15 Best Places to Visit in East Sussex (England)

Written by Alex Bird
Updated on
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On the southeast coast, East Sussex is a county that will take you back to England’s very foundation.

The decisive Battle of Hastings was fought here, and William the Conqueror built his first fortresses in East Sussex.

Amid all this history is Brighton, England’s most progressive city, and a sort of miniature London on the south coast.

Visit Brighton for culture, shopping and nightlife.

And then set off on jaunt to see East Sussex’s ancient coastal towns, which have weatherboard houses, romantic tales of smugglers and ghostly 19th-century defences built for a French invasion that never came.

Lets explore the best places to visit in East Sussex:

1. Brighton

Royal Pavilion, BrightonSource: flickr
Royal Pavilion, Brighton

The largest city in the county, Brighton is loved by tourists and the home of Britain’s largest LBGT community outside London.

Visitors are seduced by the city’s history, as well as Brighton’s youthful  and creative character.

There’s infamous nightlife and loads of leftfield, alternative shops and cafes, but also all of the old-time pleasures of an English seaside resort, as the Palace Pier makes clear.

With minarets and onion domes, The Royal Pavilion is a whimsical palace built for the future George IV while he was still a prince in late-1700s.

It was inspired by Indian and Islamic styles, fashionable during the days of the empire.

You have to go in for a tour, and with the help of an audio-guide you’ll get insights about the opulent lifestyle of the Prince Regent.

2. Rye

Mermaid Street, RyeSource: flickr
Mermaid Street, Rye

Historic Rye clings to a hill between the Rivers Rother and Brede, close to where they enter the sea and was an important port in days gone by.

The higher, older part of the town, known as the citadel is a dream to explore on foot.

There are steep, winding cobblestone streets and their weatherboard houses are still redolent of the 18th-century smugglers who planned their capers in this town.

There are old fortifications up here from when Rye was one of the Cinque Ports.

Rye Castle is a museum giving you a window on the town’s truly fascinating history, as does the excellent Rye Heritage Centre.

For some beach time hit Camber Sands, possibly the best beach on the English Channel coast.

3. Lewes

LewesSource: wikipedia

The county town of East Sussex, Lewes is heaving with historical and cultural importance.

Keere Street is the place to dive into Lewes’ old quarter, with its cobblestones and medieval timber-framed houses.

Scramble up to Lewes Castle, constructed right after the conquest and with a great museum, and see the home that Anne of Cleves was given in her divorce from Henry VIII.  Glyndebourne is a country house that has become synonymous in England with opera, and has a calendar of performances in the summer that are part of aristocratic society’s “summer season”. The intervals last for more than an hour and give spectators time to picnic on the beautiful lawns.

Also associated with high culture is Charleston, a gorgeous farmhouse where members of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers lived and worked.

4. Hastings

HastingsSource: flickr

This town has a distinct look for East Sussex, because it’s right where the sandstone Weald enters the English Channel.

So the cliffs that rise menacingly behind the town have a reddish brown colour.

These bluffs were handy for smugglers, who were able to dig networks of tunnels for storing contraband and evading the authorities.

These are now one of Hastings’ top attractions.

Also must-dos are the cliff railways, two of the steepest funiculars in the country.

And you can’t pass up a visit to the old town at the base of the cliffs, an area of winding streets, painted weatherboard houses and inns where grizzled seafarers would have drunk in centuries past.

5. Battle

Battle AbbeySource: flickr
Battle Abbey

A momentous episode in English history unfolded right here in 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated Harold II to begin the Norman conquest of England.

As soon as England was under Norman yoke, a Benedictine abbey was built on the battleground as penance for all of the violence of the conquest.

The abbey church has been a ruin since the 1500s, but there’s a stone on the ground where the high alter used to be marking the spot where Harold fell.

Over time a community took shape around the abbey, eventually giving us the sweet little town we see now.

There’s a market in front of the abbey every Friday and Saturday and a high street lined with artisan shops, tea rooms and pubs.

6. Eastbourne

EastbourneSource: flickr

This town is like a more sedate and grown-up version of Brighton, and first came to society’s attention when the Children of George III holidayed here in the 1780s.

There’s a beach, three-tiered promenade and elegant Victorian pier, but few of the amusements that are a fixture of many English seaside towns.

Instead the foreshore is fringed by imposing regency townhouses and hotels, and there are classy amenities like the bandstand and three sumptuous old theatres.

A mile or two southwest of Eastbourne towers the awesome Beachy Head, the highest chalk sea cliff in the country, at more than 160 metres.

This landmark has been the subject of sea shanties since at least the 17th century.

Spare some time for Eastbourne Redoubt, a coastal fort built during the Napoleonic Wars and restored as a museum.

7. St Leonards-on-Sea

St Leonards-on-SeaSource: flickr
St Leonards-on-Sea

Originally a different town, St Leonards was absorbed by Hastings in the 1800s but has managed to keep a distinct identity.

This district has a looser, artier feel for its studios, vintage stores, stylish cafes and antiques shops.

Norman Road and Mercatoria best demonstrate this amiable match of creativity and scruffiness.

If you love regency architecture then St Leonards will definitely be your kind of place as most of the original town was plotted in one go in the early-1800s.

And then on the seafront be dazzled by the gargantuan Marine Court, an art deco apartment block from 1937 designed to resemble an ocean liner.

