An Elegant Victorian Seaside Town
Welcome to What to do in Eastbourne, East Sussex. The elegant seaside town of Eastbourne is situated on England’s south coast, nestled against the rolling countryside of the South Downs and the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head. The town also stands on the ruins of the Roman city of Anderida. However, these days, nothing remains of the ancient city with the exception of Pevensey Bay Castle five miles to the east.
Eastbourne’s main draw is its pebble beach and charming seafront. Lined with Victorian hotels, carpet gardens and attractions such as the pier and bandstand, Eastbourne has a more tranquil vibe than its high-spirited neighbour, Brighton. The town is only an hour and a half from London by train and consequently makes an ideal day trip for those looking for an escape from the big smoke.
The Suntrap of the South
Eastbourne is known as the ‘Suntrap of the South’ because it receives more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the UK. The term was coined by the Eastbourne Tourism Board and indeed, when clouds are gathering elsewhere, the skies over Eastbourne remain blue and clear!
Put on your Hiking Boots!
The area is an excellent destination for hikers. With the beautiful landscape of the South Downs National Park on the doorstep, there are trails aplenty to discover. Whether you are taking a coastal walk over the Seven Sisters, heading inland or walking along the seafront, there are an abundance of options to choose from.
The town plays host to a few annual events which bring visitors from far and wide. The world-famous pre-Wimbledon international tennis tournament at the Devonshire Park attracts some of the world’s top players. Additionally, Airbourne is a popular air show which packs the crowds in along the seafront where there are spectacular displays over the sea. Additionally, Eastbourne Carnival takes place every summer with over a hundred colourful floats snaking their way along the seafront from the Western Lawns to Princes Park.
Many of Eastbourne’s attractions are situated on or near the seafront and are within easy walking distance of one another. It takes around fifteen minutes to walk from the railway station, through town, to the beach. Eastbourne is also home to a brand new shopping mall, The Beacon, which is situated in the heart of the town centre. Many of the best restaurants are situated just off the seafront on the main drag of Terminus Road and also along Seaside Road. Our pick of the best in town include Charley Brown’s Diner, Solo Pasta and Bill’s.
Eastbourne – Part of our Past and Present
We both have close ties with Eastbourne, particularly Ku, who moved from London with her family, aged nine, after a holiday in town. She lived there for many years and in her teens and twenties, worked at Congress, Devonshire Park and Hippodrome Theatres. More recently, we were given the opportunity to re-discover the delights of Eastbourne when we spent lockdown there! Without further ado, here are the best things to do in Eastbourne:
1) Take in the Views at Beachy Head
Beachy Head is one of England’s most well-known landmarks. Chalk cliffs, 530-foot high, dramatically overlook a red and white striped lighthouse. Due to ongoing wind erosion, the cliffs maintain a pure white appearance. It’s a beautiful area for a walk, especially on a calm bright day when the sea sparkles under the sun.
Although it’s a popular tourist attraction, there is also a dark side to Beachy Head. Since the 1600’s, it has been a notorious spot for suicides. In fact, over 500 people have taken their lives there since 1965. Some deaths have been accidental. People have lost their balance when posing for photographs too close to the edge, or stumbled when walking dangerously near the precipice. If you do head up to this spectacular spot, take great care and don’t venture too close to the edge.
You can walk to Beachy Head from the west end of the seafront and it takes about an hour. If you are driving, there is a car park just across the road from the lighthouse. Alternatively, in the summer you can take a boat trip from the seafront which takes in the views of the cliffs from the English Channel.
2) Step Back in History at Pevensey Castle
The history of Pevensey Castle harks back to the fourth century when it was built by the Romans. In fact, although much of the castle is in ruins, two thirds of the original tower walls still stand. Famously, it was also the landing place of William the Conqueror’s army in 1066. His arrival led to the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings.
The castle is situated on what was once a peninsular which projected from the Sussex Coast. The castle is quite atmospheric, especially the dungeons, and it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in Medieval times.
Nearby, The Smugglers Inn pub which dates back to 1527 and has retained much of its character. With its oak beams and low ceilings it has an old world charm rarely found these days. Additionally, it’s also known for its hearty pub grub and receives consistently good reviews from customers.
Check the website for Pevensey Castle seasonal opening hours
3) Walk the Length of the Seafront
The entire length of Eastbourne seafront spans about four and a half miles and is ideal for walking. Starting at the Sovereign Harbour, it’s a flat paved route all the way to where the beach gives way to the cliffs of Beachy Head.
After passing the lock, the path curves round the harbour (where seals are sometimes spotted) until it reaches the beach. The first landmark is a Martello Tower, one of the many towers built to defend against Napoleon. The next mile or so continues along the most undeveloped stretch of the seafront, Langney Point, where wild coastal plants flourish and the beach rarely gets crowded.
Passing Buzz Active, a water sports operation which hire out paddle boards and kayaks and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, you finally reach the main stretch of the seafront. A few minutes on, the Beachdeck, a restaurant with a fine view of the English Channel is a nice spot for a drink and a bite to eat.
