There’s nowhere quite like the cosmopolitan seaside town of Brighton, with its easy charm, fascinating history and eclectic nightlife, writes Jenny Mark-Bell
“Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.” So said novelist and newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse, and the rather raffish glamour of the place makes it a popular destination for weekend breaks and a beloved home to locals and students.
Little more than an hour’s train journey from London, Brighton has the cosmopolitan air of a place many times its size. Indeed, it only became a city (as a unitary authority with neighbouring Hove) in 2001, but its cultural capital allows it to rank alongside our largest urban centres, thanks to a roster of nationally renowned events such as Brighton Festival and Brighton Pride. And with two universities, the BIMM music college and hometown heroes such as Fatboy Slim, Rizzle Kicks and Nick Cave, the place thrums with creative energy.
For a long time, Brighton has attracted Londoners disenchanted with soaring house prices and big city living. The dynamic food and bar scene, coupled with coastal living and stunning countryside right on the doorstep, make it irresistible to residents including comedian Jen Brister, director Ben Wheatley and John Simms – who plays detective Roy Grace in ITV’s adaptation of Peter James’ Brighton crime novels.
Brighton’s bohemian reputation dates from Regency days, when the future King George IV used it as his seaside retreat. He collaborated with architect John Nash to develop the outrageously opulent Royal Pavilion as his royal residence. The resulting building, with its onion domes and minarets, is at once idiosyncratic and iconic. It is an absolute must-see for any visitor to Brighton.
While the Prince Regent made Brighton fashionable, it was during the Victorian era that the new railways and an enthusiasm for salt-water cures converged to make Brighton one of England’s first and most popular holiday resorts. Intrigued by the history? The self-guided audio tours at the Royal Pavilion are an engaging way to learn more about the story of the Prince Regent’s pleasure palace. There is a permanent exhibit in Brighton Museum telling the story of the modern city, including its development as the unofficial gay capital of the UK and the clashes between Mods and Rockers here in the 1960s.
A quintessential Brighton scene is the winter starling murmurations, when thousands of birds wheel in formation over the sea – often above the ruins of the West Pier, which was designed by the noted seaside architect Victorian Eugenius Birch. The Palace Pier is the only one that remains – it was the third to be built in Brighton, opening in 1899. Now it mainly offers theme park attractions, with a ghost train, rides and rollercoaster. There’s also a fortune teller, arcade machines and – if you fancy your chances against the seagulls who will snatch them, given the chance – fresh doughnuts.
Nearby is the Brighton Fishing Museum, which is free to enter. It tells the story of the evolution of a village called Brighthelmstone into a fashionable seaside resort, and how it affected the fishing community.
Further west are newer attractions. The headline-grabbing British Airways i360, a 162m observation tower, opened in 2016 and offers panoramic views over the city, sea and neighbouring countryside. The Upside Down House allows visitors to walk on the ceiling, look up at the floor and pose for plenty of pics. Nearby is a playground and paddling pool (open seasonally), great for running off excess energy.
The seafront is thronged with bars and restaurants, including local fish and seafood institution Riddle and Finn’s, Due South and Murmur. If you fancy something more casual, or you’re catering for lots of different tastes, the Shelter Hall is hard to beat. It’s a vibrant food hall with seven different kitchens – some pop-up residencies, and some stalwarts, such as pizza from Amalfi and exquisite pastries from Tart, an outpost of local bakery Sugar Dough.
With an abundance of creatives living in the city, an internationally renowned arts festival and some excellent venues, Brighton has a huge amount to offer culturally. Brighton Dome hosts music, comedy, dance and circus, while the Theatre Royal, a Grade II-listed Victorian venue, stages plays, musicals, opera and ballet. The architecturally unlovely Brighton Centre on the seafront is home to the city’s biggest gigs.
During May and November/December the Artists’ Open Houses event offers the opportunity to chat to creators about their work while viewing it in domestic settings. Year-round, you’ll find regular exhibitions at galleries including ONCA Gallery, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Phoenix Art Space and Two Kats & a Cow.
The Duke of York’s Picturehouse is the UK’s oldest purpose-built cinema, located near the station. The striped, stockinged legs kicking from its roof are instantly recognisable to Brighton residents, and it’s a local institution. You will find both mainstream and arthouse fare here.
Brighton is famed for its nightlife and there truly is a pub to suit every mood, from the tiny Heart and Hand with its vinyl jukebox to the sprawling, warren-like Lion and Lobster. If live music is your jam, The Great Escape Festival in May offers the opportunity to catch the next big thing while they’re still playing small venues. Year-round, touring artists and local bands play at venues including The Hope & Ruin, Latest Music Bar, Green Door Store and Concorde 2.
In cinemas from 21 October 2022
Local author Bethan Roberts’ novel is a moving love story set in 1950s Brighton. Adapted for Amazon into a major feature film starring singer Harry Styles and The Crown’s Emma Corrin, it details the menage a trois between policeman Tom, his wife Marion and Tom’s lover Patrick, at a time when homosexuality was a crime. Director Michael Grandage is a former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner was Oscar-nominated for his work on Philadelphia. Shortly after the cinematic release, the film will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video on 3 November.