Brighton is a wonderful English seaside town. Popular with holidaymakers and day trippers from England, it is also a functioning town with a settled population, with lots of families. Some people commute to London each day, or for the week, spending weekends in Brighton. This mix all adds up to a funky place to visit, with a great mix of beach and pier activities, shopping, culture and night life. Just a short drive or bus trip away is the fascinating historic town of Lewes, sometime home of Thomas Paine, without whom neither the French nor American Revolutions may have happened as they did.
You can add a Brighton day trip to your London stay, but I’d recommend factoring in a couple of days so you at least get one night to explore, relax and people watch. Visit the Pavilion, have some fun on the Pier, take in the Lanes and have a historic detour to Lewes on your two days in Brighton, England.
Getting to Brighton, England
Brighton is really accessible. The best way by far is to get the train. Trains run regularly from London Victoria, London Bridge and London St Pancras, so there are plenty of options. If you’re coming into England via London Gatwick airport (LGW) then you’re already half way between London and Brighton, so it’s a great idea to start or end your British vacation in Brighton. Use the London Transport Planner app – it’s free.
It’s easy to drive to Brighton too, but parking can be problematic. If you are planning to drive into Brighton do contact your hotel in advance and ask them about Hotel Resident Parking Permits. These will allow you to park on the streets around your hotel at a significant discount, currently passes are £10 for any 24 hour period – believe it or not, that’s cheap. Brighton is one of the few cities in England that makes a profit from parking fees, and it recycles that profit into improving life for cyclists.
Brighton is a cycle-friendly city, so if you’re on a bike it’s easy to get around. Despite being not too far from London, you will need to go over the South Downs to get to Brighton, and they are relentlessly hilly, so I’d recommend taking your bike on the train, and cycling when you get there.
Brighton, A City For Everyone
Brighton is famously diverse. There are people from every social, income, national, religious and orientation group living happily side by side through the town and surrounding areas. Unlike many British seaside towns there’s a full age range, with young creative types living and working in Brighton, families growing up whilst one parent earns big bucks in London, and older people who enjoy a relaxed lifestyle in the mansion blocks by the sea. Plenty of London creative types keep a Pied Ã Terre in Brighton, so expect to see a good sprinkling of actors in the town, but do leave them alone, they’re off duty.
Brighton is famed for its tolerance, and you’ll find a far higher proportion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people living in Brighton than is average for the UK. Think San Francisco, with cotton candy and fish and chips. You’ll also see a lot more body modification, with a thriving tattoo and body piercing industry.
This melting pot mix leads to a lively cultural scene, with live music in pubs across the city every night, street performers in the summer months, and an active theatre that often road tests productions before they head to the West End.
What To Do In Brighton: The Pavilion
Brighton offers plenty for the visitor, regardless of the weather. Once you’ve seen the sea, walked along the promenade and had some fun on the pier then the prime visitor attraction in the Brighton Pavilion. Rest assured, you have not seen anything like this before. One of the advantages of living in a historic constitutional monarchy is that over a period of hundreds of years, some of those monarchs, or their rich and privileged offspring, will have been bonkers, and will have had plenty of money to spend on absurd projects, which no-one will have advised them against.
The Brighton Pavilion was built by George IV when he was a prince, waiting for King George III to die so he could become King. You may recognise King George III as the mad king on which the film The Madness Of King George was based. He started work in 1783, just seven years after the American Revolution. Essentially it’s an Indian style palace that he built himself to live in. It also allowed him to live discreetly with his lover who was both married and Catholic, two fairly big no-no’s for the British royal family. The arrival of trains made Brighton far less discreet, so Brighton bought the Pavilion from Queen Victoria, who hated the place.
During the first World War Brighton Pavilion was used as a hospital for Indian soldiers, the hope seeming to be that the architecture would make them feel at home. It is now a tourist attraction, and it hosts temporary art exhibitions as well as musical performances.
Brighton Pier, Brighton Rock
Brighton had two piers, the West Pier and the Palace Pier. The West pier suffered a series of fires in mysterious circumstances and is now visibly decaying into the sea. The Palace Pier is now known simply as Brighton Pier. You can stroll along, sit on the benches along the pier, and have your photo taken in traditional seaside cut outs, all for free. There’s plenty of food and souvenir stalls to buy from and a whole fun fair at the end of the pier with haunted house, dodgems and rollercoaster. There’s also an amusement arcade where you can while away your time and money.
Don’t forget to pick up some Brighton rock. It’s a long stick of hard mint candy with the words Brighton Rock running all the way through it. It’s cheap and makes a great gift, but only for people with strong teeth.
Fans of Graham Greene will want to eat at the Palm Court restaurant on the Pier, where Pinkie Brown took Ida for tea. People who have never heard of Pinkie Brown or the novel ‘Brighton Rock‘ will want to eat there because the fish and chips are the best for miles around,
If you haven’t read Brighton Rock, then Brighton is the perfect pace to do so. If you’re just not a reader then try watching one of the films before you go to get some context for Brighton from the 1930’s. I prefer the 1947 version as it’s more menacing, but if you prefer your films in Technicolor then the film from 2010 is still worth a watch.
Thomas Paine, American and French Revolutionary
Thomas Paine spent significant time in Lewes from 1767 to 1774. He had been working as a British tax official there, and he was supposed to be running his father in law’s tobacco store which he lived above, but he was busy drafting revolutionary texts and expounding his ideas about The Rights of Man. He was fired from his tax job because he never showed up, and the tobacco business went bust for similar reasons.
You can still see the old tobacco shop, and you can have a drink at the White Hart pub, where Paine expounded his politics. You can also visit the brewery in the town and try the style of beer Paine would have enjoyed.
More Day Trips From London
There’s plenty to do in London, and you can spend a year there without getting bored, but for your next vacation in England, add some trips beyond the capital, and explore more of what England has to offer. Hopefully you’ll spend a couple of days in Brighton, and here’s a book to give you a little inspiration to explore further afield, without having to worry about choosing hotels in each location.
Eating, Drinking, Sleeping & Shopping in Brighton
There’s a lively pub culture in Brighton, so just stop in to any pub that takes your fancy. There’s an absurd number of cafes, choose one of the independents with homemade cake and organic coffee, you’ll get more for your people watching pound.
For finer dining head to Kemptown on the East side of Brighton. You won’t find chain restaurants here, but you’ll find well heeled locals enjoying good food and fine wines.
The town is blessed with every type of hotel you can think of, from youth hostels and hostels for the not-so-young, through guest houses and B&B’s to hotels from one to five stars, with chains like Hilton and Holiday Express well represented.
The best known hotel is The Grand, and grand it is with balconies looking out to the sea. It is infamous for the failed assassination attempt on then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984, but its been fully refurbished since then. If you do stay here, pay extra for the sea view. The basic rooms are rather grim.
I prefer a B&B at the seaside, with a full English breakfast to set me up for a day of exploring. The Kemptown side of Brighton offers great accommodation, within easy reach of the center, but away from the noise of late late weekend revelers. I love the Sea Breeze hotel on Upper Rock Gardens, but there’s half a dozen other good B&Bs on the same street.
The Lanes in Brighton are famed for their eclectic shopping. The original street plan, centuries old, hosts unique shops, from the funky to the traditional and whether you want a cheap memento, or a luxury blowout, you’ll find a boutique for you. Don’t miss out on some of the second hand stores, there’s vintage finds galore in clothing, home decor and entertainment.