While some English seaside towns can feel downtrodden and garish, Eastbourne bucks the trend for the classy Victorian townhouses and hotels that line its seafront.
This sophisticated bearing is exemplified by the Bandstand, a Neo-Grec building, clad with faience and hosting a prom and fireworks display every Wednesday in summer.
Eastbourne is on the eastern cusp of the South Downs National Park, and just west the coast begins to rise hair-raisingly from the shingle beach.
Beachy Head, the tallest chalk cliff in the country, is three miles away and can be part of the walk of a lifetime past the Seven Sisters cliffs to the Cuckmere Valley.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Eastbourne:
1. Beachy Head
Moments into the South Downs National Park is one of the UK’s best known coastal landforms.
Beachy Head is the highest chalk cliff in the country, 162 metres above sea level.
Standing at the highest point, safely away from the edge, you can see into four English counties, from the Isle of Wight and West Sussex’s Selsey Bill in the west to Dungeness in Kent in the east.
There’s a pub by the road, also called The Beachy Head and this is a few steps from a memorial to RAF Bomber Command (there was a relay station here in WWII). The Beachy Head Countryside Centre dips into the human and natural history of the cliffs and has a collection of watercolours of the East Sussex Coast.
2. Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters
West of Beachy head the spine-tingling coast continues along a string of towering chalk cliffs that undulate along dry valleys.
Before you come to them you’ll enter Birling Gap, a small hamlet that is slowly disappearing because of coastal erosion.
Birling Gap is managed by the National Trust, and you can drop in at the visitor centre and go rockpooling and fossil hunting on the beach and wonder at the Seven Sisters to the west.
Back at the visitor centre there’s a cafe for tea and cake in the company of these stunning seascapes.
After that you can carry on towards Cuckmere Valley, part of the Seven Sisters Country Park, to contemplate the Seven Sisters from the other end.
Poised above Eastbourne’s main resort beach is a sublime Neo-Grec Bandstand completed in 1935, and a sensational place to watch an open-air concert.
With a semi-circular design and black, green and blue faience cladding, the bandstand can’t be compared to any building in the UK. Facing the stage is an arena, including a middle and upper balcony, with seating for 1,600 spectators.
Up to the 21st century the Bandstand was used mainly for performances military bands, but since 2001 the entertainment has become much more diverse.
Some 150 concerts take place at the Bandstand each year, and every Wednesday in the summer you can catch the 1812 Firework and Proms Concert.
This entails a medley of popular classical tunes culminating in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, climaxing with fireworks.
4. Redoubt Fortress
At the dawn of the 19th century Britain was preparing for an a sea attack from France, and the circular Redoubt Fortress on Royal Parade in Eastbourne was part of a sophisticated network of defences.
After the building outlived its purpose as an artillery fort it became a gaol in World War I and then a storage facility in World War II. Towards the end of that conflict anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the platform to shoot down V-1 Flying Bombs.
The Redoubt opens between April and November, and holds the regimental museums for the Royal Sussex Regiment and Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars.
The Redoubt’s courtyard is used for stargazing, movie screenings and lectures in summer, and there’s also a cafe and children’s area.
5. Eastbourne Beach
Eastbourne has more than three miles of shingle beach, all of which is tracked by a promenade.
The main resort beach and the most sociable section in summer, is between the Wish Tower and Eastbourne Pier.
The Wish Tower is a Martello tower from the Napoleonic Wars and has a stirring view along the beachfront.
The beach beside it can fill up quickly on sunny days and is watched by lifeguards all through the summer.
There are “swimming only” sections, painted beach huts, cafes and deck chairs for hire.
When the tide goes out you can head off on a rockpooling adventure with kids.
Further up there’s a designated windsurfing area off Royal Parade.
6. Towner Art Gallery
Eastbourne’s modern and contemporary art museum moved to swish new premises in the town’s Cultural Quarter in 2009. The building is set a short way in from the seafront and has beautiful vistas west to the South Downs.
The Towner Collection is one of the best public art collections in the southeast of England, bolstered by pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore, Olafur Eliasson, Walter Sickert, David Bomberg and Wolfgang Tillmans.
There are up to five temporary exhibitions at the Towner Art Gallery at any time.
In summer 2018 you could check out shows for Israeli video artist Omer Fast, 20th-century artist and designer Eric Ravilious, Realist Edward Stott, and “At Altitude” thematic exhibitions on aerial photography, painting and digital mapping.
7. Sovereign Harbour Marina
Eastbourne’s eastern suburbs would never be the same again after the Sovereign Harbour was opened here in the early 90s.
This humungous marina development comprises four distinct harbours, apartment blocks and residential streets, tied to retail units and restaurants.
