Where Kent’s North Downs tumble into the English Channel, Folkestone is a seaside town that reached its zenith in the Edwardian period just before the First World War.
With masses of Victorian architecture, beautiful waterfront parks and a revitalised harbour, Folkestone has plenty to love.
The history of the place is exciting too.
France is visible across the Strait of Dover so Folkestone has always been on England’s defensive frontline.
A military canal, Martello towers, pillboxes and bizarre “sound mirrors” hark back to when the threat of invasion was never far from people’s minds.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Folkestone:
1. The Leas
This implausibly pretty promenade on the cliffs above the beach was landscaped in the mid-19th century.
There’s a long lawn, interspersed with ornamental flowerbeds, cafes, the Leas Cliff Hall theatre, a bandstand and monuments like an remembrance arch to the First World War.
Much of what you on the Leas was planned by Decimus Burton, the architect best known for its his work at Kew Gardens and London Zoo.
You can catch the cliff lift (if it’s running) or take the Zig Zag Path down to the seafront, or pause at the terrace at the top and survey the Channel and the coast of France in the distance.
2. Folkestone Harbour Arm
In the mid-19th century Folkestone’s harbour was dredged and screened by a long seawall that protects its south side.
The Harbour Arm was hooked up to the Southeastern Railway’s London to Dover Line and had a ferry service to Boulogne.
In the First World War, some ten million people passed through the harbour.
Passenger numbers on cross-Channel ferries dwindled after the arrival of the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s.
This meant that the old terminal, extending out to sea for several hundred metres, needed a new role.
Since the 2010s this once disused structure has been brought back to life, becoming a promenade and summer dining destination, with street food stalls, live music and a handful of enticing semi-permanent eateries.
Come for mezze, barbecue ribs, cockles or stone-baked pizzas, savour the view back to the town and its cliffs and watch movies and live sporting events at the Harbour Screen.
3. Kent Battle of Britain Museum
A couple of miles inland from Folkestone is the former RAF Hawkinge.
In the summer of 1940 this was a key base in the Battle of Britain, fighting for control of British airspace, and was called into action many times later in the war.
Since 1971 these huts and hangars have hosted the oldest and most detailed museum to cover the conflict.
The museum has been supported by many WWII pilots who donated uniforms, medals, documents, photographs and other personal effects.
There are also artefacts from some 700 crashed aircraft on display, as well as pieces relating to the German V-Weapons, autographs by pilots, full-sized Spitfire, Messerschmitt and Hurricane replicas and amazing accounts of life as a pilot.
4. Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Folkestone’s hinterland is a natural region with similar status to a National Park.
The Kent Downs are the eastern half of the North Downs, a chalk ridge arcing through South East England from the Surrey Hills to White Cliffs of Dover.
The Downs are at their most photogenic in “unimproved” areas, where natural ecosystems have been allowed to grow undisturbed.
Such a space can be found just to the northeast of the town, at the Folkestone Downs.
These rollercoaster hills rise sharply from the coast, reaching a height of 170 metres at Dover Hill.
Botanically-minded walkers should bring their cameras, as many rare wildflower species grow in these meadows, like the man orchid, early spider orchid and late spider orchid.
5. Lower Leas Coastal Park
In 1784 the Folkestone seafront changed forever when a landslip created a new belt of land between the cliff and beach under the Leas.
This was first landscaped in the 19th century, and from 2000 to 2006 the 27-acre Coastal Park took shape.
This park has earned the Green Flag, the highest award for parks in the UK. A much-loved feature is the Zig Zag Path, wending its way from the Leas Cliff Hall to the park’s bandstand, through caves and with stirring coastal views at every hairpin turn.
There are three main zones in the park: A formal zone, with newly planted pine avenues, flowerbeds and picnic sites; a fun zone, with the largest adventure playground in South East England and an amphitheatre; and finally a wild zone, which is a natural reserve protecting the unique habitat caused by the landslip.
6. Sandgate Beach
West of the Lower Leas Coastal Park is the village of Sandgate, which became a part of Folkestone in 1934. On the water here is a long shingle beach, tracked by the promenade running several miles from Folkestone to Hythe.
Out of season you can come and skim stones, breathe in the crisp sea air and watch the ferries and container ships passing by.
In summer you can sunbathe, indulge in seaside treats like ice cream or fish and chips, hire a beach hut or gear up for activities like kayaking and sailing.
Sandgate Beach is a Seaside Award winner and has been commended by the Marine Conservation Society, so is a safe place to swim if you can handle the temperatures.
7. Folkestone Creative Quarter
In the 2000s Folkestone’s historic town centre began to rebrand itself as a cultural hotspot.
The result is the Creative Quarter, home to galleries, artists’ studios and performance spaces, as well as shops, cafes and restaurants that all have their own personality.
The Creative Foundation, which launched the initiative, also opened the Quarterhouse.
An anchor for the Creative Quarter, this venue has live music, film screenings, comedy and plays.
The Quarterhouse co-curates three festivals a year.
For instance, SALT in September is a celebration of Folkestone’s sea and coastline.
