One hour and a half by train from London, Margate has recently been rediscovered as a great holiday resort. Enjoy its history, hip vibes, seaside thrills and world-class art gallery.
Only ten years ago Margate was described as a neglected town whose thriving past had sunk into an oblivion of shabbiness and stagnation. Even “the loveliest skies in Europe”, praised by William Turner, seemed to have been forgotten. But the tide has turned quickly for this British seaside gem, enhancing its rich history with new trends and a lively cultural scene.
The Turner Contemporary, opened in 2011, is the symbol of Margate’s regeneration. Located on the same site where J.M.W. Turner used to stay, the gallery alone is worth a visit to the town, both for its elegant architecture and world-class curation. There’s no permanent collection, but free exhibitions of historical and contemporary art run throughout the year, always showing at least one work by Turner. At the time of writing, an upcoming exhibition will bring together the painter’s iconic seascapes and the controversial work by local contemporary artist Tracey Emin.
After visiting the gallery, a stroll along the stone pier is the best way to work off an art overdose. Walk past the Droit House, home to the Visitor Information Centre, and consider a break with a harbour view at cheese restaurant Cheesy Tiger, The Harbour Arms micro-pub, or one of the other cafes that line the pier. A colourful row of small galleries and artists’ studios also overlooks the rolling tides, welcoming visitors with an open door policy. Reach the lighthouse at the end of the pier and meet the Shell Lady, the bronze statue of Turner’s mistress Mrs Sophia Booth looking out at the horizon.
She glances at Margate Sands too, also known as the ‘golden mile’, which claims to have been the first beach to introduce donkey rides and deckchairs. Bordering the beach along Marine Terrace, The Clock Tower was erected in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Further west, the late-Victorian Nayland Rock Promenade Shelter is where T.S. Eliot found inspiration for ‘The Waste Land’.
The 58-metre-high Arlington House towers above the bay, providing Margate with its own example of Brutalist architecture. But it doesn’t overshadow the adjacent funfair, which has been a key part of the town’s identity since 1920. Dreamland reopened in May 2017 following a £25million restoration, putting an end to years of changing fortunes and rumours of dismantlement. A delightful retro taste can be found in its classic rides, 1920s Scenic Railway, 1930s ‘super-cinema’ building and menagerie cages, which once belonged to ‘Lord’ George Sanger’s circus. On top of that, performances, art installations, music events, a food court and a rooftop bar make Dreamland the pop counterpart to the Turner Contemporary.
At lunch, try fish and chips at Peter’s Fish Factory (12 The Parade, CT9 1EZ) or oysters, jellied eels and cockles at Manning’s Seafood Stall (The parade, CT9 1DD), although the queue can get long at weekends. As a seaside resort, Margate doesn’t lack in ice cream parlours either. Local favourites include Morelli’s (Dreamland, CT9 1XJ) and Melt (16 Marine Drive, CT9 1DH). For further culinary exploration, The Old Kent Market (8 Fort Hill, CT9 1HD) provides food stalls and events for the local community.
If the old town’s independent shops, hipster cafes and exhibition spaces demonstrate how Margate has changed over the past ten years, Margate Museum offers a more thorough account of the town’s history. The symbolic price of the ticket includes entrance to the Tudor House, a medieval farmstead and one of Margate’s oldest buildings. Other historical landmarks in the old town are the former mansion of the Cobbs, a prominent local family of brewers and bankers, and the Royal York Mansions, where Britain’s first seawater baths were located.
Unlike many things in Margate, The Shell Grotto hasn’t changed a bit since it was discovered in 1835. Its 4.6 million shells still dazzle visitors to the underground maze, which leads to a mysterious rectangular chamber, whose original function remains unknown. The equally fascinating Margate Caves are set to reopen in 2019.
Any trip to Margate would be do well to include the beauties of the Thanet coast too. Hit the Viking Coastal Trail and head eastwards to Botany Bay’s white cliffs and chalk stacks, roughly a one-hour-walk from Margate’s old town. Along the way you can find the wild and free-to-access tidal pool in Cliftonville, the largest in the UK, which has recently celebrated its 80th birthday.
Many of the most desirable hotels are dotted along the seafront, but you’ll also find accommodation options throughout the town offering scenic views as well as quick access to the beach. One of the most popular is The Crescent Victoria Hotel (25-26 Fort Crescent), a boutique-style property that’s a 5-minute walk from the beach and The Parade. Stylish guest rooms are elegantly furnished and feature a TV and private bathroom, while elsewhere in the hotel you’ll find a pretty garden and terrace, plus a bar serving a range of drinks as well as breakfasts and afternoon tea. There’s also an eye-catching Moroccan-themed marquee that can be hired for special events.
