I live in Brighton, the lively Sussex city by the sea. I also write about things to do in Sussex on this blog and am the author of a guide called, Secret Sussex. You could say I know the charming coastal county in southeast England well.
For these reasons, friends in Brighton, London and elsewhere often ask me to share my favourite places to visit in East Sussex. With its lush, velvety hills of the South Downs scattered with chocolate-box ancient villages to its dramatic coastline, it’s enticing for its charming English countryside.
During my wanderings around the county, I’ve discovered so many interesting local attractions and travel destinations, both mainstream and off-beat, for every travel taste, whether you’re into city breaks, remote countryside escapes, dramatic coastlines or searching for unique and unusual. So, if you’re planning your next day trip or weekend getaway from London, or wherever you are, without further ado, here is my list of favourite places to visit in East Sussex that will help inspire your travel plans.
1 Brighton, East Sussex!
For the obvious reason that I live here, the thrumming city on the south coast of England has to be top of my list of favourite places I’d recommend visiting in East Sussex. I grew up in London and took many a day trip to Brighton when I was there. It takes an hour on the train from the UK capital. I love watching the urban landscape give way to the vast countryside from my train window.
You can pack a lot into a day trip to Brighton. You can mess about on the pebbly beach, eat candy floss on the pier, snoop around the colourful independent shops of the North Laine, and discover the city’s hidden streets, cosy tea rooms, cool vintage boutiques and time-worn independent pubs.
If you want to visit Brighton on a weekend getaway, you’d have more time to explore the city by night, have a date night dinner in a romantic restaurant, get to know Brighton like a local or discover secret Brighton. If you’re planning to visit Brighton for a weekend, my Brighton city guide will come in handy.
If I was planning a weekend in Brighton, I’d want to wake up facing the sea. You can’t go wrong with a night or two at The Grand, Brighton’s quintessential seafront hotel. I’ve stayed at the Artist Residence, and I love its bohemian décor and location in a Regency square overlooking the seafront by the i360. I’d also prefer to stay away from the city centre chaos, so you could rent a Brighton Airbnb in a quieter part of town and feel like a local.
2 Lewes, East Sussex
The chocolate-box historic market town of Lewes is next on my list of favourite places to visit in East Sussex. It’s just six miles north of Brighton or a 1.5-hour train journey from London. It’s a beautiful and hilly old English town slap bang in the South Downs National Park. From some streets, the houses look beautiful backed by rolling velvet hills.
In Lewes, you could be sipping artisan coffee and shopping for antiques one minute, then hiking through the mud to a cosy South Downs country pub the next. As well as easy access to hikes and walks, there’s also a hidden town nature reserve to discover, as well as the oldest outdoor pool in the country.
It’s big on history, home to narrow streets lined with old cottages, a crumbling castle high on a hill with views, priory ruins, and a house once belonging to one of the wives of Henry VIII. Not to mention countless antique shops and flea markets, independent book shops, craft shops, breweries, cafes and restaurants.
There are lots of great places to stay in Lewes, including this unique Tiny Cottage in the centre of town. The White Hart Hotel on the High Streets looks intriguing for its setting in a historic coaching inn with Tudor origins.
3 Streat, East Sussex
One of my favourite villages in East Sussex is also the smallest. It’s called Streat. I love it not only because it’s just over the hill from Brighton, but for its quiet setting in a hidden corner at the foot of the South Downs.
Despite how tiny it is – you could drive through it without realising – it packs in a pretty church, a privately owned Elizabethan manor house called Streat Place which you can peek at through its impressive gates, and a secret honesty food stand.
It’s also a great base for a lovely walk around the South Downs, depending on what route you want to take, you can also end up at winery – there are a few in the area: Blackdog Hill, Court Garden, Artelium, and Henry’s Marani at Plumpton College, the only Georgian winery in the UK.
There are a few places to spend the night in and around Streat. I’ve stayed in this little cottage next to a barn and it was lovely. Streat is also where you’ll find one of my fave campsites, Blackberry Wood with its wild meadow and amazing treehouses for rent.
4 Rottingdean, East Sussex
A couple of miles east of Brighton is the village of Rottingdean. You can arrive here by bus from Brighton or it’s a pleasant 30-minute walk along the coastal path. With its chocolate-box cottages built around a village green, and a pretty pond, it’s a genteel alternative to hedonistic Brighton. It’s also a great walk to the Sussex countryside from here. One of its most beautiful houses is called The Elms. Built in 1750, it was once the home of The Jungle Book author, Rudyard Kipling.
