Age: Not quite 200. But nowhere near as old as its hoary sea-faring neighbour, Hastings.
What is it? A grandiose, purpose-built resort founded by 18th-century architect James Burton, who had developed large areas of Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park. St Leonard’s initially attracted artists and writers including Turner and Rossetti, as well as the super-rich – but declined sharply in the 1980s and 1990s. This century it’s been undergoing a revival of which many seaside towns can only dream.
So what goes on there? More than enough for a weekend minibreak. But first: hit the shingle beach, so vast you’ll never be too pressed against another body. Behind, take time to explore the beautiful squares – such as Warrior, pictured further below – as well as bucolic parks, a sunken lake and gardens up in the Maze Hill area.
Is that it? Hell, no. Eye-catching 18th and 19th century architecture aside, lick your lips for an awful lot of foodie-ness. Start with Goat Ledge on the seafront – a colourful multi-purpose coffee bar, brunch, lunch and cocktail stop; they even brew their own pale ale. Grab a cute hut (scroll down) to avoid the midday sun – or torrential rain.
Nearby is the stylish Heist, a newish indoor food market with an eclectic range of streetfood, a seafood restaurant, lots of seating, and tasty local Three Legs Brewing, who operate a tiny taproom. This place is a must.
On our last visit we sat at the counter of its on-site seafood restaurant Boatyard and scoffed oysters, melt-in-the-mouth octopus with Jerusalem artichoke, stone bass with pommes anna, and a surf-and-turf steak with crevettes. Service was a little slow; but the place was buzzy – no, rammed – and operating on a small team.
Where else should I mooch? The main strolling areas are the King’s Road (where acclaimed gastropub The Royal faces the train station), hilly Norman Road, and the long seafront.
All are peppered with high quality eating and independent shopping options. King’s Road boasts artisan coffee (try an iced long black at Fika in its atmospheric rear garden), micro bakery Maker + Baker, natural wines and small plates at Farm Yard, and healthy, well-priced lunch wraps at Dandelion. I like to browse in literary haven The Bookkeeper, too.
Meanwhile, Norman Road is home to lifestyle stores and boutiques such as Shop, St Leonard’s Modern Goods, and the Hastings Antique Centre in attractively peeling pastel buildings, as well as cinema and arts venue Kino-Teatr.
Food-wise, try Parlour, Tommy’s Pizzeria (see main pic, above) and Galleria, as well as, at its tip, the town’s original top restaurant, St Clement’s, which has never disappointed on the many times I’ve eaten there in the last fifteen years.
Meanwhile, down on the seafront, Marina Court has a line of good restaurants, bars and local galleries, including Half Man Half Burger – whose burgers are always juicily pink (see below), Graze, the Libyan Coast and extremely sociable cocktail bar Twisted Bunny.
Ah yes, drinking! If that’s your thing, a slew of options are in evidence. There are pubs tucked away on side streets, from old fave the Horse & Groom to refurbed boozers like St Leonard, on London Road, and The Piper, by Warrior Square.
Look out for new LGBTQ-friendly venue Forbidden Fruit, packed on a Friday night with a drag queen holding court on our last visit. The little London Road craft beer bar, Collected Fictions, is a delight too.
Where can we stay? If you can secure a room, it has to be the splendour of restored Victorian B&B St Benedict’s (pictured below), a little way up the hill: the gardens are fabulous, and each room is filled with historic 19th century furniture, furnishings, rugs, artworks and fittings. Breakfast is fantastic, too.
Or try the modest and impeccably clean Tower 66, fifteen minutes’ walk uphill, which proved better value than seafront-facing Bank Hotel & Bistro (decent breakfast in both, too).
And there are plenty of fancier places, such as Hastings House, and the upmarket Zanzibar, which I reviewed on my first ever Hastings / St Leonards travel story for the Independent when it first opened well over a decade ago (read it here.)
What else is near? Hastings itself, of course, which will be getting its own revised feature (last covered here) very soon. Also not far is Bexhill, a couple of hours’ amble along the coast, which I wrote about recently here.