Folkestone: what to see, eat and do in Kent's buzziest seaside town

summers day at folkestone harbour kent england uk
Why you need to visit Folkestoneianwool

It’s not breaking news that Kentish seaside towns are back in fashion. There’s Whitstable with its candy-coloured beach huts and genteel clientele; Broadstairs and its sweeping sandy beaches, seemingly borrowed from across the channel; Margate, now a gentrified gathering place for hipsters; and Dungeness, its barren seascapes popular with artists and students back from university. Then you have Folkestone, the scrappy underdog with its growing art scene and seafront pubs where locals stare with fleeting suspicion as you walk inside. Having been named The Times' best place to live in South East England this month, perhaps its days as an understudy are numbered.

It’s not a particularly photogenic place upon first sight. Anyone who arrives at Folkestone Central expecting sandy beaches and colourful architecture will be disappointed; the two most prominent buildings that greet visitors are the Saga HQ building and a supersized Asda. This isn’t a town overburdened with visual charm, although its regeneration has given at least parts a facelift. Folkestone is no Brighton, Whitby or Falmouth – and that’s no bad thing.

Poppy Hollis

It was the Channel Tunnel that finally spelt the end of days for Folkestone. At the start of the 20th century, the town was a thriving port and a popular holiday destination among royalty and the British elite. Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express from the town’s Grand Hotel, and King Edward VII apparently spent so much time there that locals would peer into his hotel to spy on him and his mistress, Alice Keppel. The first and second world wars weren’t great for business and, if ever there was a fact to illustrate how unlucky Folkestone has been over the years, it’s that the Germans used to drop their leftover bombs on the town before they headed home. The '60s and '70s welcomed overseas travel for the masses and Folkestone slipped into decline. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 meant that its port was more redundant than ever before.

Poppy Hollis

I have always loved Folkestone, having grown up in a village only 15 minutes away. I like the regeneration of it, but only because it seems to be an example of one of the few seaside towns that has managed to do so in a respectful way. The locals are still included and it hasn’t tried to arrogantly recreate Peckham by sea, then blithely, righteously quip that it’s boosting the local economy through seasonal employment or by erecting craft breweries that the locals can’t afford to drink in. These things exist, but in tandem with services that benefit those who have always lived there: a multi-storey skate park and climbing centre, subsidised for children attending local schools, an affordable open-air entertainment hub, and multiple cultural festivals, spanning documentaries to books.

Poppy Hollis

Unlike some of Kent’s more aesthetically gifted seaside destinations, such as Whitstable and Broadstairs, Folkestone radiates a stoic, dour quality that is so singular to the coastal towns that were once popular; if you’d spent centuries being battered by storms and icy, salty water, being picked up and dropped by DFLs (Down From London-ers), you’d be pretty grumpy too. Its high street – not the cobbled stone-covered ‘creative quarter’ – isn’t much to look at (although I challenge you not to enjoy the Italian ice cream at La Casa Del Bello Gelato). Indeed, Folkestone remains steadfastly and resolutely plain in comparison to its quaint postcard-perfect siblings further along the coast. This is a place where Banksy created a mural and a resident spray-painted a penis over the top of it. And yet, despite itself, Folkestone has always possessed certain charms, such as the majestic Leas, a picturesque clifftop promenade overlooking the sea. It was designed in the mid-1800s by Decimus Burton, who also worked on buildings and landscapes at London Zoo and Kew Gardens, which gives you an indication of its visual prowess. In the middle stands a Victorian bandstand, surrounded by deckchairs in the summer. Folkestone has a lot of crummy hotels (read the TripAdvisor reviews of the Grand Burstin Hotel if ever you want a good giggle), but The Grand on the Leas is unarguably beautiful – a century-old building designed in the town’s sunniest spot with towering windows and views looking across the ocean to France.

folkestone anthony gormley
Anthony Gormley’s human statue under the Harbour ArmPoppy Hollis

I have fond memories of being treated to a ride in the Grade II-listed Leas Lift, which during the '40s and '50s carried thousands of tourists every day to and from the promenade to the seafront. It was closed in 2016 for health and safety reasons, but there are plans to restore it back to its former glory later this year. If you carry on walking along the seafront you’ll reach the Lower Leas Coastal Park, which boasts the largest free adventure play area in the South East. There’s an amphitheatre that hosts children’s workshops, live music, opera and theatre, some of which are free; Shakespeare’s Henry V is on the agenda for this summer.

