Happy New Year from Brighton! Straight in. While talk of the cost-of-living crisis continues, today I’m focusing on fun things to do in Brighton for free or cheap! Whether you’re planning a trip to the English seaside city on the south coast or live here, I hope this post will be useful. I’ve had a long hard think and here are 20 suggestions for things to do in Brighton that will cost you very little – in some cases, nothing – and help you remember why you love living in or visiting Brighton…
Fun cheap things to do in Brighton
1 Bike it around town. Navigating the city on two wheels is a fun and low-cost adventure. Especially on the dreamy new cycle paths through Valley Gardens, the Steine and along the seafront. This interactive Brighton cycling map is amazing! It lets you plan your journey, from off-road adventure to a child-friendly route, and check for facilities along the way. No wheels? Signing up for Brighton Bike Share gives access to all the public bikes in racks at various spots around the city (check where here). Have wheels? You’re on your way! It’s useful to know there are various maintenance classes on offer like Bike For Life’s various one-day sessions, some free. These cover getting to know your bike to advanced mechanics. If you want to build cycling confidence, free family cycling courses are on offer here.
2 Bundle up and hit the beach. Winter, for me, is beach weather. I cannot emphasize enough how much fun it is to bundle up in a big coat and boots and head to the seafront for a stroll. The front is gorgeous in the winter light and even prettier in the snow. I like to start at Hove Lawns (you can park for £1.70/hour on First Avenue). When you get to the British Airway i360 viewing tower, warm up with hot chai from Bird & Blend Tea Co onwards to hole-in-the-wall seafood shack, Brighton Smokehouse, where piping hot buttery mackerel sandwiches await for under £10. Not before a visit to the Fishing Museum next door. It tells the story of Brighton through relics like old signs, black and white photos, and pieces of the pier. Kids will love climbing on the boats outside.
3 Soak up seaside nostalgia. Sweet-scented candy floss in hand, take a stroll along the boardwalk of Brighton Palace Pier. Built in 1899, it is one of the oldest pleasure piers in the UK. The crowd-averse should visit on weekday mornings when it’s at its quietest. If you find yourself in Brighton between November and March and still mooching at dusk, you’ll get to see the city’s starling population perform their murmuration dance overhead. It goes on for about an hour and is magical.
4 Find art outside. Brighton is one big outdoor art gallery. On the pebbles near the West Pier, you’ll find Brighton and Hove Camera Club’s free-to-browse permanent outdoor photography exhibition. Further on past the Palace Pier towards the Beach Box Sauna is an outdoor gallery with a twist; a mysterious collection of sculptures surrounded by a fence – some up to eight-foot-high – of figurines decorated beautifully in flint and shells from the beach. Elsewhere in Seven Dials, is Brighton’s smallest art gallery set inside two red London telephone boxes. Discover them, along with this miniature museum in a shopwindow, on this hidden Brighton walk.
5 Fine dining, on a budget. Once every two weeks, North Laine fine-dining restaurant, Isaac, hosts an exciting, immersive, and less expensive dining experience for two called Test Kitchen. From your seat at The Pass overlooking the tiny kitchen, you watch as your chef for the evening turns freshly foraged ingredients from Sussex into an exclusive, never-before-tested five-course menu – just for you – all for just £25/head. The chefs get to experiment with new ideas, with each Test Kitchen run by a different chef. Regular menus cost between £35 and £70 per person. Book your seat at the Isaac Test Kitchen, here.
6 Enjoy a hidden Brighton walk. During the second lockdown, I started a hit series called hidden Brighton walks. There are four individual walks in the series, so far, each self-guided with a map: Hove, Seven Dials, Hanover, and Kemptown. They involve wandering and weaving around the backstreets of the city’s nicest neighbourhoods. They’re useful whether you’re in Brighton for the day or weekend or live in the city and want to discover it through fresh eyes.
7 Book a themed guided walking tour. They only last a couple of hours and are a great way to engage with the city’s history. Both Free Walking Tours Brighton and the Visit Brighton Greeters have excellent guides and cover all the bases. Alternatively, the city offers free ‘Healthwalks’ which you can read about here or follow its self-guided four-mile seafront walk using its map, here.
8 Or follow a mindful tour around the Pavilion Gardens. For a different take on the city’s famous Pavilion Gardens, an intriguing short audio tour called The Mindful Garden is your friend. I found it on the Brighton Museums’ website in the audio tour section (which I didn’t know about either). Listen on your phone as the tour’s author, Craig Jordan-Baker, shows you five spots in the garden, and tells you a little story about each one. Discover The Mindful Garden here and other tours here.
9 Take yourself on a culture date. Brighton is a well-known artists’ enclave and is packed with galleries which are fun – and free – to hop around. My favourites are Fabrica, in a former chapel, which hosts three contemporary art shows a year, and the big Phoenix Gallery which hosts 12 free shows a year across two huge spaces and has a cool coffee bar, too. Some of the studios here are also open to the public in May and November Brighton as part of the Artists’ Open Houses event I mention further on, too.
