What to see, where to stay and what to do in Kent
With 350 miles of coastline, the rolling hills of the Kent Downs and castles and historic buildings galore, there’s plenty of variety in this southeastern English county. Add in the high-speed rail links, boutique accommodation and produce from the fabled Garden of England expertly concocted into culinary delicacies, and you've got a great destination for a day trip, a weekend break or even a full-on holiday.
Top 5 things to see in Kent
One of Britain’s most visited attractions and self-proclaimed England’s loveliest castle, Leeds is a proper storybook destination. It has a moat and crenelated rampart, a grand banqueting hall made for Henry VIII’s visit and a newer wing opulently designed for Lady Baillie in the late 1920s style. The grounds are well kept and perfect for strolling around. Don’t miss the watchful owls in the birds of prey centre and test your navigational skills in the yew tree maze. Avoid the crowds by staying overnight in a room fit for a queen or a tent fit for a knight in one of the many on-site accommodation options.
Perched on the harbour arm on a road enticingly called Rendezvous, this world-class exhibition space has put Margate firmly on the contemporary art map. There’s no permanent display but instead a varied programme of curated collections or solo shows. Previous exhibitions have included Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker and, of course, local heroine Tracey Emin. The gallery also runs many community outreach programmes and for the first time in 2019 it will host the Turner Prize exhibition. Entry is free.
Whitstable has long been the stylish seaside destination of choice for London day-trippers and it’s easy to see why. Famed for its oysters, Whitstable is ideal for learning more about oyster cultivation and, of course, tasting them. Eat alfresco on the beach at The Forge or wash them down with a pint of Whitstable Brewery Oyster Stout at The Lobster Shack. If oysters aren’t your thing, there’s good old fish and lip-smacking chips fried in beef fat at VC Jones. For something completely different, try vegan ice cream at the Revival Ice Cream bar where they also have decks, vinyl and DJs for evening soirées. Get your art fix at Fishslab Gallery, where exhibitions change weekly, or Chappell Contemporary with limited editions prints by leading commercial artists. Don’t miss the world-famous Rock Bottom Records – like record shops used to be before digital downloads took over.
Chatham Historic Dockyard
Back when boat was the only way to get around, Chatham Dockyard was where the biggest and most infamous were built. At its height, the dockyard employed 10,000 skilled craftsmen, who worked on the likes of HMS Victory. It was also home to all the local infrastructure, including ordnance yards, victualling yards, gunpowder magazines and naval hospitals. You can sit at the captain’s table on the HMS Gannet, crawl around inside the submarine HMS Ocelot and find out about what life was like on the HMS Cavalier, a Second World War battleship.
Book onto a tour around the Georgian edifices of the dockyard to see where scenes from the TV series Call the Midwife are filmed or come in September when the site plays host to Salute to the 40s, one of the UK’s leading vintage festivals. Visitors are encouraged to dress the part and experience what wartime Britain was like – from air raid evacuations to swing dancing to The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
It may not be the grasslands of Botswana or savannahs of Tanzania but the uncannily precipitous green hills at Port Lympne are nonetheless a surprising home to a wide range of wild animals from across the globe, including gorillas, tigers and lions as well as monkeys. Established by casino magnate and millionaire John Aspinall in 1954, this conservation project has sites at Port Lympne near Hythe and Howletts near Canterbury where threatened and endangered species are helped to rehabilitate.
READ MORE: The best places to visit on the Kent coast
Alternative Kent highlights
Head underground in Margate
An ancient sacrificial altar chamber? A Knight’s Templar meeting place? Or perhaps an 18th-century aristocrat’s underground folly? Whatever the purpose of Margate’s curious Shell Grotto, the mystery has lured visitors through the unassuming façade and down to the diminutive, shell-adorned chambers since the 1830s.
It’s not the town’s only underground attraction. New for summer 2019 is Margate Caves – a church-sized cavernous old chalk mine with alcoves, ice wells and a series of large-scale murals including The Thanet Giant and The Thanet Hunt.
