Britain: 48 hours in Brighton

You need a break - and a short-cut - to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect weekend break. This week, Brighton, where Harriet O'Brien spends 48 hours

Why go now?

The weather may be overcast, but the glamour of this appealing seaside town more than makes up for it. Britain's first resort seems to bear a permanently glazed grin, as though a municipal-sized, mood-enhancing narcotic has recently been swallowed.

Beam down

Connex SouthCentral whisks you from Victoria station in London to Brighton in a record-breaking 49 minutes. A weekend return costs pounds 18.

You can also catch a train direct to Brighton from Birmingham, Bedford, Bristol - and dozens of places that don't begin with B. Call 0345 484950 for times.

Get your bearings

Brighton station is currently under wraps: the scaffolding that conceals its glorious Victorian ironwork will be in place for the next three years, giving the station an atmosphere of a bomb shelter.

First impressions may be a little subdued therefore, but the station does, at least, provide an easy geography lesson. Go straight ahead, down the gentle slope to the sea. To your left are Brighton's extraordinary palace, the Indian-dressed Pavilion, and the Lanes, the town's old centre; to the right is the main shopping area. The Tourist Information Office (not altogether helpful the day I was there) is a short walk away at Bartholomew Square between the Lanes and Brighton beach. Here you can pick up a map of central Brighton for pounds 1 and a leaflet of walks for another 75p.

Check in

The Grand (01273 321188) on Kings Road, looking down on the seafront and across to the West Pier, still holds the reputation of being Brighton's biggest and best hotel, complete with swimming-pool, sauna and multi-gym. Prices for weekend breaks here (minimum two nights) are pounds 75 for bed and breakfast per person per night, for a room without a sea view, to pounds 95 for a room with a view - and pounds 125 for added luxury.

If you would prefer a more personal ambience in the same area, try the Dove Hotel (01273 779222) at 18 Regency Square, owned and run by the Kalinke family. Rooms facing the back are pounds 45 per person per night; seawards you pay pounds 10 more. Prices are for en-suite facilities and also include a welcoming drink when you arrive.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of options for backpackers - for a cheap sleep with a sense of history make for the Traveller's Rest (01273 747551) at 20 Middle Street in the Lanes. You pay pounds 9 to stay in a dormitory (or pounds 12.50 per person for a small room) in the house where William Friese, the inventor of cinematography, carried out his experiments.

Take a hike

In fact, not so much of a vigorous stroll as a gentle amble, as you wander through the Lanes - the medieval heart of Brighton - guided by your walking leaflet. This maze of alleyways once housed fisherfolk; now the area has been turned over to twee shops and theme cafes, yet the character of the quarter has somehow survived.

Lunch on the run

Fish and chips, of course. For a good selection, head for the seafront. Tony's Plaice, on the corner of Middle Street, is not being idle when it boasts that it has "probably the best fish and chips in town". Cod and chips here costs pounds 3.

Cultural afternoon

Make for the Royal Pavilion, that astonishing palace sitting just inland from the seafront, right next to the A23. John Nash imported ideas from India, laced them with themes from China and created an elaborate Oriental residence. The amazing twirls of the roof preside over an architectural compendium ranging from imitation Islam via ersatz Egyptian to counterfeit Chinese.

The sum of all the parts makes an extraordinary monument to aristocratic arrogance. Open daily, 10am-5pm, adults pounds 4.10, concessions pounds 3, children pounds 2.50, family ticket (two adults, four children) pounds 10.70.

Meanwhile, Brighton Museum, just north of the Pavilion, is everything a municipal museum should be. It houses an eclectic range of local bequests and other exhibits, from a Dali sofa modelled on Mae West's lips (circa 1936) to a re-creation of old Brighton, complete with entire shopfronts. Open 10am-5pm Saturdays, and weekdays except Wednesday, 2-5pm Sunday. Admission free.

Window shopping

They're all here. The most interesting stores are in North Laine, east of the station, where retro and vintage clothing outlets rub shoulders with hardware stores and funeral directors.

An aperitif

The King and Queen (01273 607207) at 13 Marlborough Place is a large, jolly folly of a pub built on the site of an 18th-century farmhouse whose timber-beam styling it copies. As you order your drink at the bar, admire the decor - the place is hung about with mock armour, model sailing ships and more.

Demure dinner

From Californian to Cuban, the theme restaurant flourishes in Brighton. One place where the ambience has not been imported is English's Oyster Bar (01273 327980) in East Street, three fishermen's cottages knocked into a narrow restaurant. The walls are heavy with scarlet velvet, and the interior is so cramped that diners are obliged to be seated side by side. Main courses include the likes of monkfish baked in garlic for pounds 12.95.

Sunday morning: go to church

An astonishing brick barn of a church, St Bartholomew's at Ann Street, on the edge of the city centre, was described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "an unforgettable experience". And few could disagree.

Its sheer scale is staggering, and its decor, though sparse, is striking. High Mass here, with full works - swinging incense, elaborate music - is glorious. Open 10am till dusk. Solemn high Mass is at 11am on Sundays, evensong and benediction at 3.30pm.

Bracing brunch

Food for Thought in Kensington Gardens, North Laine, serves home-made breakfast all day. English Breakfast (bacon, egg, sausage etc) costs pounds 2.50, as does the vegetarian version (egg, beans, tomato).

The icing on the cake

Of course, no trip to Brighton would be complete without a breezy stroll along the Palace Pier - still in one piece, unlike its forlorn West counterpart. With its Brighton rock stalls, palmists and funfair, Palace Pier is kitsch, noisy, and fun - everything a British beach resort should be.