Once a town synonymous with retirees, Eastbourne has reinvented itself as a vibrant cultural hub with a thriving art scene that’s being taken very seriously, discovers REBECCA PITCAIRN.

With a former reputation as a place to go and live your final days, Eastbourne’s time-worn image as ‘God’s waiting room’ has evolved into something rather more hipster these days.

The swathe of artisan cafes, restaurants, shops and creative collaborations that have launched here in recent years mean this once faded town is quickly giving Brighton a run for its money among a new generation of 30- and 40-somethings (believe it or not, the average age of the population here is 42). The also make a visit to this once sleepy town all the more enticing. Indeed, in 2023 Eastbourne topped the Time Out list of best places to visit for an overnight trip in the UK.

Whether you’re travelling from London, Gatwick or further along the coastline, getting to Eastbourne by rail is easy but if arriving by car, as we were, then it’s well worth stopping off at Beachy Head on route for a bird’s eye view of the town.

Many people cycle the steep route from Eastbourne (beware, the climb is not for the faint hearted) and are rewarded at the top with breath-taking vistas and tantalising sustenance on offer at Cadence Cycle Club (cadencecycle.club), a growing network of clubhouses stretching across the South Downs with a mission to create destinations where cyclists can refuel and connect – there are also sites at The Helen Garden in Eastbourne and at Litlington, Upwaltham and Cocking Hill near Midhurst.

But you don’t have to be a cyclist to enjoy their offering, their toasted sourdough sandwiches have become legendary to hikers, bikers, backpackers, horse riders and drivers alike. We sit and enjoy ours on picnic benches among the Lycra-clad crowds and soak up far-reaching views of the Sussex Downs on one side and the English Channel on the other.

This area of coastline is part of the Shoreham-by-Sea to Eastbourne section of the King Charles III England Coast Path, a new walking route that will follow the entire coast of England and, when complete, will be the longest coastal path in the world at approximately 2,700 miles. The 33-mile East Sussex portion opened last year with a festival at Cuckmere Haven, another must-visit spot on the outskirts of Eastbourne.


Before we head into the centre of Eastbourne, we pop to Holywell Retreat, the beach almost directly below Beachy Head. This quaint little enclave boasts beach huts, plenty of rock pools and the Holywell Tea Chalet.

From April to September, you can get The Dotto land train from here to the centre of Eastbourne (a great option if you’ve kids in tow) but we decide to take a walk along the quiet stretch of pebbled beach (we barely see a soul) and then up through the secluded Italian Gardens, which sit hidden away in a wooded amphitheatre carved out of the cliff face, towards Eastbourne’s main promenade.

Here, we are somewhat taken aback by the immaculate setting we find ourselves in. The tree-lined walkway is a hive of activity and, as we edge closer to the gold-domed pier (which was renovated in 2014 after the original was partly destroyed by fire), beyond the vintage bandstand, which plays host to concerts and shows in an open-air 1,600 seater setting (eastbournebandstand.co.uk), the town’s famous Carpet Gardens appear on the left – a tranquil yet vibrant award-winning display of flower and plant species from around the world.


Aside from its immaculate seafront, one of the biggest draws to 21st-century Eastbourne is its art scene, which was given a huge boost recently thanks to The Turner Prize. Coinciding with its 100th anniversary, Towner Eastbourne (townereastbourne.org.uk) was chosen to host 2023’s competition and works of the four shortlisted artists – Jesse Darling, Ghislaine Leung, Rory Pilgrim and Barbara Walker – remain at the gallery until April 2024.

Step back from the seafront and the Towner’s multi-colour-pop exterior, painted by German artist Lothar Götz in 2019, becomes centre stage. Inside this award-winning gallery, you’ll find an ever-growing collection of 5,000 works of modern British and international contemporary art, with a focus on landscape, women artists and moving image, alongside temporary exhibitions. There’s also a cinema here and a new rooftop restaurant, Light, which with its Scandinavian-inspired décor and menu, provides plenty of Instagram-worthy picture opportunities.

While a visit to Turner Eastbourne is a must, you don’t have to step inside to see its wonderful works of contemporary art. As part of the gallery’s anniversary celebrations, a series of public artworks have been dotted about the town and will remain here until April 2024. These include Michael Rakowitz’s reconstruction of the Northern Iraq Lamassu, made from empty metal Iraqi date syrup cans, right outside Towner; a commission by 2019 Turner Prize winner Helen Cammock on the side of Eastbourne’s Winter Garden theatre; and a text light sculpture by Turner Prize-shortlisted artist Nathan Coley on Eastbourne Library.


While Eastbourne’s art scene is contemporary, its hotel offering is rather more traditional. One in particular has dominated the seafront since 1875. The white-washed Grand Hotel, affectionately known by locals as The White Palace, was originally built for William Earp, his wife and their 13 children. Over the years the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, and more recently Dame Helen Mirren, have stayed here.

