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36 Hours in Brighton, England
NOT long ago, the English port town of Brighton was considered louche and seedy, a has-been resort with crumbling piers and weathered hotels for so-called dirty weekends. But with cosmopolitan London just an hour away, it was a matter of time before this funky town regained its color. In recent years, chic Londoners have rediscovered Brighton’s lanes and Regency-style buildings, turning it into what’s now called “the gay capital of England." When the weekend rolls around, London’s media and design elites arrive in a caravan of Jaguars, check into boutique hotels and disappear into dance-till-dawn clubs. The scene is reminiscent of Miami Beach, except it is the chilly English Channel at the end of the boardwalk.
1) PIER-LESS PROMENADE
Join the crowd in what is practically a mandatory Brighton tradition: the sunset promenade. Troll, drink and play along the pebbled shores that have been keeping Londoners happy and cold for three centuries. The half mile between the wave-swept ruins of the old West Pier to the alive-and-kicking Brighton Pier is one of the most celebrated strolls in the English-speaking world.
2) PUB HOP
The colorful labyrinth of alleys known as the Lanes District is an ideal spot for people-watching over a pint of ale and plate of local grub. The area around Brighton Place has three memorable pubs. The Druid’s Head (9 Brighton Place; 44-1273-325-490) is in a cozy 16th-century building with enough dark wood to keep potential druids happy. It also serves a juicy plate of roasted pork in cider sauce (£6.95, or $12.70 at $1.83 to the pound). The Sussex, in a yellow Georgian house (33-34 East Street; 44-1273-327-591), serves a hearty steak and ale pie (£6.99). Wash that down with a pint of Old Speckled Hen ale (£2.83). And if you’re hankering for fish and chips, follow the pre-clubbers to the Market Inn (1 Market Street; 44-1273-329-483; www.reallondonpubs.com) whose outdoor tables are ideal for watching Brighton go by.
3) HOUSE OF ABBA
Pay tribute to rock legends at the Brighton Dome, (29 New Road; 44-1273-709-709; www.brightondome.org), a former horse stable turned concert hall where Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd have performed, and where Abba was introduced to the world at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Coming concerts include Art Garfunkle (Oct. 6) and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, performing covers of the Sex Pistols and others (Oct. 19). If you’re lucky enough to be here in May, the Dome hosts the innovative Brighton Festival.
4) ROYAL ROMP
Two centuries have not diminished the hedonism and extravagance of the Royal Pavilion (Pavilion Buildings; 44-1273-290-900; www.royalpavilion.org.uk), a gleaming multidomed Xanadu that was built by the Prince Regent in the early 19th century before he was crowned King George IV. This Indian-inspired palace features gilded palm trees, soaring minarets and riotously-painted chinoiserie. Pay attention to the fantastical dragon chandelier in the dining room, so lifelike that diners reportedly trembled, and the elaborate steam-powered kitchen, a modern marvel of its time. For a decadent, Regency-era brunch, stop by the Queen Adelaide Tearoom, a serene rooftop cafe that serves potted shrimp, a traditional dish of shrimp stewed in mace-flavored butter (£6.95) and spiced English lamb with apple chutney (£7.95).
5) WORSHIPING ART
For a more modern outlook, stop by Fabrica (40 Duke Street; 44-1273-778-646; www.fabrica.org.uk), a Regency-era church converted into a contemporary art gallery. Four artists are selected every year to transform the vaulted interiors into often outlandish installation pieces. Past works have included a real meadow planted where the pews once stood; and a dense tubular forest of compressed wood. Coming is a 59-foot-long collage of modern war images, "The Incommensurable Banner," by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn.
6) PAGING MISS HAVISHAM
Looking for rare books, dueling pistols or high-tech vibrators? You’ll find them in the twisting alleyways that make up the districts of Lanes and North Laine. Favorite shops include Fidra Jewelers (47 Meeting House Lane; 44-1273-328-348; www.fidra.com), an Aladdin’s cave of Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco baubles that is replenished often. The Lanes Armoury (26 Meeting House Lane; 44-1273-321-357; www.thelanesarmoury.co.uk) sells weapons of mass desirability, including a Thompson submachine gun (£545). And for those still spinning vinyl, the Record Album (8 Terminus Road; 44-1273-323-853; www.therecordalbum.com) has a trove of rare and quirky albums in mint condition, including the Japanese version of the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” soundtrack (£50).
