Things to do in Brighton, a cool and quirky city in southern England
When many think of England, an image of prim and proper people sipping tea comes to mind. Perhaps it’s the polished British accent, or our nostalgic memories of watching Downton Abbey, that conjure up this image. However, there are so many cool and unusual things to do in Brighton, a city in southern England, that put this visual to rest. Here’s why:
Lingering beyond the Queen’s extravagant estates lies a coastal city that pushes the envelope (in a good way). Just an hour south of London, Brighton is a bastion of culture and personality. Brighton welcomes everyone, and thrives in doing so. Here, fringe artists, writers, and backpackers fit right in with the city’s eccentric cafés and shops. Locals and day-trippers jive together in the streets, on the beaches, and inside the pubs. Brighton gives you the feeling of gemütlichkeit even as a chilly breeze blows off the English Channel.
Without further ado, here are 9 cool, quirky, and unusual things to do in Brighton, England.
1. Wander through a royal palace that looks more like India than Brighton
“The sun never sets on the British Empire” was an expression people used when the British Empire controlled most of the Earth’s landmasses. During the 19th and 20th centuries, this empire spanned every continent and comprised roughly 25% of the world. Though the British Empire is no more, this old adage is alive and well in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.
History of the Royal Pavilion
The Royal Pavilion is a palace that you probably wouldn’t expect to find in the British Isles. Built in the 19th century, this royal residence was designed as a Western interpretation of Indo-Saracenic architecture with Chinese adornments and tapestries on the inside. With its cream-glazed domes and minarets, the Royal Pavilion resembles the Taj Mahal more than Buckingham Palace.
George IV, the mastermind behind the Royal Pavilion, never visited India or China (nor did his architect). However, he considered himself a global emperor who should entertain guests in this extravagant domicile.
Shortly after George IV’s reign, Queen Victoria sold the Royal Pavilion to the city of Brighton. The palace was later converted into a hospital for Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire in World War I. It was an awe-inspiring sight for Indian soldiers who set foot in the country for the first time. Enchanted by this palace halfway around the world, an Indian soldier wrote this letter to a friend:
“Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world… I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.”Subedar-Major Sardar Bahadur Gugan (6th Jats), early 1915
What the Royal Pavilion looks like today
As you peruse the inside of the Royal Pavilion, you’ll be captivated by its lavish furnishings and décor. From the drawing room to the royal bedrooms, the palace is teeming with opulence and sophistication. Though the palace looks antiquated today, it was way ahead of its time with state-of-the-art gas lighting and painted glass windows.
Today a museum, the Royal Pavilion entertains its visitors with an offbeat veneer that is so quintessentially Brighton. And it makes for some incredible Instagram photos, too.
2. Shop ‘til you drop in The Lanes
The Lanes are a cluster of narrow streets that crisscross around the bustling city center. Home to high-end retailers and independent boutiques, this maze of pedestrian passageways is every shopaholic’s dream. Here, you’ll find antique shops alongside hipster cafés. On the surface, The Lanes are where it’s nearly impossible to tell a shop from a pub, and it’s wonderful.
In this lively district of Brighton, you’ll also be astonished by the sheer number of jewelry stores. It seems that every other shop sells jewelry, so be mindful of the GBP exchange rate before making a big purchase. In the event that you do “drop”, there are plenty of intimate restaurants and pubs for you to recuperate.
3. Find Nemo in the world’s oldest aquarium
Established in 1872, the Sea Life Brighton is the world’s oldest operating aquarium. This marine museum straddles the beach, and is home to some 3,500 sea creatures.
Inside the aquarium, you’ll find everything from octopus and sharks to seahorses and turtles. And yes, for those of you who were looking to find Nemo, there are plenty of clownfish, too.
The Sea Life Brighton’s interactive exhibits and feeding experiences make it the perfect attraction for children. There is a lot of signage around the aquarium that teaches kids and adults the importance of the world’s oceans and our roles in preserving them. Not only does this aquarium raise awareness of ocean conservation, it also invokes our imaginations of mermaids (and mermen).
4. Expand your taste palette at a bohemian restaurant or café
Have you ever eaten squid ink agnolotti or giant carrots smothered in balsamic and ricotta? Me neither…until I visited Brighton.
With hundreds of eccentric eateries devoted to serving fresh, local ingredients, Brighton takes farm-to-table dining to a whole new level. Among this stiff competition, 64 Degrees stands out with its variety of delicate dishes that pretty much change on a daily basis.
One of Brighton’s best restaurants: 64 Degrees
Similar to Spanish tapas, you’ll want to share plates and order the Chef’s Selection. At 64 Degrees, you’ll uncover taste buds that you never knew existed, with dishes like Jerusalem artichokes paired with truffle, and saddlescombe lamb sprinkled with kale and anchovies. The crème brûlée with blood orange sorbet was also to die for.
Two weeks after my visit to 64 Degrees, I would be shocked if even one plate on the menu is still being served. The restaurant’s dynamic food offerings are attributed to its top-notch chefs and relationships with local farmers. Depending on the season or “catch of the day”, 64 Degrees will fine-tune the menu accordingly. The open-kitchen mentality at 64 Degrees has caused this restaurant to thrive in the heart of The Lanes.
One of Brighton’s best cafes: Flour Pot Kitchen
In addition to its restaurants, Brighton’s cafés are also something to write home about. Just steps away from the British Airways i360 is Flour Pot Kitchen, a charming café with impeccable views of Brighton Beach.
