A Day in Brighton
Join me on a bright day trip to the seaside town of Brighton for adorable cafés and vintage shopping with a bonus trip to the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs at Birling Gap.
Let’s just say I have a thing for cliffs and dramatic landscapes. I love photographing the blue horizon where the sky meets the sea (even though Dan has now said I take too many blue pictures! What can I say?). Now more than ever after living in Ireland, I seek those spots where the earth drops into the sea. After seeing pictures of the chalk cliffs on the southern coast of England, I knew that I needed to find an opportunity to visit.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect because I was heading to London with Dan for a week. He needed to be there for a conference, so I planned on spending the week exploring the city solo, a first for me in a foreign country! Before our trip, I reached out to the We Are Travel Girls community for recommendations. I was looking for a more local experience in London as well as suggestions for a day trip I could take on my own. A few girls recommended Brighton, a beach town about an hour south of London by train, and lo and behold I found that I could take a bus along the coast to also see the cliffs!
I was bursting with excitement when I woke up last Monday morning to the sun shining brightly through my hotel window. It was mid-September in London and they were predicting a high of 70 degrees! Honestly, I was a little nervous to venture away from the city on my own. For those who often travel solo, I’m sure you’re laughing and rolling your eyes…I mean yes, they speak English, I had a cell phone with data and Google Maps, and the public transportation is easy to navigate. However, it’s still a bit nerve-racking in an unfamiliar environment to know you only have yourself to rely on if something goes wrong.
I took a morning train down to Brighton and spent the first part of the day exploring the town’s streets and alleyways lined with cafés and shops. In the afternoon, I walked along the beach and the pier before catching the Coaster bus to Birling Gap for the cliffs!
Come along as I share my first “solo travel” journey (if you can call it that) to explore the seaside town of Brighton and the magnificent cliffs along the coast.
+ Catch the Southern Train from Victoria St. Station to Brighton
There are also direct trains from St Pancras and London Bridge. Trains from Victoria take about 50 minutes and run every 25 minutes.
+ Upon arrival, walk down Trafalgar St. to grab a late morning coffee and maybe a pastry at coffeetzar
Brighton is filled with cute cafés and coffee shops. It was seriously hard to choose which one to pop into. You can’t go wrong with any of them. I was salivating over the delectable sweets in each shop.
+ Spend the rest of the morning walking through North Laine and the Lanes
North Laine and The Lanes are a group of narrow lanes and alleyways filled with shops, cafés, restaurants, and pubs. North Laine is known as the more Bohemian/hipster area. Frankly, I enjoyed walking down North Laine more than The Lanes, which I found a bit more commercial. North Laine had some incredible boutiques and vintage stores.
Found some cool street art off Bond Street.
Found a great tea shop called Bluebird.
+ Have lunch at one of the cute cafés
I ate at Bread and Milk. Pelicano Coffee and The Flour Pot also looked like great choices. Check out Infinity Foods if you’re looking for a vegetarian/vegan option.
+ After lunch, walk through the Pavilion Gardens and admire the Royal Pavilion
The Royal (Brighton) Pavilion is an Asian-style palace from the 19th century. It was built as a seaside resort for George, Prince of Wales. You can spend some time relaxing in the gardens or visit inside the palace.
+ Make your way down to the beach and walk along the Brighton Pier
Depending on the weather, you could spend the afternoon at the beach. Note that it is a hard pebble beach typical of Western Europe. I took a stroll along the beach and then headed to the Pier. If you like carnivals and rides, you will love the Pier. I was hit with a wave of fried food that reminded me of my days spent at Old Orchard Beach in Maine when I was a kid at camp.
+ Take the 12 Coaster bus to the white chalk sea cliffs!
Catch the 12 Coaster bus outside the Sea Life aquarium and get off at East Dean. The route takes a beautiful 1-hour drive along the coast. When you get off at East Dean, it takes about a half hour to walk down Gilberts Dr. to the water. You can stop in the small town of East Dean to grab a pint at the Tiger Inn (16th c.), a snack at Hikers Rest, or walk around East Dean church. While making your way down Gilberts Dr., take your time admiring the spectacular views of the English countryside. You can also look into stopping at the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre if you’d like to learn more about sheep farming. Alternatively, here is a great walk that takes about an hour and a half. It starts and ends in East Dean and takes you along a path instead of the road down to the water.
+ Admire the stunning views of the Seven Sisters and walk from Birling Gap to Beachy Head along the cliffs
It takes about a half hour to walk from Birling Gap to Beachy Head stopping at Belle Tout Lighthouse along the way. Just be careful not to walk too close to the edge! The cliffs drop right into the water without much warning. You can also simply wander around the Birling Gap area and look out at the Seven Sisters cliffs if you are pressed for time. There is a great café at the visitor center as well. If you choose to do the Beachy Head Walk, it takes you back and finishes at East Dean via the road. Make sure to snap a picture of the lighthouse out in the water at Beachy Head! Sadly, I couldn’t make the walk all the way to Beachy Head because it was getting late and I didn’t want to be in the area at dark by myself.