The art of eating in Deal
Once a busy port and former garrison digs, this seaside town is increasingly attracting artists, musicians and poets, which can be keenly felt in the High Street offerings. To immerse yourself in art, check out Taylor-Jones & Son, which exhibits and sells contemporary art by a handful of established artists that happen to live locally, including co-owner and photographer Richard Taylor-Jones. Cinephiles should head to the Kent Museum of Moving Image, while music lovers shouldn't miss Smugglers Records – a licensed record shop that sells local ales along with its vinyl and hosts regular live music performances.
There are eating options aplenty too. Try The Slow Food Cafe for 100% additive- and preservative-free, freshly prepared light bites or for something a bit more filling with a glass of wine to accompany it, go for the French bistro Frog and Scot or Victuals and Co. Finish the day with a pint at The Just Reproach where mobile phones are banned. No trip to Deal would be complete without a walk along the pier where you’ll find the brilliant new café Deal Pier Kitchen. Think tasty slabs of cake as well as an array of sustainably sourced classics like fish finger sandwiches and ham hock terrine.
Go on a treasure hunt in Folkestone
Pick up a map from the tourist information centre or download the audio commentary onto your phone and wend your way through Folkestone’s streets and cliff paths on a treasure hunt for the Folkestone Artworks. Each of the 74 artworks is site-specific and resonates with the environment in which it’s placed. Don't miss Bill Woodrow’s The Ledge – a large-form sculpture of an Inuit man and a seal perched on a tiny ledge on top of a slick black puddle reminding us of melting ice caps and rising sea waters – and Mark Wallingers’ Folk Stones. The large beach pebbles numbered from 1 to 19,240 memorialise the British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, many of whom set off from Folkestone harbour.
Canterbury is awash with history and endless ways to learn about it and the Beany House of Art and Knowledge – a delightfully eclectic mix of carefully curated historical collections along with a contemporary exhibition space – is well worth a visit. The highlight (perhaps for those of a certain generation) is the opportunity to come face to face with Bagpuss, Professor Yaffle, a handful of Clangers and other stars of Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate’s Smallfilms output. Another piece to look out for is Clive Soord’s political satire ceramic masterpiece Ship of Fools.
Visit a collector's home
Denys Eyre Bower was a collector of great passion and obsession. He snapped up treasures, curiosities and artworks from around the world at auctions during the early 20th century and amassed such a wealth of stuff he needed somewhere grand to house it all. Chiddingstone Castle proved the perfect setting for his artefacts, including a set of Japanese swords and rare ancient Egyptian red porphyry queen’s head. The privately-run castle and gardens is open from April to October and has several large events throughout the year including a literary festival every May.
Where to stay in Kent
An explosion of colour and style, the newly opened The Rose in Deal is a destination in itself. Each of the eight individually styled rooms looks like something out of a Wes Anderson film. With interior styling courtesy of Mad Atelier, they’re filled with vintage furniture and some even come with a record player and a stack of vinyl. There’s a bar and restaurant downstairs which serves traditional favourites with local and seasonal twists.
Midway between Maidstone and Ashford, in the heart of the Kent Downs AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), Welsummer is the perfect place to pitch your tent. They offer grassy plots in the meadow and woodland spots among the bluebells all with fire pits available. For those without a tent, you can opt for a pre-erected bell tent or canvas safari-style lodge. There’s also the Wendy’s House, an off-grid wooden hut with comfy double and single beds and a campfire area. Free range chickens roam about the place and you can buy their eggs for your breakfast along with other organic produce grown on-site.
Elmley is the only nature reserve in the UK you can spend the night at, and it couldn't be more eco-chic. Each of the shepherd's huts at Elmley is equipped with a wood burning stove, plenty of firewood, cosy blankets made locally by Romney Marsh Wools along with tea, coffee and muesli for the morning. Listen to the lapwings whir and look out for the hares racing across the farmland while you toast marshmallows on the fire and watch the day descend into night.