7) REMAINS OF THE DAY
It may look like a kitschy tourist trap today, but the Brighton Pier (www.brightonpier.co.uk) endures as one of England’s last great beach piers. Take a stroll along the seemingly endless boardwalk, a foam-topped feast of fish and chips, Victorian beer halls and gut-churning thrill rides. Although many of its attractions are joyously low-rent, it’s hard not to be awed.
8) DIVINE WINES
You won’t find a lot of fish and chips at the Hotel du Vin Bistro (2-6 Ship Street; 44-1273-718-588; www.hotelduvin.com), one of Brighton’s glittering new restaurants and a favorite with English celebrities. On a recent visit, this congenial, clubby restaurant was packed with stylish Londoners in designer T-shirts and jeans, nibbling on modern Continental dishes like brioche topped with chicken liver and foie gras parfait, and grilled cod with chorizo. Dinner for two, about £80.
9) DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY
A necklace of clubs dot the shoreline, and no one bats an eye when men in sequined dresses or women in business suits cuddle on the dance floor. The reigning hot spot is currently is Concorde2 (2 Madeira Drive, 44-1273-673-311, www.concorde2.co.uk) an old Victorian tearoom where up-and-comers and acts like Amy Winehouse (who recorded here) and the Foo Fighters play. Don’t be surprised if everyone takes a midnight swim in the sea, just 100 yards away. Other spots include Digital Brighton (187-193 Kings Road Arches; 44-1273-227-767; www.yourfutureisdigital.com ) for electronic music, and the Brighton Coalition (171-181 Kings Road Arches; 44-1273-726-858; www.drinkinbrighton.co.uk/brightoncoalition), a new club that plays Latin, techno and remix pop until dawn.
10) PRESSED FOR SUCCESS
Brighton’s clubbers and cognoscenti rejuvenate at the Redroaster Coffee House (1d St. James’s Street; 44-1273-686-668) a Valhalla of caffeine where the croissants are fresh-baked and the coffee comes out of burlap sacks. Plop down on a sofa and order a pot of French pressed coffee (starting at £2.30 a pot). Everything is roasted and ground on the spot. Who says England is a nation of tea drinkers?
11) COASTAL RAILS
Chug down memory lane. Volk’s Electric Railway (www.volkselectricrailway.co.uk) has been in operation since 1883, making it one of the oldest continuously running trains in the world. If the weather is good, grab an outside seat while this wooden Victorian contraption makes its way along Brighton beach, past bohemian Kemp Town, the sculptural Peter Pan’s playground, and a nudist stretch tucked behind a mound of pebbles. Does Brighton really have anything left to hide?
The nearest major airport is London Gatwick. Flights started at $628 from Kennedy Airport this month, according to a recent online search. From Gatwick, the Southern Railway (44-8451-27-2920; www.southernrailway.com) has roughly half-hour connections to Brighton (£ 20 round trip, $36.60 at $1.83 to the pound). From Heathrow Airport, take the tube to Victoria Station in Central London and catch the hour-long Southern Railway train (about £30 round trip).
Celebrities and well-heeled Londoners stay at the Hotel du Vin (2-6 Ship Street; 44-1273-718-588, www.hotelduvin.com), a 37-room hotel in the Lanes District near the beach. Housed in a mock Tudor building from 1934, it features enormous bathrooms, a lively bar and an excellent brasserie. Doubles from £170.
The Grand Brighton (97-99 Kings Road; 44-1273-224-300; www.devere-hotels.com) is the Queen Mother of beachfront hotels. Fans of the film “Quadrophenia” will recognize it as the place where Sting played a busboy. Doubles from £100 with breakfast.
The Twenty One (21 Charlotte Street; 44-1273-686-450; www.thetwentyone.co.uk), a seven-room bed-and-breakfast in the central district of Kemp Town, is run by a stylish couple who are a font of local knowledge. Doubles from £85 with breakfast.