The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelai Parker on Sunny Sands Poppy Hollis

On the other side of town, you’ll find Sunny Sands – a small, but perfectly formed sandy beach overlooked by grassy hills decorated with wild thyme and flowers. Charles Dickens came here to write the first chapters of Little Dorrit and described the view from his window: “The cliff overhanging the sea beach and have the sky and the ocean, as it were, framed before you like a beautiful picture." In fact, he continued, his vista was so pretty that he found himself distracted constantly and barely wrote anything. If you keep walking beyond the hills, you’ll come to The Warren and the East Cliffs, in which overgrown grassy meadows descend to a usually empty pebble and sand beach below. It’s overgrown now, but I like that about it – there’s nothing manicured or polished about this side of town. Steep grassy corridors of foliage and rock sea lavender lead down to the sea and the tiny bays themselves look out across to the White Cliffs of Dover. A rare colony of Grayling butterflies has made the Warren its home. You can swim here, but the water will be freezing so approach with caution.

Lubaina Himid Jelly Mould PavilionPoppy Hollis

A lot has been said about Folkestone’s rising arts scene. This small coastal town has the largest urban outdoor collection of contemporary art in the UK. The changing exhibition currently consists of 74 artworks by 46 artists, most of which have designed their respective piece with the exact site in mind. Think a treasure hunt of outdoor art and you won’t be far off. There’s Cornelia Parker’s mermaid sculpture, which sits high on the rock above Sunny Sands; under the Harbour Arm’s arches stands Anthony Gormley’s cast-iron human statue, which resolutely stares out to the sea; Lubaina Himid – the first Black woman to ever receive the Turner Prize – created a giant ceramic jelly mould where Folkestone’s former fairground, The Rotunda, used to be; and then there’s my favourite, Richard Woods’ Holiday Home, six colourful, cartoon-like bungalows that are dotted in unusual or unlikely spots around the town – in the middle of the shingle beach, floating in the sea, or perched on top of rocks in a carpark – to open a discussion about second homes. The idea is that no site is too small, too unlikely, or too inconvenient for its neighbours, for a holiday home. Art superstars are drawn to this town in their droves; Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono and David Shrigley have all created public works here.

There is an argument that the long-standing locals couldn’t care less about public art, but there is a singular quality about these installations that eludes a typical art gallery, which people often feel intimidated by. Public art is inclusive – whether you decide to engage with it or not is entirely up to you.

Richard Woods’ Holiday HomePoppy Hollis

My favourite way to do Folkestone is to start at the harbour. You could eat at Rocksalt, the town’s Michelin-starred restaurant, but you’d be daft to miss the fresh prawns and crab sticks at seafood stall Chummys. If the weather’s bad, head along the cobbled road and under the railway arch to The Ship Inn for hearty pub food in a warming, cosy setting. The fish and chips are particularly good. Afterwards, walk across the new landscaped walkway to the Harbour Arm – one of Folkestone’s biggest recent success stories and an example of gentrification done respectfully. The Harbour Arm was originally a railway terminal (and also a departure point for soldiers on their way to the Western Front), but remained desolate and unused until five years ago, when it was regenerated. Now, it’s peppered with independent food and drink trucks and stands that span Greek food to excellent flat bread pizzas.

