resort was born.

Dreamland pleasure garden and amusement park opened in the 1920s and tourism continued to boom until the 1950s and 1960s (the decade responsible for the opinion-dividing Brutalist block of flats by the train station).

1920s Margate
As Dreamland opened in the 1920s, tourists flocked to Margate's seafront - Northcliffe Collection

But cheap package holidays abroad and a lack of investment at home kickstarted the town’s demise. Great storms damaged the lido, jetty and bathing pavilions, hotels were sold off and shops boarded up. I grew up in the area in the 1980s and 1990s and Margate – particularly its old town – was utterly miserable. Though I suppose you could at least buy a cup of tea without being fleeced. And there was a pretty good seafront nightclub called Escape (which I promptly did, for 20 years).

What’s it really like?

It’s buoyant. It’s community spirited. It’s got brilliant festivals, quirky museums and sights (hello Crab Museum and Shell Grotto) and an exorbitant amount of live music venues – Dreamland is hosting everyone from Sam Ryder to Idles and Status Quo this summer, and then there’s the brilliant independent venues like wonderfully grungy Where Else?, the Tom Thumb Theatre and the Lido Cliff Bar.

The historic Lido complex probably best represents the spirit of Margate. Despite a spruce up it still looks dilapidated from the outside – covered in graffiti and crumbling into the sea – but inside, the Cliff Bar attracts some of the best musicians around (if The Libertines play Margate in 2024, it’s likely to be here).

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to galleries (the Turner Contemporary spearheaded the regeneration, or some would say gentrification, of Margate), restaurants (book ahead), cocktail bars (bring your credit card) and stupendous sunsets (the best in all of Europe, according to Turner).

Turner Contemporary Gallery
Turner Contemporary shows the cultural side to Margate - Alamy

There are new and revamped hotels popping up all the time with two high-end heritage beachfront properties opening recently: Fort Road Hotel (fortroadhotel.com) and No.42 by GuestHouse (guesthousehotels.co.uk).

Best of all? It’s got people who care. Rise Up, Clean Up will be on the beach every Sunday sweeping up after the hordes of people who won’t deal with their own litter. There’s community gardens, food banks and a community shop, a soup kitchen at 101 Social, free creative events at spaces like ARK and Marine Studios. In short, this town has a soul.

What’s not to like?

Nothing can prepare you for the smell of rotting seaweed by the harbour arm at low tide. Such a pretty place smelling so bad is a travesty, only compounded by the colourful inflatables that meet their lonely end in the same corner. Litter is a really big problem in Margate too. That, and dog mess (especially in Cliftonville – the edgier end of town).

More investment is needed. The beautiful and historic Grade II-listed Winter Gardens performance space, which closed in 2022, still stands empty – though a recent £4m cash injection should see it reopen, eventually.

There’s a whole row of derelict shops close to the entrance of Dreamland called Arlington Arcade. And Margate High Street is in a sorry state, with the closure of WHSmith last month making the Post Office homeless; I don’t often venture there (unless I’m hankering after a Greggs) and the only tourists I spot look lost and frightened.

More investment is needed, but Margate has plenty of quirky museums and sights to offer. Pictured: Banksy's 'Valentine's Day Mascara' on a wall at Dreamland - Getty

Do this…

Watching the sunset from Margate Steps is a must-do. Built as a sea defence (the old town was flooded a number of times) this public space is a town hub and social leveller where people gather over fish and chips every time it isn’t Baltic. The sunsets are something else and lining the road along the steps are brilliant pubs that also make excellent viewing spots (Xylo, Little Swift, The Two Halves).

Eat this…

The absolute best place to eat in Margate is family-run Italian Bottega Caruso in the old town. The service is delightful, the drinks excellent and the rustic Italian cooking laugh-out-loud tasty. And if you want to take some Italian produce home with you, they’ve just opened a little shop next door, La Cantina. It’s not cheap but it is exceptional.

But don’t do this…

I think I’m the only person in Margate who doesn’t like the opening night of an art exhibition. A polite knot of people clutching drinks and spilling out from a gallery putting on a private view is almost a nightly occurrence somewhere in Margate. It’s all excruciating small talk and people surreptitiously glancing over your shoulder for someone famous.

Margate seafront
Even as it adapts its image, the coastline of Margate still attracts huge quantities of beachgoers - Shutterstock

From a local

“I love the autumn sunsets on the beach or a good winter storm rolling down the North Sea, when it’s one of the most beautiful places in England. But Margate’s also been – for 300 years – the archetypal tacky seaside resort. That contradiction brings tensions, between people who live here and daytrippers (on a busy summer day, I don’t even bother leaving the house!), and between long-term locals and recent arrivals. But under all that, there’s a year-round welcome, great shops and cafés, and enough quirky, odd and unusual things to keep anyone busy for a long weekend.” – Dan, Margate resident since 2013

From a tourist

“I’ve spent many a joyful weekend in Margate, it’s one of my favourite places to visit. I like a dip in the sea followed by Peter’s Fish Factory for chips. The Turner Contemporary is brilliant but it’s also lovely to walk round to Cliftonville – if you’re here for a longer visit I recommend the seafront walk from Margate to Broadstairs, which could only be improved with access to some public toilets. On my way to the train station home I always pop into Big Shot for an affogato.” – Maria, London

Get there

High-speed trains from London St Pancras take around 1 hour and 30 minutes, though the non-high-speed option (not via Ashford) is only around 8 minutes slower and is cheaper. You can also travel from London Victoria to Margate in around 1 hour 42 minutes. Buy tickets in advance if possible. Car parking options are limited and free parking near the Main Sands is non-existent.