After checking in, we head for a dip in the outdoor pool and then sit with a refreshment on the terrace, overlooking the gardens, seafront and Beachy Head cliffs beyond.

Before dinner, we stroll to the opposite end of the seafront, stopping for an ice cream at Gelato Famoso (gelatofamoso.co.uk) en route (the queues can be long but it’s worth it) to Port Hotel (porthotel.co.uk), where things are a little less traditional. Behind the black façade of this Victorian townhouse is a boutique hotel with 19 rooms, an eccentrically modern interior and a food and drinks menu with locally-made produce at its heart.

The kitchen isn’t open at the time of our visit (it opens for brunch and Sunday roast) but we pull up a pew and are served cocktails by a characterful receptionist-cum-waiter-cum-mixologist, who regales us with stories about how locals have received the town’s gentrification and the influx of visitors from London (it’s a mixed response).

Back at The Grand and cocktail hour becomes hyper-local with the addition of the hotel’s own gin. Created in partnership with Hawkridge Distillers using a Victorian gin-making method, which involves creating a botanical tea to give it a smooth and full-bodied texture, The Grand Gin, is infused with local botanicals, such as honey, wild gorse and samphire, handpicked from the nearby coastline.

We enjoy a pre-dinner Grand G&T before heading to The Garden Restaurant, where the worlds of old and new collide once again – high ceilings, period elegance and meals delivered to the table under old-fashioned cloches are met by a menu of British favourites, created with a modern twist – even the hotel’s gin makes another appearance in the Grand Gin & Tonic infused lemon tart.


The next day, we’re up and out early to explore Eastbourne’s independent shops. First up is, To The Rise, a beautiful artisan bakery on Terminus Road, just a stone’s throw from the beach and run by three sisters, Morgan, Lauren and Josephine Pollard. The girls are known for their sourdough and host monthly workshops. Entranced by the smell, we purchase a loaf to take away.

Then it’s off to the trendy area of Little Chelsea, not far from the station, where we find an abundance of quirky independent shops, delis and cafes. We pop into The Art House Creative Cafe (thearthousecafe.co.uk), which is reinventing the traditional coffee shop trip with drop-in painted pottery sessions and a menu specialising in vegan and veggie dishes. We grab a takeaway coffee and nut roast roll before checking out more of Little Chelsea’s offering. I make a beeline for All Things Analogue, (allthingsanalogue.co.uk) a gorgeous little stationery shop which is bucking the digital trend.

We head back to the seafront for lunch at Bistrot Pierre (bistrotpierre.co.uk/locations/eastbourne) and take in yet more panoramic views of Beachy Head and across the English Channel from the restaurant’s renovated terrace bar. We devour a pot of mussels, crusty French bread, and a crisp glass of white from Languedoc-Roussillon as the sun bears down and it feels like we could be somewhere much further from home.

But we snap out of our daydream quickly and are off to another Sussex artisan success story.

Just 15 minutes’ drive inland, the pretty village of Alfriston is home to Rathfinny Wine Estate – one of the county’s vineyards responsible for putting English sparkling wine on the map. A lengthy gravel drive takes you past rows of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines to a key vantage point on the estate with views over the rolling hills, Cuckmere Valley and out to sea. There’s a restaurant, shop and tasting room, from which vineyard tours depart three times a day at weekends.

The sun continues to shine, so we choose to take advantage and sit on deckchairs positioned to make the most of the views and toast to a wonderful weekend with a glass of Sussex sparkling.

Sussex Art Shuttle

Sussex Art Shuttle, which links Towner Eastbourne, Charleston (charleston.org.uk) and Seven Sisters Country Park, operates every weekend (funding permitting) between Towner Eastbourne, Seven Sisters Country Park, Charleston (the former country home of Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell) and Charleston’s new arts space in central Lewes.

The hop-on-hop-off minibus, operated by Cuckmere Buses, enables visitors to Eastbourne to explore the wider region and experience three of the area’s arts venues via a spectacular route that takes in the iconic Seven Sisters cliffs, Cuckmere Valley and the picturesque villages of Alfriston and Litlington.

The bus stops at Towner Eastbourne, East Dean, Seven Sisters Visitor Centre, Litlington, Alfriston, Charleston in Firle and Charleston in Lewes and operates four times a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. A hop-on-hop-off day ticket costs £2.50.

For more information about art in Sussex, visit sussexmodern.org.uk.


The Grand Hotel has 152 bedrooms and suites – 28 of which have recently been refurbished –many with sea views, balconies or private patios. There are plenty of adjoining rooms, making it an excellent option for family stays. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in The Garden Restaurant or, for that special occasion, The Mirabelle Restaurant, has carved a reputation for its fine dining menus. They also serve afternoon tea (with Rathfinny sparkling wine) in the main hall. There’s also a health club with indoor swimming pool and whirlpool spa, an outdoor heated pool (open during the summer months), plus a gym and health spa where a range of beauty treatments can be enjoyed. Rooms start from £209, including breakfast (01323 412345, grandeastbourne.com