Shimmering and shaking with personality, Brighton sits between the South Downs and the sea. Dating back to the Domesday Book of 1086 (and before), what was once the sleepy fishing village of “Brighthelmstone”, it developed into what The Guardian newspaper described as one of the hippest cities in the UK. Now, as part of the City of Brighton and Hove, it’s the largest city in Sussex.
Only 47 miles from London (and on a direct train route from the capital), Brighton’s growth was in large part due to the popularity of sea-bathing and King George IV’s fondness for the town in the 18th century, as well as the arrival of the railways in the 19th century.
There are 101 reasons to visit Brighton but here are just 16 of the biggest Brighton attractions (with a few smaller suggestions thrown in for good measure).
The Royal Pavilion
This exotic looking former royal retreat is now synonymous with Brighton. Just back from the seafront and Pier, the Royal Pavilion is Grade I listed and was built from 1787 onwards as a seaside residence for the Prince of Wales (who went on to become King George IV in 1820). A reflection of the Prince’s decadent and extravagant lifestyle, it was lavishly furnished and decorated with Chinese-Indian style fixtures and fittings.
It’s the best starting point for any visit to Brighton and is such an iconic representation of both the bohemian and eclectic personality of Brighton, you won’t really understand the city without a quick tour. There is so much to see here including the extraordinary Music Room (lit by nine lotus-shaped chandeliers), the exquisite Banqueting Room which has a 30 feet high chandelier weighing a ton (literally), the Royal Bedrooms, the dazzling Saloon, the Great Kitchen and more.
From being a large field in the early 18th century, the North Laine district of Brighton gradually developed into an area of artisan dwellings and industrial and commercial premises characterised by narrow Victorian streets and period properties. Today it is perhaps one of Brighton’s most well-known areas, famed for its antique and second-hand stores, jewellers and boutiques, street food, and culture. It’s bohemian, it’s bustling, packed with quirkiness and personality, and a great hotspot for culture and art (including a Banksy).
Brighton Palace Pier is Grade II* listed and 1,722ft long. It’s the only remaining Pier (of the three that Brighton once had) that you can still visit. Synonymous with seaside resort culture including slot machines, doughnuts, neon lights, fish and chips, and fairground rides, it’s another of Brighton’s “must visit” venues and you can’t really say you’ve “done Brighton” until you’ve hung out here for a while!
A little further down Brighton’s seafront (unsurprisingly to the west) is West Pier opened in 1866. Sadly, by 1975 it had closed to the public, and it suffered severe damage in the Great Storm of 1987. There were still plans to restore it until 2003 when a serious fire ripped through the pierhead. Fire crews were unable to save the building and a second fire brought it one step nearer to condemnation. In 2004, high winds caused the middle of the pier to collapse completely and English Heritage then declared it beyond repair. The West Pier has continued to degrade and collapse since then but remains a charismatic landmark and a compelling spot for photographers.
Stanmer House and Park
To the north east of the city and at the point where it merges with the South Downs, you’ll find Brighton’s largest park and this impressive 18th century house and 19th century flintstone village and church. Stanmer House and Park includes a Local Nature Reserve and is registered as a park of Special Historic Interest.
Apart from some great walks and access onto the South Downs, you’ll also find an almost unique Victorian water catcher, an original well house and donkey wheel, the original Palm House, and a regeneration project in the form of the One Garden project in the beautiful walled garden. And don’t miss the Stanmer Craft Museum – a mix of agricultural and urban antiquities, alongside a collective of crafters and creatives making everything from mosaics to beer!
Well, this one does what it says on the tin! You’ll find it on the seafront and it is a house which is upside down, inside and out. Great for those fun photos and a bit of mucking about!
The British Airways i360 Viewing Tower
This slightly space-age viewing tower opened in 2016 and has quickly become one of Brighton’s definitive landmarks. You enter a glass viewing pod and then glide up 450 ft to catch 360° views of Brighton, the South Downs and the coast whilst all the people below look like scurrying ants. There’s even a bar (the south coast’s highest bar) where you can enjoy locally produced beer, wine, gin and juice! and they host special events, like their “night flight” gin tasting! While you’re in this part of Brighton and as you walk back towards the Palace Pier, you might want to stop at Riddle and Finns (it’s a distinctive bandstand shaped building on the seafront opposite the Odeon) for champagne and oysters!
Less than a skip and a jump from the Royal Pavilion and part of the same estate (the building was originally the stables for Prince Regent) is the Brighton Dome, a multi-arts venue that includes the Concert Hall, the Corn Exchange and the Studio Theatre. All three are actually linked to the Pavilion by a tunnel. Apart from being another of Brighton’s iconic buildings, they host pretty much everything here from music, theatre, dance, comedy, visual arts, film, digital and community events. They also produce the annual Brighton Festival billed as a celebration of music, theatre, dance, circus, art, film, literature, and debate. If you have any interest in the arts, this is a must-see and do for your list.