The next landmark is the Redoubt and then it’s a straight run to the pier, where the promenade splits into two levels. The carpet gardens can be viewed on the upper level, while the lower level runs alongside the beach. From the Wish Tower, the it’s a peaceful walk past the Western Lawns to the Italian Gardens and the cliffs of Beachy Head.
4) Take in some Art at the Towner Gallery
The Towner Art Gallery is a welcome addition to Eastbourne and is located in a prime position next to the Congress Theatre. It hosts a wide variety of exhibitions, both permanent and temporary. Grayson Perry and David Hockney are two of the artists whose work has been displayed there. The gallery is also home to the most significant body of work by British artist Eric Ravilious who was a resident of East Sussex.
Contemporary in design, the Towner has a bright and airy café which overlooks the grass tennis courts of the Devonshire Park. There is also a shop which is not only influenced by current exhibits, but also sells a range of products supplied by local artisans.
The Towner is open from Wednesdays to Sundays and on Bank Holidays between 10.00 am and 5.00 pm and admission is free.
5) Enjoy Afternoon Tea at the Grand Hotel
This magnificent hotel was constructed in 1875 and has welcomed an abundance of notable guests throughout the years. Claude Debussy, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Shackleton are just a few of the famous people who have stayed there. Between 1924 and 1939, The Grand Hotel Orchestra had a show on BBC radio every Sunday. During the Second World War, the hotel became a target for air raids and eventually became a military headquarters. These days The Grand Hotel offers all the opulence and comfort and that you would expect from a luxury hotel.
Afternoon Tea at the hotel is a lavish affair and takes place in the Grand Hall. The menu ranges from Champagne High Tea to Special Children’s High Tea which comes with jelly and milkshakes. A tinkling piano adds to the refined atmosphere and during the winter, a crackling log fire creates a warm ambience. Just walking through the doors of the Grand Hotel is akin to being transported to a bygone era and taking High Tea there is a unique experience.
6) Explore The Redoubt Fortress
Back in 1803, Napoleon was preparing to attack the British Isles. In fact, 167,000 men were gathered at Boulogne, France and were ready to cross the channel. Responding to the threat, the British government built seventy-four Martello Towers and three fortresses along the south coast. The Redoubt Fortress was one of them. The fort was garrisoned by troops until the early 1900’s and again during World War II.
The fort is now a museum and is home to three military collections. These include exhibits relating to the Royal Sussex Regiment, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and the Sussex Combined Services. The fort also has a café and rather unexpectedly, it has its own small cinema which shows movies at weekends throughout the summer.
Check out the Redoubt Fortress website for opening times, events and dates for movie showings.
7) Eat, Shop and Drink at the Sovereign Harbour
Opened in 1993, Sovereign Harbour consists of four linked harbours and is situated at the far east end of Eastbourne’s seafront. There are a choice of waterfront restaurants and cafes which offer al fresco dining, including the excellent Thai Marina. The harbour also backs onto a retail park where there’s a supermarket and several chain stores.
Half-hour guided boat tours are available for those who are interested in finding out about how the harbour operates. Alternatively, anyone wishing to venture further afield can charter boats for fishing, diving or sightseeing. The harbour is a pleasant spot for a bite to eat or drink while watching the world go by. In fact, on a warm summer’s day you could almost imagine yourself in the Mediterranean!
8) Enjoy a Concert at The Bandstand
Probably Eastbourne’s most iconic landmark, the bandstand sits on the seafront between the pier and the Wish Tower. Constructed in 1931, it has a blue dome and is neo-Grec in style. it was built in honour of John Wesley Woodward, who was one of the bandsman who played on as the Titanic sank in 1912. A commemorative plaque dedicated to him can still be seen in the main area opposite the stage.
These days a wide variety of concerts take place from George Michael tribute acts to military bands and the 1812 Overture complete with fireworks. The bandstand runs a programme from April to October, with additional Christmas concerts taking place in December. An annual Boxing Day concert is a long-standing tradition when locals, dressed to combat the bracing sea breeze, dance to festive tunes.
9) Watch some World-Class Tennis at the Devonshire Park
Devonshire Park is home to some of the best grass tennis courts in the country. Every June, the world’s top players gather to battle it out on the beautifully maintained courts in a pre-Wimbledon tournament. Tennis fans travel from far and wide and the event is televised all over the world. Back in the day, the courts were the scene of many a classic final between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. More recently, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have played in the tournament.
Additionally, Devonshire Park has hosted Davis Cup ties and County Championships along with junior and senior events throughout the summer. Smaller and more relaxed than Wimbledon, it’s a great place to catch some world-class tennis at one of England’s premier sporting venues, especially if the sun is shining!
10) Take a Stroll on Eastbourne Pier
The Victorian pier opened in 1872 and has long been one of Eastbourne’s most popular attractions. For many years, there was a theatre situated at the end of the pier which was destroyed by fire in 1970 and then replaced by a nightclub. In 2014, another fire broke out, this time leaving only the metal skeleton of the main pavilion standing. Since then the pier has been purchased by local hotelier, Sheik Abid-Gulzar, who has given its dome and fixtures a re-vamp in gold.
