Days out at the seaside, bucket and spade in hand, are a great British tradition. From beach huts and lidos to long piers jutting out into the ocean, Britain’s seaside towns offer everything from traditional fun to tongue-in-cheek kitsch. If you’re planning an escape to the coast, start with our pick of the best seaside towns in Britain.
1. Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear
A 25-minute drive or Metro hop from central Newcastle, Tynemouth lies exactly where its name suggests. Of its beaches, surf-hub Longsands gets most of the accolades. But clamber down the stairs from the clifftop to King Edward’s Bay, and you’re in for a real treat. This is where Geordie foodies flock, in fine weather or otherwise, to enjoy superb seafood and real ales at Riley’s Fish Shack, a simple hut-kitchen that is the beach’s lone structure. Tynemouth also has a ruined priory and castle to enjoy, plus a Sunday flea market.
2. Southwold, Suffolk
Perched on the east coast of England, the small town of Southwold offers typical seaside merriment with its sandy beach, traditional pier and candy-coloured beach huts. A working lighthouse (open to visitors) stands sentinel, surveying the bay, while the Adnams Brewery, which still operates on the same site after 670 years, wafts early morning hops into the sea air. Plenty of excellent eating and accommodation options range from the smart Swan Hotel, situated on the picturesque market square, to a nearby campsite – all a pebble’s throw from the sea.
3. Porthmadog, Gwynedd
If Porthmadog is handsome, it owes at least a portion of its good looks to the magnificent views all around – from town, you can gaze up the Vale of Ffestiniog and across the estuary of the Glaslyn River to Snowdonia’s mountains. Indeed, there’s no finer base for trips into Snowdonia National Park, and Porthmadog is also the terminus of a fabulous narrow-gauge rail line – the 22km-long Ffestiniog Railway is the finest of its kind in Wales, and runs from Porthmadog harbour to the slate-mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. A mile south of Porthmadog, Borth-y-Gest is little more than a semi-circle of low, brightly painted Victorian houses lining the beach – and utterly charming in its simplicity.
4. Whitstable, Kent
Whitstable, on the north Kent coast, is a popular London escape route – but don’t let that put you off. One of the major attractions here are the local oysters, which the town has been famous for since Roman times. The annual highlight is the Oyster festival (last two weeks of July), when you can expect oyster-eating competitions, parades and performances. At any time of year, however, this is a great place to come for fresh seafood and windswept coastal walks.
5. Aberystwyth, Ceredigion
Two sweeping pebble bays, soft-hued Georgian houses lining the promenade, the nineteenth-century Royal Pier – Aberystwyth has all the hallmarks of a traditional British seaside resort. Yet this mid-Wales hub offers more than just bucket-and-spade amusements. Aberystwyth is a blast of fresh salty air with a lively student population, plentiful pubs, booming café culture, and a strong sense of national pride, which combined with the thriving art scene, make this one of the best places to enjoy live Welsh music.
6. Shanklin, the Isle of Wight
Possibly the Isle of Wight’s most idyllic seaside resort, Shanklin has an archetypically pretty Old Village with thatched pubs, sweet shops and traditional tearooms. At the bottom of the steep cliffs is a pretty beach, where you can hire kayaks and the like in front of a row of whitewashed guesthouses and cafés. Don’t miss Shanklin Chine, a mossy gorge with fascinating World War II military connections.
7. Hastings, East Sussex
Once seen as a tired and tacky seaside resort, Hastings in East Sussex doesn’t get the love it deserves. The town has the UK’s largest land-launched fishing fleet, which means there’s ultra-fresh seafood on offer just behind the working beach, and a host of small but brilliant restaurants that serve the catch of the day. There are curios and antiques galore on the Old Town’s George Street, and some funny old funiculars to take you up the cliffs for a great view over the town. But it’s not all about the old in Hastings: 2016 saw the opening of the brand new pier, after the previous one was ravaged by fire, and its given the town a new lease of life. Find out more about Hastings’ revival here.
8. Pittenweem, Fife
The secret’s out. Pittenweem in Fife is one of Scotland‘s best seaside destinations. This pretty village thrives on its steady tourist trade, but it also remains a functioning fishing town and has become something of an artists’ colony in recent years. An annual arts festival takes place in early August, with dozens of locals turning their houses into temporary galleries for the week. Don’t miss the unusual Kellie Castle, three miles north, with its under-manicured gardens and twin sixteenth-century towers.
