Travel
5 min

Brighton’s boho paradise

English gay capital has a long tradition of hedonism

Brighton's famous beach. Credit: David Walberg

“Brighton,” pronounced Queen Victoria, “is full of the wrong kind of people.” The English monarch whose name is synonymous with hysterical prudery had a special hatred for her country’s most famous seaside village. But one queen’s unsavoury is another queen’s sweet.

Brighton has a long history as a party town, the kind of place where one could discreetly conduct an affair or engage in illicit activities. Close enough to London for easy access, but far enough from prying eyes, in Victoria’s day Brighton attracted a motley crew of adulterers, homosexuals, gamblers and garden variety hedonists who headed south for what they used to call a “dirty weekend.”

Victoria was not amused. The old bird had inherited a palace in Brighton buily by King George IV, the playboy king. The Royal Pavilion was his bachelor pad by the sea, and it remains a must-see attraction. Even more than the town’s famous amusement-park pier, the palace is the ultimate symbol of Brighton: it is trashy, flashy, hedonistic and sexy.

To say the palace is overdone does not do it justice. It was designed in two phases, first by architect Henry Holland as an ornate neo-classical palladium and then — as though to up the ante — by John Nash, who added the façade of an Indian palace and a clashing Chinese interior. Since no one involved in the design had ever been to India or China, the styles are completely imagined, presumably with the assistance of much opium.

The resulting palace makes rococo seem positively Spartan. Everywhere you turn, gaudy is piled atop garish, accented with gauche and then gilded, draped in chintz and sprinkled liberally with baubles. It must have looked particularly ridiculous when it was built, just after the French Revolution — a time when European monarchs, fearing the fate of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, strove to present an air of humility and restraint. Today, the palace fascinates as a monument to a heterosexual king who could outdo even the maddest contemporary design queen.

The finishes and furnishings are largely original, comprising one of the world’s most formidable collections of chinoiserie. Charles threw lavish parties and took many mistresses here. Victoria wanted to demolish the pleasure palace, but the town bought it from her, making it the only British royal palace in public hands. These days, the sprawling lawns and gardens are populated with picnickers and sunbathers. The palace itself can be rented for special occasions and is England’s most popular venue for same-sex civil unions.

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Brighton clings tenuously to England’s south coast, looking longingly out to sea and aspiring to both the weather and the attitudes across the water. The city embraces a relaxed lifestyle more associated with some of England’s continental neighbours: people here are free-thinking, beach-living and pleasure-loving.

The city is known as England’s gay capital, a moniker that likely makes London wince but is nonetheless deserved. Local polling has shown that fully 20 percent of Brightoners identify as gay or lesbian, and the tourism authority believes an even greater percentage of visitors are so inclined.

The city is dotted with countless gay bed and breakfasts. Two local universities ensure that the many gay bars are crowded and lively. The official nude beach near the centre of town is popular with gay men and, in a true spirit of liberty, is not segregated from adjacent beaches. A second, unofficial nude beach provides a more secluded environment just outside of the city.

In addition to homosexuals, Brighton has attracted artists, musicians, artisans, vegetarians and environmentalists. As a result, there’s a plethora of innovative shops, restaurants and cultural projects to explore. Pedestrian streets and narrow laneways make for relaxed and pollution-free strolling. A boardwalk and bicycle lanes follow the shoreline and the city is nestled in parkland for easy countryside excursions.

Within the city, a number of delights and highlights deserve elaboration:

Events and Activities
Frockabilly
Even if you are not a fan of classic 1950s rock-and-roll, you’ll want to check out Frockabilly. The self-described queer-run, straight-friendly club night is particularly popular with lesbians, who dress impeccably in period clothing and accessories, reinventing themselves as butches in flattops and brothel creepers or femmes in poodle skirts and pearls. The whole experience is brilliantly executed and inspired: the kids are breathtakingly skilled in the dance moves of the day, and everyone has a blast.

Hove Champagne Festival
A decade ago, Brighton almagamated with the neighbouring town of Hove to form the city called, awkwardly, Brighton and Hove. The two former towns transform seamlessly one into the other, with Hove adding a touch of posh to Brighton’s flash. To wit, the Hove Champagne Festival is a signature event, with elegantly attired guests sampling bubbly, local oysters and jazz on the sprawling lawns just above Hove’s beaches.

Gmen
Gmen is a local company providing a host of activities for visiting gay men. The emphasis is on learning a new skill — be it epicurean, athletic or artistic — in a social environment with the camaraderie of other gay men. Pursue a new hobby with a group of your own friends, or join a tour with other gay visitors and make some new pals. Activities run the gamut from wine tastings and cooking classes to kayaking and tai chi.

Brighton Pride
A highlight of the local queer year and a destination for revellers from all over the UK, Brighton Pride attracts 150,000 visitors and boasts an upbeat but relaxed festival, reflecting the city’s best spirit.

On the town
Bars and clubs
Brighton has an impressive array of drinking and dancing options to please varied tastes. Amsterdam is popular day and night, with a large patio overlooking the sea. Envy is rollicking and popular with students, while Revenge is the biggest late-night dance club. Check local listings for openings and closings as well as theme nights. Real Brighton is a comprehensive resource.

Terre à Terre
One of England’s most acclaimed vegetarian restaurants turns vegetables into unrecognizable treats. Kids won’t eat their peas? Give them goat cheese and crème fraîche wrapped in bannock made from dried beets and plums and served atop an oatmeal bickie. They won’t believe it’s good for them. Even if you’re a carnivore who craves a side of bacon at veggie meals, you will marvel at the exquisite flavours conjured here. Don’t forget to buy the excellent cookbook.

The Seattle
Seaside dining at its finest, with perfectly executed dishes specializing in fresh local seafood, served in a relaxing, loungelike atmosphere with panoramic views of the sea.

Transport and Accommodation
Air
American Airlines offers some of the best deals on flights to London by way of the US, with more flights than any other US carrier via seven gateways, including Chicago and New York, plus codeshares with British Airways out of Seattle, making it a competitive option for Canadians.

Rail
British Rail trains run constantly from London’s Victoria station. The hour-long express trip is so effortless that it is not uncommon for Brightoners to commute to work in the capital during the week.

Hotel
MyHotel’s Brighton property is the third and newest location of the hip and affordable mini-chain of boutique hotels. Designed by Karim Rashid, the hotel is both sensual and sexual, done in a dreamy Kama Sutra motif that is explicit, imaginative and pansexual. Stylish, modern rooms have a fresh feel, and the hotel is anchored by a bright café and a buzzing hotel bar.

Essential resources
Visit Britain’s cool gay microsite

Visit Brighton