Live music is a big part of the activity down on 'The Arm', as the locals call it, and there’s no fee to watch any of it. The Marketplace, spread out over 35 fisherman huts, offers an ever-evolving range of homewares, crafts, clothing and wellness products. Picnic benches, tables and deckchairs look out across the sea to the majestic White Cliffs of Dover. In The Good Yard, a huge screen shows a mix of sports and films. The plaza-like space also hosts regular gigs and DJ sets. Next door, The Pilot Bar – set out on the beach – is an idyllic spot for a cocktail or a coffee. Yes, there’s the family-run champagne lighthouse at the end of the arm, which plays a mix of reggae, blues and funk vinyl, but the best thing about the Harbour Arm is that people from Folkestone actually use it. There are as many people drinking canned beer and sandwiches bought from Asda in the town centre, as there are tourists. Everyone is invited to watch the live music, soak up the atmosphere and look out to sea.

The Harbour Arm in FolkestonePoppy Hollis

Once you’ve walked up and down the arm, explore the Old High Street or the ‘Creative Quarter’ as it’s now called, which offers a mix of colourful independent shops, cafés and bars – from record and vintage shops to galleries selling unusual neon artworks. My favourite is Rennies Seaside Modern, a beautifully curated store that sells furniture, vintage seaside posters, ceramics and textiles by 20th-century British artists. Its owners, Paul and Karen Rennie, have such in-depth knowledge and a contagious enthusiasm for every single item in their shop. You won’t want to leave this tiny cabin of unique curiosities. Kitty McCall, further along the street, is also a worthy stop-off; a colourful, mood-boosting treasure chest of homewares, artworks and textiles.

Folkestone Rennies
Paul Rennie, owner of Rennies Seaside ModernPoppy Hollis

It’s a steep hill up the Old High Street, but a pretty one – each of the buildings are painted different colours – and a lot of the cafés and bars double up as performance spaces that host talks, workshops and gigs. I like Steep Street, a literary coffee shop inspired by the brasseries of Paris, in which books line the walls. Keep on walking until you come to The Potting Shed on Rendezvous Street, an artfully curated antique shop co-founded by buzzy interior designer Sophie Rowell and her partner David Holden, who together moved from Hackney to Folkestone in 2016. A secret entrance at the back of the boutique leads to a bijou basement speakeasy.

Round the corner on Church Street, relative culinary newcomer Folkestone Wine Company has received positive reviews from the critics (and also from my grandad, who loved the food, even if he didn’t understand why the plates were mismatched), and The Pullman next door offers that rare thing of being a pub that works just as well in the summer as the winter – its garden and the terrace is pleasant during the warmer months and a seat by the open fire is warming beyond autumn. As nice as the Pullman is, I still prefer the British Lion which is about two minutes’ walk away in a picturesque, secluded spot called The Bayle. The British Lion is thought to be the oldest pub in Folkestone with parts going back to the 1500s and was a favourite of Dickens' when he visited. It’s a snug, welcoming place that locals love and is decorated with dried hops that hang from the beams. End your day here with a pint at the bar or hunker down in one of the booths.

Sentient art gallery near Folkestone’s Old High StreetPoppy Hollis

Perhaps part of the reason I love Folkestone so much is that it’s where I first fell in love as young teenager. It makes me happy because it reminds me of a time when I was madly happy – that unique form of mad happy that only happens with intense, first love. I remember my first kiss in the then-dilapidated Silver Screen Cinema and long days spent at the Warren or Sunny Sands, usually slightly cold and damp but never minding much. I remember listening to garage compilations in his room recorded off the radio and running through town singing them. I remember proms in run-down venues wearing dresses bought on sale at TK Maxx. Maybe I’ve looked at this grumpy little town with rose-tinted glasses ever since.

It’s not as uninviting as it used to be, but it’s as genuine and hardy as ever. Folkestone, you’re all that and a bag of very nice chips.

Photographs courtesy of Poppy Hollis.

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