Brighton: Oriental excess in seaside Sussex

The preposterous Pavilion is just one dimension of this intriguing urban resort, says Fiona Sturges

Seaside holiday or city break? Happily, Brighton offers both. There's a reason why this metropolitan resort is known as London-on-Sea, and it's not just because of the biblical hordes that cascade from the capital at weekends and head straight for the sea. It's because Brighton comes with all the perks of a big city – museums, galleries, parks, sleek hotels, unforgettable architecture, fabulous shopping and food from every continent – while having one of best-loved beaches in the country.

And for the summer visitor Brighton is all about the beach, specifically the mile-long stretch between the two piers. This area is best known for its merry-go-rounds, fish and chips, deck chairs for hire, ice-cream kiosks and acres of undulating shingle. Under the promenade, the arches have been transformed into a mini Santa Monica with beach volleyball, skate ramps, al fresco cafés and shops selling everything from objets d'art to jelly shoes and sticks of rock.

Meanwhile, Brighton Pier (01273 609361; brightonpier.co.uk) embodies old-school seaside culture at its finest, an unapologetically gaudy world of slot machines, Dodgems, helter-skelters, jellied eels and candyfloss. An icon of the city, the pier is not to be missed.

From there it's a short walk to the Pavilion (01273 290900; royalpavilion. org.uk), formerly a modest farmhouse that, at the behest of the playboy Prince Regent (who later became George IV), was transformed into a preposterous Oriental-style pleasure palace complete with bulbous domes and minarets. Mixing Asian exoticism with English eccentricity and excess, the inside is no less extraordinary with its crystal chandeliers, bamboo staircases, crimson canopies and carved wooden palms. It's no wonder Queen Victoria deemed it too vulgar for her own use and sold it to the local authority. Now you can either wander around by yourself, or take a guided tour.

Across the Pavilion Gardens is the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (01273 290900; brighton. virtualmuseum.info), home to a collection extending from the 15th to the 20th century, featuring fine art and ceramics, fashion from the Regency period onwards, a display of 20th-century design and an array of touring exhibitions.

If you're looking for retail therapy, shopping in Brighton is far from the usual high-street experience. From the swanky clothing boutiques of East Street you can drift into the cobbled streets of the Lanes and lose yourself amid tumbledown bookshops, antique jewellery stores, sumptuous delis and dinky cupcake emporiums.

The North Laine, Brighton's bohemian quarter, is a hippie haven where you can pick up anything from a vintage tea dress to a pair of vegetarian shoes. Visitors on a budget can browse around Snoopers Paradise, Brighton's biggest and best flea market, or just sit in one of the copious cafés (organic, naturally) and gawp at the cool kids.

After a hard day's shopping, sightseeing and sunbathing, you could take afternoon tea (£19.95) at The Grand, a seafront hotel that was bombed by the IRA in 1984. Today you can feast on cucumber sandwiches, cakes and scones served on tiered silver stands (booking in advance on 01273 224300; devere.co. uk). Alternatively, for the best seafood in town head west along the seafront to The Regency (01273 325014; theregencyrestaurant.co. uk), a restaurant recommended by Rick Stein that is a firm favourite among locals. You won't find a better plate of fish and chips anywhere.

Three great days out

CHARLESTON

A farmhouse 14 miles east of Brighton, Charleston (01323 811626; charleston.org.uk) was the home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and their Bloomsbury entourage. Visiting luminaries included EM Forster, Roger Fry and Bell's sister Virginia Woolf. Inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, the artists decorated the walls, doors and furniture and redesigned the garden in the southern European style. Charleston now stands as a magical memorial to their unconventional spirit. Open April to October, Wednesdays to Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays.

WALKING IN THE SOUTH DOWNS

The South Downs, Britain's 15th National Park, came into being earlier this year, and it's right on Brighton's doorstep. The South Downs Way National Trail (nationaltrail. co.uk/southdowns) for walkers, riders and cyclists runs the length of the Downs and takes a week to complete. For day-trippers, the uphill walk to Devil's Dyke is worth the effort. Two miles out of Brighton, this dramatic hillside offers spectacular views of the coast and the countryside.

RACING

Two miles out of town between Whitehawk and Bevendean, Brighton Racecourse (01273 603580; brighton-racecourse.co.uk) is, according to its motto, "where the surf meets the turf" and is one of the prettiest flat-racing courses in the country. Racing is planned for 17 and 25 August and 1 and 13 September. Or for a thrilling night out straight out of the pages of Brighton Rock, try a spot of dog racing at the Brighton and Hove Greyhound Stadium (01273 204601; brightonandhovegreyhoundstadium.co.uk). The track is in Nevill Road, 20 minutes' walk from Hove station, and has been going since 1928. Racing takes place every Thursday and Saturday evening (doors open 6.30pm), Wednesday afternoons (doors open at 1pm) and Friday and Sunday lunchtimes (doors open at 10.30am on Friday and 11am on Sunday).

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