Brighton, the largest and most famous seaside resort in the English Channel, stretches for 8 km along the chalky and sometimes steep coastline of the South Downs. Once a fishing village with narrow, winding alleys, the 18th century saw Brighton flourish in an elegant vacation spot where the English elite relaxed in fashionable spas and hotels under the restorative influence of the sea air. There is no shortage of reminders of this period: charming Régence terraces; the charming Palace Pier; and the Royal Pavilion, the exotic summer residence of George IV, one of the most flamboyant and eccentric kings in the country.
Although Brighton’s famous pebble beaches are now lined with souvenir shops and arcades, it remains a culturally dynamic destination. The city’s busy calendar of events includes the popular Brighton Festival each spring, horse racing in the summer and the famous London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in November. Brighton is also a great place for sports enthusiasts. Highlights include sailing, kite surfing and diving, as well as hiking and biking along the bottom or through the many beautiful green spaces, such as the historic Stanmer Park, just north of the city.
1. Royal Pavilion and Museums
The royal pavilion is hard to miss. Located in the center of Brighton, a few steps from the sea, the building’s extraordinary peaks and spiers seem to be more comfortable in India. It was certainly the intention of the architect John Nash, who designed the summer palace for the Prince of Wales (later George IV) in the Indian Mughal style. Best viewed through a guided tour, the building’s highlights include the banquet hall, with its pretty oriental decor; the royal chambers; and the tent-like music room.
In the former royal stable and riding school is the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, with its impressive collection of Art Deco pieces, a costume gallery with 18th century fashions and the excellent Willett collection of porcelain and ceramics . The Booth Natural History Museum is also worth a visit, reputed to be home to one of the largest collections of British plush birds. Other highlights include a large collection of insects, fossils and skeletons, as well as the (in) famous “Merman”, a Victorian hoax creature that many people at the time believed to be real.
2. Palace Pier
No trip to the seaside would be complete without a visit to a pier, with its fun arcades, its joke shops and its fish and chips stands. Thanks to its decorative ironwork and majestic setting, Brighton’s Victorian Palace Pier is undoubtedly one of the most attractive monuments in the country. Raising towards the sea like the upper deck of a steamer on slender iron legs, Palace Pier is the only survivor of the city’s three original piers still in service (one was destroyed by a storm, while another is abandoned near the city waterfront). Built in 1891 and extending approximately 1,700 feet from shore, it has lost none of its appeal. In addition to its restaurants and shops, the pier also offers other fun activities to do, including thrill rides and game rooms.
A fun diversion is the Volk Electric Railway. Built in 1833 and the oldest electric railway in the world, this narrow gauge line runs along the seafront of the pier at Brighton Marina. Along the way, you will pass the Brighton Fishing Museum, with its interesting exhibits on the origins of the town and its long history as a fishing town.
3. The Lanes and North Laine
The center of the old fishing village of Brighthelmstone, as Brighton was once called, was located on the site of the busy narrow lanes known as The Lanes. The charming 17th century little houses with their colorful weathered wooden façades are today antique shops, boutiques, galleries and cafes. East of The Lanes is Old Steine, a former green village. It is now a well-maintained square extending to Grand Parade, a magnificent boulevard lined with trees and planted with flowers. North Laine is also worth a visit, an art-inspired shopping district with an eclectic mix of boutiques and antique stores, galleries and cafes, as well as entertainment.
4. British Airways i360
Undoubtedly one of the most impressive new attractions on the south coast of England, the British Airways i360 observation tower is a must on any itinerary in Brighton. Replacing the Brighton Wheel as the tallest structure in the city (the wheel has since been dismantled), this 531-foot-high waterfront tower opened in 2016 with great fanfare as the first vertical cable car the world’s tallest mobile observation tower. Resembling a huge needle (and called “vertical pier”), the structure’s circular observation platform can lift up to 200 people at 453 feet for a spectacular view of the surroundings and the English Channel. Other features include a tea room and a gift shop.
5. Regency Houses
Walking around the residential areas of Brighton, with their beautiful terraces and Regency-style squares, is a popular pastime. West of the city center, in the direction of Hove, are street after street old houses, with round bays and iron balconies. The best examples can be found in Regency Square, Brunswick Terrace, Brunswick Square and Adelaide Crescent in the shape of a horseshoe. Sussex Square, Lewes Crescent and Arundel Terrace, all east of the city center, are also worth a visit. Another fine local example of historic architecture, Preston Manor is open to the public and perfectly captures life at the turn of the century.
6. Brighton Festival
Brighton’s annual three-week festival runs from early to late May and attracts artists from around the world for performances ranging from orchestral and church concerts to jazz and comedy performances. Film screenings and recitals are also among some 400 events offered at this diverse festival (although the repertoire is varied, 19th century music predominates). Sites include the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Dome, Theater Royal and local churches.
7. Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Brighton Toy and Model Museum, under the city’s train station, contains a huge range of vintage, rare and unique toys from Britain and Europe, including Hornby trains, Steiff bears, Corgi cars and all kinds of dolls, toy soldiers, farms, circuses, planes and puppets. Other important collections include many toy buses, building sets, boats, stuffed animals, zoos, and character play sets. Particularly fun is a unique train with local tourist attractions. The museum shop and foyer also houses a useful visitor information point, offering maps and literature on local events in Brighton. Tip: try to plan your visit to coincide with one of the museum’s special “Race Days” when you can see much rarer toy trains in action.
8. Bluebell Railway
A few miles from Brighton, the Bluebell Railway is a fascinating piece of British technical heritage. Crossing approximately 11 miles along the border between East and West Sussex, this fully functional railway runs between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead. From there you can take a connecting train to London or Brighton.
Famous as the world’s first preserved passenger steam railway to operate a public service, the railway’s collection includes 30 vintage engines and nearly 150 cars and wagons, most of them before 1939. Special journeys Theme trains are on offer, including fine dining, mystery nights, and Thomas the Tank Engine excursions for kids.
9. Veteran Car Run
While it’s not all wacky racing, the Royal Automobile Club’s annual veteran car race is probably the largest collection of unusual-looking vehicles you can see. The longest automotive celebration in the world has been held almost every November since 1927 and has drawn participants from around the world keen to test their vintage vehicles on the historic 60-mile race from Hyde Park in London to the Brighton seafront. Some 500 pre-1905 cars set out on the journey, all of them attracting huge crowds of spectators and tourist’s alike lining the route to encourage these often slow machines to make their way to the finish line.
10. Brighton Racecourse
Located high on the Sussex Downs, the breathtaking view of Brighton and the English Channel from Brighton Racecourse provides a unique context for the races that take place there in spring, summer and autumn. It is considered one of the most intimate racetracks in the country (horses do not cross the line a few meters from the crowd). Horse racing enthusiasts can enjoy a great day here on one of the oldest courses in the country (1783).