The Great British beach holiday is back in vogue, so we round up the best coastal resorts for a sun and fun holiday in England, Wales and Scotland
Eating fish and chips on the promenade. Licking ice-lollies on the beach. Paddling in the surf with your trousers rolled up. There’s much to love about the quintessential British beach holiday.
Not many people have heard of Deal and that’s part of the appeal. Rumoured to be the landing place of Julius Caesar more than two millennia ago, Deal has played many parts since then – it was a thriving medieval port, a battlefield, a smugglers’ haven, a wealthy Georgian town, and more recently, a tempting location that is among the best places to live in the UK. Taking a stroll on its unspoilt pebbly beach and looking out at the sea is a treat in itself.
Hastings, East Sussex
Hastings is made for history buffs. The rolling hills and rock cliffs here still play witness to the sword fights of the Battle of Hastings re-enactment, held every October. If the Norman conquest isn’t your cup of tea, visit The American Ground. Just a short walk from the pier, the small piece of land wedged by Claremont, Trinity St and Robertson St was once declared ‘independent’ from Hastings by its residents in the 1800s. They even hoisted the Stars and Stripes flag and considered themselves as the citizens of the ’24th US state’.
Brighton, East Sussex
A lack of sand hasn’t stopped Brighton from establishing itself as the UK’s coolest beach town. With its anything-goes attitude, hip inhabitants (many celebrities live here) and a pier filled with classic attractions, this kitsch seaside resort is a whole lot of fun. Its winding The Lanes are packed with art galleries and chic boutiques. August sees the annual Pride parade – Brighton is the UK’s self-proclaimed gay capital and it’s one heck of a party.
Bournemouth is booming. This buoyant coastal town has attracted a diverse mix of companies and is now one of the UK’s fastest-growing economies. Its generous sandy shores are also becoming a hotbed of action thanks to its pier-to-shore zipline – a thrilling, high-speed way to take in the coastal views. Participants are launched from a tower at the end of the pier, out over the Blue Flag beach and down to the throngs of bathers below.
Well-balanced Weymouth has the lot: on the one hand a golden horseshoe beach studded with stripy deckchairs, on the other an atmospheric 17th-century harbour with lively maritime scenes and welcoming pubs. In July crowds head to the beach to cheer on volleyball players as they shake up the sands with their annual tournament.
The English Riviera is an area spanning 35km (22m) of coastline in Devon, famed for its unique microclimate offering an upbeat mix of palm trees, sandy beaches and calm waters. Torquay is arguably the most famous resort town in the English Riviera – it’s stylish and vibrant, yet still retains a friendly vibe. Torquay also attracts crime fiction fans – this is the hometown of Agatha Christie, after all, so check out the Agatha Christie Mile, a self-guided walking tour that highlights 12 places that had inspired Agatha’s life and work. Every September, the International Agatha Christie Festival also promises a literary feast.
St Ives, Cornwall
Artists have been drawn to this idyllic corner of Cornwall since 1877, following the spread of new railroads, and it’s easy to see why: the vivid backdrop of bright sands, blue waters and rich greenery seem straight from a painter’s canvas. Don’t forget to check out the wonderful art collection at Tate St Ives – you can’t miss it, it’s the gorgeous building that overlooks the surf and sand of Porthmeor Beach.
As the waves sweep into Summerleaze Beach, swimmers look on from the calm waters of the adjacent sea pool. Created in 1930, this part-natural, part man-made saltwater pool has been delighting swimmers who come from far and wide to rejuvenate on the windswept coastline. A bells-and-whistles resort this is not, but Bude’s natural attributes have certainly set it apart from the hustle and bustle of bigger beach towns.
Bamburgh evokes an ‘edge of the world’ feel. With its AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) setting, a wide span of hard-packed beach and drifting dunes, it’s a thoroughly decorous affair. Hours are best spent walking along the beach or amp up your adrenaline with kayaking or surfing. All the while, the 11th-century Bamburgh Castle is like the guiding star in the backdrop, giving you a fixed point wherever you turn.
