Why you should swap Britain’s overcrowded tourist towns for their hip sisters

Staithes is best known as a traditional fishing village
Staithes is best known as a traditional fishing village - Getty

Overtourism, Instagram and a pandemic-induced domestic tourism surge that has morphed into a major trend mean the UK’s most popular destinations are crowded and clamorous in the sunnier seasons – and, in some cases, year-round. But, since we fell in love with such European second-tier destinations as Bergamo, Bilbao, Bergen and Nîmes – opened up by no-frills flights – how about swapping swamped UK towns for their hip sisters?

Some are suburbs, others similar sized rivals, a few are secret little jewels up the road. What can you expect? Warmer, more personalised service. Smaller local restaurants and quieter pubs. Less competition for hotel rooms. You’ll also experience a sense of discovery and of not following the traffic – two holy grails of good travels.

Leith instead of Edinburgh

Back in the days of Begsby and Renton, Leith had a certain notoriety. Edinburgh had a drug problem and its scruffier satellites were hotspots. But the former dockland quarter, now contained within Edinburgh’s city limits, has been connected by tram to the centre and is a viable sea-side option for those who want to see the famous sights but not spend every hour of the day in the company of selfie-snappers and Instagrammers.

Leith is a hub of lively eating and drinking spots
Leith (in the distance) is a hub of lively eating and drinking spots - Getty

New cafés and bars have appeared along the route and Leith itself has seen lots of cool new openings of craft pubs, gin distilleries, Michelin-starred eateries and art spaces. By the evening, you’ll almost certainly want to opt for dinner and drinks by the sea rather than joining the queues, Fringe or no Fringe.

Fingal has cabins from £300 per night, including breakfast.

Worthing instead of Brighton

A city can only claim to be cool, or alternative, or groundbreakingly tolerant for so long. Then it has to accept that the message is out, everyone knows, and the positive news has drawn in perhaps too many tourists.  This is Brighton’s cross to bear and the reason London escapists are eyeing Worthing. The Sussex town once had an image problem; people thought retirees, sleepy, Seventies planning, general dullness.

Worthing is one of the biggest seaside towns on the South Coast
Worthing is one of the biggest seaside towns on the South Coast - Getty

But it’s been transformed by smart restaurants and cafés, independent retail, and a small but energetic art scene. It also has grand Regency architecture and listed buildings.  A Blue Plaque trail starting at Worthing Pier takes in one of the oldest working cinemas in the UK, Harold Pinter’s house and four bronze sculptures by Elizabeth Frink, known as the Frink Heads.

The Burlington Hotel (01903 211 222, theburlington.net) has doubles from £149 per night, including breakfast.

St Leonards-on-Sea instead of Hastings

St Leonards is an early Victorian invention, conceived by an ambitious builder called James Burton to be a “Regent’s Park by the sea”. Recent restoration of period properties has given the town an optimistic look, and there are two fine shopping streets – Kings Road and Norman Road – for exploring well-curated antiques retailers, concept stores and restaurants, some quirky, others reassuringly down-to-earth.

Some are already dubbing St Leonards "Dalston-On-Sea"
Some are already dubbing St Leonards 'Dalston-On-Sea' - Alamy

Try Farmyard for on-trend – read natural – wines and a menu of local, seasonal dishes. Kino-Teatr is a vibrant arts centre, staging theatre, live music, cinema and fine art; Heist is a foodie collective in an old bank with several cafes and a great seafood restaurant called Boatyard. Some are already dubbing St Leonards “Dalston-On-Sea”, but you can usually find a quiet spot on the beach, where the curiously named Goat Ledge cafe serves up fish tacos, wine, beer and tunes from 8am until 5pm. Hastings, by contrast, can be a battle for space to think as well as tables.

Hastings House has doubles from £115 per night, including breakfast.

Leigh-on-Sea instead of Southend

In March 2022, Southend became a city, an honour bestowed in memory of murdered MP Sir David Amess. The outflow of London workers to the estuary-side metropolis has led to some claiming the former joke seaside town at the end of the “Misery Line” could become a Miami-on-Thames. We’ll see about that.

Leigh-on-sea is a quieter, cleaner alternative to Southend
Leigh-on-sea is a quieter, cleaner alternative to Southend - Alamy

What’s more certain is that Southend can get busy, noisy, lairy and littery. Neighbouring Leigh-on-Sea is a clever side-swerve, offering a cobbled high street, cosy pubs, cockles stalls, fishing boats and great views of Kent. There are green spaces at Daws Heath and Two Tree Island. Leigh has been voted as one of the best places to live in England; as hotels are in short supply, take up residence in a holiday let – you might find out why commuters love the place so much.

Airbnb has cottages and apartments in Leigh from £50 per night, not including breakfast.

Lytham instead of Blackpool

Love it or hate it, Blackpool is never tranquil or discreet. Even in midwinter it has an edgy quality, especially at weekends and in the evenings. In midsummer, the prom is a pullulating parade of social, ethnic and gender diversity, with families, drunks and pensioners weaving around each other like dodgem cars. Lancashire’s biggest town does, however, have some great restaurants, bars, built heritage and, in Showtown, a wonderful new museum of entertainment.

