The U.K.'s Gay Capital
Written by Steve Weinstein
At the center of Brighton is the city’s most famous landmark is a gigantic pleasure palace. Built for George IV while he was the Prince Regent to his father, mad King George III, the Royal Pavilion provides the perfect metaphor for a city devoted to enjoying life. Even earlier, a doctor began prescribing sea bathing for his patients. Immersion and swimming was a radical departure from previous notions that the sea was for navigating or fishing — not fun or health. The fad really took off with the advent of the railway from London. Brighton began attracting day-tripping Londoners. Today, this seaside resort has been undergoing a major renaissance. Only 55 minutes from London by train, well-heeled residents and weekenders are busy restoring Georgian apartments and Victorian houses. This ancient resort city now throbs with energy, youth — and money.
Brighton is officially known as “Brighton and Hove.” The two communities were formally united with the surrounding area when the queen granted city status in 1997. The combined city has a population of 120,000, which swells by several tens of thousands in warm weather, when the rest of England flocks to its pebble-strewn beaches and fabled nightclubs. As the city has regained its Georgian splendor, upscale hotels, restaurants and shops have opened. Just the same, the city retains its raffish charm, especially in the area around the Brighton Pier, a wonderfully gaudy amusement park built right into the English Channel. A long walk or bike ride on either side of the pier, however, reveals stately hotels, apartment buildings and private homes dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Fortunately, the city has height restrictions, which means that the big chain hotels haven’t redeveloped the waterfront. The resulting mixture of architectural styles from the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Modern periods gives Brighton a unique flavor — nearly equal parts Coney Island, the Hamptons and South Beach.
For much of that tangy saltwater flavor, locals thank their gay and lesbian neighbors. Brighton is considered the gay capital of the United Kingdom — its San Francisco, some say. In the most recent census, 20 percent of local respondents self-identified as gay, which means the actual number is much higher — by far the highest percentage of gay residents anywhere in the U.K. The gay influence can be felt everywhere, from the nude beach to the teeming nightlife to the hip shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts. The center of gay life is Kemp Town, the major gayborhood (not that every neighborhood isn’t gay here). Just to the east of the Royal Pavilion and running alongside the English Channel on its southern border, Kemp Town is filled with bars, clubs, bathhouses, B&Bs, shops and everything else you can need or want. Its streets are packed with gay visitors and residents all day and all night. Built in the mid-1800s, the housing stock is low-rise, compressed and charming. St. James’s Street is the main drag and Club Central.
It’s not only the gay influence that made Brighton perhaps the hippest city in the U.K. Home to two major universities, the streets are packed with students during term. Brighton has become the U.K.’s center for the most happening contemporary art; it’s no coincidence that Banksy, the famously elusive artist who has become the best-known (and highest-priced) graffiti tagger in the world, makes this city his home. The theater scene has also has become justly famous for its experimentation. On any given night, you have your choice of some of the most innovative and interesting performance pieces in the English-speaking world.
What has really put Brighton on the map, however, is its nightlife. Starting at about 10 p.m., the ancient arches under the boardwalk come alive as dance clubs. Students, visitors, residents and everybody else cram themselves into these spaces, which have been rigged with state-of-the-art sound and light systems. Here, local and visiting DJs can play as loud as they want to; because these face out to the English Channel, there are no noise complaints from neighbors. Along with Manchester, the city can boast the most happening dance-music scene in the British Isles. But where Manchester is all trance, Brighton is known for House and more upbeat, anthemic beats. Fatboy Slim built the city’s reputation, but local heroes, the Freemasons, cemented it. This musical duo, which has become the hottest act on the Circuit this year, not only makes Brighton their home, but the two men record here and play frequently. Other musicians also have a stake in Brighton, such as Paul McCartney, who maintains a home in Hove. (His ex, Heather Mills, lives two doors away from Fatboy Slim.) As for concerts, it’s de rigueur for any pop or rock act touring the U.K. to make a stop here.
Brighton has a long, proud history as a pop-culture trendsetter. The Who’s Quadrophenia, the classic saga of the ‘60s clash between Mods and Rockers, took place here, and much of the film was shot on the beach. Much earlier, the first British films were made in Brighton — including the very first edited film made anywhere and, according to local lore, the world’s first porn film. The Duke of Gloucester Picturehouse is the world’s oldest continuously operating cinema. Much of the Bloomsbury Circle vacationed or lived here, which is why you might see local buses with names like “Vanessa Bell.” Today, the city has become known for a much newer medium, as Internet and advanced IT start-ups, enticed by the relaxed atmosphere, low commercial rents and the two universities, make the city home.
There’s only one way to get to Brighton, and that’s via British Railway. Not only do Londoners travel to Brighton for the sun, sea and fun, but many people who work in the capital have relocated to the shore because of cheaper housing and the relaxed lifestyle. The result: dozens of trains leaving every day from London’s Victoria Station. You can get coffee and snacks from a cart; sit at a table and write postcards; or just enjoy the scenery during the 55-minute ride.
Go to www.britrail.com for information, schedules and passes.