The Artists’ Quarter
Down on the seafront (in between the Pier and the i360), you’ll find a dozen little artists’ studios including painters, photographers, and sculptors tucked away in the arches under the esplanade. There’s a really diverse selection of work here and much of it spills out of the little boutiques onto the pavement making this little corner of Brighton attractive, quirky and well worth a visit.
Brighton is simply awash with museums. You have the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery within the Royal Pavilion estate which is eclectic and well worth a visit.
Then there’s the Toy and Model Museum under the railway station (and do visit the Railway station if you’d like to see a fantastic example of Victorian railway architecture) and the Police Cells Museum in the Town Hall. Not forgetting the Fishing Museum on the seafront, the Booth Museum of Natural History, the Penny Slot Museum, and the Preston Manor Museum. It’s really quite a list! So much so, that we’ve written a separate post just about Brighton Museums.
East of the city centre, historic Kemptown, is a distinct district that was largely built in the 19th century and in places looks and feels like London’s Belgravia and Pimlico. That said, there are also flamboyant streets of brightly coloured houses and bustling shops, cafés and restaurants. Formerly known as the artists’ district, it’s now more commonly known for being home to a large and dynamic gay community.
Volk’s Railway and Madeira Drive
Volk’s Railway was the first public electric railway in the world and opened in 1883. Although it closes for the winter, when it’s open it runs along the seafront from the Palace Pier to the Marina along Madeira Drive. There is also now a heritage visitor centre at the Aquarium station that includes the history of the railway.
The railway is a great way to see the historic but somewhat dilapidated Madeira Drive with its Grade II listed terrace of seafront arches. There’s been a lot of fundraising to restore the arches and there is even an art installation featuring just some of the people involved including Norman Cook, Eddie Izzard, Chris Evans and Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club! Work has also started to restore the green wall of the terraces, believed to be the longest, oldest green wall in the UK.
Once you get to Madeira Drive, you could also try the new zip wire – it’s the longest zip wire on the south coast and you land in the hull of an old boat on the beach. Or you could try some beach volleyball or crazy golf, and be sure not to miss the unusual beach sculpture a little to the east of the zip wire. At first, you may wonder what it is, but as you get closer, you’ll see there are a series of unusual stone figures and sculptures that are the work of local fisherman (and dry stone waller) Rory McCormack.
It won’t take you long to visit but do walk along the seafront towards and just past the i360 until you come to the Bandstand. First opened in 1884, it was restored to its original condition in 2009 and is a stunning Victorian bandstand and photo opportunity.
Distinct from the North Laine area, the Lanes area is in between North Street and the seafront and they trickle down from Churchill Square to the back of the Town Hall and Steine Gardens (that of the green fame). They are a labyrinth of narrow streets, courtyards and arboreal squares with lots of independent (and cheeky) boutiques, galleries and eateries. The area is also known for having the oldest pub in Brighton, namely, The Cricketers which dates back to 1547 and featured in the famous novel Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. The Lanes are a place where you can while away many a wonderful hour just browsing or enjoying alfresco drinks, and look out for the distinctive Dolphin fountain by the sculptor James Osborne in one of the little squares.
North of Brighton, high on the South Downs and a bit of a walk away is the evocative Chattri Memorial, a memorial to the 53 Hindus and Sikhs who died during WWI and were cremated at Patcham Down ghat. Built in 1921, there is something very special about this memorial. If you’re interested in this chapter of Brighton’s history you should also visit The Indian Gate at the southern entrance to the Pavilion which was presented to the people of Brighton by the “princes and people of India” as a gesture of thanks for the care provided by the town’s Indian hospitals. It was unveiled by the Maharajah of Patiala on 26 October 1921. You should also visit the Indian Military Hospital Gallery at the Royal Pavilion which includes paintings, archive photographs, contemporary accounts and film footage.
Sea Life Brighton
This site opened as an independent aquarium in 1872 and is one of the oldest aquariums in the world! Although badly bombed in WWII, it was reconstructed and you can still see the fantastic underground Victorian Arcade. Sea Life took over in 1991 and they now have a number of major attractions which include their recently opened day to night underwater experience and their rain forest section. The aquarium is easy to find as it’s right on the corner of the roundabout opposite the Pier.
Graffiti and Street Art
There’s often a fine line between graffiti and street art but one of the things that brings this city alive is its many colourful walls and corners. Artists seem to find inspiration everywhere and in everything, and from the moment you arrive, it’s worth keeping your eyes out for this alternative art scene. Some you’ll love, some you’ll hate, it doesn’t matter, it’s very much part of what Brighton is all about!
What to know more about Brighton life, and what it’s like? Have a quick look at our Why Move to Brighton post.