The South Downs is one of England’s loveliest national parks, frequently visited by day trippers from London. Often dubbed “the lungs of southeast England”, it’s known for its beautiful open countryside and fresh sea breezes. It’s a great option for a day trip from London, but keep in mind that we won’t be recommending accommodation or restaurants in London here (we wouldn’t be able to do it justice in one post!). What’s more, the South Downs National Park deserves more attention than simply a one-day trip, and we hope that after reading this you’ll be tempted to extend your visit to a long-weekend or a mini-break from the capital.
There’s a lot to love about the South Downs, but we usually stay in Brighton, Lewes, and Eastbourne, which are the major towns that surround the park. If you’re looking for something a little more quaint and typically English, you could also try Winchester, Chichester, Midhurst or Arundel. These are the towns we focus on in this guide.
Brighton is the largest and best-known city near the South Downs. It’s a coastal town with a population of around 156,000 people. While it is a little more expensive than Eastbourne and Lewes, Brighton is a vibrant, bustling and trendy city with an edgy vibe and plenty of things to see and do. Eastbourne is just 19 miles east of Brighton and is a little smaller, but the beaches here are still lovely in the summer. Lewes is the smallest of the bunch. With a population of only 17,000 feels like a proper English countryside town. It’s still large enough to have plenty of interesting attractions, excellent pubs and some good accommodation, but it doesn’t have as many expensive hotels or restaurants.
Winchester and Chichester are both packed full of fascinating local history, and have a small-town, quaint feel that will make your stay a delight. Expect cosy pubs and pretty hotels, small independent shops, and an excellent range of live music and theatre on offer. Many West End shows tour Chichester in preparation for a long run in the capital, so it’s a great place to catch a show at a bargain price.
Table of Contents
- How to get to the South Downs
- When is the best time to visit the South Downs
- How to get around the South Downs
- Where to stay in t3he South Downs
- Where to eat in the South Downs
- Things to do in the South Downs
- Dangers when walking in the South Downs
- Interesting facts about the South Downs
- Frequently asked questions about the South Downs
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How to Get To The South Downs
The South Downs is one of the most accessible national parks in the UK, and if you’re arriving by plane, one of the London airports is the logical choice. The closest airport is Gatwick, but even a trip from Heathrow isn’t too demanding. If you want to stay on the east side of the park, in or around Eastbourne, Gatwick takes approximately one to one-and-a-half hours on public transport, and Heathrow takes around two-and-a-half hours.
If you’re coming from the west, from Southampton or even Bournemouth, you’re likely to find connections by rail to Portsmouth or Winchester, which marks the western entrance point to the park. From Southampton it takes less than half an hour to reach Winchester, and from Bournemouth it takes just over an hour by train.
When Is The Best Time To Go To The South Downs
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 are 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 if you’re looking to visit the South Downs in the low season.
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How To Get Around The South Downs
This part of England is fairly well served by public transport, 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 fares. It’s lovely driving through the small towns and on the smaller roads, and this can be a great way to experience the beautiful scenery of the park. In addition, there is often a significant distance between the trailheads, so having a car will make things a lot easier.
Where To Stay In The South Downs
There are so many great places to stay in the South Downs, which are perfect for a night or two. In this guide, we focus 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 good links to London, a great food scene and lots of fun places and attractions 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 offers a four-star experience. If you can, book the Galaxy room. Breakfast is included here as well and, being a boutique hotel, we found the service to be excellent and the staff 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 specially-designed “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 quite as vibrant as Brighton, and there are fewer things to do, but you can get a lot more bang for your buck. For example, our luxury pick was about 10% cheaper than comparable hotels 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 is great; you can enjoy your meal on the 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 forms part of the Youth Hostel Association, this isn’t just for youths, in fact it often seems like YHAs 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 cities listed here, but it’s a picture-perfect, beautiful English town.
To take advantage of the 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 is surrounded by beautiful nature. The area around the campsite has a 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, and a taste of classic British charm, check out The Berkeley House. They do a 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 well-known hostelling organisation that commands respect, so we don’t need to go into too much detail, but the location of this hostel is outside the city center and gives you lots of room to wander. It’s a great hostel, hosted inside an old dairy farm.
Midhurst is a delightful and historic market town nestled by the South Downs. Approximately 5 minutes from the South Downs Way at Cocking Hill, Midhurst has oodles of accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets. While you are there, spend a little time browsing the wide range of independent shops or stop off for a delicious coffee and cake in one of many individual cafes.
For those looking for hotels, The Spread Eagle Hotel boasts traditional style with contemporary comfort and The Park House Hotel offers luxury accommodation in country surroundings. The Angel Inn is a stylish and comfortable 17th-century coaching inn with a newly refurbished bar and restaurant.
If you prefer self-catering options, there are some nice out-of-town cottages available at Cowdray Park, and nearby Heyshott village is home to Amberfold and Long Hoyle which are both family run annexes offering a warm welcome.
The town centre also has a selection of B&B providers such as Pear Tree Cottage, the Town House, the Church House and Two Rose Cottages. On the outskirts of town there are a wealth of pubs with rooms plus a farmhouse offering guests a slice of rural living
For a full list of accommodation providers, check out the Visit Midhurst website.
Winchester is one of England’s most fascinating historic towns, with a history dating back to the Roman period. Perched on the edge of the South Downs National Park, this ancient capital has charm in abundance.
If you’re thinking of splashing out on something a little luxurious, we’d recommend Lainston House. This stately country mansion will make you feel like royalty, with opulent rooms decked out in period features and 63 acres of pristine grounds and gardens. Don’t miss the six-course tasting menu – this is the place to come for something a little special.
Our favourite mid-range option is the Winchester Royal Hotel, conveniently located in the historic heart of the city. The building once housed a Benedictine convent, and you can still see the lovely walled garden dating back to the medieval period. You’ll be a stone’s throw from all the major attractions, restaurants and bars, but the rooms are so comfy you might not want to leave!
Another great option to stay in Winchester is the Wykeham Arms, also located near the city’s centre. This hotel offers beautiful boutique rooms and is known for its exceptional service.
Finally, if you’re on a budget the rooms at the Running Horse country pub are excellent value. This lovely pub is located just outside Winchester and exudes rustic charm in abundance.
Nestled between the sea and the hills, the historic market town of Chichester is one of the nicest places to stay near the South Downs.
If you’re in the mood to splash out, the Goodwood Hotel is a dream destination, with stellar access to the South Downs National Park, an excellent spa and a restaurant that serves up inventive farm-to-table cuisine.
The East Walls Hotel is a charming boutique hotel right in the centre of town and offers incredible access to all of the sights and sounds of the city centre. This is a lovely, romantic hotel, with antique furniture and four poster beds, and boasts a quiet yet convenient location.
However, our favourite place to stay in Chichester has to be the beautiful Welldigger’s Arms, a 300-year-old country pub with stunning views over the South Downs themselves. Step out of your room and onto the trail – this is the perfect place to stay on a rustic hiking trip in the South Downs.
The medieval town of Arundel is one of the finest gems in the South Downs, with an impressive castle, stunning cathedral and some of the finest wetlands in the region.
The Bailliffscourt Hotel and Spa is the best luxury offering in Arundel, a medieval mansion that comes complete with its own resident peacocks. This beautiful hotel is the perfect mixture of ancient and modern, with historic features and state-of-the-art spa facilities.
Arundel is a small town, so offers fewer hotels than some of the other places on this list, but if you’re looking for good quality accommodation in the town centre, we’d recommend the Swan Hotel, a friendly, comfortable and reasonably-priced hotel close to all of Arundel’s best sights. Alternatively, the Town House is also a good option in the centre of Arundel. It’s close to the cathedral and does an excellent breakfast.
Where To Eat In The South Downs
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 Gujurati style. 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 from the next and none of them are too expensive. The first is Anema E Core. It’s a great Italian place that serves up delicious pasta and pizza.
