They call it London-by-the-Sea, and although I suppose it’s justified in the way that it only takes an hour to get from London to Brighton on the train, in just about every other way I’d say- justified it is not. The seaside city of Brighton is a haven for hippies, the gay capital of the UK, and pretty much an anything-goes kind of place. I once saw a man in full 17th century period costume strolling down the street, cane and coffee in hand, and on the same day spotted a different man in a metallic blue unitard and neon sweatbands, dancing on a street corner with an old lady. And nobody batted an eyelid. That kind of thing happens every day round here, and that’s the beauty of it. But other than people-watching opportunities (of which there are many), what else is there to do in Brighton? Especially if you’ve got only one day in Brighton?
The North Laine
Why is it called the North Laine? Once upon a time, I believed that Brighton was home to the North Laines and the South Laines– two little winding webs of lanes which were home to some beaut little shops and restaurants and places to sit and get coffee. Not true my friends.
The North Laine is right next to the train station, and the word ‘Laine’ has nothing to do with the roads, but is in actual fact an old Sussex dialect word for ‘field.’ Which is exactly what was once located on this exact spot. The Sussex dialect, and accent, isn’t particularly strong these days, but evidence of its existence lives on with place names like this. Which I think is pretty cool if you ask me.
By the Victorian era the North Laine was no longer a lovely green field, but a rather squalid slum area, packed with families living in dire conditions amongst a large number of slaughterhouses. To be frank, not the most pleasant of places to live, then. Eventually the city of Brighton sorted itself out and revamped the area, and these days the North Laine is a colourful little bohemian quarter, filled with pastel coloured houses, locally-owned stalls, shops, bars and cafes, and with colourful street art adorning many a wall.
My favourite of all the places here is Snoopers Paradise, a ginormous flea market filled with all sorts of intriguing finds. I was once very addicted to buying a vintage Vogue magazine and a pair of clip-on earrings whenever I passed, but in the grander scheme of things I’d say that’s a pretty safe addiction to be fuelling.
The Royal Pavilion
This absolute gem of a building is one of my favourites ever. In the late 18th Century the Prince of Wales (who would later become King George IV) started hanging out in Brighton and decided he’d quite like a seaside home in the city; although this is not your standard Airbnb beachside property. (Not that you can actually stay in it.) Georgie-Boy rather liked the lifestyle down here, and the Pavilion was also a perfect little place for him to continue his relationship with a lass called Maria Fitzherbert, away from the Gossip Central Station of London society. The pair got married in secret, although as Maria was a Catholic and they therefore didn’t have the blessing of George’s father who was still king, the marriage was completely invalid. It was all a bit of a sorry situation if you ask me; when the time came for the Prince of Wales to step up and become king, he swiftly ended his secret marriage to Maria and cut off all contact.
This absolutely stunning building wouldn’t look out of place somewhere in India- ornate garlic-bulb domes stand atop latticed archways and amongst beautiful minarets- and now that the building is open to the public, it’s surrounded by a park filled with brightly coloured flowers, perfect for spending a Summer day. In winter, the park is the location of Brighton’s ice rink; now if that’s not a grade A backdrop for an ice skating session, I don’t know what is. It’s possible to visit inside the Royal Pavilion, although I’m yet to get a glimpse of it myself.
Related: A Visit to South-East Devon
The Beach and the Skeleton of the West Pier
Brighton’s popularity as a seaside resort began to rise back in the 18th century when ‘taking sea air’ was prescribed as the solution to many an ailment or illness, including those royal folk I was banging on about earlier. (In fact one doctor even advocated downing sea water for its medicinal qualities, of which I’m pretty sure there are actually none. Soz Doc). It goes without saying that the defining feature of any Victorian seaside town would be its pier; so over the years Brighton went all out and built a grand total of three.
These days there are only the remnants of the West Pier left, a skeletal figure standing all by itself just off of the beach; the poor thing suffered a great deal over time, being battered by storms till great chunks of it collapsed into the sea and blasted by fires till only the framework was left.
The rest of the seafront is a lovely place for a stroll, or a rollerblade, or more casual people-watching, as the promenade is always filled with an abundance of intriguing people. And I really do mean intriguing, they’ve got all sorts down here. During the daytime, especially in Summer, the beach can be packed full of people, and it’s definitely worth checking out the shops in The Arches built during Victorian times under the promenade; at nighttime the business of the beach continues with bars and pubs and clubs sitting right on the seafront and overflowing with punters. Plus, if you get bored of mingling down below, you can go for a ride on the old i360, which is kind of like a flying saucer that travels up a massive pole and back again, so you can get a great view of the world from above.
The Brighton Palace Pier!
Slightly further along the beach is the Brighton Palace Pier, and unlike the West Pier this badboy lives on in all its glory! Back in the early 20th Century Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel performed in the Music Hall on the pier, and by the end of the 20th century there was no longer a music hall…but the Spice Girls performed here anyway. So it really is a brilliant kind of a place for entertainment history! Nowadays the pier is filled with gaudy souvenir shops, amusement arcades, cafes and restaurants and right at the end, a fairground complete with rollercoaster and helter-skelter combos. The smell of donuts, candy floss and very salt-and-vinegary fish and chips wafts up and down the length of the wooden walkway, and seagulls squawk maniacally overhead. It’s a classic seaside experience, pals.
Although the rides are extortionately priced (as much as £7 per go, which I’m sure you’ll agree is mental), the most lovely thing of all is that entry to the pier is completely free of charge!
The South Lanes
So pals, forgetting all about the bohemian glory of the North Laines, let’s get down to the South Lanes, a little closer to the beach but equally as full of intriguing places to shop, eat and drink. (It’s particularly good if you’re after some jewellery, just FYI, and has a slightly more upmarket vibe than it’s sister neighbourhood of the North Laines) Back in the very early days of Brighton’s history- when it was still a mere fishing village known as Brighthelmstone- these narrow lanes were the centre of town, and they’re still very much on the busy side now that the town has become a city.
Related: How to be a Hometown Tourist
Brighton is an extremely walkable city, and all of these locations are 100% well and truly within a walkable distance of each other. So with a mere day to spare, you can definitely fit all of this in. Churchill Square shopping centre is great, but also full of exactly the same shops that you can find at every other major town in England, so don’t bother with all that pals. And even if the sun isn’t shining like in most of these pictures, it’s still a full on pretty place to explore.
- It’s definitely better to pre-book your train tickets in order to get to Brighton, as train travel in England is a massive rip-off. The further in advance you book with Southern Rail, the cheaper the ticket.
- It’s totes fine for you to drink your own alcohol on the beach or in a park around here, unless you start to get a bit rowdy. In which case, it’ll probs be confiscated. Soz.
- Stay away from Costa/Starbucks/any chain of any kind! Brighton is filled with so many brilliant independent traders that not checking them out would be an actual sin.