If you're looking for an offbeat, easy and affordable weekend getaway from London, consider visiting the seaside town of Margate in the Thanet district of Kent. Located just an hour and a half by train from London Victoria or St Pancras International, Margate is one of the oldest seaside resorts in the country, having attracted visitors to its shores for the past 250 years.
These days, the somewhat shabby chic city is a far cry from its heyday in the early 20th century, but its characterful atmosphere, thriving art scene and growing hipster population seem to indicate that a resurgence is on the horizon! Mark our words - Margate is officially cool again.
One of the city's appeals is that the beach is conveniently located right on the main road, just steps from Old Town and the train station. On a warm day, bring a blanket and chill out on the shore with an ice cream or fresh seafood from the Mannings Seafood vendor. If you're spending the night in Margate, the Sands Hotel has great views of Margate Harbour from the terrace.
For a more secluded experience, take a stroll on the Viking Coastal Trail eastward along the seafront starting from Margate Harbour Arm for about an hour. You'll end up at the gorgeous Botany Bay, a wild beach flanked by quintessentially British white cliffs.
One of the most iconic landmarks in the city is Dreamland, a retro amusement park with a giant Ferris wheel that's ever-present on the Margate skyline. Dreamland is a step above your typical British seaside funfair, with rides, art exhibitions, a roller rink, food stalls and a music venue. If you're taking a trip to Margate with kids, it's definitely worth spending a day enjoying what Dreamland has to offer.
It's hard to miss the sleek Turner Contemporary art gallery, located right on the seafront near Margate Harbour Arm. Opened in 2011 and designed by David Chipperfield, this museum was named after the painter J.M.W. Turner, who went to school just around the corner in Margate. Have a look inside (entrance is free) at the variety of artworks within.
When you're on the top floor, gaze out the window towards the harbour. If the tide is low, you'll be able to see a dark figure seemingly standing in the water, looking out to the horizon. Don't panic; the human-like figure is actually a cast iron sculpture by celebrated artist Antony Gormley.
Another quirky Margate attraction is the Shell Grotto in the city's Cliftonville neighbourhood. This subterranean passageway was discovered in 1835, but it remains a mystery when exactly it was built, and for what purpose.
For £4 (£1.50 for kids), you can take a tour of the winding underground cave, with its walls that are covered in more than four million seashells. Be sure to peruse the gift shop afterwards for offbeat treasures.
Margate's Old Town is quaint and compact, with a surprising number of cool boutiques, independent cafes and antique shops. Discover vintage treasures at Handsome Freaks and Madam Popoff Vintage, and have a gander at the neon lights, second-hand furniture and old theme park rides at Fort Road Yard just up the hill. When you need a caffeine hit, there are plenty of options to choose from. The Greedy Cow in Market Place is a local favourite.
Literature buffs will be interested to know that T.S. Eliot wrote a large chunk of his most famous poem, The Waste Land, in Margate in 1921. The exact spot where he sat was in the Victorian-era Nayland Rock shelter on the seafront, which has been given Grade II-listed status.