Nestled at the side of the village pond nearby is The Plough Inn, a great little sleepy pub full of character, serving home-made pub classics like burgers, as well as gastro meals like herb-crusted poached local plaice and heritage tomato and homemade focaccia panzanella salad. On the other side of the green, is a whitewashed Georgian mansion, home to a museum called The Grange.
In Rottingdean, you’re also not far from the peaceful shingle Ovingdean Beach, one of my favourite lesser-known beaches near Brighton. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the distinctive row of whitewashed Art Deco beach huts with their wavy roofs. One of them hosts a classic British cafe serving basic hot drinks, bacon sandwiches, and cakes which get great reviews.
There are lots of private homes and apartments to rent in Rottingdean. Many of them are old fishermen’s cottages, like this tiny cottage near the beach built in 1712. I’m also drawn to this cosy mews house, also near the beach with a fire, or this quiet garden studio.
5 Hastings & St Leonard’s, East Sussex
Hastings on the south coast is one of my favourite seaside towns to visit in East Sussex. It’s an easy one-hour drive or train journey west of Brighton, or 1.5 hours from London by train. Although I live by the sea, I am always curious to nose around other Sussex seaside towns.
I particularly love it for its thriving creative community. I also can’t get enough of its lovely old town with cobbled streets, cosy independent pubs, cafes, restaurants, and a maze of narrow alleyways that wind their way up a cliff and the South Downs Way. It’s also home to several hidden highlights like a miniature independent cinema and a Thai restaurant in a bookshop.
Hastings and its next-door neighbour, St Leonard’s are often visited together. They have all the elements for a classic British seaside break: a nostalgic pier, fish and chips and ice cream shops on the seafront, and mini golf. Beach-wise, there are several options. Rock-A-Nore to the east with its backdrop of dramatic cliffs, the main Hastings Beach with its pebble shoreline and Hastings Pier with its stripy beach huts, and St Leonard’s Beach.
A twin-town break to Hastings and St Leonard’s is made for a weekend away. There are lots of great places to stay from B&Bs to apartments, like this lovely apartment in St Leonard’s. I also love Printworks and The Beacon for their eclectic vibes, or you could book into a classic seafront hotel here.
6 Coastal Culture Trail, East Sussex
The Coastal Culture Trail is a 29km route that links three award-winning Sussex art galleries: the Towner in Eastbourne, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and the Hastings Contemporary. You can explore it by bike, on foot or by train. All three routes offer magical sea views and take you through some of the most stunning coastal landscapes in the UK.
Cycling follows a route that takes you mostly along the coast, all the way from the Hastings Contemporary to the Towner and is pretty-much traffic free between Hastings to Bexhill. The walking trail is also traffic free, except for a small residential road in one of the villages. While a regular train service links Eastbourne, Bexhill and Hastings. It takes about 30 minutes, and you can take your bikes on the train.
You could do all three galleries in a day or spend longer – a weekend or even a week – to do it: local B&Bs and bike shops are coordinating bike and luggage delivery. Gallery-wise, there are two levels at the Towner to enjoy, with excellent exhibitions of painting, photography, sculpture and found objects – including a permanent collection of local artist, Eric Ravilious.
The shingly beaches along the trail are vast, empty and windswept, the sea turquoise and still, landscapes not far off those in parts of Australia, until you hit Normans Bay 7 km from Bexhill that is; its pastel-coloured beach huts, popular campsite and the smell of piping hot chips wafting from a café, a reminder you’re still in Blighty.
7 Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex
The Seven Sisters Country Park is a few miles west of Eastbourne. It’s set on an otherworldly stretch of the East Sussex coast, that starts around Saltdean near Brighton and ends at Birling Gap. People flock here to witness its dramatic coastal views. You get to it by car or by bus from Eastbourne. It’s a photographer’s dream, especially at dusk, and a hotspot for wildlife spotting, cycling or kayaking at nearby Cuckmere Haven.
It’s home to three well-visited sights: the Seven Sisters series of chalk cliffs, Beachy Head chalk headland and its famous lighthouse; and the coastal hamlet of Birling Gap, with a National Trust centre for snacks. You get the best views of the cliffs from quieter Seaford Head, a quieter spot with free parking.