9. Robin Hood's Bay, Yorkshire
Despite its name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no connection to the eponymous folk hero – this isolated village was instead known as the Yorkshire coast‘s busiest smuggling community back in the eighteenth century. Walking down the hill into the village feels like a descent through the centuries, with old, higgledy-piggledy houses crammed in around you, and a steep cobbled road leading slowly down to the sea. At low tide you can walk out quite far along the bottom of the cliffs – this dramatic coastline is perfect for exploring – and then be sure to make it back for fish and chips, regarded by many to be among Yorkshire’s best.
10. Crosby, Merseyside
Where the River Mersey becomes the Irish Sea, and industrial Liverpool softens to leafy, suburban Merseyside, there’s a town called Crosby, home to some 50,000 people – and one hundred iron men. Artist Antony Gormley’s cast-iron replicas of his own form stud a 3km stretch of beach from Waterloo north to Burbo Bank in an installation entitled Another Place. With each identical statue facing the horizon, they’re a moving sight, and it’s a little unsettling when the tide begins to submerge them. Carry on up the coast to the bleak beach at Hightown, with its prehistoric submerged forest, and Formby’s National Trust coastal reserve, which is home to red squirrels and some Neolithic footprints preserved, against the odds, in the sand.
Scotland’s northeast coast has a bleak, rugged quality, with a series of small fishing villages dotted along the miles of lonely beaches. The prettiest of the lot is Gardenstown, with stone cottages huddled around a wave-gnawed bay, and newer buildings clinging to the nearby cliffs. There’s little to do here beyond soaking up the solitude, taking a windswept stroll along the waterfront, and dropping into the small gallery and teashop down by the harbour. Pure bliss.
12. Tenby, Pembrokeshire
Tenby – or to give it its Welsh name, Dinbych-y-Pysgod, which means Little Fortress of the Fish – is perhaps Wales’ most charming seaside resort. This Pembrokeshire town, a cluster of quaint houses in bright colours, is encircled by medieval stone walls, and the three beautiful beaches on its doorstep are the starting point for numerous coastal walks.
13. Lochinver, Scotland
One of the busier fishing harbours in Scotland, Lochinver has a pleasingly down-to-earth atmosphere. It’s also the natural base from which to explore the Assynt region, with extraordinary peaks like Suilven within easy reach. The harbour town (well, oversized village) is also acquiring a foodie reputation – Michelin-starred The Albannach and Chez Roux are two of the Highlands’ fine dining stalwarts, while Lochinver Larder in the village serves impeccable pies, and the neighbouring Caberfeidh pub dishes up traditional Scottish fare.
14. Folkestone, Kent
For years a shabby seaside town, Folkestone has reinvented itself in recent years and now has a designated Creative Quarter: a hub of artists’ workshops, independent galleries and shops. The Folkestone Triennial, a public art project with a burgeoning reputation, will next be held in 2017. There are good beaches too: Sunny Sands which, as the name suggests, is a golden stretch that gets busy in summer, and at the bottom of the Zig Zag steps which run through the lush Lower Leas Coastal Park is the pleasant pebble Mermaid Beach.
15. New Brighton, Merseyside
For photography fans, New Brighton is a place of pilgrimage. Magnum member , the greatest living documenter of everyday life in the UK, shot his seminal series The Last Resort here in 1983–85. With these forty photographs Parr depicted – in gaudy, glorious colour – the sort of scene that befalls a declining seaside town when the great, sun-deprived British public descend on it, ice creams in hand and dogs in tow. The town has undergone a £60 million refurbishment in recent times, with new restaurants and bars, and the coast on the other side of the Wirral peninsula (a 25-minute drive) is a pretty day-trip – try West Kirby, cute Thurstaston beach and eerie Parkgate.
16. Bournemouth, Dorset
With wide stretches of golden sand, fish and chips available on the seafront and the obligatory arcade on the pier, Bournemouth is a relic of the Victorian beach break. But it has more to offer than its traditional, somewhat outdated roots suggest. A brand-new, chic Hilton is an accommodation game-changer – a welcome break from the town’s many resorts left to fester since the 1960s – and the nearby area of Boscombe has a refreshing carefree vibe with great beachfront cafés and a surf school.
