Last Updated on July 19, 2021 by Lucy Foxell
Margate – things to do, where to stay, and places to eat
Have you noticed that lots of people are upping sticks and heading to the Isle of Thanet? Thanet is at the very edge of the Garden of England, Margate, Broadstairs, and Ramsgate, three lovely Georgian and Victorian resorts, each with its own distinctive character – all of which cluster around the white chalk cliffs and bays at the far end of a peninsula. Each of the three harbour towns has a very different feel but they all boast some elegant 18th and 19th-century architecture. And, just in case you were wondering, the area was indeed once an island, separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel which gradually silted up towards the end of the seventeenth century.
The area is a historic landing point steeped in history and the story of Britain…. the Saxons, Hengist and Horsa, landed and established here, and St Augustine first stepped onto these Kent beaches on his route to neighbouring Canterbury.
I know several Londoners who are being lured by this particular corner of the Kent coastline, which is the furthest South East you can go in Britain, in fact, Margate is almost touching mainland Europe.
So, I wanted to go and explore and see what all the fuss is about. Apparently, Londoners (known as DFLs ‘Down from London’ by the locals) have been escaping to the Isle of Thanet for more than 200 years, so I have obviously been a bit slow off the mark.
I was due to visit Thanet last November (I always think there’s something rather magical about the seaside in the winter) but my plans were thwarted by another lockdown. However, now that we are finally emerging from the lockdowns of Covid and are in the throes of summer I was pleased to get the opportunity to reschedule my visit.
I have been longing to escape the city and discover this stunning coastline on edge of the peninsula, with its miles of low chalk cliffs and beautifully secluded sandy beaches, which also happen to be the closest surfing beaches to London.
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Getting to Margate and First Impressions
We travelled to Margate from West London by car which took approximately 2.5 hours but alternatively, you can take a high-speed train which takes just 75 minutes from St Pancras International.
Arriving at the seafront you can’t help but marvel at the expansive golden beach of Margate Sands, cupped by the harbour arm and buzzy seafront restaurants and bars.
This traditional holiday resort has a unique feel to it, and because of its vibrant artistic energy and old seaside town charm, it has been dubbed ‘ Shorditch-on-Sea’.
The pretty cobbled streets of the Old Town offer chic boutiques and vintage shops, lots of independent cafes and galleries, hipster hangouts, alongside the traditional delights of arcades, candyfloss stalls and fish and chip shops.
Margate is known to be the destination of choice for many artists, writers and musicians. These have included Van Gogh and Poet TS Eliot who in 1921 wrote part of ‘The Waste Land’ while sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter on Margate Sands. Turner said Thanet had “the loveliest skies in all Europe”. More recently it is known as the home of Bob & Roberta Smith and the Libertines, as well as Tracey Emin who declares in pink neon on Margate seafront: “I never stopped loving you”.
Margate encompasses four areas – Palm Bay, Garlinge, Cliftonville and Westbrook, so it’s well worth exploring these neighbourhoods. For the first part of our visit, we stayed at The Albion Rooms (see below), a boutique Hotel in Cliftonville which is owned by the Libertines. The area is becoming increasing hip, with the website Travel Supermarket naming Cliftonville, Margate as the 18th hippest town in the UK in its Hip Hangout Guide for 2018 after searching the country for up and coming and independent areas.
The sandy beaches are absolutely breathtaking, perfect for picnics, taking walks along the beach or up above on the chalk cliffs. Alternatively, just take it all in by sitting out in one of their bars or cafes and enjoy in the beauty of the romantic Turner skies and spectacular sunsets.
Things to do in Margate
There are lots to see and do in Margate however some of the attractions listed below are part or temporarily closed due to Covid so please check ahead.
Margate houses three theatres, each famous in their own right:
- The Theatre Royal was built in 1787 then remodelled in 1879 following a fire in 1829 has a programme of touring dance, drama and established comedy acts.
- The Winter Gardens has drawn big-name music acts for more than 100 years from the Kaiser Chiefs to the Beatles.
- The Tom Thumb Theatre, aptly named as it is the second smallest in the country.
Thanks to Covid some of these venues are currently not open, but hopefully, they will all return to normal very soon.
Margate Museum is housed in a Grade II listed building in the heart of Margate Old Town, a great example of a Victorian police station and Magistrates Court, plus it features a diverse collection of local history exhibits spanning the past 5,500 years. It is temporarily closed.
The Turner Contemporary has already reopened for visitors. This spectacular modern gallery designed by David Chipperfield Architects first opened in 2011. It sits proudly on Margate Sea Front, where you can observe from their windows the beautiful skies and light which inspired its namesake JMW Turner (1775-1851), during his visits to Margate.
