Among the British, Brighton enjoys a well-earned reputation as one of the hippest and happiest cities in the country. King George IV got the party started back in 1787 when — as Prince Regent — he built his whimsical royal pavilion, dubbed the “Pleasure Palace,” right in the heart of town. A hub for LGBTQ+ nightlife since the 1950s, the beloved beachside enclave now boasts one of the most inclusive communities anywhere in Europe. And yet surprisingly few American travelers make it here when touring England.
It’s an omission that’s easily corrected. Brighton is just an hour-long train ride south of London. Those trains run regularly and cost as little as $7 each way. In fact, it’s often known as “London-by-the-Sea.” And yet that misses the mark. When you arrive you’ll discover not some outsized metropolis, but a colorful and boisterous terrain that retains the welcoming charm of a small fishing village. Here’s how to navigate it all.
“Brighton is a place for free thinkers and good time people of all genders,” explains Kathy Caton, founder and managing director of Brighton Gin — one of the only LGBTQ+ founded, owned, and staffed distilleries in the U.K. “For first-timers, the pubs and clubs of Kemptown are a great place to start.”
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She recommends beginning at Brighton Tavern, as it’s only a few blocks down the street from the train station. It’s a cozy pub that’s popular with locals. The well-executed fare is exclusively vegetarian. From here you can stroll the beach, or shop the boutiques of St. James Street, to end up at some of the neighborhood’s most popular clubs, including Revenge and Legends — which doubles as a hotel and also hosts nightly drag shows. The Curzon is another obligatory stop on any crawl. The raucous three-floored space offers live cabaret.
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If you’re fancying a more intimate vibe, check out any number of the Victorian-era watering holes that populate the area. The Black Dove is a laidback option with a great selection of ciders and spirits. Fallen Angel on Grafton Street, recognizable by its turquoise facade, assembles a particularly potent gin and tonic.
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Walk west of Brighton Palace Pier and you’ll come across a maze of narrow alleyways crowded with coffeeshops, teahouses, and merchants carrying everything from antiques to yoga supplies. This is the historic quarter known as The Lanes, which served as the original epicenter of town, hundreds of years ago when it was a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone. You can get Lost In The Lanes — literally — at the lively brunch spot that bears the phrase. You can have a proper Sunday roast paired with a local pint at Hop Poles. Or you can get a free tour of the 200-year-old brig below the Old Police Cells Museum, if that’s your idea of a good time. But do not skip out on the Royal Pavilion and its adjoining gardens. The seaside retreat of King George IV, which originally opened to the public in 1823, remains a stunning example of Indo-Saracenic architecture and Brighton’s most iconic edifice.
If you’re continuing along the beach, make an inland detour up Western Street for a lengthy pitstop at the Bedford Tavern. According to Caton, this is Brighton’s most haunted pub. “It hosts a Sunday drag bingo which is notorious citywide,” she adds. This thoroughfare is also your gateway to Hove, where you’ll find some of the area’s most postcard-worthy attractions — like the well-manicured lawns and colorful beach huts that line the pebbly shore. Although there’s no official boundary between this part of town and the rest of Brighton, locals typically use the 30-foot-tall statue known as “The Angel” as their landmark. Anything west of this stone sculpture, commemorating Edward VII, belongs to Hove.
Just up the road from here you’ll find Caton’s distillery. Brighton Gin opened in 2012 and offers daily tours and tastings. The 90-minute-long experience costs £35 and includes a beautifully garnished gin and tonic.
Because it’s such a diverse and welcoming environment, Brighton is blessed with an array of eateries representing a truly global influence. Want Argentinian steak? Go to Baqueano. Craving a French bistro? Petit Pois has you covered. “But I think Bincho Yakitori is the best restaurant in town,” says Becky Paskin, a local writer. “It specializes in Japanese small plates, sake, and whisky; no frills and very cheap.”
Since it’s a small venue, however, she warns that securing a table can be a challenge. “The Chilli Pickle is always a great backup plan,” she advises. “Their inventive Thali really was a game changer for modern Indian cuisine in town.”
If you want to collect more cultural experience than what can be found on a plate, Paskin recommends arriving in May during festival season. “Fringe is such an exciting time to be in Brighton,” she says. “There’s so much going on: there’s live comedy and there are open houses where you can go visit private collections in people’s residences while they serve you tea and cake.”
For music lovers, there’s another noteworthy event around the same time. “Great Escape is my personal favorite,” Paskin says of the four-day-long extravaganza. “It’s the largest festival for new music in all of Europe. It’s spread out across all the pubs and bars of town. Some of the biggest names in music first made a name for themselves right here.”
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The Grand Brighton has served as a dependable overnight destination for decades. The four-star property is positioned right alongside the beach and affords great views and Victorian stylings starting at under $200 a night. If you’re in search of something a bit more boutiquey, arrange accommodations at the Ginger Pig in Hove. It also maintains a quaint gastropub of the same name along its ground floor. Hotel du Vin Brighton splits the difference between these first two options, affording an unassuming brand of laidback luxury right in the heart of The Lanes.
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