This dainty bakery serves an assortment of cakes, pastries, and breads, as well as coffee and tea that make for a proper English tea. The sandwiches are out of this world, and were likely prepared at the hands of an artisan. It’s absolutely astonishing to taste the sweet and savory spectrum of Flour Pot Kitchen’s breads. The beachfront location is just a bonus.
5. Hit the beach and its prominent pier
A trip to Brighton wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the beach. Brighton Beach is lined with bars, cafés, and shops that set the scene for the perfect seaside stroll.
For those who dread getting sand on their shoes and belongings, you’ll be happy to know that Brighton has a pebble beach. At Brighton Beach, music blares from nearby bars as waves batter against its iconic pier. When the weather is warm enough to go swimming and sunbathing, there is plenty of shoreline to share amongst fellow beachgoers. As the sun sets, you may get lucky and witness murmurations, an impromptu air show performed by thousands of birds whirling in the sky:
During the summer, when England receives enough sunshine to compensate for the rest of the year, Brighton becomes Santa Monica’s twin sister. Brighton Palace Pier is a popular place for entertainment and eating. It has rides and roller coasters for adrenaline junkies, and arcades for avid gamers. Brighton Beach and its prominent pier can easily be an all-day affair.
6. Sing along to The Beatles at a karaoke bar
Brighton marches to the beat of a different drum, especially when it comes to its nightlife. From fancy cocktail lounges to hipster craft breweries, there is no shortage of spots to hydrate after a long day of sightseeing. A couple of popular venues near the beach include Lucky Voice Brighton and the Brighton Beach Club. There are other notable nightlife spots in the Lanes and Kemptown neighborhoods.
Whether you’re into live music or karaoke, you will definitely get your music fix at a bar or nightclub in Brighton. And maybe even after a few beers, you’ll sing better than Paul McCartney.
7. Rediscover your inner-child at the Brighton Toy and Model Museum
For some of us, the Brighton Toy and Model Museum is a walk down memory lane. With thousands of toys and models dating back to the early to mid-20th century, this museum is vintage entertainment at its finest.
On display, you’ll find everything from model trains and construction toys to puppets and stuffed animals. Its model aircraft and penny arcade games harken back to the days of a bygone era.
Even if you aren’t a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer, you’ll be amazed how kids used to spend their time before computers and video games.
8. Stay at a vibrant hotel that is so Brighton
A pivotal part of the Brighton experience is staying at a hotel that assumes the quirky personality of the surrounding city. Art exhibits at nearby museums are no match for the artwork you’ll find in many of Brighton’s hotels. I had the pleasure of staying at the Hotel Una, a trendy boutique hotel just steps away from the beach.
Hotel Una is one of Brighton’s best kept secrets, curated with modern art and exotic furniture and décor that are both handmade and locally-sourced. Each room is thoughtfully named after a river around the world, such as the Rhine, Danube, and Aragon. Consistent with the aquatic theme, many rooms are equipped with whirlpools and bay windows overlooking the ocean. One luxury suite even has a cinema room with a projector screen and recliners.
Aside from its creative interior design, Hotel Una also offers a hearty English breakfast that reminds you why it’s the most important meal of the day. You can get pretty much everything, including eggs, fresh tomatoes and pastries, baked beans, mushrooms, and sausages. Hotel Una fervently embodies the local art and food scene, making it the perfect pad for exploring Brighton.
9. Soar to new heights aboard the British Airways i360
The British Airways i360 provides a staggering bird’s eye view of Brighton. This glass viewing pod looks to the future, slowly ascending 450 feet above Brighton Beach. Opened in 2016, the British Airways i360 was created by the same team that built the London Eye.
From the top, you’ll enjoy 360-degree views of England’s southern coastline and the popular landmarks that straddle it. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Isle of Wight, which is 40 miles away at sea.
Once you overcome your fear of heights, celebrate with a glass of champagne at the Nyetimber Sky Bar that accompanies you on your journey to infinity and beyond.
Why it’s worth visiting Brighton to do each of these cool and quirky things
You can’t spell Brighton without “bright”. This vibrant coastal city is a cultural gem that shouldn’t be skipped during your trip to England. This list of cool and quirky things to do in Brighton is not comprehensive, but I think it paints a pretty picture of the city’s unique personality.
Whether you’re a solo backpacker wishing to connect with like-minded locals, a couple looking for a romantic retreat, or a family seeking a seaside getaway, Brighton has something special to offer for everyone.
Planning a trip to London and contemplating a day trip to Brighton? If so, check out the information below.
Getting to Brighton
Brighton is located just 50 miles south of London and 30 miles from London Gatwick Airport. As such, Brighton is accessible by train, bus, or car. From Victoria Station in London, you can take the following trains, which do not require any transfers to Brighton:
- Gatwick Express (2 stops; 53 minutes)
- Southern Railway (5 stops; 1 hr 7 min)
At the time of my trip, one way tickets cost between £22 and £35 depending on the time of day (non-peak vs. peak hours). You can either purchase your tickets online in advance, or at a ticket kiosk in the train station.
Buses from Victoria Station to Brighton Station cost between £7 and £14 each way, and take 2-2.5 hours depending on traffic.
I hope these logistics are helpful as you plan your vacation to this beautiful hidden gem, Brighton! Cheerio!
*My trip to Brighton was in partnership with Visit Brighton and its affiliated partners. As always, all opinions are my own.
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