Another excellent boutique option is The Sands Hotel (16 Marine Drive), directly overlooking Margate Sands and offering splendid beach and sea views. The hotel’s design and décor blends harmoniously with its surroundings, including light, refreshing colour schemes along with natural materials used throughout. As for amenities, there’s a chic waterfront terrace where guests can enjoy afternoon tea while soaking up the views, and a contemporary all-day restaurant and bar serving locally sourced produce. Margate’s Old Town is just a few minutes’ walk away.
As an alternative, The Warwick (27 Warwick Rd) is a charming guesthouse that’s just a stone’s throw from the beach. Housed within a restored Edwardian building just off the Eastern Esplanade, it has a total of four guest rooms, each with an ensuite bathroom, flat-screen TV and free WiFi. Breakfasts are served every morning and feature a mouth-watering selection of homemade bread, potato, cakes, pastries and muffins, as well as cooked meals. Everything that Margate has to offer is reachable by foot, including The Turner Contemporary Gallery, which is a 15-minute stroll away along the beach.
Eat and Drink
Launched in 2010, The Ambrette (44 King Street, CT9 1QE) is a multi-award winning restaurant introducing its guests to the regional varieties of Indian cooking. Influences of other global cuisines also crop up in the elegant dishes featured on the seasonal menu, reflecting chef Des Biswal’s creative and eclectic flair. The result is a truly contemporary take on Indian culinary traditions, where exotic flavours meet responsibly-sourced local produce. This is the place to go for fine dining in Margate.
Originally a street food joint, GB Pizza’s (14A Marine Drive, CT9 1DH) first restaurant in Margate is now established as the locals and holidaymakers’ pizzeria of choice. Unsurprisingly, the formula of success is as simple as a thin and crispy base topped with prime British produce and homemade, slow-cooked tomato sauce. Pizza can be accompanied by craft beer and affordable wine, the latter served through self-service taps (alas, this does not mean bottomless refills). Should anyone be wondering, Margate-rita does appear on the menu.
Marine Terrace to the left, the stone pier to the right, Buoy and Oyster (44 High Street, CT9 1 DS) offers the best way to enjoy a sunset over Margate’s bay, that is, with seafood and cocktails. Fish entries include whitebait, crab linguine and monkfish burger, but those not interested in the seaside fare will find meat and vegetarian options too. Each dish reflects a modern and refined culinary approach, offered at a reasonable price. Jazz and blues live music is played on the first and third Wednesday of each month.
The Greedy Cow (3 Market Place, CT9 1ER) is most loved locally for its burgers, delicious breakfasts and relaxed atmosphere. Its no-frills menu might not feature loads of entries, but each of them sounds appetising enough to make choosing a sorry duty. Favourites include grilled cheese toasties, pulled pork buns and the falafel and beetroot hummus dish. Their cakes have a great reputation too, while the outside seating area makes the Greedy Cow a perfect choice for a meal in good weather.
A warm café and rustic restaurant, BeBeached (Harbour Arm Stone Pier, CT9 1AP) is to be found along the stone pier. The stunning view of the harbour delights during either a quick break over coffee and tea, or longer food sessions. The menu features a rich variety of honest, alluring dishes made with locally-sourced ingredients. Daily and weekly entries vary with season and availability, so keep an eye on the specials board.
Vintage furniture and clothing shops are scattered all over the old town, partly as a result of the recent hipster surge that has won Margate the name of “Shoreditch-on-sea”, and partly as homage to the mod and rock culture that livened up the town in the 1960s and ’70s (including pioneering space-rock band Hawkwind).
Widely celebrated in the media, Scott’s Furniture Mart (The Old Iceworks, Bath Place, CT9 2BN) has been around since long before Margate’s regeneration. Allow enough time to get lost among its three storeys of vintage seating, tables, storage, china, glass and miscellaneous. Younger neighbour Junk Deluxe joined in 2006 as a retro shop focused on affordable modern design, displaying mid-20th century British and European furniture and homewares. Deliveries and postage can be arranged.
Specialising in menswear, Breuer & Dawson (7 King Street, CT9 1DD) results from 20 years-plus of experience in the vintage-clothing industry, gained in London’s Portobello and Camden markets. On top of the excellent mix of classic and eccentric items, the shop is also representative of a certain way of modern Margate life, where looking back at the past is not merely commemorative but filtered through a modern outlook. Paul Smith visited the shop shortly after its opening, in 2012, and was so impressed he promoted it on his blog.
Madam Popoff (4 King Street, CT9 1DA) opened in 2010 transferring an online shop to Margate’s old town. Run by former London College of Fashion student Deborah Ellis, the shop’s two floors showcase hand-picked vintage clothing for girls and women, stocking an eclectic range of quality pieces. Among the possible finds are 1920s flapper dresses, 1990s grunge, 1950s prom dresses, 1960s mod, 1970s Ossie Clark and everything in between.