Stylish, progressive and full of fun, Brighton could claim to be England’s party capital, and pulls in day-trippers from across the south for days at the beach, nights out and shopping.
The city has a thriving arts and creative industry, and its reputation for culture is bolstered by the Brighton Festival every May.
At the end of the 18th century the upper class arrived in what was then a fishing village to “take the cure”, to bathe in the seawater and even drink it.
In that first wave of holidaymakers was the Prince Regent (future George IV). He ordered the Royal Pavilion, an Indo-Saracenic looks like no other palace in the west, with bulging domes and minarets.
Brighton also has a large LGBT community, and 400,000 people come to the city for the annual Brighton Pride in August.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Brighton:
1. Royal Pavilion
As a stylish 20-something the Prince Regent first came to Brighton in 1783 and before long he was spending so much of his leisure time at the town that he commissioned a seaside palace.
The architect was John Nash, also known for London’s Regent Street and Buckingham Palace.
The initial palace was Neoclassical, but in 1815, not long before he became King, George ordered Nash to redesign the building to reflect his taste for the oriental.
With its onion domes and minarets the marvellous Royal Pavilion could easily be mistaken for a mosque.
The audio guide conveys you around the plush interiors, into the Banqueting Room, Great Kitchen where you’ll find out about George’s diet, and into the Royal Bedrooms, adapted when George was overweight and ailing later in life.
2. Palace Pier
One of the UK’s major landmarks, the Palace Pier pushes out into the English Channel for half a kilometre at the bottom of the Old Steine thoroughfare.
The pier has been a “bucket and spade” stalwart since it opened in 1899 and for most of the 20th century was dominated by a theatre demolished in the 1970s after it became structurally unsound.
Since then the Palace Pier has been a kind of amusement park over the water, with fairground rides and traditional games, concessions stands, two arcades and the biggest soft play area in the city at four storeys high.
As a blast of old-school English seaside fun it will be top of the agenda if you’re in Brighton with youngsters.
3. The Lanes
When Brighton was a humble fishing village the quarter now know as the Lanes was the core of the settlement.
This neighbourhood has the dual appeal of being the oldest part of the city and one of the best places to dine, shop and visit to paint the town red.
The Lanes is a labyrinth of narrow alleys often no wider than an arm span.
They twist through a ravine of painted two-storey buildings, which differ more to Brighton Regency and Victorian townhouses.
Come to this cosy part of the city for cafes, bakeries, antique shops, hand-made jewellery boutiques, and walk to the tune of the buskers that have long been a fixture of the quarter.
4. North Laine
Between Brighton Railway Station and the Royal Pavilion, North Laine is a hip shopping district where more than 300 shops are crammed into less than half a square mile.
In Medieval Times the compact grid of streets at North Laine was a network of tracks around farming plots, and after these were paved over in the 19th century the area became an overcrowded slum.
In the 20th century the whole area was earmarked for demolition and redevelopment, but was rescued as a Conservation Area in the 70s, allowing it to flourish into the current bohemian district of vintage shops, design boutiques, music stores and trendy cafes.
There’s a community of designers making a living at studios in North Laine, producing metalwork, glassware, jewellery, ceramics, sculpture and clothing.
5. Going Out
For decades now, Brighton has been the English destination of choice for stag parties and hen parties, and on weekends in spring and summer the city teems with people down from London celebrating before their nuptials.
For everyone else there’s a venue that will suit your speed, style or scene, from gastropubs, to craft beer pubs, bars with live music, gay pubs, stylish alternative bars and multilevel mega-clubs.
These can be found across the Lanes, North Laine, along Trafalgar Street, on Churchill Square, Western Road and east into Kemptown.
To pick one nightspot to sum up Brighton, The Haunt is a club with a trendy crowd, in a converted cinema booking live bands up to four nights a week.
6. Brighton Beach and Seafront
By the water you’ll know you’re in an English seaside resort, catching the scent of fish and chips and watching deckchairs fluttering in the breeze.
The pebble beach, 5.4 miles long, has that Victorian glamour with a dash of Brighton’s youthful energy and style, with bars and clubs keeping the waterfront alive after dark.
Out in front of the new British Airways i360 you’ll see the husk of the burnt out West Pier, which was abandoned in the 1970s and was lost to a fire in 2003. The arches facing what’s left of the pier have lovable little independent shops selling books, photographic prints and homewares.
7. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Part of the same ensemble as the Royal Pavilion, the building housing the Brighton Museum was intended as the Prince Regent’s tennis court.
This was never completed and instead became a cavalry barracks, albeit a highly ornate one with multifoil aches and minarets.
The museum holds collections of decorative art, natural sciences, fine art, world art, costumes and textiles, oral history, toys, film and more, all stylishly presented in absorbing galleries.
Some of the pieces not to be missed are a Kinemacolour Camera invented around 1910 by British film pioneer George Albert Smith, a pair of breeches belonging to King William IV, a lifelike Egyptian funerary portrait from the 2nd century and the Hove amber cup, a Bronze Age vessel fashioned from a single chunk of amber.
8. Old Steine Gardens
Back when Brighton was the tiny fishing village of Brighthelmstone, Old Steine Gardens was the village green with a stream running through it.