Lytham has great restaurants, bars and heritage
Lytham has great restaurants, bars and heritage - Getty

Get the best of both worlds by basing yourself at Lytham – a resort in its own right that has deeper roots than Blackpool or St Annes and which always targeted a slightly posher kind of bather. It’s now one of the Fylde coast’s most affluent areas and has some very fine eateries, pubs and fish and chip shops, a sedate front, lovely Lowther Gardens, a landmark windmill and old mussel tanks. The Ribble estuary, busy with bird life, feels a million miles away from the Pleasure Beach and amusement-packed piers of Blackpool.

The Rooms (01253 736000; theroomslytham.co.uk) has doubles from £155 per night, including breakfast.

Staithes instead of Whitby

Dracula has pulling power, as does the Gothic ruin in whose shadow he preyed on Mina and Lucy. Even on weekends when there isn’t a Goth festival (these are very frequent indeed), beer festival, folk festival or some other jamboree, the harbour and town can feel frenetic. The tiny, beautiful village of Staithes – just a few miles north – is one of Yorkshire’s loveliest secrets. It sits in a steeply walled cove rich with fishing and artistic history. It has an old real-ale boozer named after its most famous resident, Captain Cook.

A heritage centre in a former Methodist Chapel commemorates his adventures. The Staithes Festival of Arts and Heritage (staithesfestival.com), takes place every September. Goths and emos are welcome, but black hair and nails not obligatory,

The Endeavour has doubles from £110 per night, including breakfast.

Kingsbridge instead of Salcombe

With its pricey real estate, yachts and second-homeowners, Salcombe has been nicknamed “Chelsea-on-Sea”. It also has traffic problems akin to a London borough, with black SUVs crawling around the narrow streets. It originally drew travellers with its privileged location on the Kingsbridge Estuary. So, why not stay in its namesake – Kingsbridge, a proper Devon coast town with a diverse (in class terms, at least) population of just over 6,000 and lots of amenities as well as a fair number of pubs, cafés and restaurants.

Kingsbridge is known as a great walking town
Kingsbridge is known as a great walking town - Alamy

The local cinema is a cosy, old-school affair. Festivals and fairs punctuate the summer. It’s less than 7 miles to visit Salcombe, and you are very well placed (better than Salcombe in fact) for coast walks and day-trips to Modbury, Start Point, Dartmoor, and other lovely spots.

The Crabshell (01548 852345; thecrabshellinn.co.uk) has a two-bed apartment from £155 per night, not including breakfast.

Saundersfoot instead of Tenby

Pembrokeshire Coast Path walkers sometimes miss Saundersfoot’s miniature centre, not least because its beach is so distractingly lovely and you can’t really see much of the housing or shops from the shoreline. That is, though, the point. This is a perfect bolthole for those who want to see West Wales’ sights and lively towns but also enjoy quiet, sunset-watching downtime in the evening.

Saundersfoot is quiet, picturesque and perfect for a relaxing break
Saundersfoot is quiet, picturesque and perfect for a relaxing break - Alamy Stock Photo

While Tenby is pretty enough and great fun, it can feel a bit relentless. Saundersfoot, just three miles to the north, is a deceptively large village with terraced cottage, a smart spa hotel, nice pubs and the landmark Coast restaurant overlooking the beach (soon to be rebranded as Lan y Mor).

St Brides Spa Hotel has doubles from £210 per night, including breakfast.

Ross-on-Wye instead Hay-on-Wye

Hay, hyped for years thanks to its media-loving festival, is now a fixture on many a car-cruising traveller’s itinerary. That its numerous bookshops are less busy than its pubs and restaurants suggests the idea that the “capital of books” also appeals to people who’d much rather watch telly. But tourism was born down the road and over the border in Ross. William Gilpin’s 1750 Wye Tour was a two-day boat trip down the Wye from Ross to Chepstow. Gilpin wrote Britain’s first travel guidebook, sparking a trend for “picturesque tourism”.

There's plenty to do at this characterful market town in the south of Herefordshire
There's plenty to do at this characterful market town of Ross-on-Wye, in the south of Herefordshire - Getty

Ross still delivers this, with 19th-century mock-Gothic walls, a Gazebo Tower folly and pastel-hued dwellings tumbling down the hillside to the river. It’s a great base for exploring the valley, with several stylish hotels, lots of restaurants and pubs, and Rossiter Books – so you can still get your fix of bookish browsing.

The Royal Hotel has doubles from £63 per night, including breakfast.

Formby instead of Southport

Southport Victorian shops and architecture are in need of a spruce-up, but they still draw the crowds. The beach, thanks to silting, seems to stretch as far as the Isle of Man; consequently it doesn’t always feel like a “seaside” resort.  By contrast, Formby’s USPs are all natural. The sweeping, uncluttered beach, backed by huge dunes, is the site of prehistoric footprints and shipwrecks. Rare species including Natterjack toads thrive.

Formby is a picturesque coastal town near Liverpool
Formby is a picturesque coastal town near Liverpool - Alamy

The Squirrel Cycle Route links Southport to Formby’s National Trust woodlands, where red squirrels can be seen. Another trail, the Asparagus Cycle Route cuts across fields where the veg was once grown for export. There’s a serious golf and a spa resort.  Formby Village, which has some of Merseyside’s most des-res, football-price residences, is awash with restaurants – from fine-dining to burgers and pizzas. Regular trains whisk you between grandiose Lords Street and the dunes, but you’ll soon come to prefer the latter.

Formby Hall Golf Resort (01704 875699, formbyhallgolfresort.co.uk) has doubles from £149 per night, including breakfast.

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