In the sunshine it’s enough just to walk along the waterfront and size up the luxury yachts and watch them being lifted and launched.
There are cafes, restaurants and bars with outdoor seating, and if you keep your eyes on the water you should sight a few seals and cormorants.
The zone behind has a multiplex cinema and mainstays of UK retail parks, like TK Maxx, Next and Sports Direct.
8. Royal Hippodrome Theatre
This stately Victorian theatre has an unusually long summer season, starting in March and ending in November.
With a capacity of 630 on three levels, the Royal Hippodrome opened in 1883 and was designed by Charles J. Phipps, who drew up several theatres around London’s West End in the late Victorian period.
The theatre’s programme is configured to have something for all members of the family.
For kids there are pantomimes and productions based on fairytales, while for older audiences the Royal Hippodrome books a diversity of cover acts and high-profile comedians.
On the intellectual side, the autumn “Thinkers Season” is a series of talks by academics, politicians and authors.
In 2018 the historian David Starkey and second-wave feminist Germaine Greer were on the programme.
9. Eastbourne Miniature Steam Railway Adventure Park
In a country park near Eastbourne’s Hampden Park suburb is a 1/8 scale miniature railway almost a mile long.
Your carriage will be pulled by one of ten different steam and diesel locomotives, the oldest going back to 1940. The park also has a five-acre lake encircled by a nature trail offering glimpses of native wildlife.
You could finish up with cream tea or a light meal at the park’s award-winning tea gardens, around a cafe with a vintage railway theme.
There are also displays of model railways, a gift shop, picnic areas and an adventure playground for kids.
10. Eastbourne Pier
An icon for Eastbourne since 1870, the 300-metre Eastbourne Pier is a Victorian wonder with lots of facilities and splendid panoramas of the English Channel.
Unfortunately, historic piers such as this are susceptible to fire, and so it was that the graceful domed building at the centre of the pier was lost to a blaze in 2014. The pier has since been bought by an investor and remainder of the structure and outer pavilion have been reopened, containing shops, tea rooms, a waterside cafe, a fish and chips shop and a nightclub.
11. Lifeboat Museum
The William Terriss Memorial Boathouse on the west side of Eastbourne’s seafront was erected in 1898 by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) as a lifeboat station.
After it was vacated in the 1920s the boathouse became the first of many RNLI museums around the UK. This compact museum has information boards telling the story of daring rescues operations down the years, for the New Brunswick in 1883, the SS Barnhill in 1940 and the SS Germania in 1955, with artefacts from each ship like bells, life preservers and communications equipment.
12. South Downs Way
Eastbourne is at the eastern limit of the South Downs National Park, and is also at the conclusion of the South Downs Way, a National Trail that begins in Winchester 100 miles to the west.
The last few miles of the trail form a loop on the west side of the town, so you can begin the walk on the end of King Edward’s Parade and cross Beachy Head, the Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters on foot, stopping at Cuckmere Haven for that breathtaking view.
From there you’ll traverse bucolic rolling chalk hills speckled with sheep, as you turn back towards Eastbourne for a walk of about five hours.
13. Princes Park
Go east along the seafront and before long you’ll be at this 33-acre park, which is as fastidiously maintained as you’d expect from Eastbourne.
Princes Park has a fragrant rose garden, informal English-style gardens, a large model boating lake and bowling greens.
Visiting families can make the most of two playgrounds (one with a paddling pool in summer) and an 18-hole putting green, while on the east fringe is Fort Fun, a separate indoor play centre for little ones.
The park’s remodelled boathouse has a cafe looking over the lake.
14. The Pavilion
In the gardens next to the Redoubt Fortress, the Pavilion is a bow-shaped tea room with a terrace facing the sea.
You can follow up a visit to the fortress with a light meal or afternoon tea, but there are also regularly updated exhibitions in this space.
In summer 2018 the Pavilion hosted “Eastbourne Remembers”, an exhibition themed on memory, heirlooms and keepsakes.
In display cases are dresses and trinkets passed down generations, with boards telling the stories behind them.
Something that will intrigue mudlarks is the collection of coins thrown into the pond at Motcombe Gardens over the last 100 years.
15. Eastbourne International
At the end of June the plush Devonshire Park Lawn Tennis Club puts on one of the main events in the summer grass season.
Eastbourne International is on the WTA and ATP tours, though has traditionally been recognised as women’s tournament.
It all happens the week before Wimbledon, and that’s one of the reasons there’s always a strong field, so you can be assured of a feast of top-class tennis.
Karolína Plíšková took the women’s title in 2017, and Novak Djokovic was men’s champion.
Whole day tickets start as low as £20, which is a fraction of the price at Wimbledon, and of course there’s much more ticket availability.