Brighton has always attracted the right sort. Way back in 1822, when the seaside city was just developing as a holiday capital, a servant from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, George Wilson, met a guardsman there in a pub called the Duke of Wellington.
Fancying the look of him, and probably knowing guardsmen were famously easy, he offered him a sovereign and two shillings to go to the beach together and ‘commit an unnatural crime’.
Not much has changed.
But these days Brighton celebrates rather than censors its LGBT population which is one of the biggest in the UK. And that’s one of the reasons why, two centuries later, it still attracts people who want to chill and enjoy the sun, sea and parties.
It’s so tied up with British seaside traditions that on face value everything is a cliché – kiss-me-quick postcards, sticks of rock (a hard tube of candy), fish and chips (or fries for non-Brits) and playing the slot machines.
But away from that, Brighton is a city with a soul that transcends the stereotypes. It’s big LGBT population is just one facet of an alternative vibe which gives it funky boutique shops and bric-a-brac stores, trendy cafés, a flourishing fringe art scene and a vibrant student life. People dress cooler and act more open-minded than in other small UK cities. And while it’s an hour away by train from London, it feels in a different timezone to the frenetic pace of the capital.
We got right into the heart of it by booking into Legends Hotel. The name is a little 90s, but the facilities are bang up to date. Free wifi, a smart bathroom with a powerful shower (and big tub), flatscreen TV… Our room was comfortable, modern and very spacious with two big bay windows enjoying an uninterrupted view of the beach, sea and the famous Brighton Pier.
More importantly – and this appears to be almost universal feedback from guests – Legends’ staff are friendly, helpful and informed about the town, so if you are a Brighton virgin, you’ll soon get under the city’s skin.
As it’s centrally located, you can see pretty much everything you want in a short walk from the hotel’s front door. Walk down to the seafront and you’ll be confronted with the famous Brighton Pier, perfect for getting that seaside vibe it’s packed with slot machines and various opportunities to throw, kick or shoot at something in the hope of winning an over-sized soft toy. At the far end a funfair caps it all off.
Head west from here along the promenade and you can walk towards Brighton Marina, where you can shop, eat and stare at rich people’s yachts. Your walk will take you past the Volk’s Railway, which opened in 1883 and is the world’s oldest operating electric trainline, which runs along the beach.
The beach itself is sadly pebbly rather than sandy, so no castles to be built. But it is popular for sunbathing and also boasts Britain’s oldest nudist beach, discretely hidden behind a mound of pebbles.
The other direction from Brighton Pier will take you towards the spectacularly decaying skeleton of the West Pier. While there’s less of it to see after each storm, its eerie sculptural remains still make it the most photographed structure in the city.
If you head inland, chances are you’ll soon stumble upon The Lanes, narrow streets full of shops, restaurants and cafés. From vintage t-shirts to exotic chocolate constructions everything is on sale and plenty of people head to Brighton just to spend the day browsing.
And the other attraction every visitor has to tick off is the Royal Pavilion. It was the exotic beach-hut built for the Prince Regent, who later became George IV, in 1787 and 1823 when Brighton was the fashionable place to be. There could barely be a more camp outpouring of Britain’s fascination at the time with everything Oriental. The outside is all onion domes and minarets in the Indo-Saracenic style. But that’s not the best of it – the interiors, if anything, are even more overblown. The decoration is the finest example of chinoiserie in Britain and the Banqueting Room is an explosion of Chinese dragons, red and gold.
When you are finished with the tourist bit, head back towards Legends.
As it’s a gay hotel, it’s in the Kemp Town area, the focus of the gay scene and a bit of bar crawling is a fun way to get to know the locals.
The Legends Bar itself was bustling when we stayed there and is particularly popular for its cabaret nights. But if you want to get away from the bustle, it also has a big terrace, with views out to see, where you can sit and relax with your drink.
And if you are fancy clubbing, staying at the hotel gives you free entry to the Basement Club. Friendly and stylish, night we went it was packed a mixed young crowd and had some decent drinks promotions.
Next morning, you can nurse your hangover with one of their full English breakfasts, cooked fresh to order. And don’t worry if you haven’t seen everything in just one night, by now you’ll be sure to be a Brighton convert and will almost certainly be back there within a year.
If you want to head down this weekend, it’s still not to late to join the Equality Walk, raising cash for Britain’s leading lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organization Stonewall, on Sunday (5 May).
The 10km route takes in West Pier, St Ann Wells’ Garden and graffiti artist Banksy’s iconic kissing policemen stencil. Walkers will enjoy a picnic and jazz band in the Royal Pavilion Gardens from noon to 2pm, before heading off, and an after party in Coalition.
If you can’t make it but still want to support it, why not sponsor John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, who will be joining in.
And in August Gay Star News is media partner of Brighton Pride, one of Britain’s top LGBT festivals. The parade through the streets is followed by a party Preston Park which already looks on track to have an amazing line-up. You can find out more and buy early-bird tickets here.