Hattie Lloyd 05/06/23
A breezy 90 minute train ride from St. Pancras, Margate makes a great destination for a day trip from London.
But with an abundance of excellent restaurants (some of which are actually outposts from London restaurateurs), seaside bars and appealing little independent places to spend the night, there’s a strong argument to spend an entire weekend in Margate.
Here’s our pick of the top spots to visit while you’re in town, and out of the city…
The coastal town hit its peak in the Victorian era, when Londoners came in their droves seeking an escape from all the smog and cholera. Margate’s popularity continued well into the 1920s with the establishment of Dreamland, an art deco pleasure park that’s since been rebooted (more on which later). In the 60s it was a (literal) stomping ground for gangs of mods and rockers driving their bikes and mopeds down from London in the name of a good punch-up, and by the 70s and 80s it was all looking a little down at heel as everyone jetted off to Benidorm instead.
In the 2010s, the cheap rents started to attract creatives and fledgling businesses down from London, winning Margate the dubious moniker of ‘Shoreditch on sea’. But for all the misgivings you might have about visiting somewhere almost purely defined by its hipsterdom, the truth is that Margate’s been given a new lease of life. Once empty high streets are now packed with thriving independent businesses. There’s top-tier culture on offer thanks to the Turner Contemporary gallery (which has brought in a staggering £70m to the local economy). There are fantastic restaurants run both by locals and some of London’s best-loved chefs. It’s a home-from-home for Londoners to visit, with the breathtaking bonus of a sandy beach and the boundless sea on the horizon.
Matteo di Lorio/Unsplash
It’s about an hour and a half train ride from St. Pancras to Margate, and you can get an off-peak return for about £30. There are a couple of trains every hour – just be aware that they get insanely busy on a sunny weekend, so it’s worth getting up and travelling early. Otherwise, you can drive down in about 2 hours.
The train station pretty much spits you out right onto the seafront: take a deep gulp of (probably) health-giving sea air and take a stroll along the promenade with its wrought iron balustrades and sweeping views. Turn left at the old clock tower, and after about ten minutes you’ll find yourself toe to toe with the hulking geometry of the Turner Contemporary gallery (the twee cream-painted Victorian building to the left has a left luggage facility if you want to drop off your bags first). Open Tuesday – Sunday, the gallery’s entirely free to visit and hosts a handful of temporary exhibitions at any given time – you can see what’s on here.
For a little post-modern art sustenance, go to retrace your steps and head down King Street, turning right onto Broad Street. Head into the handsome brick building that was once The Crown pub – you’ll still see the name engraved over the doorway – for homely Italian dining accompanied by natural wines.
Bottega Caruso is run by Simona Caruso and her husband Harry, whose combination of warm hospitality and the rustic setting will soon have you feeling like one of la famiglia. You can watch the pasta being hand-made through the window into the kitchen, and wait patiently for it to arrive at your table dressed with fresh mussels and asparagus; a hearty fennel sausage & pork shoulder ragù; or preserved tomatoes sent directly from the family’s farm just outside of Naples. You can also construct a decent banquet of small plates for yourself, made with generations-old recipes and local produce. Just make sure to book a table (they’re closed Sundays), or try walking-up for a coveted table al fresco.
Fill your afternoon with a saunter around Margate’s colourful patchwork of independent shops dotted along the backstreets. Here in the Old Town, shops like Just Jane, Breuer & Dawson and Paraphernalia will keep you well-stocked in vintage clothing, antique furniture and unusual bric-a-brac. Back towards the station, The Margate Bookshop is as charming as they come, with regular author events and tables outside for a coffee, and for gifts, pop into Margaux and Aarven.
As the day draws to a close, you’ll want to get a good view of Margate’s famously dramatic sunsets. Turner loved to paint them, but you’ll probably get just as much enjoyment watching them from Sargasso, an appropriately seafood-heavy spot from the stellar team behind Brawn. Set on the pier itself, the views across the bay only just pip the scene you can watch from the bar stools lined up along the open kitchen, as the team prepare fresh oysters from Whitstable; mussels in cider; skate wing schnitzel and cacio e pepe dauphinois to serve up alongside low-intervention wines.
After dinner, you have two options depending on your energy levels and how much your knees creak in the morning: a spacious but snug-feeling pub, or a whirl around the roller rink at Dreamland.
Dreamland is Margate’s lasting icon; an art deco bastion that simultaneously feels like a ghost from the glory days, while being brought back to colourful, exuberant life. The old amusement park has been lovingly restored with a £25m revamp, with vintage rides still running (including Britain’s oldest wooden rollercoaster) alongside a roller disco, a retro pinball arcade, an outdoor stage hosting big-name acts, and a cluster of restaurants & bars with regular DJs.
For a more low-key evening, head to the George & Heart, a Grade II listed, 18th century coaching inn with plenty of outdoor tables for the summer, and roaring fireplaces for the winter. On the menu: an interest-piquing range of wines from Kent, cocktails, and beers on tap from Margate’s own North Down brewery.
There’s a handful of wonderfully cosy rooms upstairs, but it’s worth tearing yourself away and checking in for the night at The Reading Rooms. This is a boutique B&B in its purest form: a restored 1770s townhouse equipped with just two rooms. Then again, calling them rooms is a bit like calling Buckingham Palace a flat: each taking up an entire floor, they feature lofty ceilings with shuttered windows stretching the full height, antique French furniture, and fairytale chandeliers. Before turning in for the night, fill out your breakfast choices, and you’ll find a hamper stocked with pastries, jam, and a piping hot cafetière waiting outside your door come morning.
Time to explore Cliftonville, the eastern side of Margate. If you need another caffeine kick post breakfast, it’s worth the pilgrimage to Cliffs for a cup of joe and a rummage through the vinyl crates upstairs. Otherwise, head straight for Margate’s most unusual attraction: the Shell Grotto.
Discovered in 1835, this subterranean labyrinth stretches along 70ft of underground tunnels meticulously hand-decorated with pebbles and shells. Nobody has any idea when it was made, or what it was for (though anyone’s immediate guess would be ‘super creepy séance den’). And if that’s not enough to scratch your subterranean folly itch, take a look at the Margate Caves down the road – an old chalk mine which was, at some point in history, decorated with colourful wall paintings.
You didn’t, however, come to the seaside to spend all your time underground.
Here in Cliftonville you can head to the coastline and take a dunk in the Walpole Tidal Pool, a 1930s construction that allows you to swim in a kind of miniature, walled version of the sea like an oversized toddler. For the real deal, follow the shoreline back around to Margate Beach and pitch up on the golden sand. There’s plenty around here for a post-swim bite, too: try DIVE for tacos & margaritas on the beach; The Greedy Cow‘s famous cheese toasties; or Peter’s Fish Factory for the best chippie tea.
From here, you could don your boots or hire a bike and take in the chalky coastline as you cycle up to Westgate-on-Sea, or down towards Ramsgate via the excessively pretty Botany Bay, along the Viking Coastal Trail (easily one of the loveliest hikes near London). Or, you could lean into pure holiday mode, and pop into Haeckels House for a spa treatment overlooking the sea.
As the sun begins to set and the train home beckons, cap off your weekend with a glass at Sète. This intimate wine bar in Cliftonville opened at the tail end of 2022, and already has a stoic legion of fans who come in for its shop-price bottles and continental small plates (and will win many more when the back garden opens this summer). There are over 50 wines available by the glass, but you might just be tempted to take away a bottle, too.
It might make that train home just a tiny bit more pleasant.
Looking for more inspiration? Take a peek at our pick of hotels in Margate
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