The Spanish costas wept this summer as Brexit, #flygskam (‘flight shame’) and the implosion of Thomas Cook conspired to ensure that British seaside towns got a handsome slice of England’s holiday budget. Margate was one of the principal benefactors. It’s an easy sell: long, fine-sand beaches with clean, just-warm-enough water; and, of course, Dreamland – a revamped, kitsch-cool theme park to be proud of.

So we know that Margate is fun to visit in summer. But what do you do in winter, when an ill-tempered North Sea spits gelid spume in your face and the merry Ferris wheel stops turning?

Boats in Margate harbour at low tide, with buildings along the seafront and a Ferris wheel visible in the distance.
Margate is fantastic to visit whatever time of year © Abdul_Shakoor / Shutterstock

Margate's art game

It happens that art game is an anagram of Margate, and Margate’s ‘art game' is strong. Its blockbuster gallery the Turner Contemporary is hosting one of the world’s most esteemed art competitions this winter, the Turner Prize. Four shortlisted artists are presenting their best efforts until 12 January, with the winner announced on Tuesday 3 December.

The gallery hopes that 250,000 people will visit (nearly twice as many as a regular exhibition). To celebrate, the town’s creative community will also run its regular Margate NOW festival till January.

Visitors can expect a relentless programme of fringe exhibitions and events in its increasing number of permanent and pop-up spaces. Even the old Primark has art in it. In Margate, winter’s hot.

Tai Shani's installation for the 2019 Turner Prize; it resembles a red dragon suspended in a pink-lit room among pink cylinders and other shapes and what looks like a temple complex on the floor.
Tai Shani's installation for the 2019 Turner Prize © David Levene

Start at the Turner Contemporary for the Turner Prize

“There’s a new focus this year on performance and live work,” says Sarah Martin, head of exhibitions at the gallery. “It feels very relevant, with all the artists dealing with quite political subjects.”

Helen Cammock’s film The Long Note – which deals with women’s influence in Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement – feels timely on numerous levels. The film is long, but you can get a feel for things by watching one of its various intimate interviews.

If the maddest of madcap art is more your kind of thing, then commit to a good look at Tai Shani’s effort. Her colourful and chaotic installation is ready to challenge your ideas on feminism in 100 different ways.

Oscar Murillo’s eery effigies of refugees lend some added poignancy to the exhibition, but our pick of the bunch is from Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who investigates conditions in a Syrian prison exclusively via what inmates could hear. Affecting stuff.

Enam Gbewonyo's The Oculus at the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate
Enam Gbewonyo's The Oculus at the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate © Carl Freedman Gallery

Get stuck into Margate NOW festival

Arrive at Margate train station on any day of the week (until January) and two brightly dressed volunteers will be there to let you know what’s going on in Margate while you’re there. They’re from Margate NOW, a multi-pleasure arts festival running alongside, next to and around the Turner Prize itself.

The annual event has been given a big old grant from the arts council to deliver exhibitions, events and performances in spaces ranging from galleries, co-working spaces and venues through to cafes, bookshops and landmarks. Almost 500 artists are taking part in nearly 70 spots around town. Here’s our ‘don’t miss’ list:

Departures by Jessica Jordan-Wrench (Margate train station, until 12 January)
A noisy text installation, based around a purpose built split-flap display, exploring what the artist calls “the radically unstable concept of ‘now’”.

Last Night at The Bingo by Leigh Clarke (around town, until 12 January)
These large-scale banner prints of filled-in bingo cards aim to celebrate the importance of social interaction and group participation. It follows the recent closure of a local bingo hall.

Gossamer, curated by Zoe Bedeaux (Carl Freedman Gallery, until 15 December)
An exhibition that brings together 22 artists who all work with tights or stockings – a material constructed to function around the intimate parts of the female form.

In the Future by Steve McPherson (Pie Factory Margate, until 4 December)
A colourful solo exhibition of recent work using plastic found on the beaches in and around Margate. Plastic will be the marker of our time in the geo-strata of the future.

Lalochezia (Marine Studios, 7 December, 2-4.30pm)
‘Lalochezia’: the vulgar use of language to relieve stress. In this potty-mouthed workshop, the Profanity Embroidery Group invite you to ‘let stitch’ on the so-called “Festive Season”.

A man walks down a street of attractive Victorian shops in Margate Old Town.
Shopping in Margate Old Town © Visit Thanet

Best places to eat in Margate

Between all the culture there’s good food. But it hasn’t always been so. “I remember when the only place you could get a coffee on a Sunday was McDonald’s.” Tim Williams, owner of Pie Factory Margate, is candid about Margate’s erstwhile offering.

Now his favourite restaurant, 18-seat Italian Bottega Caruso, is opposite the gallery and was recently lauded as “heroically wondrous” by restaurant critic Grace Dent.

Elsewhere, locals are vaunting the small plates at Sargossa, which opened on the harbour arm, metres away from the Turner Contemporary, on the same day as the Prize itself. Sit and look out to sea as the artist Turner did – but with a negroni and some fried olives.

Rob Diament, who’s in charge at the box-fresh Carl Freedman Gallery (also part of Margate NOW, but very much a permanent, public gallery), loves the smart little fish restaurants dotted around Margate’s old town. If you have to choose, head to 10-seater Angela’s, which made it into the Good Food Guide shortly after opening last year. Book ahead.

As for alternatives to McDonald’s, our favourite is found between the Polish stores and second-hand sofa stores of Northdown Road. Cliffs offers local and visiting caf-fiends the chance to nurse oat milk flat whites (made with beans from local roasters Curve) in earthenware cups while flicking through buyable vinyl.

Looking up at an intricate shell-encrusted, domed ceiling in the Shell Grotto, Margate, with light appearing through a window at the top.
The Shell Grotto has been confounding visitors since 1835 © Visit Thanet

Other things to do in Margate

Actually, the sea’s great in winter. While doing lengths in Margate’s 83-year-old tidal pool might not be for everyone, a bracing walk along the coast is an affirming way to take in its bleak beauty. You can stop off at places like quirky grand dame The Walpole Bay Hotel (don’t miss their artists’ napkin collection) for a winter warmer.

Your saunter should include a trip to Margate Caves in Cliftonville which, following a 15-year hiatus, reopened at the end of the summer. Take in the beautiful refurbished murals and learn about its peculiar history at the same time.

When visiting artists ask Sarah Martin, head of exhibitions at the Turner Contemporary, where to go and what to see she always advises them to check out the Shell Grotto first. This mysterious attraction – a series of shell-covered tunnels – has been confusing historians and inspiring creatives since it was discovered in 1835.

If cold-water masochism is your thing, dive in, but maybe do it near Margate’s classy-looking new wood-burning sauna on wheels (courtesy of local eco spa Haeckels House, which opened in spring) that’s permanently parked on the Main Sands. Best bit? It’s free to all – unless some spoilsport has privately booked it.

For more info on what do to and where to stay visit enjoymargate.co.uk.

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