Also make sure to find out what’s on at Strange Cargo, a gallery in a former factory and warehouse.
8. Folkestone Museum
Sharing Folkestone’s former town hall with the visitor information centre, this museum is somewhere to dive into the town’s absorbing history.
Folkestone Museum has just been overhauled with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and reopened in 2017. There are five main themes: Fashion, Frontline, Maritime, Natural and Ancient.
“Fashion” recounts Folkestone’s evolution from low-key fishing village to chic Edwardian seaside resort, while “Frontline” documents the town’s role as the first line of defence for South East England.
There are Roman artefacts and dinosaur fossils in “Ancient” and “Natural”, while “Maritime” explores Folkestone’s close ties to the sea, from fishing to smuggling and shipwrecks.
9. East Cliff and Warren Country Park
East of the harbour is a 300-acre park combining cliffs, beaches and the interesting terraced habitat formed by hundreds of years of landslips.
The latter is called the Warren, a Site of Special Scientific Interest where some 150 bird species can be spotted at various times of the year.
Residing in the dense vegetation are 330 types of moth, as well as the only grayling butterfly colony in Kent.
The side closest to the town is less wild, with lush lawns and a pitch & putt course under the gaze of three Napoleonic-era Martello towers.
Pay attention to the ground here because this park is one of the best places in South East England to go fossil hunting.
10. Sunny Sands
Wedged just between The Stade on the harbour and that Country Park is a sandy beach that is a hit with families in summer.
There’s no lack of facilities in this area should you get peckish or need to use a loo, while the sand is perfect for building sandcastles.
At other times of the year Sunny Sands is a good destination for a walk.
There’s a terrace at the west end with a picturesque view along the line of cliffs.
Close by you’ll find the Folkestone Mermaid (2011), a life-sized bronze sculpture perched on the rocks like the famous Copenhagen Mermaid.
The Folkestone equivalent is a realistic depiction of a woman, modelled on a local mother of two and looking out to the horizon as a comment on climate change and rising sea levels.
11. St Leonard’s Church
One of many good reasons to make the 10-minute drive west to Hythe is to investigate this 11th-century Norman church, which contains one of only two ossuaries the UK. This is in the ambulatory, just below the chancel and dates to 1220. There are around 2,000 skulls and 8,000 thigh bones here, dating back as far as the 13th century and removed from the cemetery to make space for more burials.
The ossuary has a spooky appeal, but there are other exciting details, like a pillar on the southern part of the nave inscribed with Medieval graffiti of ships.
Go across the aisle to the north side and through an unlocked door there’s a preserved Norman arch using masonry recycled from Roman buildings.
12. Brockhill Country Park
A peaceful slice of the Kent Downs outside Hythe, Brockhill Country Park is on land that once belonged to a sprawling Norman manor.
The park is mostly open grassland and meadows on a broad valley formed by the Brockhill Stream.
There are two signposted trails, one around the park’s tree-lined central lake and another along the valley.
Both of these join with the 163-mile Saxon Shore Way if you’d like to keep walking.
In early spring there’s a sea of snowdrops in the meadows, while you should see white marbled butterflies on a sunny day in July.
The park has a picnic area, while you can end your walk with a cup of tea and a chat at the Brockhill Cafe’s patio.
13. Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR)
This 13.5-mile heritage line between Hythe and Dungeness was purpose-built as a passenger in the 1920s.
The RH&DR is a light railway, with a 15-inch track gauge, which is even narrower than “narrow gauge”. Nearly all of the engines are from the 1920s and 1930s, pulling vintage coaches that date back to 1928. There are six stations on the railway, and the route passes through some of Kent’s most scenic landscapes.
The western terminus is maybe most out of the ordinary.
The Dungeness National Nature Reserve has an unending expanse of shingle, offering a habitat for a third of all the plants native to the UK. Real train enthusiasts can get hands-on with a “Drive a Steam Engine” experience on a half-day, one-day or two-day course.
14. Royal Military Canal
Beginning at Seabrook, a western suburb of Folkestone, is a military construction from the Napoleonic era when the UK was expecting an invasion from France.
Built as a defensive barrier, the Royal Military Canal runs 28 miles west to Cliff End near Hastings and was completed in 1809 after just four years of construction.
The canal remains an unusual landmark and a picturesque walking route with level paths, lots of greenery and benches.
In the build-up to the Second World War the canal’s ramparts still had a defensive use: Sound mirrors (a predecessor to radar) and pillboxes were constructed on the earthworks, and these add an extra layer of history to your walk.
15. Leas Lift
This wonder of Victorian engineering in the Lower Leas Coastal Park has carried passengers between the Promenade at the top of the cliff and the seafront below since 1885. The funicular closed for restorations in 2017, and as of 2018 a company had been set up to raise funds and carry out repairs.
When it’s running, the Leas Lift uses nothing more than gravity to propel its cars, and even the water used as a counter balance is recycled.
This was the first of four cliff lifts on the Folkestone waterfront, and is estimated to have carried some 50 million passengers in its 130 years.