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The South Downs is a lovely park, frequently visited by Londoners looking for a day trip. It’s known as “The Lungs of SE England” because of the open-countryside and fresh sea breezes. If you’re looking for a great day trip from London then by all means read on, but keep in mind that we won’t be recommending accommodations or restaurants for London here, because we couldn’t do that city justice. We do think though that this park is too beautiful to be absorbed on just one day-trip, so perhaps after reading on you’ll be convinced to extend that day into a long-weekend or mini-break from the capital.
There’s a lot to love about the South Downs, but we usually stay in Brighton, Lewes, and Eastbourne. These are the towns we focus on in this guide.
Brighton is the largest city we’ll mention. It’s a coastal town with a population of around 156,000 people. While it is a little more expensive than the other two towns, there’s always a lot to do in Brighton. Eastbourne is just 19 miles east of Brighton and with a population of 103,000 people it isn’t as large. The beaches here are still lovely in the summer. Lewes is the smallest of the bunch. With only 17,000 people this feels like a proper English countryside town. It’s still large enough to have great sites, good accommodations, and some proper pubs, but it doesn’t have as many expensive hotels or restaurants.
Being that this region is so accessible from London, London is the logical airport choice. Gatwick is slightly closer, but even a trip from Heathrow isn’t too demanding. If you want to stay as east as possible, in Eastbourne, Gatwick is around an hour to an hour and a half by transit and Heathrow is two and a half hours. Both trips, considering you’re on transit, are pretty short trips.
The spring, summer and autumn months are certainly our favourite months when it comes to visiting The South Downs. It can get busy in the South Downs during bank holiday weekends or Easter (really just whenever the kids get let out of school), but it’s not too hard to find a corner of The South Downs that is a little quieter.
During the winter months some of the hotels and attractions will shorten their hours, so keep that in mind when you’re looking to visit The South Downs in the off season.
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This part of England is fairly well served by trains, and you could enjoy yourself if you used trains, buses and the occasional taxi. That said, if you want to explore the whole area, renting a car will save you a lot of time, and potentially be cheaper than booking last-minute train fare. It’s lovely driving through the small towns and on the smaller roads. Plus, there is a fair amount of distance between the trailheads, so having a car is going to make things a lot easier for you.
There are so many great places to stay in the South Downs, which are great for a night or two. We are focusing on larger places where you could spend a mini-break.
Brighton is a great pick for a lot of reasons. Brighton is a beachy resort town with great links to London, a great food scene and a fun place to explore.
To take advantage of Brighton’s beach we recommend staying close to the water. The Lanes Hotel is a prime example of this. This simple hotel is across the street from the beach and gives you great views of the pier. The rooms are nice, especially if they have a balcony, and breakfast is included.
Blanch House is our higher-end pick. It’s a three-star hotel, but we think it feels more like a four-star hotel. If you can, book the Galaxy room. Breakfast is included here as well and, being a boutique hotel, we found the service staff was very attentive. Plus, it’s only half a block away from the beach.
The best hostel in town is HAPPY Brighton. It’s only half a block away from the water, and you can stay in these “pod rooms”, which feel very Japanese. They also have traditional bunkrooms as well, but the pod gives you a little more privacy even if it feels like less space. Plus, again, it’s only half a block to the beach.
Eastbourne is not as vibrant as Brighton. We find the location not as good as Brighton, and there’s less to do, but you can get more bang for your buck here. For example, our luxury pick was about 10% cheaper than its comparable in Brighton. If you want something by the beach, check out the Langham Hotel. Well-maintained, classical rooms make you feel like you’re in a proper British hotel, and the location couldn’t be better. This is an excellent luxury pick. The Devonshire Park Hotel isn’t quite as luxurious, but the restaurant here has the upper hand. We found the three-star rooms to suit us just fine.
The Bassets House is a cute little British B&B. Their breakfast it great; you can enjoy your meal on their sunny covered deck area. They’re also close to the water as well, which is always enjoyable.
Our favourite hostel in Eastbourne is the YHA Eastbourne. It backs onto some green space and it has a surprisingly well-equipped kitchen. While it’s known as Youth Hostel Association, this isn’t just for youths, in fact it often seems like YHA’s are mostly for middle-aged walkers!
Lewes is a great pick as your base for a walking holiday. Lewes lacks the seaside and is smaller than the other picks, however it is a beautiful English town like you see in postcards. To take advantage of that proximity to nature we recommend The White Lodge B&B. You’ll find Lewes doesn’t have much in the way of hotels, so The White Lodge is our “luxury hotel” pick. We love the size of the rooms and the modern décor. It’s outside the city, sitting on six acres of land, so you’ll need a car to stay here. It’ll help give you that fresh air you might be looking for.
If the location of the White Lodge sounds appealing but the price is too steep then camp at The Secret Campsite. It’s just a short distance from the White Lodge. This campsite has spacious pitches and some great nature surrounding it. The area around the campsite has this disused railway track path that’s just full of wonder and adventure. The campsites also have a tree fort and another permanent shelter to rent if you didn’t bring a tent.
For something in the city, with the classic British charm, check out The Berkeley House. They do the full English breakfast. The rooms are clean and updated, and they even have a self-contained apartment on the bottom floor if you want the freedom to make your own meals.
And finally, there’s the YHA South Downs. The YHA is a brand that holds some respect, so we don’t need to go into too much detail, but the location of this hostel is outside the city’s core and gives you lots of room to wander. It’s a great hostel, hosted inside an old dairy farm.
When looking for luxury in Brighton we recommend Issac At. Like many new, fine dining restaurants they source all their food locally without sacrificing quality. It’s a British menu with high standards. This is definitely the place to go in Brighton.