Elmley Nature Reserve/Facebook
Down an almost impossibly narrow old military road a stone’s throw from the harbour, The Falstaff is a cute boutique hotel with eight rooms and a couple of self-catering apartments nearby. They’re all tastefully decorated in calming neutral colours with a mix of antique and modern furnishings. There’s a downstairs bar and a restaurant famed for its Sunday roasts. Sourdough bread for breakfast comes from the Viking Bakery and is the best around.
Where to eat in Kent
You’ll likely need to book ahead if you want to eat at arguably the finest seafood restaurant in Margate as it only has space for 16. Everything at Angela's is as sustainably sourced as possible and most of the fish and seafood (all Marine Stewardship Council certified) comes fresh from Hastings Harbour. The menu changes daily depending on what’s come off the boats that day and what veg is in season. The wine list includes many natural and pesticide-free wines including some from nearby Chartham wines. New for 2019 is their sister operation – Dory’s of Margate – a fish counter around the corner where you’ll be able to eat in or take away a pot of pickled herrings or fresh oysters, among other seasonal goodies.
Right next to Canterbury West railway station, housed in a former goods shed is the aptly named The Goods Shed. The perfect place to stock up on picnic items, top choices include freshly made bread from Enzo’s Bakery you should then fill with cheeses from the Cheesemakers of Canterbury. Add in some locally grown and packaging-free salad vegetables from the grocer and top it all off with a chutney from Murray’s general stores. If you’ve time to linger longer, there’s a sit-down restaurant upstairs with an ever-changing three-course menu.
With its post-apocalyptic terrain and smattering of abandoned structures, Dungeness is no ordinary beach so you wouldn’t expect its only food shack to be ordinary either. The Snack Shack in Dungeness does a range of lunch options including the day’s catch in Mexican flatbread, dressed in lime, chilli, sour cream and coriander, and lobster and crab rolls. It’s seasonal and weather dependent so check their Facebook page before setting off.
Named the UK’s best restaurant in the National Restaurant Awards in 2019, The Sportsman is the place to splash out on a meal in Kent. The Michelin-starred menu inspiration, naturally, comes from its seaside setting with fish, seafood and seasonal produce featured heavily. You can opt for the £70 tasting menu (this needs to be booked well in advance), the daily tasting menu for £55 (which doesn’t need to be pre booked) or dine à la carte.
A country village nestled in the Kent Downs might not be where you’d expect to find a fine-dining Spanish tapas restaurant but that’s exactly what The Wife of Bath, a former staging post on the Canterbury pilgrim route, now serves. It’s all thanks to Mark Sargeant, the brains and taste buds behind several other highly lauded Kentish restaurants, including Rocksalt in Folkestone and The Duke William in Ickham. Top tapas picks include morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) with quail egg, crispy squid with smoked paprika and crispy prawns with romesco that should be washed down with an apple cider sangria or a Galician negroni.
How to get around Kent
Kent is easily navigable by car. It has two motorways running through it, flanking either side of the Kent Downs – the M2 links London with Canterbury and the M20 runs all the way to the port of Dover. There are several high-speed train routes that run from London St Pancras and London Bridge via Ashford International to Folkestone, Dover and Deal; one to Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate; and another route that goes via Chatham, Faversham, Whitstable and also winds up in Margate. Local bus services are run by Stagecoach.
If you prefer to see the county on two wheels, there’s the 160-mile Saxon Shore cycling route from Gravesend to Hastings, the Viking Trail (a 32-mile circular route around Thanet) and the Crab and Winkle Way, which is mostly off-road and follows the old railway line from Canterbury to Whitstable. For bike hire try Kent Cycle Hire for Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay or Kens Bike Shop in Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs. Country Bike offer an app-based, pick up and drop of bike service around West Kent.
There are plenty of opportunities to see the county on foot too. The 1066 Harold’s Way trail (95 miles) from London to Hastings takes in much of the Kent countryside, or, for something a bit shorter, try the 28-mile Royal Military Canal. The Kent Downs AONB offers walking and cycling opportunities aplenty.
Map of Kent
Lead image: Diana Jarvis
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