Despite its beaches (both sand and pebbles), sea-sculpted cliffs, epic sunsets, vast history, and splendid Victorian architecture, the Kent coast has sometimes felt rundown and overlooked. Now, there’s a growing artistic community here and an explosion of things to do. Highlights include castles and cliffs, a show-stealing art gallery and a historic theme park. Here are the best things to do on the Kent coast.
A day out in historic Dover
The wonderful White Cliffs of Dover are so much more than an iconic Kent image – this rare chalk grassland environment and conservation area is home to grazing Exmoor ponies, major rewilding efforts, and significant wartime history. Fan Bay Deep Shelter was constructed in the cliffs in 1941 as accommodations for a gun battery. A tour, wearing a fetching hard hat and head torch, takes you down 125 steps through these abandoned WWII-era tunnels. At the foot of the cliffs, step out to see sound mirrors dating from WWI. These giant dishes built into the chalk were an early warning system designed to pick up the sound of aircraft as it crossed the Channel.
Continue your journey through history at Dover Castle, a site that dates back 2000 years when it was an Iron Age hill fort. The 12th-century Great Tower is a medieval warren filled with interactive exhibits and light-and-sound shows that take visitors back to the times of Henry II. A tour through the claustrophobic secret wartime tunnels is a highlight. These chalk-hewn passageways were first excavated during the Napoleonic Wars and then expanded to house a command post and hospital in WWII.
Join the creative community of Folkestone
The Kent coast’s other main town, Folkestone, has less historical interest but plenty of contemporary artistic appeal. Its pretty Old Town has been dubbed the Creative Quarter, a self-proclaimed "urban village" where 90 of the buildings lining its cobblestone streets have been turned into shops, cafes and artist studios thanks to the concerted efforts of the local community. Watch painters at work or sign up to an art class before enjoying dinner in a chic bistro or a performance in one of the bars.
Feel the otherworldliness of Dungeness
The bleakly beautiful beach at Dungeness is brooded over by a nuclear power station, and is where English film director Derek Jarman (1942–1994) made his famous garden on the shingle shore, beside the black clapboard Prospect Cottage. He used driftwood sculpture and hardy wild plants to create this poetic, magical place, which is not fenced off, so people can wander through it. It’s not just Jarman’s garden that makes the ‘ness a compelling place, but the huge skies and wind-blasted beach backed by a nature reserve. If you want to linger a while, you should drive to Dungeness, but for a timetabled visit and a bit of family-friendly fun, take a return trip on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch steam railway.
See vintage yet contemporary Margate
The faded but glorious seaside town of Margate, with its 18th-century buildings and wide, silk-sanded beach, has gone through many changes in recent years. Dreamland theme park closed in 2003, but was rescued from developers and has had significant investment to restore it to the joyful funfair it is today. The result is an Instagrammer’s dream, filled with jelly-bright, upcycled classic attractions including a Grade-II-listed Scenic Railway and Wedgewood-decorated twirling teacups. There's a twinkling roller disco, classic pinball and slot machines and a fantastically imaginative soft play area. The events spaces host sell-out live music performances throughout the year.
Perhaps the Kent coast’s most curious attraction is Margate’s Shell Grotto, a series of subterranean rooms that was only discovered in 1835. It’s covered with over four million shells in decorative patterns, all turned a pale silvery grey by the lamps that the Victorians used to light the attraction. No one knows how long it has been here – some believe it could be over 2000 years old, others that it’s a 19th-century underground folly.
Margate’s Turner Contemporary, which celebrated its tenth birthday in 2021, stands bang on the spot where the painter JW Turner used to visit his obliging landlady, Mrs Booth (they later lived together in London) and paint the famous Margate sunsets. The gallery makes the most of the views, with giant oblong windows that frame the sky and sea like a painting. As well as displaying Turner's work, the gallery celebrates the work of local artists through temporary exhibits.
Run between the chalk stacks of Botany Bay
Just outside Broadstairs in Kingsgate, a quiet area of suburban houses has a secret at the end of the road. Botany Bay is the stuff of 1950s holidays – an unspoiled pale-sanded beach, backed by chunky chalk cliffs that stalk across the bay, topped by greenery and seagulls. Engrossing rock pools stretch out into sea, and strong gusts of wind lift the kitesurfers above the waves. It gets busy, but if you go mid-week, you could have it almost to yourself.
Enjoy fresh seafood and oysters in Whitstable
The closest of the Kent resorts to London, Whitstable is a picturesque hodgepodge of clapboard houses and pastel beach huts that has almost too much charm for its own good. It’s a splendid day out, a place to wander, see the sea, and stroll the craft market that lines the pretty harbor. Go for a Michelin-starred meal at The Sportsman in nearby Seasalter, good old fish and chips in a box at the Neppy, or keep it simple at one of the many places selling locally-sourced oysters. Wheeler’s Oyster Bar has been serving seafood to happy holidaymakers since 1856.
Have a dose of nostalgia in Broadstairs
Small-scale Broadstairs has cornered the market in quaintness, and is a shrine to Charles Dickens, with almost every business doffing its cap by naming itself something Dickensian. The author used to holiday in Broadstairs and wrote parts of Bleak House and David Copperfield here. But even if you’re not into Dickens, Broadstairs rewards a wander: it’s clustered around a lovely bay and has some fine places to eat including Wyatt & Jones and the famously good ice cream at Morelli's Gelato.
Wander the pretty harbor of Ramsgate
Ramsgate has a phenomenally pretty harbor, with an impressive marina packed with bobbing yachts and backed by Georgian architecture, all wrought-iron balconies and stately colonnades. There’s a wide, sandy town beach, while the extraordinary Harbour Brasserie, on the harbor arm, has views out to sea and back to town. You can also visit the haunting Ramsgate Tunnels, that sheltered 60,000 people in WWII. The new Albion House boutique hotel has an excellent restaurant, Ramsgate Music Hall is one of the UK’s best small live music venues, and Vinyl Head is a cool record shop.
Go back in time in Deal
Julius Caesar first set foot in Britain at Deal in 55 BCE, and you can see why its tranquil little beach looked an inviting prospect. Today, the incredible Tudor Deal Castle, built in the cunningly unwarlike shape of a rose, looms over the beach. The town is dashingly pretty, with doll-house-sized fishers' cottages and fine bow-fronted townhouses. It’s the perfect place to have cream teas, browse the local antiques shops, and pretend the 21st century hasn’t happened yet. Walmer Castle, another Tudor fortress and stately home with impressive gardens, is just a couple of miles down the coast.
How to get to the Kent coast
By car from London, take the A2, then the M2; the A299 then leads to Whitstable, Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. Deal is further south, off the A256. For Folkestone, take the M20.
By train, high-speed rail connects London St Pancras to Dover and Folkestone in just under an hour, and Ramsgate in just over an hour. Slower, cheaper trains take around 1½ hours. Trains from London to Margate, Broadstairs, and Deal take 1½–2 hours.