One of our favourite restaurants in Eastbourne is a vegetarian option, The Green Almond. It has the casual ambience of a friendly café, but the menu offers fine dining with a set three courses at a bargain 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 restaurants in Lewes specialise in hearty, energising meals that will replenish hikers after a long day of walking in the South Downs. You can get great, braised meats, burgers, or steaks and the pub atmosphere is honest and authentic. There’s no 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 sounds 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.
Midhurst offers some really excellent pubs, which serve up imaginative yet hearty fare that is perfect after a day out on the trail. We particularly like the White Hart, for their sophisticated take on traditional pub dishes.
If you’d like something a little more upmarket, Farmer, Butcher, Chef is the upmarket restaurant of the Goodwood Estate and prides itself on its sustainable approach and delicious organic fare. The menu is rather meat-heavy, but the dishes are fantastic and produced with great care.
If you’re looking for a good place for lunch, you can’t go wrong at the Cowdray Farm Shop, where the produce is second-to-none, and there are plenty of good vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.
One of the best restaurants in Winchester, The Chesil Rectory is a fabulous place for a really special night out. The 600-year-old building is simply stunning, and the classic, creative dishes served up by the talented chefs really hit the spot. The wine list is also excellent.
Another amazing option for those who love traditional English cuisine is the Wykeham Arms. This restaurant is famous for its great service, quality food and an exceptional selection of beers. The Wykeham Arms won the Town Pub of the Year award in 2018.
For tasty Thai food, you can’t go wrong at Bangkok Brasserie, with classic dishes and some excellent house specialities. What’s more, a portion of your bill is donated to a local refugee charity, so you’ll be doing your bit as you eat.
If you’re looking for fabulous fish and seafood, Rick Stein’s excellent restaurant is the place to go. It might make a dent in your budget, but we promise it will be worth it!
There are plenty of good pubs and excellent restaurants in Chichester, and one of our favourites is The Crate and Apple. You’ll find a varied and reasonably priced menu with plenty of choice to satisfy you after a long day of hiking.
Reina Kitchen is a popular local haunt, offering delicious Turkish mezze and kebabs to die for! This is a great option for vegetarians as there is plenty of choice on the menu, but will certainly satisfy carnivores too!
For light bites and street food, The Pass Street Food is a real local gem, with quesadillas, artisan burgers, and an ever-changing specials menu.
The Town House was one of our picks for accommodation, but it’s also a wonderful option for fine dining as well. The excellent hotel restaurant is renowned for its seafood, so if you’re craving some fish, we’d highly recommend this place.
The Swan Hotel is a great choice for those who love a great traditional English pub meal. The service is great and there’s a lot of choices on the menu, including a specials board, where you can usually find some more exquisite meal choices presented by the head chef.
For fresh local produce at bargain prices you can’t beat The Parsons Table, run by Liz and Lee Parsons, and a firm local favourite. Finally, the Motte and Bailey Cafe serves up traditional cafe food by day and Mexican and Tex Mex snacks in the evening – the perfect place for a chilled night out!
Things To Do In The South Downs
There are plenty of other activities you can do besides walking in the South Downs. We have listed them by location.
Things to do in Brighton
Brighton is packed with exciting attractions, cute parks and vibrant neighbourhoods, meaning you’ll have plenty to see and do during your stay.
We love the kitschy fun of Brighton Palace Pier. There are rides, candy shops, pubs, restaurants and fish & chip shops. The Royal Pavilion is also one of the most popular things to do in Brighton. Constructed for King George IV this unique seaside palace combines the visual styles of India and China.
However, there’s lots of adventure to be had near Brighton too. A Brighton Bike Tour is a wonderful way to see the city and is a family-friendly activity that everyone can get on board with.
Not extreme enough? Get in touch with the folks at Hatt Adventures. They offer kayaks, mountain climbing, and plenty of other adventure activities to satisfy your inner thrill-seeker. 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.
