The big idea

Of course, Brighton is a hedonist’s paradise: it’s where you go to have a good time without a care in the world. But look a little more closely and you’ll see there’s a bit more to the place than simple pleasure-seeking: people are drawn here because they can simply be themselves, without fear of being judged, ostracised or rejected. And that’s certainly something worth celebrating, isn’t it? Brighton welcomes anyone, makes them feel at home and then makes sure they have a cracking time. So take some time to discover the different sides to the multi-faceted gem we all love that’s Brighton.

Free spirits

Brighton certainly has a completely different feel to any other city in the country, and it’s not just because of its seaside location. The place is buzzing and has a special bohemian, free-spirited vibe all of its own, thanks to the sheer number of artists, hippies, fashionistas and musicians that are naturally drawn to the place. Take the North Laine criss-cross of streets; jam-packed with fantastically quirky independent shops, boutiques, eateries and, of course, people: whatever you want, you can probably find it in North Laine – it’s also a great place to partake in our national sport: people-watching.
And then there’s Kemp Town, which is where the more conservative members of the media will break out adjectives such as ‘vibrant’, ‘colourful’ and ‘flamboyant’ – yes, this is the city’s gay quarter and it’s home to some of the best bars and pubs in the city, some fine second-hand book shops and delis galore. And of course the thriving gay scene in Brighton is famous across the world; from Banksy’s Kissing Coppers mural to the annual Gay Pride festival.
And then, ah yes, the classic seafront itself. Scene of numerous rallies and demonstrations down the years, from the London to Brighton rallies, Brightona – the biggest motorbike rally in the south of England – and even the infamous mods and rockers clashes of the 1960s, boy, has this strip seen some action! Add in the iconic Brighton Pier (and the strangely mesmerising remains of the West Pier), the ‘grand dame’ herself, the Grand Hotel, the modern marina and the array of independent artists on the beach itself, and it makes for a fascinating cocktail of old and new, extreme and conservative, but with one word at the heart of it: fun.

Welcome to the pleasure dome

It’s practically impossible not to have a good time in Brighton as enjoying oneself is the city’s raison d’être (not for nothing did King George IV have his pleasure palace built here): there’s so much to do, to experience, to see. Of course, we’ve already mentioned the opportunities for people-watching, but that’s something you can indulge in while doing all the other stuff. Take the shopping; there’s nowhere else with quite the choice and variety, with areas such as the Lanes (jewellery, antiques, designer fashion), North Laine (vintage, retro, specialist, quirky etc), Churchill Square (high-street names), Kemp Town (the gay quarter) and Hove (for funky interior design).
But what many people come here for is a good night out: the place is famous for its independent music and clubbing scene (Fat Boy Slim, aka Norman Cook, lives in Hove and has been responsible for much of Brighton’s clubbing reputation; the Kooks are from the city, and even good old Captain Sensible himself is from here): whatever you’re in to, there’ll be a club, bar, lounge or pub for you. Foodies are more than well catered for; from the oysters and cockles on the beach to a fabulous array of restaurants, cafes, bistros and kitchens.

The essence

Many may try to claim it, but there’s one city that can genuinely own it: Fun fun fun

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

Everyone should visit Brighton at least once, just to experience the thrill of loosening up a bit, letting their hair down and forgetting everyday life.

It’s got many sides, has Brighton, so, yes, it’s great for clubbers, free-spirits and pleasure-seekers, but it’s equally welcoming to fashionistas, culture-vultures and families.

The interesting bits in the history

Although there’s some evidence of the Romans, and even the Bronze Age, discovered in the area, it was properly settled about 1,500 years ago in Saxon times.

The Old Town – with North, West and East Streets – likely dates from the 13thcentury, and over the years the town’s had numerous names, ranging from Beorthelm’s Tun to Brithampton, then later Brightelmstone, until the 17thcentury when good old Brighton was settled on.

Tudor times were not much fun for Brighton, as it found itself regularly attacked by the French in retaliation for England holding Calais. In 1545 the town was effectively burnt to the ground by the French, which resulted, some four years later, in a huge defensive wall with a castle, the Blockhouse, built along the seafront.

And so Brighton remained a small fishing town for the next hundred years or so, gradually falling into a state of disrepair as much of the seafront – including those defensive walls – literally fell into the sea caused by huge coastal erosion.

Then came stroke of good fortune part one. In 1750 a local doctor wrote a paper extolling the health benefits of seawater bathing for a variety of illnesses. This, coupled with the rebuilding of the town following the storms and erosion, meant a huge influx of wealthy invalids, all keen to ‘take the waters’ of the town. This lead to a huge increase in facilities – marvellous bathing machines and their like – as Brighton’s reputation as a spa town became established.

Then some thirty odd years later came stroke of good fortune part two. Who should come to visit Brighton, and literally fall in love with it, but the 21-year old heir to the throne, the then Prince of Wales, George Frederick Augustus? He had a house found and refurbished over time, by John Nash, into the now famous Royal Pavilion (quite a refurb, it cost half a million, even back then!), and spent a huge amount of time in the area, with his mistress, one Maria Fitzherbert. Such royal patronage further enhanced the town’s reputation as all sorts of wealthy and fashionable hangers-on came to town, leading to fine new hotels, and the building of magnificent crescents and squares on the eastern and western sides of the town. It was during these times the town carved out the heady reputation for a good time that it still enjoys today.