Before long the gardens became a recreation area in a growing resort, and was incorporated the eastern lawns of William IV’s Royal Pavilion.
Now it’s a green space in touching distance of all Brighton’s big landmarks, neighbourhoods and cultural venues: Moments south is the Palace Pier, to the east is Kemptown, The Lanes are just to the west, while Royal Pavilion is right next door.
At the centre, bordered by flowerbeds is the cast iron and sandstone Victoria Fountain, erected in 1847 to commemorate the queen’s accession to the throne.
The lawns around the fountain fill up on sunny days, and are at the epicentre of Brighton Pride in August and the Brighton Festival in May.
East of the Palace Pier and continuing along King’s Cliff as far as Black Rock, Kempstown is a desirable and cosmopolitan neighbourhood populated by artists and actors.
Most of Kemptown was built in the Regency and Victorian periods, leaving it with splendid squares, imposing seafront crescents and quirky buildings like the Sassoon Mausoleum, dating to 1892 and now a nightclub.
This part of the city is Brighton’s “gay quarter” and many of the businesses are oriented to the LGBT community.
It’s also a great place to go shopping, especially if you like chic design, obscure food and hunting for antiques.
10. British Airways i360
On the seafront at where the burnt out West Pier once met the promenade, stands the British Airways i360, an observation tower that opened in 2016. The monument is a new landmark for the city and was designed and realised by the team behind the London Eye.
You’ll embark on a 20-25-minute ride in a large pod with 360° panoramas 162 metres above the city and coast.
When the sun’s out you should see the cliffs at Beachy Head and the Isle of Wight 50 miles to the west.
Inside the pod you can order a drink at the Nyetimber Sky Bar, sponsored by a brand of sparkling wine produced on the county’s chalk hills.
11. Preston Manor
One stop on the train from the centre of Brighton is a stately home in the Preston Village suburb.
Preston Manor has existed since 1086 at the latest, when it was mentioned in the Domesday book.
The manor house is mostly Palladian from the 18th century, but there are taces of a 13th-century building in the basement, while the north facade was remodelled in 1905. Inside, Preston Manor has retained the style of an Edwardian stately home and has collections from the period of decorative art, glass, silver, clocks, ceramics and exquisite furniture bequeathed by Edwardian collector Percy Macquoid.
This opulence is complemented by more austere staff areas like the servants’ quarters, kitchen, butler’s pantry and boot hall.
Out in the grounds there’s a 17th-century walled garden and a touching graveyard for the family pets.
12. Devil’s Dyke
Hanging out in Brighton it can be easy to forget that there’s a national park in the city’s back garden.
Traffic permitting, you can reach one of the most arresting natural sights in the South Downs National Park in 20 minutes.
The Devil’s Dyke is a 100-metre-deep V-shaped cleft, sliced from the landscape in the last Ice Age when melting snow poured along the frozen chalk valley.
The hills around the valley climb to 217 metres and if the weather’s on your side you’ll be able to see as far as the Isle of Wight.
You make the trip up to the namesake pub on the brow of the valley, watch the paragliders leaping from the hillside and walk a section of the South Downs Way, a 100-mile National Trail.
13. Booth Museum of Natural History
Also up around Preston Village is a free museum named for the Victorian naturalist and collector Edward Thomas Booth.
With scores of taxidermied birds, preserved butterflies and other antique animal specimens, the museum is like a time capsule and is as much an exhibition about Victorian scientific customs as it is about the natural world
The attraction opened in this neo-Byzantine hall in 1874, and when Booth donated the museum to the city in 1890 he stipulated that his 300 dioramas must not be altered.
You can view 650 species of butterfly, the native birdlife of the UK in 150-year-old reproductions of their habitats.
The museum also has extensive fossil and mineral collections, rare skeletons of a dodo and woolly rhinoceros, and Victorian oddities like a merman.
14. St Bartholomew’s Church
Worth a detour a few streets from the railway station, St Bartholomew’s Church is a Victorian brick-built monument poking above the skyline.
This Neo-Gothic church was built in the first half of the 1870s and makes an impression for the unusual height of its nave.
At 41 metres tall, this could well be the largest parish church nave in Britain, although it’s difficult to draw comparisons to other buildings as the design is so unorthodox.
The architecture is inspired by the Italian Gothic and there are horizontal bands of white Portland limestone climbing the south facade.
There’s a flight of marble steps leading up to the high altar, which is covered by marble and alabaster baldachin, 13.7 metres high and in the Byzantine style.
15. Brighton Festival
Now more than 50 years old, the Brighton Festival is England’s biggest multidisciplinary arts festival.
For three weeks every May there’s a feast of music, dance, theatre, film, art circus and family events, held at both established and out of the ordinary pop-up venues around the city.
Each year the festival is curated by a guest director, famous in their field.
Laurie Anderson was in charge in 2016, and in previous years the likes of Anish Kapoor, Brian Eno and Vanessa Redgrave have all taken the reins.
The festival is organised by the same company that runs the Brighton Dome, the city’s top arts venue where ABBA famously won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with “Waterloo”.