Visiting Brighton

Funfairs, oysters, vintage shops and regency palaces. Martha Alexander discovers the ultimate seaside city, Brighton

Fresh sea air and the sun bouncing off the ocean means that visitors to Brighton often emerge from the train station blinking, as if they’ve just been born. It’s only an hour away from London by rail, and yet this laidback seaside city is a world away from the bustling metropolis of our capital.

It’s best to arrive early as there’s plenty to do.

The Royal Pavilion in the centre of town is well worth a look. A Taj Mahal inspired spectacle with ostentatious peaks and minarets, the palace, built for King George IV between 1787 is one of many reasons to bring your camera to Brighton. It was a pleasure palace for generations of British monarchs until the reign of Queen Victoria, and visitors are allowed into the kitchens, royal bedroom and banqueting halls and is home to a huge collection of chinoiserie.

Brighton is nirvana for shoppers who tire easily of the British High Street. Make a beeline for The Laines – narrow streets full of boutiques and stalls, including Snooper’s Paradise. This place is a must for thrift shop junkies who shouldn’t be at all surprised to walk out of there with anything from taxidermy bugs in resin, Victorian silhouette prints or a 1950s swimming cap. Vintage is popular in Brighton – there are a lot of shops offering retro clothes and furniture but similarly, plenty of artists and makers have stalls selling innovative jewellery, stationary or millinery. The gift-buying potential is massive. Try Lavender/room on North Laine for girly gifts like teacups and scented candles.

New cities are best explored on foot – the most wonderful discoveries are usually made by getting a little bit lost. However, bicycles are a lovely means of getting around if you fancied a breeze up the coast to Hove and beyond or you don’t fancy mingling with crowds. The South Downs are a glorious showcase of stunning Sussex countryside and offer plenty of trails to follow.

If you have the chance – and this might require a car – head out to Lewes to visit Charleston the home of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Presented as if still lived in by the couple, visitors get to experience an environment of startling creativity: rooms filled with textiles and ceramics, walls and furniture enthusiastically and energetically painted, as well as pieces from their own personal collection.

Obviously, British seaside towns in the summer are most glorious in 26-degree heat resulting in ice cream dribbling down cones, patches of sunburn, cold beer and windbreakers.

However, that doesn’t make somewhere like Brighton redundant, should you visit in winter, or when the heavens open and you’re forced to reach for your umbrella. For a start, the city is home to the longest-running cinema in the country: The Duke of York’s Picturehouse opened in 1910. Having a slice of history with your movie makes it all the more special. There are also a handful of really superb museums, including the Booth Museum. Home to half a million specimens and natural history literature dating back hundreds of years, the collection includes a killer whale skeleton, and hundreds of birds and butterflies.

The choice of restaurants in Brighton can be overwhelming, especially if you are on a whistle-stop tour, so in order to not make a mistake, head straight for Riddle & Finns. You can’t book at this side-street eatery famous for its oysters – so be prepared to queue. It’s understated, elegant and sophisticated all in one go: the tables are high and marble topped, it’s minimalist but with a classic, old-fashioned feel – with tiled walls and an assortment of photographs from yesteryear in the lavatory.

There are no great views but the point of this place is the food. The kitchen is open – not just to the small dining room, but onto the small narrow lane where four diners can sit outside. Seeing how food is prepared always instills confidence.

It would seem silly to come to an oyster and champagne bar without sampling some. Jersey, Essex and Irish oysters are all on offer – and go well with Red Velvets, Guinness and champagne cocktails – a popular choice of starter throughout the restaurant.

The wine list is long and considered. The Michel Girard Sancerre won’t disappoint – it’s chilled, crisp and a perfect accompaniment to fish. Staff here are passionate about what they serve, know the menus inside and out and can offer endless advice about what to go for.

The Riddle and Finns’ Bouillabaisse soup is an absolute winner if you want a variety of fish and a dose of hearty seafood goodness. It was rich, juicy and very filling. The luxury choice is always lobster, and these were real beauties not to mention meaty and flavoursome.

Whatever happens, eat your greens! The asparagus was like a whole new vegetable and best of all they have samphire – the salty, seaweed – which tastes equally good with the hollandaise sauce, which is generously proffered and as smooth and rich as you could wish for.

Lunch or dinner, this place is not to be missed.

You’ll need to walk off lunch and you can’t come to Brighton and not visit the fairground – housed on the pier jutting out into the ocean. It’s so evocative of the past: you’ll be blindsided by whiffs of nostalgia and vinegary chips. Best visited at dusk, the ghost trains, dodge ‘ems, merry-go-rounds, stalls selling candyfloss and seashells look even more romantic under twinkling neon and circling gulls. Look out to the west and you’ll see the skeleton of the old burnt out West Pier – which still fascinates visitors today, sad and beautiful in the setting sun.

Read on for Martha’s review of drakes of Brighton or visit the following websites for more information: