A vibrant town by the sea, Brighton has something for everyone, from the cheap and cheerful to the super-sophisticated
Brighton, on the south coast of England, with its microclimate, has the attraction of being under an hour’s fast train journey from London. The Prince Regent, who later became George IV, made his home here in the late 1700s, leaving his stamp on the architecture. His most famous legacy has to be the Royal Pavilion, with its lavish oriental interiors, but there are also many Regency buildings, mainly around the promenade area.
The seafront, where you can imagine the gentry of that era enjoying the sea air, is now lined with hotels. In recent years boutique hotels, nestled away in little cobbled streets, have sprung up. The stylish Hotel du Vin is one of these. A few steps from the seafront, with a fish and chip shop on the corner of the road, the building was formerly the home of wine merchants Henekey’s. All the 37 bedrooms are different. Ours, at the top of the mock Tudor building, was enormous, with an eight-foot bed and two baths in the middle of the room. As an added bonus, the telescope on our balcony gave us a view of the sea. However, the best part for me is that dogs are welcome.
To get some real inside knowledge of the city, I took a walking tour arranged by the local tourist board, Visit Brighton, with a commentary by Cool City Walks. Although I thought I knew Brighton, the tour, which started at the train station, gave me an insider view into areas that I had previously taken for granted.
Except for Brighton Marina, approximately a mile walk along the seafront, virtually everything is centred in the middle of town. North Laine, known as the cultural quarter, is where the bohemian, arty shops can be found. Nestling here, and easily missed if you aren’t looking for it, is Bill’s – a restaurant and food store based in what used to be a bus depot. This is a buzzy place to meet friends, and where the locals come to eat with their children. The atmosphere is very informal, with long wooden tables that you sometimes have to share. Most of the ingredients have been sourced locally, and a lot of the products, particularly the fruit and vegetables, are also on sale.
From here, it’s a short walk to the Lanes, to my mind the most atmospheric quarter. This is the heart of the old fishing town of Brighthelmstone, and the historic area from which Brighton grew up. It's a maze of twisting alleyways and cobbled streets, housing antique, jewellery and more exclusive design shops. A lot of them are privately owned, and it is easy to idle away hours browsing through their merchandise.
In winter, the marina can be a sad place but as soon as the sun shines, the whole area springs to life. All the restaurants have outside eating areas, and if you don’t have a boat or access to one, you can still enjoy the view of hundreds of them bobbing in the water.
The focal point of the seafront is Brighton Pier, lit with fairy lights at night. Entry is free and so, too, are the deckchairs. On the pier, there's a pavilion filled with slot machines and, at the far end, a mini fairground with children’s rides including a helter-skelter and dodgem cars.
Seaside towns and fish and chips always seem to go together, and there are several, particularly on the seafront. On the beach, a stall sells cockles and winkles. There are stylish fish restaurants, too. Hidden in the Lanes, and a short walk from our hotel is Riddle & Finns. Although they call themselves a champagne and oyster bar, there is an extensive menu of predominately seafood, which includes the catch of the day. Seating is on high chairs at marble-topped tables, with each table having its own candelabra. The open kitchen allowed us to watch our meal being cooked to order.
As a theatre-lover, I always check out the Theatre Royal, which often performs plays prior to their going to London’s West End, and at a fraction of the cost. For me, May is one of the best times of the year; this is when the city stages England’s largest arts festival, and is an opportunity to see many top international artists on stage. But whatever time of year you go, there is always something interesting happening.