Lewes is a chocolate-box East Sussex town with a beautiful setting within the South Downs National Park framed by chalky cliffs and rolling hills. As it’s just 20 minutes from Brighton, I’ve made countless day trips here, so I know it well. It’s also an easy 1.5 hours from London, so a clever choice for a weekend away. It’s cobbled streets are lined with tempting independent shops, cosy old pubs, cafes, and unpretentious restaurants, and home to a Friday market with stalls filled with local produce. What’s unique about Lewes, is that you could be sipping artisan coffee, shopping for antiques one minute, putting on muddy boots and hiking up windswept Mount Caburn to a cosy country pub the next.
A travel guide to Lewes, East Sussex
On the surface it’s a wholesome place, but get to know Lewes and you’ll discover its eccentric side. It’s not unusual to pass Morris dancers on the high street at the weekend or spot signs for bizarre pub games like the World Pea-Throwing Championships. Not to mention its raucous Lewes Bonfire Night festival on 5 November when the town’s population quadruples! And did I mention Henry VIII’s ex-wife Anne of Cleves’ house is here, and it was the former countryside base of the Bloomsbury group? So, if you like the sound of Lewes, my guide featuring things to do and places to eat, drink, and stay in the East Sussex town will come in handy. Let’s go!
Things to do in Lewes
Explore the twittens and backstreets
Lewes is filled with narrow lanes unique to Sussex called ‘twittens’ running perpendicular to the High Street. They date back to Anglo-Saxon times and are lined with historic houses, unique details, and great views (Lewes is hilly). Some of the nicest are Keere Street, a cobbled lane on an incline lined with heritage homes and secret gardens, Green Lane with its old walls covered with trailing plants, Paine’s Passage, St Swithuns and Pipe Passage rooted in the pipe-making industry. It’s also home to a bizarre home called The Round House, the home Virginia Woolf bought but never lived in set inside an old windmill.
Catch a movie at the Depot
Small towns are the best because they often have quirky, independent cinemas. Lewes has The Depot set in a modern glass building on old railway station land, hence its name. It shows a mix of mainstream and off-beat arthouse films. It has a lawned front garden complete with a patio terrace, a dream in summer. The light-filled café-restaurant is open to all for breakfast, coffee and cakes (the carrot cake is good) and toasties and the like for lunch – also satisfying healthy plates, like roast cod fillet with mustard mash sautéed leek and spinach, keens Cheddar rarebit glaze, for dinner. All tickets on Tuesday are half-price. Find The Depot at Pinwell Road, Lewes BN7 2JS
cruise on the River Ouse
Skirting the northeast side of Lewes is the river Ouse. It’s 35 miles long, starts in a tiny village called Lower Beeding near Horsham in West Sussex and ends at Newhaven, East Sussex. A local company called Ouse Cruises runs three-hour cruises on the Ouse with your skipper on six-person The Lady Helen upriver to the hamlet of Hamsey. It’s a magical way to experience Lewes from the water, especially in spring. On rare occasions, you may spot the odd seal. Trips are planned around the rhythm of the river and tide times, which vary every day. For more information, here.
head for the hills
Lewes is an easy starting point for a country walk around the South Downs. Start at the golf course near Malling Down in the northeast or, take the path up to Mount Caburn and follow an easy route to the pretty village of Glynde, home to world-famous Glyndebourne Opera House. Alternatively, there are a few green spaces to check out in town. These include the Lewes Land Nature Reserve, a peaceful wild spot hidden behind the train station with four different water habitats including a spiralling reed bed. Another is Southover Grange Gardens built by William Newton in 1542, full of pretty paths, colourful flower beds, and peaceful benches. Find access information for the Lewes Land Nature Reserve here.
Swim outdoors at pells
Pells Pool is the country’s oldest outdoor freshwater swimming pool, and you find it hidden in Lewes! Called The Pells, or Pells pool to locals, it dates back to the 1860s. It’s an unheated spring-fed pool, so a swim here is brisk and invigorating and not for the faint-hearted. It’s also almost Olympic-sized at 46 metres long by 23 metres wide, so there’s lots of space to bob around or rack up the laps in the exercise lanes. They often host special swimming sessions, like sunrise swims to celebrate the summer solstice for example. Find Pells Pool at Brook Street, Lewes BN7 2BA. Open Monday to Friday, 7am to 8pm; Saturday, 9am to 5.30pm; Sunday, 9am to 7.30pm
Take in the views
Lewes is hilly which means its streets are filled with great scenic viewpoints. Lewes Castle is the most obvious viewpoint (tickets cost £9), but for a view of the castle itself, up on the mound between Lewes Priory and Lewes train station is worth the climb for its vistas of the towers. Elsewhere in town, the views from Castle Gate are impressive. They show everything from greenery to houses on opposite hills. Other great views of Lewes include those from Southover Grange Gardens, the views across the River Ouse from Cliffe Bridge, and the view of the town from the top of Chapel Hill.