Hunting for giant fossils is another way to explore the landscape. Nearby spots include the beach at Hope Gap near Seaford Head and Peacehaven which most people don’t know is home to giant ammonites, some measuring over six feet across in some cases. It’s best to come when the tide’s low. Even though they’re huge, they’re not easy to spot.
8 Litlington, Alfriston and the Long Man of Wilmington, East Sussex
Next up on my places to go in East Sussex are the villages of Litlington, East Sussex. If ever I’ve a free Sunday, I love to hit the countryside for a refreshing hike. One of my favourite Sussex walks starts in Litlington and takes you meandering through the landscape surrounding the Cuckmere River including the villages of Litlington, Alfriston, and Wilmington. This way you avoid the busy, expensive nearby Friston Forest carpark, traffic through Alfriston or crowds at Wilmington.
Like Streat, Litlington is small but home to some incredible treasures: the Litlington Horse chalk figure, the Long Man Brewery, for post-walk beer tastings and the Litlington Nursery, complete with tea rooms and a gem store, obviously! From Litlington, the walk takes you via the Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure to the village of Alfriston, a nice place to stop for a tea break at Badger’s, buy supplies at the Village Stores and a browse in Much Ado Books, and back to Litlington. Nearby, the church in Berwick hides murals by the Bloomsbury artists which you could see on your way home.
Alfriston would make a great base for exploring this beautiful part of East Sussex. There are a couple of hotels in the village including the impressively renovated, historic Star Inn recently had a makeover and looks beautiful.
9 Eastbourne, East Sussex
Eastbourne is my new favourite place to visit in East Sussex after researching my Secret Sussex guidebook. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Brighton and just over an hour’s train journey from London. You can spend a day here or make a weekend of it.
With its rows of whitewashed Regency buildings lining the seafront, Eastbourne oozes British seaside nostalgia. Like Brighton, the beach is pebbly, a popular swimming spot. There’s also a nostalgic pier, distinctive for its gold-painted domes, and a bandstand which hosts bands occasionally.
Away from the shore, Eastbourne has Victorian shopping streets in Little Chelsea. The shops offer everything from home goods to antiques. And that’s to say nothing of the Towner, an eye-catching contemporary art museum with a multicoloured facade close to the seafront.
If you want to stay overnight in Eastbourne, there are lots of hotels to choose from. Not are more stylish than Port, a boutique hotel set in a beautiful old Victorian building facing the sea. Alternatively, this lovely apartment has a great location in the historic Little Chelsea in the centre of town.
10 The South Downs National Park
Living Brighton means I’m lucky enough to have the South Downs National Park on my doorstep for country walks and getting cosy in country pubs. It’s a vast and beautiful stretch of English countryside that spans 628 square miles (1,627 square kilometres) in southern England. It stretches between Winchester and Eastbourne and runs through the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex, and East Sussex. Highlights of the South Downs National Park in East Sussex include the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters, Birling Gap, Beachy Head, and towns like Lewes.
If you want to explore the South Downs, you can walk all or part of the South Downs Way. This long-distance walking path runs the width of the national park and will show you the highlights as you hike. If you want to stay for a night or more, you can book a hotel in the South Downs here.
11 Rye, East Sussex
If you enjoy historic towns with cobblestone streets like Lewes, Rye in East Sussex is your friend. Rye is an easy 1.5-hour train ride from London or just over two hours from Brighton – you have to change at Eastbourne and Hastings.
One of my favourite things to do in Rye is to get to the town early and wander around the cobblestone streets admiring the historic houses. There are lots of interesting independent shops to browse, too, like this cool record store in an old school building dating back to the 1600s, or old-fashioned sweet shop Britcher & Rivers, before a pint at The Rye Waterworks Micropub set in a former Victorian pump house, or a decadent hot chocolate at trendy Knoops.
For a view across the town and the surrounding landscape, head to the top of the bell tower of the 12th-century St Mary’s Church. I’m scared of heights but am glad I braved the steep steps to see nearby Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. You’ll find writer Henry James’ former home, Lamb House, nearby which you can tour. Once you’re in Rye, you’re well located for exploring the eerie landscape at Dungeness over the border in Kent.
If you want to make a weekend of it in Rye, there are lots of lovely old private homes to hire like this beautiful old cottage of curiosities by the gate.
So there you have it. A round-up of some of my favourite places to visit in East Sussex from urban to countryside escape hatches.
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