During our visit we were able to see the current exhibitions:
‘Ashes’ by Steve McQueen (2002–2015), a mesmerising two-channel video installation by the award-winning artist and filmmaker. Created over a ten years period, it covers two separate visits to the Caribbean Island of Grenada. McQueen met a young man called Ashes there who, when he returned 10 years later, had been shot.
The Tourists: Ellen Harvey & JMW Turner
The Tourists is a fascinating exhibition that explores themes of tourism and ecology, our relationship to images, architecture and place, destruction and loss, which is paired with works by JMW Turner.
Turner Contemporary presents a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions, events and learning opportunities making engaging links between contemporary and historic art. There is a café and shop. Tickets are free but you must book ahead online.
Dreamland is a traditional English seaside funfair and amusement park on the seafront in Margate which is celebrating its 101st year this summer. As well lots of exhilarating rides and stalls it hosts numerous events and music concerts. It provides a great British seaside experience for young and old!
Dreamland was closed last summer because of the pandemic, it is now opening its doors with a staggered programme, the Scenic Railway won’t reopen until 2022. So please do check opening times online before visiting.
The Shell Grotto in Cliftonville is well worth a visit. It’s a wonder that this extraordinarily ornate subterranean passageway which is entirely covered in sea shells lay undiscovered in this Grade I listed building until 1835. It is decorated in approximately 4.6 million shells and weaves its way through a series of underground passageways. Its age and purpose are remarkably still unknown. Book your visit online.
The Caves is another Margate curiosity I really enjoyed visiting. It has been welcoming visitors since 1863. In the 18th century, it was dug as a chalk mine, but went largely forgotten for 100 years before being rediscovered and restored initially for personal recreation and then for the public as a local tourist attraction. Margate caves were very popular from the Victorian period right through to the 20th century but closed in 2004. In 2011 local groups campaigned to save the Caves and have now successfully reopened them to the public so we can all see this wonderful attraction.
Rosslyn Court B&B and Music Venue
Rosslyn Court is a pretty B&B located in a Victorian villa house in the heart of bohemian Cliftonville, which offers three comfortable en-suite rooms. We went along to meet owner Morag who explained to us how she and her husband Chris bought the house, (which was once a brothel) in 2018, and using their carpentry skills transformed it into a lovely B&B But this is no ordinary B&B as it also houses an independent music venue that hosts live folk music concerts championing emerging artists and local talent. It hosted the folk legend, Martin Carthy and Morag told us that after meeting Libertines’ founder, Pete Doherty at the skate park with her grandson he turned up to do an impromptu jam session.
During lockdown, they started successfully live streaming events on YouTube, but fortunately, they are now able to hold live shows again, plus they also run music workshops. It’s such an inspirational and fun idea in keeping with the spirit of Margate’s burgeoning art scene. Had we been staying for longer I would have loved to attend one of their concerts…next time!
Walpole Bay Hotel and Museum
I can recommend visiting the quirky Walpole Bay Hotel and Museum in Cliftonville. The moment you enter you step back in time to a bygone era. This Edwardian styled hotel, which was built in 1914 has been lovingly restored to its former glory by the Bishop family.
You can enjoy a ride in their 1927 Otis trellis gated lift, that services every floor, or sit on its flower-decked terrace, which boasts lovely sea views and is perfect for afternoon tea, or perhaps you might like to explore the galley on the second floor which is full of unusual antiques, including vintage wedding gowns, collections of old milk bottles and rather spooky looking Victorian dolls. I did hear that Tracey Emin is a regular visitor.
Haeckels is a homegrown Margate skincare company making beautifully hand-crafted products using coasts natural coastal ingredients. The business was set up in 2012 by Margate by volunteer beach warden and coastal enthusiast Dom Bridges, who was disillusioned by the production ethos of many larger skin care companies.
Dom started by collecting seaweed and local botanicals along the Margate coast and brought them home to his family kitchen to experiment but as things developed, they grew out of the kitchen, and in 2013 along with his wife Jo they set up a lab on Cliff Terrace to further develop their product range. The company has now grown; taking on members of staff whilst still playing an active part in the local community by organising beach cleans and taking part in marine conservation surveys.
They offer some wonderful face and body treatments as well as a fantastic range of skin and body care products, hair products, perfumes, candles, and a shaving range all of which can be bought in their shop or online. I bought some Bladderwrack + Fennel hand cleanser which smells divine and will definitely be giving Aesop a run for its money! They also have a branch in London.
Places to stay in Margate
The Sands Hotels
Ideally situated overlooking Margate Sands this elegant hotel is in the perfect location for anyone who wants to discover the delights of this fabulous seaside resort. Easily accessed via the High Street, The Sands Hotel is in the centre of Margate with parking just across the road. Pre-book through the hotel in advance to secure a spot.