10 Look for the hidden stone circle. The London Road neighbourhood of Brighton five minutes south of Preston Park is home to the starting point – or end depending on which way you approach it – of a mysterious stone circle art installation hidden in plain sight. You may have walked over countless times without realising. Next time you’re in the vicinity, take a moment to look down and you might just spot one of 50 numbered stone paving slabs, set in a circle around the area as wide as the road is long.
12 Artists Open Houses. Who doesn’t like snooping around other people’s houses? Twice every year, as part of the Artists Open Houses event, artists around Brighton turn their houses into mini art galleries which they open to the public. It’s fun to walk around the city, hop from one house to another, drink mulled wine and shop for affordable art. You can plan your trail by open house – I’ve already bookmarked this mews studio in Kemptown – by artist, or by using this handy map. The event takes place across four weekends in the run-up to Christmas and annually in May.
11 Go hiking! Visiting and living in Brighton means you’re not far from the UK’s most beautiful countryside. Don’t be tempted with the obvious spots – Ditchling Beacon, Friston Forest, Devil’s Dyke, Seven Sisters Country Park – just because they’ve got a carpark. Make a beeline for one of the smaller, lesser-known villages in Sussex and start a walk from there. Easy! Here are five refreshing walks in the Sussex countryside that the Ellie & Co team of two do all the time. All you need to do is pack a picnic, a blanket, a flask of coffee or something stronger and you’re off!
13 Discover secret Brighton. A treasure hunt for ghost signs and also these lovely old shop entrance mosaics (there are lots to find!) are fun reasons to explore the city. Another idea is to head to Kemp Town to find remains of Brighton’s perilous ‘floating’ railway – basically a train on legs – that once ran through the sea. You can follow the tracks to the village of Rottingdean three miles away, but I’ve not done this yet. Or you could get this book which holds the keys to little-known Brighton.
14 Swim with the Salty Seabirds. Nothing gets the blood flowing quite like a dip in the English Channel off Brighton or Hove beaches. You could brave the icy water on your own, or if you need some encouragement, you could join the Salty Seabirds, a friendly community of swimmers who swim in the sea off Brighton and Hove beaches every single day! They post on Facebook when and where they’ll be swimming for others to join them. There are usually early morning, daytime, and evening swims.
15 Feel-good free (and cheap) food. The pay-as-you-feel North Laine Gardener Cafe on Gardner Street run by the Real Junk Food Project serves various vegetarian and vegan dishes, like curries, lasagnes and salads made using food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Lunch is available from 1pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Alternatively, every Friday between 7.30pm and 10.30pm at The Phoenix Centre, Brighton Hare Krishna invites you to an evening of chanting, and musical meditation followed by a homecooked vegetarian vegan meal.
16 Free or low-cost yoga. Outside India, Brighton is the spiritual home of yoga. It can be an expensive hobby but there are various ways to enjoy it for cheap or free in Brighton and Hove. For example, the Phoenix Centre hosts a free one-hour yoga class on Wednesday at 8.30am. Space Yoga near Preston Park offers hour-long community yoga classes for £5 on Friday lunchtimes with proceeds donated to the Clock Tower Sanctuary charity to help homeless young people.
17 Find the quiet spots. Brighton gets busy so it’s good to have a few places to escape to up your sleeve. Near Preston Park is my secret Brighton garden nearby, with its lily pond and bizarre miniature pet graveyard; and this magical waterfall that isn’t on any tourist maps. Hidden from plain sight in the middle of an inner-city Brighton housing estate are three acres of lush, wild landscape overlooking the city and the sea, where you’ll find a secret city orchard with a distant sea view.
18 Wander a Victorian burial ground. Brighton’s “city of the dead” – officially known as Woodvale Cemetery – is a mind-blowing 70-acre cemetery complex in the centre of the city, most people overlook. It’s the city’s answer to Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris where Jim Morrison is buried. One way to explore it is by following the Tomb Trail around the Extra Mural Cemetery part of the complex, an atmospheric Victorian burial ground with a haunting air, and so beautifully overgrown with mossy paths lined with wonky, ivy-covered gravestones.
19 Shop for cheap old books. My heart sinks imagining a world without second-hand bookshops. What other type of shop transports you, spark your imagination and holds the key to your next life-changing read? Only bookshops. To show support for this disappearing breed of shop, I put together a guide to the coolest independent bookshops in Brighton, including one that claims to be the city’s smallest.
20 Redecorate for free. Redecorating is pricey, but Freecycle Brighton lists so much free stuff your fellow Brightonians are giving away. So, cheer up your house or flat. Stained glass windowpanes, vintage bookends, handy document boxes; in just one afternoon, I found all these treasures online and available for pick up from my neighbours’ homes.