For those interested in the science behind the cliffs, here's a shot of the cliffs up close juxtaposed with the pebble sand. The cliffs are composed of chalk and black flint and were created by ice-age floods. The Seven Sisters are part of the South Downs and are unique in that they are not protected for visitors, but rather left in their natural state to be eroded by the sea (unlike the more popular Cliffs of Dover). There have been a number of archaeological digs in the area. Pretty cool!
+ Take the bus to Eastbourne where you can catch the train back to London
Instead of going all the way back to Brighton, you can take the bus to Eastbourne and take the train from there. It is a bit more expensive, but worth it to save the hour bus ride back, in my opinion. It’s about a 15-minute bus ride from the cliffs to the Eastbourne train station. The ride back to London takes an hour and a half and trains run every 40 minutes to Victoria St. If you find yourself in Eastbourne with some time to spare, walk around the waterfront area and admire the old seaside town.
TBP Insider Tips
> You cannot use an Oyster Card (London transport) for the Southern train line. You can purchase tickets at the station. A ticket from Victoria to Brighton costs 8.50 GBP ($11.20). A ticket from Eastbourne to Victoria costs 17.80 GBP ($23.75).
> If you’d like to see the cliffs and you’re only going to Brighton for the day, I would suggest taking the bus by 2pm if you’d like to get back to London around 8pm. Unfortunately, I couldn’t complete the walk from Birling Gap to Beachy Head because it gets dark by 7pm in September. If you’re with other people and there during the summer, I’m sure you can get away with taking the bus by 3/4pm.
> There are a few bus routes that service the chalk cliffs. The 12x is the fastest of the 12, 12a, and 12x routes and all routes stop at East Dean. On Sundays and Public Holidays, you can take the 13x that will bring you right to Birling Gap and Beachy Head. 13x runs every day during the height of summer. Check before you go to confirm what’s running. You can buy tickets on the bus. Take the same 12 line from East Dean to Eastbourne for the train back to London.
> Renting a car is another great option to get around this area.
> The Seven Sisters Sheep Centre offers a number of different activities from bottle feeding and cuddle sessions to tractor rides and sheering. They are open for visitors March and April and again in July and August. Sad I missed the cuddle session.
> You can actually stay at the Belle Tout Lighthouse. How cool is that?!
> The restaurant and visitor center at Birling Head closes at 5pm.
> Set up contactless if you have an iPhone through Apple Pay. The buses accept it as well as most shops! It's great for US cardholders who can't get a chip and pin card.
> **Note - I tried (to no avail) to find a reliable link for the Sightseeing Bus I ended up taking to Eastbourne from Birling Gap. As the 13x only runs during the summer and on Sundays, I was told (it was a Monday in September) there was no bus back up the hill to East Dean. Turns out there is a "hop on, hop off" bus that runs every 20 minutes, so if you find yourself in a hairy situation, you can look out for it both at Birling Gap and Beachy Head.
My Perspective on Traveling Solo
I consider myself a seasoned traveler having visited over 30 countries. I've traveled with old friends, new friends, family, and my husband, but I've never been alone in a foreign country (I don't count Prague or Dublin because I lived in both locations for at least 3 months). It's a different feeling heading to a new place on your own without the comfort of knowing that another person is going to be there to help make decisions and experience both the good and the bad of traveling.
I think England is a pretty safe space to try venturing on your own, especially if English is your first language. The people are pretty friendly, definitely civilized, and the country has reliable public transportation. That being said, I still experienced a bit of trepidation upon arriving at the train station myself. There's no one to confirm you're actually at the right track and you start second guessing yourself and checking the sign a million times (or maybe that's just my A-type personality).
Getting lost in your own thoughts is another aspect of traveling solo. Common decisions you typically make with your traveling partners become conversations you have in your head. Where should I eat? Does this place look good? There's no one to confirm your choice or hash out a problem...maybe that's a good thing and you enjoy just making a quick decision on your own.
While traveling alone can feel liberating, it also forces you to be more aware of your surroundings and may impede some of your travel plans. For example, I got to the cliffs a bit later than I had wanted and made the decision to just stay close to Birling Gap rather than taking the full hike I had planned. I also didn't have any cell service and my feet were so sore! I was standing by the lighthouse and at that point couldn't fathom how I was going to make the 30 minute walk back up the hill to the main bus stop at East Dean. (Thankfully I hailed down a sightseeing bus and the driver let me on randomly at the child rate for 2.50 GBP). If I had a travel partner, I may have been able to continue exploring, but the risk wasn't worth it in this case.
The last thing I'll say about traveling solo is to always make sure you have cash in case of emergency, a full water bottle, and bring a good book!