Time well spent

Shop till your jaw drops, with Simon Calder's guide to the best Bohemian boutiques

Sun, sea, sand: how does Brighton score? Rather well in the first category, being pinioned between England's two sunniest locations, Eastbourne and Bognor Regis. Sea? The Channel defines the place, from the original fishing village to the allure of the pier(s). Sand? Wrong place, I'm afraid, as anyone who has returned from a day on the beach feeling dented rather than cosseted will testify. Which is perhaps why the city has a few more "S"s in its civic back pocket to tempt visitors.

Sun, sea, sand: how does Brighton score? Rather well in the first category, being pinioned between England's two sunniest locations, Eastbourne and Bognor Regis. Sea? The Channel defines the place, from the original fishing village to the allure of the pier(s). Sand? Wrong place, I'm afraid, as anyone who has returned from a day on the beach feeling dented rather than cosseted will testify. Which is perhaps why the city has a few more "S"s in its civic back pocket to tempt visitors.

Sex is an enticement to some, including the original sinners who moved down with the Prince Regent to establish Europe's most monumental pleasure palace, the Royal Pavilion. Sightseers see the Crown's jewel as the city's leading attraction. But the city's specialist subject may prove even more satisfying and surprising: shopping.

Even a jaded old grouch who is brassed off with the offerings of the average British High Street will love the variety of speciality shops in Brighton. All the usual retail suspects can be found around North Street, Western Road and the concrete precincts of Churchill Square. Individuality and intimacy, though, are Brighton's strong suits: you can shop till your jaw drops. Brighton is the place to find everything from trash to treasures, whether lingerie, long-players or liquorice. And while wearing out your shoe leather (which, handily, you can replace with vegetarian footwear), you will also stumble across some of the city's hidden sights.

THE LANES

The Bohemian refuge on the south coast, indulged by royalty, has preserved its roots. So begin your shopping expedition in the Lanes: the maze of alleyways at the medieval heart of Brighton. Just south of the Clocktower, turn left into Duke Street. You find yourself funnelled through a dozen dining and drinking opportunities, and you can start buying instantly. At Choccywoccydoodah (easier to say than to spell) at number 24 you can indulge in chocolate as an art form. And then, because competition (like chocolate) is inherently beneficial, you can compare the repertoire with Montezuma's at number 15.

Anyone seeking a gift with some certainty of uniqueness should head for Gustamps at 12 Prince Albert Street; more an art gallery than a philatelist. For the Elvis fan: a block of Senegalese commemorative stamps, yours for £2.50. If JK Rowling wonders how far the Harry Potter motif could stretch, she could invest £3.50 in a complete set of stamps from Tajikistan that celebrates the young wizard.

Beaumont Grey will make a T-shirt as deeply personal as you wish; and the sweet-smelling Spiritual Matters can separate your yin from your yang, and your cash from your wallet.

For some visitors, Brighton is solely about clothes: either taking them off, or buying new ones. If you fall into the latter category, aim for East Street, where the Lanes begin to unravel into a more conventional street network. It contains a close approximation to a Continental piazza, plus Kurt Geiger, Mango, Monsoon, Jigsaw and French Connection. At Ship Street, try Simultane for off-the-mainstream-and-off-the-peg clothing, then Jeremy Hoye for some silver, gold or platinum jewellery to set it off nicely. And for the feet? Back on Duke Street, the dainty shoes in the window of Nine West face Offspring, dispensing industrial-strength trainers.

NORTH LAINE

One moment you are steering through Brighton's shopping streets, the next you are confronted with the Sussex offshoot of the Taj Mahal. The twirling domes of the Royal Pavilion give an exotic zest to the town, which could explain why such curious characters are attracted here.

To meet some of them, head along Bond Street, which runs just west of the Pavilion and feeds into Gardner Street. This is North Laine, a slightly wonky grid of streets that represents Brighton at its most Bohemian.

Take a look at three adjacent properties on the east side of Gardner Street: Air Born Kites, whose elaborate designs exploit the sea breeze; Borderline Records, one of Brighton's excellent sources of rare vinyl; and Elir lingerie. Opposite you can buy Vegetarian Shoes - intended for non-leather walking rather than as a dining option - or legal hemp products from the Hemp Shop.

Jink right then left at the end of Gardner Street and you find yourself in Kensington Gardens. Nowhere near the posh London district and far from verdant, this is the location for a retail miscellany: Caramela (promising 15 varieties of Dutch salted liquorice), The Vintage Magazine Company, Dave's Comics and Paul Clark's Music Meltdown, interspersed with classy fashion designers such as Appendage at number 36.

The next right-left manoeuvre will take you into Sydney Street. To redefine yourself, try a tattoo from Penetration. Close by, the G-Spot promises club- and street-wear. Brighton Designers and Makers is at 39; downstairs is the cutting-edge IO Gallery. Between them, they challenge your assumptions about colour, form and function.

Brighton station looms at the top of Trafalgar Street. But there are still temptations: the Singles Bar for vinyl 45s and albums, and Paint Pots - where you decorate your own pottery.

KEMP TOWN

Kemp Town is the place to come for arguably Britain's finest charity shops. Donors tend to be well-off individualists; you can find retro clothing, plus shelves heaving with books that are as eclectic as the customers.

The first you meet on St James's Street is Sussex Beacon, opposite the Redroaster coffee house. Just up the road you will find Mind and Age Concern.

At Camelford Street, look for a line of dainty cottages. Then admire the jewellery at Spiral, buy an LP for £1 at the record shop that bears the faint sign "O'Neill's", and reach a retail climax at the What Not Shop. Beyond here, the dreamy High Street feel begins to fade - but if you feel the need for some stylish furniture, try The Red House at 34 Upper St James's Street.

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