WHERE TO STAY
17 Jubilee St.
Described as the kind of place “where Freddie Mercury might have met the Maharishi” and located in the trendy shopping area of North Laine, this luxury boutique hotel combines a South Beach vibe with New York functionality. The gorgeous bar (with gorgeous bartenders) stays open late and is a “see and be seen” kind of place where you can find serious cocktails.
New Steine Hotel
10-11 New Steine
Located in an elegant five-story Georgian townhouse in the heart of the gayborhood, this modern boutique-style hotel offers modern comfort and Regency stylishness. The cozy French restaurant offers delicious, fresh-prepared meals in an intimate setting.
12a New Steine
This trés gay B&B is a tranquil Georgian townhouse with inexpensive but perfectly outfitted rooms. The extended breakfast menu includes vegetarian and vegan options.
Hotel du Vin
2-6 Ship St.
Located in the Lanes preservation area, only a stone’s throw from the beach, this cozy hotel’s 49 rooms reflect the building complex’s eccentric gothic revival and mock Tudor architecture that includes a heavily carved staircase and bizarre gargoyles. The double-height hall now houses a wine bar. The hotel also owns a beach hut, available for hire.
31-34 Marine Parade
The largest gay hotel in town offers seaside elegance in the heart of Kemp Town. The Basement Club, within the hotel complex, is one of the most popular bars in town.
11-12 Marine Parade
Sure, there’s the full-service hotel overlooking the sea, but staying here means you’re only a few feet away from one of the most happening and scenic bars.
WHERE TO EAT
The question in Brighton should be rather, “Where not to eat.” The city has become a major culinary destination, generally considered the U.K.’s second most-important foodie town after London. Naturally, seafood is big here, but surprisingly so is vegetarian — Brighton has more veggie restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the British Isles. There is also a heavy emphasis on locally grown produce and livestock (the Sussex cows are justly famous). As in any college town, coffee is an integral part of life here, and coffeehouses abound. A few, such as Redroaster on St. Jame’s Street and Small Batch in Hove, roast their own beans.
14 Brighton Square
They take out all the bad stuff, like saturated fats, so you eat knowing that everything is good for you, like the giant tuna panini.
Terre a Terre
71 East St.
Vegetarian cuisine doesn’t get any more haute than at this world-famous meatless paradise. The presentation marks it as a high-end establishment, with the food so elegantly prepared you won’t miss the meat — but with a full bar. Check out the gorgeous cookbook to see how much goes into those recipes.
Food for Friends
17-18 Prince Albert St.
The oldest vegetarian restaurant in Brighton uses only the freshest ingredients, elegantly prepared, including vegan and gluten-free options.
Owned by Heather Mills (the former Mrs. Paul McCartney), this popular vegetarian eatery emphasizes healthy (but tasty) meat substitutes and ethical farming.
Jack & Linda Mills Fish Smokers
Both located in the arches near a little gem of a (free) museum devoted to the city’s long fishing history, they smoke their own kippers, mackerel and other local delicacies. Modest they might be, but the preparation with various woods is as careful and tasty as any four-star restaurant.
11 Black Lion St.
Yes, it’s that Jamie Oliver. This might be the best Italian food north of the peninsula. The long tables encourage conviviality and sharing. A rooftop courtyard and wood ovens add to the ambience.
Riddle & Finns
12 Meeting House Lane
Quite simply, the best Champagne and oyster bar in town, with a full seafood menu.
87 St. Jame’s St.
This reasonably priced, popular Thai restaurant in the heart of Kemp Town offers clean food in authentic surroundings.
139 Kings Road Arches
Organic and locally sourced produce is served with the freshest seafood in the perfect setting overlooking the water. One of the most lauded restaurants on the Channel Coast has been named by a prominent magazine the “Best Seaside Restaurant in Britain.” Believe it!
This elegant, hip and simply gorgeous waterfront bistro is the perfect way to experience the Marina District, the development east of the city center and reachable via the antique Volks Electric Railway (last stop). The emphasis is on seafood, but everything has an elegant presentation that makes this a local favorite. Try the main-course salads.
WHERE TO SHOP
With over 300 independently owned shops in a less than a half-mile-square area, this bohemian enclave has stores offering merchandise that, quite simply, you won’t find anywhere else. Pedestrian-only Gardner Street is the heart of North Laine, but don’t miss the parallel and side streets. Vegetarian Shoes (www.vegetarian-shoes.co.uk) is just one of North Laine’s unique boutiques.
This urban conservation area offers pedestrian-only streets and plenty to see on them. The maze of alleyways, cul-de-sacs and twitten (that’s “byway” in the local Sussex dialect) is full of jewelry, antique and home-decorating stores, along with some hole-in-the-wall clothing boutiques offering funky, used and designer goods. And, like everywhere else in Brighton, you can get a great cup of java.
St. James’s Street
Kemp Town, Brighton’s central gayborhood, has plenty of the kinds of shops selling the kinds of goods you’d expect — clubwear, slutwear, iridescent athletic shoes, gay accessories and, of course, pet gifts. But there are also some very fine art galleries and mom-and-pop shops nestled inside tiny buildings on side streets off this main shopping venue.