Brave Lewes Bonfire Night
Lewes’ left-field leanings are revealed during Lewes Bonfire Night, a raucous event that takes place every year to commemorate the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. It’s the largest and most famous bonfire night event in the UK – and Lewes is known as the ‘bonfire capital of the world. It sees crowds of 30,000 people descending on the tiny town to watch Bonfire Societies from all around Sussex – including six from Lewes – carrying fire torches and political effigies through town to fire sites to burn their effigies. The event culminates with a fireworks display with festivities carrying on until around 1am. Find out practical information about Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations, here.
Where to eat in Lewes
The Swan Inn
I judged this place for its uninviting white facade, dismissing it as a dodgy local pub for years until a friend put me right! Inside, it’s cosy, warm and unpretentious, with a roaring fire and a quiet, chocolate-box cottage garden for summer lunches (see above). The food is simple, filling, delicious and well-priced – think mackerel salad for £12, and Sunday roasts for £14 – including several interesting veggie options – alongside local beers and wines. A few cocktails are listed, too, including the Paloma (vodka, grapefruit and soda) for a refreshing kick. Find The Swan Inn at 30A Southover Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1HU. Open Monday to Thursday, 12pm to 12am; Friday and Saturday, 12pm to 12.30am; Sunday 12pm to 11pm
Pestle and Mortar
The smell of fresh Thai basil and lime hits you when you walk into this tiny noodle bar-café-tearoom in one, Pestle and Mortar. Food is a mix of Thai, Malay, Vietnamese and Taiwanese, including fragrant steamy bowls of noodle soup, curries, and crunchy fresh-filled Bahn mi (Vietnamese baguettes). Dishes are chalked up on a blackboard behind the counter where you order. It’s hard to choose – everything is good. You can sit in the window, out back in the garden or at one of the little tables set amid shelves bursting with tempting ingredients, like colourful packets of noodles and bottles of chilli sauce. It feels like you’re having lunch inside a mini supermarket. Find Pestle and Mortar at 4 Lansdown Place, Lewes BN7 2JT. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm
Flint Owl Bakery
At the weekend, the queue spills from this sweet-smelling bakery. When you see the shelves of good-looking baked goods, you’ll see why. Seasonal treats include sticky hot cross buns for Easter and dainty little creme pat fresh fruit tartlets for summer. Their chunky peanut butter blondies are my guilty pleasure. It’s also good for gifts, like bags of oat butter biscuit hobnobs and cherry and pistachio nougat. They serve salads and sandwiches, too, you can take out or scoff in their stylish cafe room or quiet terrace garden. Find Flint Owl Bakery at 209 High Street, Lewes BN7 2NS. Open Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5pm; Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 9am to 4pm
Caccia and Tails
At Caccia and Tails, it’s all about spot-on street pasta dishes, and New York Italian classics. Think Mac N Cheese with focaccia breadcrumbs and crispy shallots; slow-cooked beef ragu baked pasta. The owner’s mum is a New Yorker and her father is an Italian Jazz musician, after all. They also do something called focaccia Genovese. Incredible oily-thick homemade focaccia you eat upside down so the salt hits your tongue – it’s so good. It’s only small with a few tables inside, and only open in the daytime, but in the evening at the Lansdown Arms pub – no website – at 36 Lansdown Place. Find Caccia and Tails at 15 Station Street, Lewes BN7 2DA. Open Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm; Saturday 9am to 4pm
Café Du Jardin
A French-style cafe bar, Café Du Jardin is tucked inside the courtyard of Pastorale Antiques, in what was once an old coaching inn steeped in history. It’s a nice quiet spot for a coffee over a French-style breakfast – croissants and pastries, omelettes and eggs – or lunches, like baked camembert, crepes, Croque monsieur and steak frites. Find Café du Jardin at 15 Malling Street, Lewes BN7 2RA. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday 10am to 3pm
Where to drink in Lewes
This tiny local favourite corner café with a dark blue wonky façade is a two-minute walk from Lewes station. It does the best coffee in Lewes IMO and keeps things simple with a few pastries and cakes. It’s nice to wait for your coffee on the bench out front, pondering the distant view of the South Downs framing the rows of pretty houses. Looking at it makes me forget where I am until my cappuccino arrives which always hits the spot and sets me up for my time exploring. Find Ground Lewes 18 Lansdown Place, Lewes BN7 2JT. Open Monday to Sunday, 8am to 2.30pm
The Lewes Arms
