From the blue waters of Cornwall to Scotland’s windy beaches, these are the most idyllic places for a dip in the sea, a plate of fish and chips, and a leisurely walk down the majestic coast.
The United Kingdom probably isn’t the first, second, or even third place that comes to mind when you think of a trip to the beach. Bordered by the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the sovereign state sits far from the turquoise waters and high temperatures of more tropical locations. Plus, it goes without saying that the weather in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland veers toward dreary for a large portion of the year. But it’s for those reasons why the seaside towns in the U.K. are some of the best-kept secrets within each country.
While you can head to some of the larger beach towns — like Brighton or Bournemouth — the more charming, often kitschy, and definitely cozier coastal destinations tend to be less populated (although they become much busier in the height of summer). It’s in these tiny villages and ports that you can experience everything that makes a beach destination a must-visit when venturing across the pond: fish and chips, an ice cream cone with chocolate Flake, windy walks in wellies, painted beach huts, fresh oysters, nautical pubs, and some of the most scenic spots along the U.K.’s coast.
If you were to name a quintessential British beach town, it would be Southwold. Located on the east coast, it’s about a three-hour drive from London, making it a popular holiday destination for city dwellers and those in possession of a second home. Like many places in the U.K., it’s ripe with tradition and history. The pastel-colored beach huts and 100-foot-tall working lighthouse are synonymous with the town itself, and a midday meal of fish and chips from Sole Bay Fish Company is basically a requirement upon visiting. One of the most memorable sights in Southwold, however, is the Under the Pier Show, a “unique and eccentric collection of interactive machines” brought to life by artist Tim Hunkin. It’s family fun at its finest and the perfect activity once you’ve had your fill of Southwold’s saltwater and sand.
St. Ives, Cornwall
You can’t talk about the English coast without bringing up Cornwall, a county known for surfing, Cornish pasties, and stunning beaches. While there are several towns to explore in this southwestern region, St. Ives takes the cake for the most charming. Its bright blue waters and narrow cobblestone streets are the definition of photogenic. In fact, if you have an image of Cornwall in your mind, there’s a good chance you’re picturing the small seaside town of St. Ives. Not only is it visually stunning, but it also has the ideal balance of adventure, culture, and history. Intrepid travelers can sign up for a lesson at St. Ives Surf School, while those with a passion for the arts can pop in and out of the galleries in town or purchase a ticket to Tate St. Ives. Before sunset, head up to St. Nicholas Chapel for panoramic views of the coast, then make your way to The Sloop Inn — a pub that dates back to the 1300s — for a well-earned pint.
Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Fishing villages dot the Scottish coast, but it’s Tobermory on the Isle of Mull that stands out with its rainbow harbor-front buildings and simple yet satisfactory offerings. Due to its remote location, Tobermory has several beaches — featuring emerald water and white and golden sand — but don’t plan on spending your entire day here (it is Scotland, after all). Instead, add Tobermory Chocolate, Tobermory Distillery, Mull Aquarium, and Isle of Mull Cheese as stops along your route. Set off on foot if you want to traverse the coastal and forest paths and work up an appetite for fresh fish and scallops from Tobermory Chip Van.
Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire Coast
Just down the road from the more well-known town of Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay is a fishing village made up of steep, narrow streets, traditional fisherman's pubs, coffeehouses, and quaint cottages that appear to perfectly balance on the cliffside. Be sure to bring your walking shoes, and leave your car at home. Visitors must park in one of two visitor car parks (these tend to fill up), and you’ll need to circumnavigate the North York Moors town and coastline sans automobile. Robin Hood’s Bay is one of those places that has layers upon layers of history and secrets to explore, including a storied past involving pirates and smugglers. At low tide, the magic of the seaside comes alive when a hidden beach made of sand, boulders, seaweed, and other debris appears as the water recedes. Pets are also permitted in Robin Hood’s Bay, or Baytown as it's known to locals. The beach is dog-friendly all year round, and there are plenty of pubs that welcome furry friends, too.
Abersoch’s large sandy beaches and sailing waters beckon travelers who want to make their way to Wales for a seaside vacation. There are numerous activities and attractions in the area, but you’ll want to be outside for the majority of the day — weather permitting. That might mean renting a beach hut, going windsurfing or sea kayaking, or taking a bike for a spin around the harbor. No matter what you choose, you’ll want to keep a look out for both dolphins and seals, as both are known to make appearances in Abersoch every now and then. As far as food and drink goes, the coastal town has plenty of offerings. If you’re craving something sweet, Two Islands Ice Cream uses Welsh dairy and natural ingredients to whip up its creations. And for your classic, casual seaside fare and ales, head to The Vaynol or St. Tudwals Inn — both are within walking distance of the harbor and marina.
6. Salcombe, Devon
Renowned for its coastal towns and pristine beaches, Devon is a magnet for anyone wanting to experience an idyllic escape in the great British seaside. Salcombe, in particular, maintains its status as one of the prettiest areas in the region, with hills that look down upon its postcard-worthy harbor and pastel-colored seafront. On one side of the beach, you have the aquamarine waters populated by sailboats in varying sizes. On the other, you’ll find traditional seafood shacks, award-winning restaurants, cafes, nautical pubs, and even a distillery where you can create your own bottle of gin. As with most beaches in the U.K., Salcombe sees an increase in visitors in July and August, but in the off-season, you can enjoy everything the seaside town has to offer, but with smaller crowds and lower prices.
Cushendun, County Antrim
Located along the famous Causeway Coastal Route, the quaint village of Cushendun is a Northern Island gem with decidedly fewer crowds than other beaches in the U.K. Cushendun Beach and its sheltered harbor are safe for swimming, and on a clear day, you can see the Scottish coast, just 15 miles away. While there are only a few places to grab a bite to eat and a drink, visitors relish seafood chowder, steak and Guinness pie, and Irish whiskey at Mary McBride’s Bar (an establishment that once claimed to be the “smallest bar in Ireland”). The entirety of the National Trust-protected historic village can be explored via scenic paths, but there’s one Cushendun activity that continues to draw visitors: the Cushendun Caves, a natural formation that served as a shooting location in Game of Thrones.
While Whitstable, on the north coast of Kent, gained popularity for its oysters, it’s Deal, on the other side of the county, that has earned the title of “most charming.” You’ll find the quirky seaside town and its pebble beach in what’s known as the White Cliffs Country (the famous White Cliffs of Dover may ring a bell). Art galleries are common, exhibitions are frequent, and wine connoisseurs shouldn’t miss a visit to Le Pinardier, a wine bar and shop with regular live music and art programming. Because a visit to the coast wouldn’t be complete without seafood, grab a seat at Middle Street Fish Bar. Alternatively, get your fish and chips to go and eat them on Deal Castle Beach, a quiet retreat with wooden fishing boats scattered across the landscape.
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