Things to do in Eastbourne
We really enjoyed taking the kids to Eastbourne. There aren’t as many adventure activities, in comparison to Brighton, 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 water crafts 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.
Things to do in Lewes
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 and it’s a lot 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.
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 remedial massage as well as luxury relaxation. Hot stones are included in treatments, where appropriate. You’ll leave feeling truly healed. Mention you heard about Round House Therapies here and you’ll get 10% off current rates when booking your first treatment.
Things to do in Winchester
Winchester Cathedral is one of the UK’s finest medieval cathedrals, and this beautiful, peaceful building is a must-see attraction on any visit to the town. For something a little more modern, you could also visit the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, where you’ll enjoy live shows and hands-on exhibits.
For gin aficionados, a tour of the Bombay Sapphire gin distillery is a must, and literary fans will jump at the chance to tour the Jane Austen House at Chawton, where you can walk in the footsteps of this literary legend.
Things to do in Chichester
Chichester Cathedral is the major attraction in the city centre, an imposing medieval structure with beautiful 12th-century carved panels. The area around the cathedral is also a lovely place for a walk, with Georgian gardens and pretty historic architecture, as well as some excellent little shops.
The Goodwood Estate is close to Chichester, and offers a good place for an afternoon out, with an outdoor sculpture park and some lovely woodland. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is also a good place to take kids and history buffs, with some fantastic open-air exhibits – perfect for a sunny day. If you’ve got time, the Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens is also a fascinating place to while away a few hours.
Things to do in Arundel
The major attraction in Arundel is the fantastic Arundel Castle, an imposing 12th-century structure with a rich and fascinating past. You’ll also find ancient churches, a beautiful cathedral, and lush gardens in the shadow of the castle.
Further afield, the Arundel Wetlands Centre is an amazing place to observe and learn about local bird life, with plenty of fun activities for kids. If you’re planning a trip to Arundel, try to time it for the annual summer festival, which takes place over 10 days in August and which offers music, theatre, street art and fabulous food for locals and visitors alike!
If you want to learn more about the South Downs National Park and the surrounding area, consider joining a guided walk in Sussex. These walks will let you discover ancient villages, explore the local woodlands and learn about local folklore.
Dangers When Walking In The South Downs
- 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 coat and trousers can make a horrible rainy day pleasant.
- Always bring sunglasses, a hat and wear sunscreen—even in winter. Even in the mind English climate of the South Downs, the sun can still be strong.
Interesting Facts About South Downs
- 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 made up of chalk, which gives it its distinctive white colour. It also happens to be the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain. The name has nothing to do with a beach, but instead it is a corruption of the original French name, which meant “beautiful headland.”
- The highest point in the South Downs National Park is at Blackdown on Greensand Ridge, which reaches an elevation of 280m.
- There are more sheep (125,000) than people (110,000) living in the South Downs National Park.
- There are 39 different types of butterfly found in the park, including the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly.
- The South Downs is the UK’s youngest national park, but it is also its most visited, attracting around 39 million day visits per year.
H2 Frequently Asked Questions About South Downs
Where are the South Downs?
The South Downs National Park covers an area of 260 square miles in the southeast of England, in the counties of Hampshire, East Sussex and West Sussex.
Can you wild camp on the South Downs Way?
Camping outside of approved campsites is restricted in the South Downs National Park, and as much of the area is farmland, it’s not usually possible to pitch a tent. You can ask local farmers if they would give permission for you to camp for the night on their land, but they may say no, so it’s best to be prepared.
Can you cycle the South Downs Way?
The 160km South Downs Way is the only national trail in England that it is possible to complete by bike. This fantastic long-distance trail is an amazing experience, whether you complete it on two feet or two wheels!
How hilly is the South Downs Way?
The South Downs are known for their rolling chalk hills, so don’t expect a walk here to be entirely on the flat! However, the hills in this part of the UK are very small so you won’t need to be super fit in order to tackle them. In fact, walking over the undulating terrain of the South Downs is a great way to get hiking fit, testing your stamina whilst not pushing you too hard.