Kent's fertile countryside, ancient woodland, and dramatic white cliff coastline earned the county its nickname, "the Garden of England". Within that garden is Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Kent's Heritage Coast, a region between Folkestone and Dover. 

Recent years have seen economic regeneration for Kent along with the arrival of high-speed trains that put the county’s distinctive natural landscapes and historic buildings within even-easier reach of London and the rest of the country. Its wild swimming opportunities, cycle routes, vast nature reserves and country parks all offer an antidote to a life lived on Zoom, while its castles and cathedrals reveal the fascinating history of this beautiful county.

From Folkestone to Dover and beyond, here are some of the best things to do along Kent’s Heritage Coast.

Explore Lower Leas Coastal Park 

You can easily lose a whole day with children in Folkestone’s Lower Leas Coastal Park, which has a transportive "is-this-really-the-UK?" quality thanks in part to the dramatic botanical architecture of its well-maintained gardens, with many Mediterranean and non-native plants. 

Much of the park has sea views, while other parts are set back and sheltered from sea winds by greenery. The elaborate adventure playground – the largest free play area in the South East with wooden pirate ships, sand pits, zip-lines, and tunnel slides – will occupy younger children. Once they're done, drag them away to a nearby cafe, such as The Lift Cafe, serving thick sourdough toasties made with bread from the local Docker Bakery.

Follow the Coastal Path's distinctive Zig Zag Path, which was created in the 1920s from an artifical sandstone mix called Pulhamite. The path wends down to the park from its starting point on the Victorian promenade of The Leas passing planters of Mediterranean vegetation and grottos that appear as if hewn from natural rock. Photogenic Mermaid Beach is nearby, and has a swimming spot that is popular with locals all year long.

Have a family day out at Dover Castle  

A seasonal program of weekend events, from Easter Egg hunts to a Christmas Adventure Quest, keep families returning to Dover Castle. The sweeping views across the Channel from the battlements never lose their "wow" factor, either. 

Arguably as engaging as the castle’s storied medieval history and Great Tower, are its Secret Wartime Tunnels. These chalk passageways give a great insight into how the castle found new life as a base during WWI and WWII, including housing an underground hospital. Beware that the underground paths are narrow, dark, and damp, which may make some visitors uncomfortable.

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Two instalations of small houses - one floats on a platform on the harbor; the other sits on the harbor arm
Tour Folkestone searching for some of its many artworks © Photography / Getty Images

Experience Folkestone's site-specific artworks

Encountering contemporary art, whether you mean to or not, is becoming a quintessential part of the Kent coast experience. Since 2008, Folkestone Triennial has seen new site-specific artworks by high profile and international artists appear throughout the seaside town every three years (a pandemic-related delay in 2020 aside). Each edition also leaves behind some permanent works and, as a result, Folkestone now hosts the UK’s largest contemporary outdoor art exhibition all year round. The best bit – it’s free to visit.  

There are more than 70 permanent Folkestone Artworks to be spotted – from sculptures and art objects, including Antony Gormley figures and Tracey Emin’s bronze-cast Baby Things to seaside pavilions, graphically-adorned beach huts, and a morse code message from Yoko Ono. The artworks are widely dispersed and you’ll never see them all in a day, so follow one of the suggested walking routes from Creative Folkestone – or simply keep your eyes peeled.

Walk the White Cliffs to South Foreland Lighthouse

The Victorian South Foreland Lighthouse  – the first in the world to use electric light and the site of various pioneering experiments in international radio – and its wonderfully retro tearoom are your reward at the end of a bracing walk along the White Cliffs of Dover. Mrs Knotts tearoom ticks the authenticity boxes that English tearooms should: chintzy bone china, pots of loose leaf tea, and generous slabs of cake. 

Getting here is part of the pleasure, via either a 2-mile (3.2km) clifftop trail from Dover to really earn that cup of tea, or a shorter walk from St Margaret’s Bay. Choose a still day so you can can contemplate the lighthouse at your leisure; when it’s windier, the lawns here are a popular kite-flying spot. Note that there’s nowhere to park at the lighthouse itself.

Mother and children stand on a viewpoint above a sandy beach on a sunny day
Folkestone is a top spot for families and beach lovers © Jorn Georg Tomter / Getty Images

Splash about at Sunny Sands Beach

When it comes to Kent’s sandy beaches, Margate seems to capture many day-trippers’ imaginations, but the smaller Folkestone beach of Sunny Sands, adjacent to the town’s regenerated harbor area, is almost as tempting (and a shorter train journey from London). 