This independent hotel was established in 2011 by Nick Conington who bought the derelict 1888 building at auction, he initially intended to turn it into flats but on learning that it once was a hotel he decided to set about returning it to its former glory. The hotel is now run by the Conington family and local staff.
It has a strikingly glossy modern and airy interior, with a contemporary sculpture in the bar and restaurant area taking centre stage, with artwork by Matthew Penn. It is minimalist in design, with a nod to Victorian heritage, wood floors along with white leather bucket chairs in the bar, intricate cornicing, large chandeliers, banquette seating and elegant high back chairs with large doors opening onto their unparalleled west-facing terrace which offers the option of al fresco dining all year round, weather permitting of course.
There are 20 bedrooms that offer a good range of options with according price tags.
Our Seaview Classic room on the third floor was elegant and modern in design decorated with a palette of natural hues, soft furnishing and an ornate silver-framed mirror. The beds were wonderfully comfy with soft luxurious bedding and our room could be used as a double or twin. It had both a shower and bath, with Noble Isle products and white towelling gowns.
All rooms come with a fresh coffee machine, TV, kettle, hot water bottle and adjustable climate control.
Sands Hotel – Bay Restaurant
We breakfasted and dined in the hotel’s Bay Restaurant; at dinner, we were lucky enough to dine out on the terrace whilst also enjoying a spectacular sunset.
Chef Ross Barden has gained two AA Rosettes for The Bay restaurant’s contemporary European cuisine and the food doesn’t disappoint. It’s excellent quality and beautifully presented, inspired by both local and seasonal produce. The staff are both friendly and attentive too.
We started our meal with tender cut slices of cured salmon complemented by tangy segments of grapefruit and a creamy yet salty anchovy and tarragon mayo, along with a fresh and light jellied beetroot pannacotta, with lambs lettuce and vierge dressing.
Starters were followed by a succulent corn fed chicken supreme on a bed of spinach with a rich black garlicky butter, quite delicious! My friend enjoyed a plump poached cod loin served with crushed Jersey Royals and fresh green samphire set off with a lively salsa verde.
Keeping it local we accompanied our meal with a bottle of English wine from Hush Heath Winery, Staplehurst Kent. A light, dry and well-balanced white wine with oak and floral notes.
And finally, a lovely selection of cheeses.
The popular Bay Restaurant makes for a special dining experience, either inside or out. They are open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner for both residents and non-residents alike.
I can also recommend visiting the buzzy rooftop bar at The Sands Hotel which is perfect for sundown drinks and boasts fantastic views over the bay
The Albion Rooms Hotel
The Albion Rooms is a stylish rock n roll boutique Hotel in Cliftonville, which is owned by the 00’s Camden band The Libertines. The band bought the five-storey Victorian House in 2017, with the idea of renovating it and converting it into a studio hotel. The house was previously been a bed and breakfast, known to be one of the worst-rated in the country. Band frontman Pete Doherty claimed that the decision to invest in the venture, which opened in 2020 saved him as he finally had a proper place to call home after years of struggling to pay rent.
It’s hard to know what you might find behind the painted black exterior of this tall Victorian house, but I was pleasantly surprised. We were greeted by lovely friendly staff and shown to our fabulous Loft Room with its elegant, but funky décor. The room featured dark grey and gold walls, dark-painted furniture, sumptuous soft furnishings, print curtains, an opulent gold velvet chaise longue and wood floorboards.
Contemporary artwork hung on the walls, some of which was for sale and look out the windows for an amazing vista of the sea. There were all sorts of extras including tea and coffee making facilities, a Libertines vape kit, a mini-fridge and snack basket, GHD hairdryers, and an Apple Beats sound system and you can call reception via a retro Motorola flip phone tucked inside a bible. Very rock n roll!
The comfy beds with luxurious white linen bedding and a personalised Albion Rooms eye mask ensured a good night’s sleep.
Rooms were designed by Rhiannon Sussex, who specialises in rich colour palettes and vintage style. She took her inspiration from the red, black and gold of the famous Libertines jacket, and worked closely with the band, to incorporate their interests. You can see their collections of personal and treasured items throughout the hotel giving it a really personal touch.
This is not just a hotel, it’s also a restaurant, a coffee shop, and it has two bars,
a small garden and a state of the art recording studio which adds to the rock and roll feel. It’s the perfect place to come for drinks with friends or to enjoy a leisurely brunch.