Saltburn-by-the-sea, North Yorkshire
The seafood in Saltburn is legendary, so much so that the Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain took Fred Sirieix here for the oh-so-delicious crab brioche in one episode of the BBC’s Remarkable Places to Eat series. Once you’ve filled up, join the Saltburn Riding School for a horseback riding excursion on the beach.
Whitby is a town of two halves, separated by the harbour and River Esk Estuary. On the west side lie clean, sandy beaches and an abundance of fish and chips shops – some of them have been crowned the best in Britain. On the east side, narrow cobbled lanes and stone steps lead you to the atmospheric Whitby Abbey, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. More than a century on, the association with Dracula has given rise to the twice-yearly Whitby Goth Weekend, when the town’s Gothic inclinations are celebrated – think head-to-toe cadaverous costumes and a soundtrack to match.
You need to bring your scuba gear to appreciate the magic of Cromer – just beneath the crystal waters lies the Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed, thought to be the largest chalk reef in Europe (and possibly the world). Formed over many millions of years, the reef is home to thousands of marine creatures that rely on the reef for survival. Back on terra firma, the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum is worth a visit – this place tells heroic tales of Cromer’s lifeboat crew.
Don’t discount Skegness – we visited Skegness in April 2021 and witnessed the locals working hard to give the town a facelift. The beach is surprisingly clean, too. For visitors after some full-throttle seaside kitsch – don’t worry, Skeggy still has a carnival vibe thanks to music-blasting arcades, neon-lit casinos and fun-filled crazy golf.
The Mumbles, West Glamorgan
Lying just 7km (4m) southeast of Swansea, the Mumbles is an ideal gateway for city dwellers who want to relax under the sun, build sandcastles with young children, or just roll out a blanket and have a picnic. If you like photography, get up early and take stunning sunrise shots of the lighthouse that sits on an outer island off Mumbles Head.
Perched on the rugged South Wales coastline, Tenby’s cluster of pastel-hued buildings and snaking, medieval stone walls are an arresting sight. Beaches lie to the north and south – both invite you to relax in the sun and play in the surf. For those who enjoy a quiet walk, tackle part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path (from Tenby to Saundersfoot) and be rewarded with the stunning views from the headland at Monkstone Point.
It’s easy to fall in love with Conwy, a well-preserved medieval town framed by the UNESCO-listed Conwy Castle, a 13th-century fortification with plenty of towers and dungeons to be explored. Around the corner stands the smallest house in Great Britain, just 1.8m (5.9ft) wide, with enough room for a bed, a coal storage unit and a fireplace. When it comes to beaches, the blissful Conwy Morfa Beach hugs the bay, while the nearby Penmaenmawr and Llandudno’s west shore are excellent alternatives.
North Berwick, East Lothian
North Berwick is known for its bird-watching opportunities. Located just 37km (23m) east of Edinburgh, this beautiful seaside resort is home to the acclaimed Scottish Seabird Centre, which offers a catamaran cruise to Bass Rock to see the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets. Two great beaches are within walking distance from the town centre – Milsey Bay and West Bay, with four more beaches less than 10 minutes away by car.
Port Ellen, Islay
If your ideal beach holiday involves a remote location with three excellent distilleries within easy reach, look no further than Port Ellen. Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, is renowned for its peaty whisky. And Port Ellen, Islay’s main port, is where most visitors catch the first sight of the island’s striking landscapes with whitewashed houses at the edge of a sandy bay. Award-winning distilleries – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – sit in the west, and all of them welcome visitors.
John o’Groats, Caithness
John o’Groats is the northern end of the longest distance between two inhabited points on the mainland of Great Britain – some 1,410km (876m) away from Land’s End in Cornwall, the southern end. John o’Groats is also near to Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of mainland Great Britain. And when the road ends, adventures begin at this extreme location. Walkers come to traverse the windswept shoreline, surfers paddle out to catch a wave, naturalists raise the binoculars to watch Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds, and of course, cyclists mark the start (or the end) of their iconic ‘End-to-End’ adventure. In other words, an action-packed beach holiday is yours for the taking.
You may also like:
- The 10 most scenic self-guided walking holidays in England
- Explore Scotland’s historic castles
- Exploring Northern Ireland’s coastal route
This post was updated in May 2021.