8. Seaford

SeafordSource: flickr

In medieval times Seaford had one of the south’s most active ports, but the town went into decline when the harbour silted up.

Later the Victorians discovered the long pebble beaches and a second era of prosperity arrived.

In the early-1800s England made plans to cope with what seemed like an inevitable land invasion by Napoleon.

The Martello tower built as a defence is in fine nick and holds an informative museum about this period.

Just east of the town, the chalk valleys of the South Downs meet the sea in the most epic fashion.

Rising and falling off into the distance are the Seven Sisters, a chain of undulating chalk cliffs best viewed from Seaford Head.

9. Hove

HoveSource: flickr

Belonging to the same conurbation as Brighton, but with a very different character, Hove is a place where people settle when they’ve had enough of Brighton’s bustle.

This town is an altogether grander and more genteel place, with regal boulevards and streets of stuccoed and whitewashed four-storey regency townhouses.

Church Road is the main thoroughfare in Hove, underpinning the town’s sense of prosperity.

The pebble beach is traced by the promenade that will lead you all the way to Brighton, and there’s a small amusement park for kids and the Hove Museum and Art Gallery recalls life in 19th-century Hove.

At the County Cricket Ground you can catch the occasional England one-day international match from the comfort of a bench or deck chair.

10. Alfriston

AlfristonSource: flickr

This village in the lush Cuckmere Valley is as twee as it gets, and has lots of fun surprises.

Take the village lockup, where offenders would have been imprisoned overnight and made from local flint.

On the high street are sweet shops, tea rooms, a vintage bookshop and half-timbered pubs.

The most endearing of these may be the Star Inn, with roots going back to the 14th century and where a notorious smuggling gang used to hang out in the 1800s.

The wattle and daub Alfriston Clergy house is also from the 14th century, and has timber framing and a thatched roof.

It was sold to the National Trust in 1896 and became their first ever property.

11. Bexhill-on-Sea

Bexhill-on-SeaSource: flickr

Not just a place to visit on isolated hot days in the summer, Bexhill is the kind of seaside town where you could easily spend a night or two.

There are several aspects to the resort’s allure, whether it’s the medieval old town of weatherboard and flint houses, or the Victorian resort, developed in the blink of an eye in the 1890s as a chic getaway for high society.

The beaches are the biggest draw in July and August, but a lot of visitors come a long way to see the stunning De La Warr Pavilion.

Now a modern art museum and cultural centre, the pavilion was one of England’s earliest modernist buildings, completed in 1935 with a fusion of the art deco and international styles.

12. Pevensey

Pevensey CastleSource: flickr
Pevensey Castle

At one of the few gaps in East Sussex’s long wall of chalk cliffs lies the town of Pevensey and its seafront community Pevensey Bay.

This was the exact location where the Normans landed in England in 1066. The seaside is all the better for its low-impact, village-like development and has a long string of pebble beaches.

Move inland and you get to the old part of Pevensey, a town of pubs with names like “Smugglers Inn” and cute weatherboard houses.

Pevensey Castle is from the earliest days of the Norman Invasion, but even  more interesting is that they simply occupied and enhanced the ruins of the 3rd-century Roman fort, Anderitum.

The site is a ruin but has more than enough of its keep and outer walls to keep you riveted.

13. Winchelsea

WinchelseaSource: flickr

This historic village has an interesting story to tell: Up to 1287 it was a large harbour, importing wine from Gascony and home to possibly thousands of people until it was destroyed all at once by a flood.

In some ways that’s good for us because Winchelsea was moved to higher ground and constructed in the space of months during the reign of Edward I. It’s easy to see the “new” town’s grid layout, as well as the defensive walls, as three of the old gates remain.

These are worthwhile sights, as is the Church of St Thomas the Martyr for its fabulous stained glass.

Buried in the churchyard is the famous 20th-century humorist and writer Spike Milligan.

14. Burwash

Batemans, BurwashSource: flickr
Batemans, Burwash

Set in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Burwash is a small but lively village in enchanting countryside.

The high street has charming bed & breakfasts, country pubs and specialty shops.

The village is best known as the residence of Rudyard Kipling, who won the Nobel Prize for literature at the turn of the 20th century and wrote the Jungle Book, among other works.

His home, Bateman’s, is a handsome Jacobean house from the 1600s and is open to the public.

The interior is like a time capsule, left exactly how it was after the author’s wife bequeathed it to the National Trust when she passed away in 1939.

15. Newhaven

Newhaven FortSource: flickr
Newhaven Fort

Most people’s experience of Newhaven will be departing for, or arriving from, the French port of Dieppe.

But if you have time on your hands you could definitely use it to poke around some of Newhaven’s sights.

The marquee attraction is Newhaven Fort, the largest defensive structure ever built in Sussex.

This is a Palmerston Fort, constructed when France was deemed a real threat once more during Napoleon III’s rule in the mid-1800s.

The extent of the underground tunnels as part of the caponier is incredible.

Paradise Park is one for the kids, with exhibits that help bring dinosaurs to life, large adventure playgrounds and a miniature railway.

Parents can content themselves with the tranquil gardens and cafe.

15 Best Places to Visit in East Sussex (England):

  • Brighton
  • Rye
  • Lewes
  • Hastings
  • Battle
  • Eastbourne
  • St Leonards-on-Sea
  • Seaford
  • Hove
  • Alfriston
  • Bexhill-on-Sea
  • Pevensey
  • Winchelsea
  • Burwash
  • Newhaven