Where the sandstone ridge of the High Weald tumbles to the English Channel, Hastings is a working fishing port, Victorian resort and a historic settlement.
Hastings was one of a Medieval alliance of coastal towns known as the Cinque Ports, and has a gorgeous old town in a valley against the rocky East and West Hills.
The town gave its name to the Battle of Hastings, the most crucial event in English history when William of Normandy defeated the Anglo-Saxon pretender to the throne Harold Godwinson to begin the Norman Conquest.
The battlefield and its abbey are only 15 minutes by road or train, while there’s an award-winning pier, museums, art galleries and light-hearted family attractions to keep you in town for at least a day.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hastings:
1. Hastings Old Town
The wonderfully quaint old quarter, in Hastings’ easternmost valley follows a cosy Medieval layout and has remnants of a wall raised in the 14th century during the 100 Years’ War.
Along the High Street and intersecting alleys are half-timbered houses and Georgian facades that conceal much older buildings.
These hold antiques shops, quirky one-off boutiques, historic inns, galleries, cafes and seafood restaurants.
There’s always something going on in summer, like the Seafood and Wine Festival, or the traditional Jack in the Green.
By the water is the Stade harbour, which we’ll talk about in more detail later.
But along Rock-a-Nore Road stand tall, black wooden huts, which are “net shops”, going back to the 19th century and providing weatherproof storage for nets and other fishing gear.
2. Battle Abbey
A journey that needs to b made if you want to tap into the history of Hastings, Battle Abbey is a 15-minute drive or train ride.
A partial ruin, this Benedictine abbey was erected on the site of the Battle of Hastings in 1070 by the Normans as penance for the slaughter that took place in their conquest of England.
The high altar was said to be positioned on the exact spot where the Anglo-Saxon King Harold fell.
This is now marked by a stone, as the abbey was torn down in the Reformation, and its abbot’s quarters were turned into a stately home.
You can take a look around the battlefield with an audioguide, watch a film and handle replica weapons at the visitor centre.
The house has a lovely 19th-century walled garden and you can make your way around the 13th-century ruins of the abbey
3. Alexandra Park
Meandering out to Hastings’ suburbs from the town centre, the 109-acre Alexandra Park has a linear design laid out in the 1870s by Robert Marnock, one of the leading landscapers of the day.
This park was given a multimillion pound regeneration in the early 2000s and since then has become an annual winner of the Green Flag Award.
The lower section has formal gardens around reservoirs, while the more northern part is natural and wooded.
Alexandra Park has an exceptionally rich collection of trees, a cafe, an adventure playground and a bandstand used for concerts in summer.
Youngsters will also love the miniature railway at the north end of the park.
4. Hastings Country Park
A great thing about Hastings is that you can depart on foot and be in protected countryside within minutes.
The Hastings Country Park is at the southernmost point of the High Weald Area of Natural Beauty, and has 660 acres of ancient woodland, cliffs and heathland.
The scene of a Bronze Age fort, this land has seen human activity since the Palaeolithic Age, and the Celts, Romans and Saxons all left their mark.
A feature of the park is its glens, sandstone valleys densely wooded and with beds of gorse shrub, as well as rare mosses, liverworts and lichens.
Fulmars, peregrines and black redstarts breed in the cliffs, while stonechats and Dartford warblers breed among the gorsr in the valleys.
If you come by in spring or autumn you may see some migrating bird species like Pallas’s leaf warblers, red-rumped swallows and Sardinian warblers.
5. Cliff Railways
Hastings has two funicular railways rattling up and down its sandstone cliffs.
The older of the two is the 150-metre West Hill Lift, which opened in 1891 and serves Hastings Castle and St Clements Caves.
This railway is unusual in that it runs through a tunnel and still uses its Victorian coaches.
The lower station is on the charming George Street departing from the old town.
The East Hill Lift will get you up to Hastings Country Park, and claims to be the UK’s steepest funicular railway, with a gradient of 78%. This line opened in 1902 and is capped with a pair of towers built to house the water tanks for the initial hydraulic propulsion system.
6. Jerwood Gallery
On the Stade in front of the old town is a contemporary art museum that opened in 2012 in a beautifully understated building covered with 8,000 black glazed tiles from Kent.
Its low profile and cladding helps it blend with the net shops along the Stade.
The collection at the Jerwood Gallery has works by some of the big names of modern British art like Stanley Spencer, L. S. Lowry, Walter Sickert, Patrick Caulfield, Ben Nicholson and Augustus John.
There are normally three temporary exhibitions at any time.
Past artists featured at these shows include the Primitivist Christopher Wood and illustrator Quentin Blake.
In summer 2018 there was an exhibition marking the centenary of Abstract Expressionist Paul Feiler, a member of the influential St Ives School.
7. Hastings Castle
On the West Hill is what’s left of Hastings’ Norman motte-and-bailey castle.
One of the special things about this fortification is that it was started immediately after William the Conqueror landed, and before the Battle of Hastings even took place.
The ruined building there now dates from the reign of Henry III in the 13th century.
From that point on, Hastings Castle would be beset by trouble.