The best low-key diner option in Brighton is Manjus. This Indian place does everything right. The food is mainly vegetarian street food done in the style of the region Gujarat. The food is traditional, but the setting is airy and modern.
For Brighton’s best fish and chips you’ll want to head to Bardsley’s of Baker St. They’ve been in business since 1926 and the quality of their fish tells you they’ve been perfecting the recipe for a long time. They use sustainable fish too, to help ease the guilt of gorging on greasy deep-fried food. However, if you want a vegetarian option that is quick and easy then head to Sunbirds Deli. It’s just a block away from Bardsley’s and they serve up good Turkish plates. You can take some to go too if you want a healthy vegetarian option on a walk.
Eastbourne has three great restaurants we want to highlight. Each one is different form the next and none of them are overly expensive. The first is Anema E Core. It’s a great Italian place that does pasta and pizza very well.
One of our favourite restaurants in Eastbourne has to be the vegetarian place, The Green Almond. It straddles the casual setting of a café, but the menu us fine dining with a set three courses at a low price. It’s very unique and worth checking out, but if vegetarian food still rubs you the wrong way we have an answer for that. Cru Eastbourne is the city’s best steakhouse and wine bar. You can get steak, Sunday roasts, charcuterie boards, and great wine to pair with all of it.
Our fish and chip shop recommendation in Eastbourne is Dolphin Fish and Chips. They do a light and crispy fish for a good price. You can comfortably eat-in or take-out. And don’t worry – Dolphin is just a catchy name.
In Lewes there aren’t as many fine dining options or seafood, but we still found lots of great meals. The best meals in Lewes are the kinds of meal that give you energy after a long day of walking the South Downs. You can get great, braised meats, burgers, or steaks. The pub atmosphere is honest and authentic. There’s not shtick here, just hearty meals.
Robson’s of Lewes is our favourite café in the area. You can get pastries, lattes and a full English breakfast if you like. They also have great take away rolls and sandwiches. Before a big walk we would enjoy a full English and then grab a sandwich to eat later in the day: one-stop shopping.
If all that is sounding a bit heavy then check out Tina’s Kitchen. She does gluten free vegetarian dishes for a reasonable price. Sometimes you need that fresh bright veggie meal to make you feel better. They put a lot of care into what they make in Tina’s Kitchen.
When you’re in Brighton there’s lots to see. Being the biggest city we mention, they have loads of cute parks and neighbourhoods to wander around in.
We love the kitschy fun of Brighton Palace Pier. There are rides, candy shops, pubs, restaurants and fish & chip shops. We also have to mention the Royal Pavilion when discussing activities to do in Brighton. Constructed for King George IV this unique seaside Palace infuses the visual styles of India and China. However, there’s lots of adventure to be had near Brighton too. Something almost everyone can get on board with is a Brighton Bike Tour.
Not extreme enough? Get in touch with the folks at Hatt Adventures. They have kayaks, mountain climbing, and more. After all that, plus your amazing South Downs walks, you might be feeling sore. Our Brighton Spa recommendation is Little Jasmine Spa. They’re very professional and offer a very welcoming and relaxing environment.
We really enjoyed taking the kids to Eastbourne. There isn’t as much adventure activities, like Brighton had, but there’s still plenty to do. Our kids loved visiting the Eastbourne Miniature Steam Railway Adventure Park. They have picnic areas, gardens and an awesome miniature train to ride on. Then there’s Fort Fun, a giant, awesome play park with indoor and outdoor jungle gyms, mini-golf, and a big bouncy pillow. You could easily spend a full day here.
A great way to see the beautiful white cliffs of Beachy Head would be to go on a tour with Sussex Voyages. They’ll take you out on one of their small watercrafts to float around the little lighthouse at the bottom of Beachy Head. It’s a great tour.
If you’re sore from all your adventures head over to Health & Beauty Massage. It’s Eastbourne’s premier massage parlour. It’s a great reward after a long walk. Also check out the line up at the Eastbourne Band Stand. They always have shows on and it’s a really great venue.
In Lewes there’s something for everyone. For the adventurers, take to the skies and try your hand at paragliding with Fly Sussex. They’re one of the UK’s top paragliding companies. For something more down to earth (but not entirely) there’s Branching Out Adventures. There are zip lines and rope courses strung up into the trees. Almost any age can participate. It’s lots of fun.
For something more low-key, take a tour around the Charleston home. This art gallery is inside the former home of famed artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. The gardens and the home are both beautiful and the artwork is astounding. They do a lot of great events promoting arts and culture here, so check out their schedule.
And finally, our most unique spa recommendation is The Round House Therapies. This is, as it states, advanced massage therapy, and it all takes place in a yurt (a tall, round tent structure). Jeanna Lindfield is a master in what she does, offering sports and remdial massage as well as luxury relaxation. Hot stones are included in treatments, where appropriate. You’ll leave feeling truly healed. Mention you hard about Round House Therapies here and you’ll get 10% off current rates when booking your first treatment.
- Even though it may look pristine, make sure you boil, treat or filter all water before drinking it.
- Weather can change quickly. Make sure to bring multiple layers, and in winter a waterproof rain coat and rain pants can make a horrible rainy day pleasant.
- Always bring sunglasses, a hat and wear sunscreen—even in winter. The sun at the alpine altitude is very strong.
- The Sussex countryside has inspired many famous artists like Virginia Woolf to Rudyard Kipling. Maybe it’ll inspire you? You never know until you plan a visit to The South Downs.
- The famous white cliff in Eastbourne, known as Beachy Head, is white due to its makeup of chalk. It also happens to be the highest chalk sea cliff in Brittan. The name has nothing to do with a beach, but instead it is a corruption of the original French name, which meant “beautiful headland.”