Without the pavilion, which was chock-a-block with crowd-pleasing amusements, the pier has a more sedate vibe these days. There are, however, a few new additions including the Victorian Tea Rooms and the bar/music venue 1901 Jazz Lounge. Eastbourne Pier remains a nice spot for a stroll and provides lovely views of Eastbourne seafront in both directions.
11) Have a Night Out at the Theatre
As is often the case in seaside towns, Eastbourne has a fine tradition of entertainment. There are four main venues – the Congress Theatre, the Winter Garden and Devonshire Park Theatre are all located within a stone’s throw of one another. Additionally, the Royal Hippodrome is situated on Seaside Road on the other side of town. The theatres all have their own unique vibe and offer a their own distinctive style of entertainment.
The Congress Theatre which opened in 1963, is the largest theatre on the south coast and plays host to concerts, comedy and musicals. Next door, the Winter Garden is both a performance venue and events space. The Devonshire Park Theatre is a traditional Victorian theatre with a beautiful interior. It specialises in touring plays, some of which are post-West End productions. Opened in 1883, Royal Hippodrome was originally a music hall theatre. These days, it offers a varied programme of entertainment from musicals to concerts.
12) Chill out at the Wish Tower and Western Lawns
The Wish Tower is situated on a grassy knoll alongside the sprawling Western Lawns on Eastbourne’s seafront. The tower itself is another of those built to defend against Napoleon in the 1800’s and there’s a small museum inside. From the top of the hill, there’s a splendid view of the seafront looking towards the pier. Next to the Wish Tower and overlooking the Western Lawns, Bistro Pierre is a new restaurant on the Eastbourne dining scene. As its name indicates, French cuisine is the speciality.
The Western Lawns are located opposite the Grand Hotel and are a popular spot for sport, sunbathing and dog-walking. The lawns also hosts several events throughout the year including the Beer and Cider by the Sea Festival and the Lammas Festival. In fact, if you like to check out local customs, the Lammas Festival is worth a visit. In addition to live music, you can experience the wonders of Morris Dancing. This traditional Sussex dance involves sticks, bells and handkerchiefs by dancers wearing ornate costumes. It’s certainly unique!
13) Catch a Play at the Italian Gardens
The Italian Gardens are situated in Holywell, at the west end of the seafront. Nestled at the foot of the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, they encompass a secluded area of lawn and a wooded amphitheatre carved out of the cliff. Creating the impression of a secret garden, the sides of the amphitheatre offer shade on a hot day. The area was formerly a chalk quarry and was converted into gardens at the beginning of the 20th century.
As the term amphitheatre indicates, the Italian Gardens are also a perfect venue for summer theatre performances. In fact, the setting is quite idyllic. From Romeo and Juliet to Great Expectations, a wide variety of plays are performed throughout the summer. In fact, it you are lucky with the weather, you can’t beat an balmy evening watching a classic play at the Italian Gardens.
14) Take a Walk from Birling Gap to Seven Sisters
Birling Gap is a tiny hamlet situated on a cliff edge which comprises of a cluster of cottages and a National Trust café. It forms part of the Seven Sisters cliffs and there are splendid views along the coastline. The beach at Birling Gap is mostly pebble. When the tide goes out, there are rock pools aplenty to explore. The cliffs at Birling Gap are crumbling away, so it’s important not to tread too close to the edge.
If you enjoy a good hike, you can walk across the Seven Sisters to Cuckmere Haven, which takes about an hour and a half. Cuckmere Haven is another local landmark where the Cuckmere River twists and turns its way to the English Channel. It’s quite an impressive sight as you approach from the hilltops. Handily, there’s a country pub called the Cuckmere Inn where you can re-fuel after your hike.
Brighton and Hove Buses run buses 12, 12A and 12X to and from Eastbourne town centre and Seven Sisters Country Park at Cuckmere Haven. Consequently, you can undertake the seven-mile hike one way, taking in Beachy Head, Birling Gap and Seven Sisters (or vice versa) and catch the bus back.
During August, crowds gather along Eastbourne’s seafront to witness spectacular displays by aerobatic teams, military jets, parachutists and helicopters. More often than not, the Red Arrows also make an appearance. Despite protests from the Green Party, Airbourne still attracts almost a million people who converge on the seaside town to enjoy the free air show.
In addition to the action that takes in the skies, there are numerous attractions that are held along the seafront. Stalls line the promenade and RAF flight simulators, giant inflatables and beach play zones provide fun for all the family. During the evenings, there is live music to keep the crowds entertained and a firework display takes place on the final night.
Eastbourne is accessible by direct train from Victoria Railway Station in London. It takes about and hour and a half and trains are frequent. The nearest airport is to Eastbourne is Gatwick, fifty miles away.
(For the latest updates with regard to COVID-19, check out the Eastbourne Tourist Information Website)