Breakfast, brunch and dinner are served in the fabulous Arcady Room, which has a bay window looking out to sea, dark green walls, gold paintwork and fittings and wooden tables set with candelabras. Menus are curated by Executive Chef Tim Ross-Watson, serving fresh locally sourced food.
Dinner in The Arcady Room
The menu was concise but what we did have was excellent, and the service was charming.
We kicked off the evening with fresh and crisp baby gem, scattered with crunchy nuggets of puffed black rice in a tangy vinaigrette dressing.
I ate a seriously good and wonderfully tender dry-aged sirloin, pink on the inside and perfectly charred on the outside served with a sweet miso sauce and to-die-for mustard beef dripping chips
My friend’s eggplant was beautifully cooked, infused with sweet miso and chilli shiso, lovely piquant and earthy flavours complemented by a sprinkling of sesame crispy balls.
The pudding was irresistibly indulgent; a creamy and luscious yuzu posset topped with playful chocolate pearls and candied salted almonds, and some strawberries and cream with a touch of angel dust.
We accompanied our meal with a bottle of Chavy Chouet – Bourgogne aligoté. A lively and exotic wine with citrus and honey notes and good minerality.
The Albion Rooms is setting its standards high with personalised service, glamorous accommodation and delicious food with a suitably mischievous touch.
More Places to Eat in Margate
There are plenty of great restaurants and cafes in the town, both along the seafront and tucked away in the back streets. Of course, there’s the Sands Hotel – Bay Restaurant and The Albion Rooms – Arcady Rooms. Here are some more of my recommendations.
Barletta on the Roof
Barletta is actually a small seaside town in Puglia, Italy which this fabulous moveable restaurant has taken for their name. Barletta was established in 2019 as a pop up in Dreamland and has since held residencies at Urchin Wines and the Rose in June pub before taking over the roof in summer 2020 and the Turner in 2021.
Set up by partners Jackson Berg & Natalia Ribbe, whose inspiration comes from their extensive travels.
We went to their funky rooftop location which overlooks the sea as well as a giant brutalist apartment block. Very hip, to be honest, it’s more like ‘Peckham on Sea’. After climbing the concrete stairs, you arrive at the large rooftop seating area, music is playing and it’s dressed with fairy lights and brightly coloured chairs, tables and umbrellas some of which are undercover.
Food is a small plate affair with lots of delicious imaginative tapas themed dishes, beautifully cooked and perfect for sharing. Our favourites were the salty anchovies, with creamy ricotta and shallot on toast and the scrumptious lightly spiced carrots with parsley cool yoghurt and hazelnuts.
Good food, friendly service and a fun atmosphere.
New Street Bistro
New Street Bistro is an alfresco restaurant located in the heart of Margate Old Town. Hugely popular with locals and tourists alike, so much so we couldn’t get a table for love nor money. The bustling atmosphere, cheery staff and delicious smells which wafted out of their small covered courtyard, which seats just 18 people were endlessly tempting as we walked by, next time I will book way in advance!
Chef-owner Tomas Eriksson infuses Scandinavian cuisine into his own classic Bistro style to create a variety of excellent seasonal dishes. This cosy and intimate Bistro offers diners carefully selected dishes of local produce as well as some of the best ingredients the UK has to offer. To complement their food menu, they stock a selection of wines from around the globe as well as some of the best Kent has to offer.
Angela’s and Dory’s Seafood Restaurants
These two popular seafood restaurants are situated around the corner from each other both with sustainability their heart. First came Angela’s which is a small sustainable seafood restaurant serving simple, delicious, ethically sourced seafood, alongside seasonal vegetable-based dishes.
Its little sister Dory’s overlooks Margate main sands and has a small plates seafood bar – serving raw, pickled, cured and baked seafood and vegetable dishes. Alongside the restaurant, it has a wine shop selling English and European organic, biodynamic and low-intervention wines that respect both soil and grape.
This authentic family-run Campanian restaurant serves southern Italian classic dishes. Much of their Italian produce is from their family and friends in Campania, they make fresh pasta every morning with ancient flour grains imported Sannio with local free-range eggs, all their meat comes from award-winning butchers and they use and vegetables and herbs from local community gardens.
Bottega Caruso is small, with just six or seven tables, so be sure to book ahead as it has had rave reviews, with Grace Dent at the Guardian calling it “heroically wonderous”.
Summary and More Information
I can’t honestly think of one reason why not to return to Margate, whatever the weather – a seaside town with charm in bucket loads! Forget its slightly rough around the edges back streets and come to see the chic Old Town, beautiful sandy beaches, amazing sunsets, take a walk along the white cliffs, eat some great food, have a beer on the seafront, stay somewhere lovely, shop until you drop and take in some culture.
It’s also great to visit Margate for a day trip from London – check out our pre-covid trip!