WHERE TO DRINK/DANCE
At night, the entire city of Brighton comes alive with bar hoppers, clubgoers, ravers, and party boys and girls of every stripe. Although there are certainly enough gay bars and clubs, there’s a happy melding of gay and straight on the dance scene, especially for the larger venues and the brand-name DJs. Emblematic of the pervasive DJ culture is “Stick It On,” a roving party in which anyone can spin five songs. More professional is the world-famous Great Escape Festival, held annually May 14 to 16. It includes the city’s 34 major venues and 300 artists. As for gay clubs, the main strip is St. James’s Street, although bars string along the waterfront and everywhere else in Kemp Town.
32-34 Old Steine
The see-and-be-seen gay club in town. Three dance floors, three music styles — pop anthems, House and trance — mean something for everyone. That goes for clientele, too, from twinks to daddies, hunks to bears. The rooftop isn’t only for smoking; enjoy a view of the English Channel.
Charles Street Bar & Club
8 Marine Parade
An elegant bar serving specialty drinks and full meals brings in a straight clientele as well, but this is definitely a gay bar — especially on Thursday nights, when Envy takes over for a night of dancing.
Frockabilly @ Latest Music Bar
14-17 Manchester St.
Check out the queer rock-‘n’-roll night, when songs from the ‘50s play while gay boys and (a lot more) lesbians jitterbug in poodle skirts, slick-back pompadours, shiny jackets and high-tops. Groovy, daddy-o!
31-34 Marine Parade
Stunning sea views are only offset by some of the stunning men who frequent this new entry in the “must-do” local scene. A range of club nights, music styles and resident DJs offer something different every night.
31 St. James’s St.
Brighton’s oldest gay bar is also the only one running continuously all weekend. You may see someone staggering out very early Monday with a deep five-o’clock shadow and a deeper hangover.
7 George St.
This gayola pub has drag shows galore, karaoke and lots more entertainment, plus the usual pub assortment of tap beer and food.
WHAT TO SEE
The Royal Pavilion
4/5 Pavilion Buildings
There it is, in the middle of the bustling city: a massive, sprawling complex of some of the most whacked-out architecture this side of Hollywood. Like the bastard child of the Taj Mahal and Beijing’s Forbidden City, everything about the Pavilion is bigger than it has any right to be, from the serpentine chandeliers to the kitchen, which only needs a refrigerator and microwave to look contemporary. That’s fitting, since the Prince Regent really, really liked to eat. Once the best buddy of the world’s most famous metrosexual, Beau Brummell, the prince became so fat he couldn’t walk. But that didn’t keep him from a slew of mistresses (one of whom lived in a house around the corner that is now the local YMCA). This prototypical pleasure palace, whose hybrid bad taste has inspired resorts from Miami to Las Vegas to Abu Dhabi, has to be experienced to be believed. You can hire a personal guide or take one of the regularly scheduled guided tours.
The Nude Beach
Brighton’s beach is pebbly, but the Brits love it. On nice days, it’s full of families sunning themselves, eating frozen custard and doing everything everyone does seaside. At night, the city allows modest bonfires, which dot the landscape, as clubbers get ready for a night on the town. The nude beach is reachable via the charming 1883 electric railway that runs from Brighton Pier to the newly developed Marina. Get off at the stop just before the Marina. The area is recognizable by the raised mound that protects sunbathers from prying eyes. There’s a cruisey area in the wooded section of the embankment across from the rail line. The police are more than cool about cruising. Most of the time, if you see one around the cruising area, it’s only to ensure the safety of those looking for sex, although there was a mini-scandal in Brighton Proper about a year ago when the city moved in on people having sex in city parks — but even most of the gay residents agreed that this was out of place.
Technically within Brighton and Hove, this prototypical Sussex village is a healthy bike ride east of the town center. You’ll know you’ve hit it when you see the ancient windmill. It boasts a 13th-century church, but its real claim to fame is the home for a few years of writer Rudyard Kipling. The picturesque homes and Main Street are a picture postcard — the kind of town where Miss Marple should be riding her bike en route to solving a polite mystery.
15-17 Middle St.
Not that long ago, a group of local men got together and decided that the hordes of gay tourists coming to Brighton provided an opportunity for more than the usual sunbathing, cruising, shopping, eating, bar hopping and club crawling. The result: an entirely new concept in gay vacations. G Men offers groups large or small activity learning holidays. Choices range from tai chi to digital photography, Spanish to stand-up comedy. The emphasis of the classes is on fun and letting men associate with each other in a non-judgmental atmosphere. There are plenty of breaks for all of the above-mentioned activities, but there’s also enough time spent so that you’ll leave feeling you’ve actually accomplished something. Most classes run from Thursday through Sunday. I sampled the wine connoisseur’s class; in that one hour, I learned more about wine than in my many years of imbibing it. Popular classes include cooking, cocktails and kayaking.