This golden stretch hosts paddling toddlers, sunbathers, and casual swimmers in summer, before colder weather gives ways to bundled-up dog-walkers enjoying the still-glittering views across the Channel. Cold water-loving locals take a Boxing Day dip here en masse every December 26. A word of warning, though: The beach disappears entirely at high tide, so check the tide tables before visiting.

There are kiosks for ice creams and buckets and spades, and you’re also in walking distance of the smart dining and cocktail bar of Rocksalt, with lovely views across the harbor.

See biodiversity on reclaimed land at Samphire Hoe

Samphire Hoe is a unique nature reserve that was created during the building of the Channel Tunnel, when almost 5 million cubic meters of spoil were deposited at the base of Shakespeare Cliff, near Dover, to reclaim land from the English Channel. 

This area was seeded with wildflowers and opened to the public in 1997. It has since acquired stellar biodiversity credentials, as the 30-ha (74-acre) area is home to more than 200 plant species and even more species of birds. Despite the site’s youth, what you are struck by as a visitor here is a sense of timelessness, thanks to its meditative views of expansive sea and dramatic vistas of the rugged White Cliffs of Dover.

A solo cyclist sits on a bench looking out to sea with a bike leaning against the back of the bench
By rewarded by sea views after cycling a stretch of the Kent Heritage Coast © tirc83 / Getty Images

Complete the Cathedral-to-Coast cycle ride 

Those with two wheels and some stamina can immerse themselves in Kent's highlights on a 50-mile (80-km) circular Cathedral-to-Coast cycle ride, linking Canterbury, Dover, and Folkestone. 

In Canterbury expect to be moved by the scale and serenity of its vast cathedral, whether you share the Christian faith or not. This medieval pilgrimage site still pulls in nearly a million visitors annually to its dizzyingly high-ceilinged, stained glass-adorned interior. From there, the full cycle route follows part of the North Downs Way through rolling countryside, pretty villages, and a nature reserve near Elham. As you approach the Heritage Coast you'll be rewarded with spectacular sea views. 

Alternatively, choose just one section of the cycle route, such as the 17 miles (27km) from Canterbury to Folkestone. The area is well-served by train stations, so you can continue your journey by rail.

Go shopping at Deal's Saturday market 

Making plans to browse the long-established Saturday market in Deal will give some direction to a weekend day trip to this coastal hot spot, where the thoughtful refurbishment of local establishments like the Rose Hotel has piqued the interest of glossy magazine editors and London professionals trying to buy a house. Less than a 10 minute walk from the train station, the morning market (open from 8am or 9am depending on the time of year) is also just a couple of streets back from Deal’s refreshingly long stretch of shingle beach. 

The market has existed here in various forms since the late 1600s. Today’s stallholders sell everything from handmade soaps to vintage toys, and quality food from Kent's farmers and makers. Pick up what you need – and a few things you don’t – before grabbing some lunch and making the most of the sea air.

Introducing England

Ride the miniature railway from Hythe 

Hythe has much to recommend it, including some choice secondhand shops worth a rummage and a walkable stretch of Royal Military Canal. But one of the best things to do here is to leave aboard the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. The railway’s one-third-size locomotives take passengers as far as the eerily beautiful nature reserve of Dungeness (just over an hour, each way). 

Once there, enjoy the shingle beach and visit the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s garden, before taking the tiny train back to Hythe and choosing between its gastropubs pubs for an evening meal.

Wildlife watch at Sandwich and Pegwell Bay National Nature Reserve 

The largest of Kent Wildlife Trust’s reserves is Sandwich and Pegwell Bay National Nature Reserve, where you can spend time fully immersed in nature. Its rich in biodiversity with varied habitats, including beach and salt marshes, as well as a more orderly and easy to navigate Country Park. 

It’s not unusual to spot seals from here, especially in winter, and in spring, look out for rare green hairstreak butterflies. But this reserve is primarily bird-watchers’ domain, where you might hear nightingales, or spot a short-eared owl, snipe, kestrel, or tern.

Get close to France at the beautiful St Margaret's Bay 

An aesthetically pleasing curve of shingle beach and green sea, St Margaret's Bay appears on several popular walking routes in this part of White Cliffs country.  

Its resident boozer, The Coastguard, bills itself as Britain’s nearest pub to France (on this part of the coast, you might even receive a "Welcome to France" message from your phone provider, or French radio stations on your car stereo). The 300-year-old establishment’s best selling point is its sea-view terrace where visitors take in the view of the bay over a cold pint or a warming nip of whiskey.

There is sometimes an informal beach school meet-up for outdoorsy under-5s and their parents here, too. But in general you have a fair chance of having the bay almost to yourself.

Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.

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