What to see
You’ll find accounts of Brighton’s tourist attractions with additional information on shopping, eating out etc at Visit Brighton or Time Out Brighton.
Links to specific Brighton attractions include:
● Booth Museum
● Brighton Fishing Museum
● Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
● Brighton Palace Pier
● Brighton Toy & Model Museum
● British Airways i360
● Hove Museum
● Old Police Cells Museum
● Royal Pavilion
● Sea Life Brighton
Towns of Two Halves
When you walk into Brighton along the beach from Hove, two features dominate the view. To the right, the charred ribcage of the barbecued West Pier; and straight ahead, the spindle of the British Airways i360 tower. Neither is a particularly encouraging prospect. With its sightseers’ ‘pod’ at the base, loading, the i360 looks like the chimney of an aluminium smelter. It’s a stiff middle finger to the rest of Brighton. If you ever walked south along the Suffolk coast from Dunwich with Sizewell on the horizon, you’ll recall it as like walking towards an enormous tombstone. The i360 is a similarly cheery landmark.
Even so, this is one of several parts of Brighton you shouldn’t miss. The arches underneath King’s Road run along the top of the beach, housing vibrant modern enterprises that contrast sharply with the symbols of blight and fire above. Bars, galleries, food, fashion… it’s a cross between a funfair and a street market.
There’s an odd little museum in amongst all the contemporaneity. The Brighton Fishing Museum recalls a time before tourism, when this was a fishing village. It’s free, asking only for a £1 donation, and it’s worth it for the pictures, models and vernacular – the broad-beamed vessels common from the 18th century were known as hoggies. As a bonus, you may be lucky enough to be there when the young people in the ticket office are passing the time with language lessons. There was formal Spanish in return for colloquial and very vulgar English on my visit.
You’ll find Brighton’s fisheries again in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, overlooking the Pavilion Gardens. They are a small piece in an unusually varied mosaic. I recommend leaving the central hall to last: turn right instead, past a Grayson Perry vase, into the collection of Henry Willett’s Popular Pottery, where a fish fossil perhaps 120m years old and a Lucas Cranach portrait are unexpected bonuses. There are modern pieces here too, celebrating Green MP Caroline Lucas, anti-fracking protest etc.
On the first floor, further reminders of Brighton’s distinctive character make this a most uncommon museum. The exhibition called the Museum of Transology “is now the largest collection representing trans people in the UK – if not the world”, according to the publicity; it lies between galleries devoted to outrageous fashion and performance costumes and masks. A room full of Frank Brangwyn prints brings you back into familiar art gallery territory.
The museum has two Egyptian rooms, featuring among other things a mummified kitten and some exquisite amulets and charms. On the walls, a small Gainsborough and a large Venus and Tannhauser by Laurence Koe, and much more.
Which brings you to the main hall. This is a spectacular stroll through late 19th and 20th century design, setting out art, furniture, ceramics, objets etc associated with the changing styles of the times. There are too many highlights to do the hall justice here. The Lalique table? The Picasso pottery? Ravilious, Dali? It’s a rare treat.
But is it the best preparation for a walk through the Royal Pavilion? Perhaps not. At £5.20, it makes the Pavilion’s £13.50 look steep. The Pavilion also asks £2 for its audio guide, and the ban on all photography must improve sales of the £6.50 Royal Pavilion guidebook. Under the circumstances, the regular invitations to donate seem in poor taste.
Even so (again…), this is an astonishing one-off. The exotic Regency extravagance of its Far Eastern interiors easily lives up to the weirdness of the exterior, described by 19th century wit and liberal reformer Sydney Smith as looking “for all the world as if the Dome of St Paul’s had came down to Brighton and pupped”.
Apart from the prices there are other annoyances: gaggles of visitors blocking the carefully roped-off route through the building as they listen to their audio guides, for example; or a needless digression to take in the tea-rooms. But if you’re only in Brighton once, don’t miss it.
Perhaps the same applies to the Brighton Toy & Model Museum, by the railway station. This is another compact operation for which £6.50 seems high. On the other hand it’s not every town that has a toy or model museum. And if you’re waiting for a train it may be a cheaper way of passing the time than some of the alternatives.
On the subject of trains, the Toy & Model Museum is particularly strong on model railways and accessories. It also scores highly on Meccano exhibits, puppets, soft toys and pre-Lego building systems. I wonder if it might have more appeal for nostalgic parents than for youngsters, but not all the exhibits are old. The Harry Potter puppet wears a scarf that identifies the boy wizard as a Bantam, a supporter of Bradford City.
Two other specialist Brighton museums are worth mentioning. One, the Museum of Penny Slot Machines, is no more. The other, the Old Police Cells Museum, is available only for pre-booked tours on Saturday mornings, November to March, Tuesday to Saturday the rest of the year.
And, of course, it’s a seaside city with its fair share of amusements, festivals, shopping and food. The deck-chairs on the beach, you may notice, have blue and white stripes. Brighton & Hove Albion’s shirts used to look like Tesco carrier-bags; now the seaside inspiration is much more appropriate.
This is the 2019-updated Brighton chapter of Towns of Two Halves, published in 2018. To buy a copy, email email@example.com.