Some of the complex collapsed into the sea during a storm at the end of the 13th century, the castle was attacked and burnt during French attacks in the 14th century, abandoned in the 16th century and hit by bombs in the Second World War.
Somehow about a third of the structure is still standing, including a cloistered chapel and dungeons, labelled with information panels.
In a tent you can watch the “1066 Story”, detailing the castle’s history and the famous battle.
8. St Clements Caves
Smuggling was rife in Hastings for hundreds of years, and the sandstone caves on West Hill were burrowed with hundreds of metres of tunnels to move and store contraband like rum.
That activity continued up to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when the town was gentrified as a resort.
St Clements Caves were rediscovered in 1820, and attracted royalty after they became a tourist attraction in Victorian times.
In this atmospheric and supposedly haunted environment, the world of smuggling is brought back to life with 70 life-sized figures of bootleggers, pirates and smugglers, accompanied by sound effects and interactive games for kids.
9. Pelham Beach
The most accommodating patch of coast in Hastings is the section between the pier and harbour.
Pelham Beach is all shingle, except when the tide receded and there are large patches of sand.
If you find the beach a little uncomfortable there are deck chairs for hire, and the sea is watched by RNLI lifeguards all summer long.
There’s some beautiful old architecture on the seafront, like a Georgian crescent centred on St Mary in the Castle, a Neoclassical church turned into a performing arts space.
The seafront has any number of cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlours, combined with family attractions like adventure golf, a trampoline park and amusement arcades.
10. Hastings Pier
Dating back to 1872, Hastings Pier pushes out into the English Channel for 280 metres.
Like all piers it has been susceptible to the elements, and suffered storm damage in 1990 and then a fire in 2010, which took out 95% of the structure.
The renovation project that followed won the coveted Stirling Prize for architecture in 2017, and the result is something that respects the tradition of the site, but is undeniably modern.
There’s a state-of-the-art exhibition in “the Deck” visitor centre, and a cafe with a scenic view on the upper floor, as well as food and drink stands, an interpretation trail, binoculars and telescopes.
The pier hosts free family workshops, live music, outdoor cinema screenings and street performers in summer.
11. Shipwreck Museum
If ever there were a place for a museum about shipwrecks it’s on the busiest shipping lane in the world, where up to 600 ships pass through each day.
The museum charts some of the many thousands of vessels that have been wrecked off the coast of Southeast England, from Goodwin Sands in Kent (more 2,000 shipwrecks have happened in this one spot) to Pevensey Bay in East Sussex.
The museum goes into detail on the geology and environmental conditions that has helped preserve many of these wrecks in situ.
There are artefacts from Anne, a 17th-century warship from the reign of Charles II and Amsterdam, a Dutch East Indiaman wrecked in 1749. The museum is multisensory, with lots of things to touch, smell and hear.
12. Hastings Museum and Art Gallery
The town’s museum has a diversity of exhibitions in a brick and limestone, Elizabethan-style mansion.
The highlight is the Durbar Hall, a magnificent interior space created for London’s Colonial & Indian Exhibition of 1886, with intricate wooden carvings in an Indian Islamic style.
The upper floor of the Durbar Hall, holds an exhibition of world art.
There’s an interactive dinosaur gallery for kids, and the town’s past is recounted at the Story of Hastings in 66 Objects.
Also worth a look is the exhibition of Native American artefacts relating to Grey Owl, or Archibald Belaney, a Hastings-born emigrant to Canada who fabricated a First Nations identity and became a prominent conservationist.
His true identity wasn’t discovered until after his death.
13. True Crime Museum
In the cliffs in front of Pelham Beach is a hard-hitting museum for grown-ups with a fascination for the darkest side of humanity.
The True Crime Museum has some chilling artefacts, like the actual tubs used by John George Haigh “The Acid Bath Murderer” to dissolve his victims, love letters from a serial killer, a genuine lethal injection table and paraphernalia connected to the infamous East End gangsters, the Krays.
The Crime Lab has games for wannabe forensic scientists, and there’s also a surround sound cinema with authentic recorded confessions by some of the most notorious serial killers.
14. Blue Reef Aquarium
Close to the East Hill Cliff Railway, the Blue Reef Aquarium has hundreds of marine creatures like rays, sharks, seahorses and octopuses, as well as a Jungle Room with snakes and bearded dragons.
The headline attractions is the enormous ocean tank with an underwater tunnel to see shoals of brightly coloured tropical fish from below.
The aquarium organises talks and feeds every hour during opening times, including two ocean presentations at the largest tropical tank, when you can find out more about the black reef sharks.
There are also two chances to come into contact with aquarium’s reptiles, as well as a ray feed, octopus talk and archerfish feed.
15. The Stade
Fronting the old town, east of Pelham Beach, is Europe’s largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats in Europe.
A compelling slice of living history, the Stade is a shingle bay protected by a groyne and has been used for beaching boats for more than a millennium.
Originally the beach was small, until the construction of the harbour and groyne at the end of the 19th century caused a steep bed of shingle to accumulate.
At high tide the boats can slip into the sea easily enough, but they have to be hauled onto the beach when they come back.
In the past this was done with horses, but each boat now has a winch to pull itself ashore, while a caterpillar tractor is on standby for extra power.