17. Margate, Kent
Margate isn’t ever going to be a chocolate-box seaside resort, but it’s not twee either. The Old Town is the focus of recent regeneration, with a main square and narrow lanes packed with independent businesses. The Turner Contemporary glints proudly on the seafront, a beacon for the town’s arty vibe, and Dreamland amusement park has reopened its doors for traditional fairground fun.
18. Portmeirion, Gwynedd
Not so much a functioning town as a semi-fictional village, Portmeirion is unlike anywhere else in Britain. A swish Mediterranean resort plonked in wildest North Wales, it is the brainchild of eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who built this Italianate village with a piazza, grand porticoes and terracotta-roofed houses, all in bright pastel colours. In September, Portmeirion hosts Festival No.6, pulling in international acts like Noel Gallagher and the Pet Shop Boys.
19. Filey, North Yorkshire
This quaint little Edwardian seaside town in North Yorkshire has homely pubs, quirky shops and a weekly farmers’ market. Scramble up the hillside by the beach for a great view over the huge orange-sand bay, and follow up with some top-notch fish and chips from one of the stalls on the popular beachside slipway, Coble Landing. At low tide, head out to the peninsula of Filey Brigg – a fossiliferous, rocky promontory that’s popular with fishermen and naturalists alike.
20. St Ives, Cornwall
Long associated with a vibrant local art scene, St Ives in Cornwall has more galleries, exhibitions and culture than you can shake a stick at (even without the town’s branch of Tate, which is closed until 2017 for a massive overhaul). The Penwith landscape, with its stunning azure seascapes and white sand beaches, is the backdrop to a charming higgledy-piggledy town of narrow cobbled streets and fishermen’s houses.
21. Salcombe, Devon
Salcombe is undoubtedly one of Devon‘s most genteel seaside towns, with pastel-coloured houses staggered up the hill and the winding streets crammed full of little shops, old pubs and surprisingly contemporary cafés. Visit after the school holidays – in high summer you’ll struggle to negotiate the thronging crowds – and take the ferry out onto the estuary to seek out quiet little soft-sand coves and beaches so scenic you’ll forget you’re in the UK.
22. Plockton, Ross and Cromarty
With its picture-postcard cottages curved behind a tiny harbour and views across Lochcarron to the Northwest Highlands mountains, Plockton is one of the most handsome seaside settlements of the Scottish Highlands‘ west coast. The town is packed in high season with tourists squelching across the seabed at low tide, and the brilliance of the light has made it something of an artists’ hangout. Plockton may look familiar to first-time visitors – its flower and palm-filled seafront feature in cult thriller film The Wicker Man.
Brighton isn’t short of famous landmarks. The exuberant Royal Pavilion, the migraine-inducing Brighton Pier and the labyrinthine Lanes have long been on the tourist trail. But Britain’s LGBTQ capital has recently gained its most imposing landmark yet – the towering i360 observation tower, due to open in the summer of 2016. Back down at ground level, the fish and chips and ice cream trade continues to boom ad infinitum.
24. Stromness, Orkney
An enchanting arrival point, Stromness has a picturesque waterfront with a procession of tiny sandstone jetties and slate roofs nestling below the green hill of Brinkies Brae. Unlike Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, Stromness still hugs the shoreline, its one and only street a narrow, winding affair still paved with great flagstones and fed by a tight network of alleyways. Come in May for the barnstorming four-day Orkney Folk Festival.
25. Llandudno, Conwy County Borough
Llandudno ticks all the boxes of a great British seaside destination: long sandy beaches, grand Victorian facades, a two-mile stretch of promenade, and more than its fair share of chic hotels and good restaurants. Yet arguably the town’s best attraction is not the shoreline but the slice of wilderness on its doorstep in the form of the great limestone lump of Great Orme. Old-style trams and cable cars climb up to the 680ft summit – from here there are stunning views of the Snowdonia range and countless trails for blustery walks.
26. Ilfracombe, Devon
This little town on the North Devon coast is synonymous with its picturesque working harbour, where Verity, a striking 66ft bronze-clad sculpture by Damian Hirst, stands guard on the quayside. Beyond the Lantern Hill headland the iconic twin chimneys of the Landmark Theatre are another sign of change in the sea air of Ilfracombe – though traditional pubs aplenty can still be found on historic Fore Street and Broad Street.
27. Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire
Located on the edge of the New Forest, Barton-on-Sea offers stunning coastal walks and a fascinating glimpse into prehistoric marine life. Barton Clay has particularly rich pickings; some fossils date as far back as 40 million years, and budding palaeontologists can search for preserved shark teeth, fish bones and gastropod shells. When you’ve had your geological fill, enjoy breathtaking views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. On a clear day, the iconic chalk Needles and lighthouse can just be seen in the distance.
28. Weymouth, Dorset
When the sun shines there are few happier places to be than the former royal resort of Weymouth (George III was a big fan). It’s worth a visit for the fine sandy beach alone but Weymouth’s biggest joy is its Old Harbour, where you can while away hours watching the boats from one of the quayside pubs. Come in July for the Dorset Seafood Festival when the quays are lined with dozens of stalls selling all manner of fishy delights.
29. Padstow, Cornwall
Often nicknamed ‘Padstein’ for its association with celebrity chef Rick Stein, Padstow is North Cornwall’s principal fishing town. With this comes some of the country’s best seafood restaurants (four of which are owned by Stein) and a harbour full of boats offering cruises around the Camel estuary. It’s all about simple pleasures here: spend your morning on one of the many pretty beaches nearby, and after lunch try your hand at crabbing – lines can be bought from a number of shops around the harbour. Just don’t forget to return the little creatures afterwards!
30. Portree (Skye), Inner Hebrides
A metropolis by Skye’s sleepy standards, Portree is one of the most attractive ports in northwest Scotland. Its deep, cliff-edged harbour is filled with fishing boats and circled by multicoloured houses, with the few excellent restaurants in town – including the highly acclaimed Scorrybreac – serving up the catch of the day. Portree is now also host to the Skye Live festival, which features local musicians and international DJs like Simian Mobile Disco.
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Explore more of the British seaside with the Rough Guide to Great Britain – your comprehensive guide to where to visit, eat, sleep and drink in England, Scotland and Wales.
Header image: Southwold Beach Huts © Adrian Rawlinson/Shutterstock. Image credits top to bottom (left–right): King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth © Stuart’s Photography/Shutterstock; Southwold © Diana Jarvis; Porthmadog © Andrew Davies/Robert Harding Library; Whitstable beach © Deaglan McCabe/Shutterstock; Oysters in Whitstable © Kevinr4/Shutterstock; Fish market in Whitstable © Lance Bellers/Shutterstock; Aberystwyth © Billy Stock/Shutterstock; Aberystwyth pier at sunset © Joe Goodson/Shutterstock; A pier wall at sunset in Aberystwyth © Izzy Standbridge/Shutterstock; Shanklin Chine © chloegunning/Shutterstock; Hastings © Lottie Gross; Hastings © Lottie Gross; Hastings © Lottie Gross; Pittenweem © Stefano_Valeri/Shutterstock; Robin Hood’s Bay © Pearl Bucknall/Robert Harding Library; Crosby Beach © Chris Hepburn/Robert Harding Library; Gardenstown © Olaf Schubert/Shutterstock; Gardenstown © belfastlough/Shutterstock; Tenby © Billy Stock/Shutterstock; Assynt © Paul A Carpenter/Shutterstock; Folkestone © Flyby Photography/Shutterstock; New Brighton © Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images; Bournemouth © allou/Shutterstock; Margate © Visit Thanet; Portmeirion © EddieCloud/Shutterstock; Filey © northallertonman/Shutterstock; St Ives © ian woolcock/Shutterstock; St Ives © skyearth/Shutterstock; St Ives © Michelle Lovegrove/Shutterstock; Salcombe © ian woolcock/Shutterstock; Plockton © Christine Dodd/Shutterstock; Brighton Pier © Hert Niks/Shutterstock; Brighton Royal Pavilion © Michaelasbest/Shutterstock; Stromness © johnbraid/Shutterstock; Llandudno © S-F/Shutterstock; Ilfracombe © Alexey Lobanov/Shutterstock; Barton-on-Sea © Loretta Damska/Shutterstock; Weymouth © ian woolcock/Shutterstock; Padstow © Helen Hotson/Shutterstock; Padstow © PJ photography/Shutterstock; Padstow © Paul Nash/Shutterstock; Portree © Nataliya Hora/Shutterstock.