A simple and quiet pub – they don’t play music – yet characterful and idiosyncratic with a good sense of humour. The Lewes Arms is the place to come to watch the World Pea Throwing and Toad in the Hole championships. The latter involves throwing toads – coins – into the hole in the top of a wooden box on legs, from a distance. You can also play Toad in the Hole in Brighton at the Hand in Hand in Kemptown. There are pub games like Connect Four. It’s a nice spot for a Sunday roast, too. Find The Lewes Arms at 1 Mount Place, Lewes BN7 1YH. Open daily 12pm to 11pm
Beak Brewery taproom
Cliffe Industrial Estate, a 10-minute walk from Cliffe High Street in town, is an unlikely social destination since local Beak Brewery opened a tap room here. It’s a light, airy space with benches inside, which the team moves outside in summer. They host pop-up street food events with local restaurants, like Italian street food gurus, Caccia and Tails. Find the Beak Brewery Taproom at Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, Lewes BN8 6JL. Open Friday 5pm to 11pm; Saturday 12pm to 11pm
Abyss Brewery Taproom
Another cool brewery taproom, this time in the town’s old Davey’s Lane brewing quarter. It’s set in the South Downs Brewery maltings building. Inside, it’s sleek: dark grey paint, white geometric tiles and polished concrete softened with warm lighting and plants. They serve a beer called Twerk IPA that tastes smooth. There’s a permanent Mexican street food kitchen for tacos and a selection of low-intervention wines and cocktails. Find Abyss Brewery Taproom at Unit 3, The Malthouse, Daveys Lane, Lewes BN7 2BF. Open Thursday, 5pm to 10pm; Friday 3pm to 11pm; Saturday 12pm to 11pm; Sunday 12pm to 6pm
Where to shop in Lewes
An old red-brick landmark building once home to a WW1 needle-making factory is now the setting for a collection of independent maker shops set over three floors. Don’t miss the vintage shop downstairs – the name escapes me – for a rummage and to see the incredible collection of vintage tins. There’s also an independently run café. Find The Needlemakers at West Street, Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 2NZ. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday 11.00am to 4.00pm
Lewes Flea Market
Lewes is packed with antique shops. You’ll find a nice clutch along Cliffe High Street just past Harvey’s Brewery. There are a couple of bigger flea markets too, like Lewes Flea Market on Market Street opposite The Needlemakers. It’s set in another striking red-brick building which was once a Methodist church and often has a gleaming vintage car parked in the driveway. Inside, be prepared to lose yourself for a while, browsing the trinkets and curios, from furniture and ceramics to jewellery and artwork. Find Lewes Flea Market at 14A Market St, Lewes BN7 2NB. Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10.30am to 5pm
What is incredible about Lewes High Street is that although it’s not very long, it’s home to several cool little independent book shops, like this one for its antique atlases and travel books, and my favourite, the Fifteenth Century Bookshop, in a stunning yellow building with a half-timbered facade and an interior full of rare books.
Where to stay in Lewes
Tiny Cottage Lewes
Locals Ed and Abi have turned their modern garage into this cosy studio apartment for four. If you want to feel like a local, there’s a little kitchen and a living room, if you want to cook or watch films. There’s a double bed in the rafters, and a king-size sofa bed in the living room. French doors lead out onto a private terrace surrounded by trees. The central location is great – and near my favourite Fifteenth Century Bookshop – but also nice and quiet. Find Tiny Cottage on Rotten Row, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1LJ. From £90/night
Trevor House is smack on Lewes High Street, with its cafes, bakeries, antique shops, pubs, and restaurants. It’s set in a detached 1820s Georgian House and has three cosy chintzy rooms, one four-poster, and two with roll-top baths. I love the attic room has a little lounge, a fireplace, and views over the South Downs. Delicious bowls of delicious berries and Greek yoghurt followed by the full English breakfast are served in a spacious farmhouse dining room. Find Trevor House at 110 High Street, Lewes BN7 1XY. Rooms from £95/night.
DuBois Bed and Breakfast
The DuBois bed and breakfast is set in a Victorian family home. Its quiet location is a plus: on a beautiful leafy street 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of town. The two rooms – one twin, one double – are charming, clean, comfortable, and stylish, with painted oak floors, super-soft sheets and lots of antiques like prints and ornaments. The owner, Sarah, is so lovely and will happily bring tea and cakes whenever you want. Find DuBois Bed and Breakfast at 38 Prince Edward’s Road, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1BE. Rooms cost £120/night for two, or £100/night for more than 2 nights. Single £65/night
A trip to Lewes in East Sussex will leave you feeling refreshed and invigorated. It’s similar to the East Sussex town of Rye, without the crowds. It’s small enough to walk around, but with enough to do to fill a weekend, unpretentious but cool, with a fascinating history.
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