Cue the reign of Queen Victoria and the royal patronage had cooled somewhat with Victoria herself selling the Pavilion to the people of Brighton (making it truly the UK’s first ‘people’s Palace’!), likely to help fund the development of Buckingham Palace up the road in London.

The 1840s and the building of the railways provided the most recent fillip in Brighton’s fortunes by connecting London day-trippers with the resort. This huge influx led to many of the modern icons being built: the West Pier; Volk’s Electric Railway; and the Aquarium. The reputation for a good time continued with Brighton reaching the peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s – It’s estimated some two million visitors flocked to the pier in 1920 alone.

In 1987 it combined with Hove, and in 2000 Brighton and Hove duly became a city; but it still retains the utterly unique atmosphere of over 200 years ago: slightly naughty, anything goes, but hey, it’s great fun!

How to experience

OK, take a deep breath, there’s some amazing things to see and do in this city.

Why not start to the east of the city at the Brighton Marina? There’s a stack of shops and restaurants at what is now Britain’s largest marina complex, as well as a cinema and bowling complex. Oh, and over 1,600 boat berths, so ideal for budding captains.
It’s about a 15-minute stroll then along the seafront towards the Pier (check out Volk’s Electric Railway – Britain’s oldest railway, and a real gem dating back to 1883, it covers a mile and a quarter along the seafront); on the walk-in look out for the Cliff Bathing beach, the country’s first public naturist beach, opened in 1980.

Before you get to the pier, take a detour to the right and explore Kemp Town. With its mix of grand seafront crescents, elegant squares yet a homely village feel at the heart of it, it’s not hard to see why this is one of the more desirable, and pricey, parts of the city (it was also home to Lewis Carroll, so clearly a place for those with a creative side to them.

Once at the pier, step back and literally marvel at the scale of the thing. At 1722 feet long, over a hundred years old and widely claimed as the finest pier ever built, this tribute to fun is now a Grade II-listed building in its own right. Marvellous. Now get on it and enjoy yourself!

After that, walk along the front a while and you’ll find yourself on the Kings Road (so named after King George IV who opened it in 1822); here’s where you’ll see The Old Ship, Brighton’s oldest hotel, and on the beachfront the lower promenade of beach shops, places to eat and drink, and a rather fine fishing museum, well worth a visit.

Cut up through Middle Street, and maybe check out the Brighton Synagogue (only open at certain times – you strike lucky if you get to go inside). Over a hundred years old, this houses perhaps the finest interior of any European synagogue: really quite stunning, and not at all expected. Then head east and you’ll find yourself in the area known as The Lanes. This was once home to tightly cramped cottages for the fishermen of Brighton, but is now a myriad of passageways (sometimes referred to locally as ‘twittens’ and ‘catcreeps’) which it’s phenomenally easy to simply saunter round and lose yourself in some truly exclusive boutiques, antique shops and restaurants. It’s also reputed to be a very haunted part of the city; a place in which you can literally feel the history of the city.

From The Lanes it’s a short-cut through Castle Square to the Old Steine, the large, open gardens surrounded by some fabulous Regency houses, including Marlborough House, often referred to as ‘the finest house in Brighton’ (quite a claim when you think of the competition) and a past residence of the royal lover, Mrs Fitzherbert (now a YMCA).

And round the corner from Castle Square you’ll make out the unmistakeable outline of the original pleasure dome, the Royal Pavilion: either cut back down the square or stroll around the back of the Palace and you’ll find the Pavilion Gardens and main entrance. Now this is well worth a visit, and is like stepping back in time; the roofline is like something from a different country, while the interior decor is simply sublime: just imagine what actually went on here!

Once recovered, head north to the labyrinth of streets known as North Laine: over 300 unique shops in less than half a square mile – there is simply nowhere else like it. With everything from vintage fashions, African drums, free trade and organic eateries and local artists’ crafts, like The Lanes, this is a part of the city where you can quite literally lose yourself for hours on end.

Once again, once recovered (that’s another thing about the place; the different sides to the city each literally hit you with something different) head down the Queens Road onto West Street (at the junction admire the well-known Clock Tower – unveiled in 1888 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the previous year – to the left is the busy north Street). Down here on the right is St Paul’s, a lovely church (well worth going inside, the interior is a masterpiece) with an unusual spire; unique because it’s made of wood.

Back on the seafront head right past the Brighton Centre and the Grand, before heading west towards some beautiful architecture – and it’s the names that give the game away as you head into Hove: Regency Square, Brunswick Square (named after the Prince of Wales’ wife, Caroline of Brunswick), Adelaide Crescent and the like. This part of town features some simply stunning, sweeping architecture. Given all that’s gone before in the day, this is the perfect antidote and wind-down.

When to visit

City pics