Relocating somewhere is always a big step. What’s the neighbourhood like? Is there enough to do? Is there going to be a café that can make my morning cuppa just the way I like it? After, staying in Margate for a couple of weeks in between lockdowns, I got a taste of what life could be like by the sea… and now I’m sold.
Freezing cold swims, walks along the coast, gaming arcades, people who say hi to you in the street, and flats that you can actually afford. Margate is a big step away from London’s faceless Pret branches and crowded parks, so maybe it’s time to test the waters in one of the UK’s most quirky seaside towns.
1. The beach
Being on the coast definitely has its perks. You get to jump into the freezing cold Lido any time you want, feel the sand (and occasional bottle tops) inbetween your toes, and hang out with sweaty hordes of people in the summer. And Margate has all this and more.
So much so, in fact, that it reached seventh place in the Rough Guide’s ‘must see’ destinations for 2013. Okay, yes, that was some time ago, but it still stands true (in my eyes). The refreshing sea air, the sound of gulls, and the clink of arcade games – what more could you want?
2. The Old Town
Margate has some pretty unsightly buildings. The main one being Arlington House, a 58-metre high 18-storey apartment block built in the 60s. Apparently, it was originally advertise as having a theatre, restaurant and rooftop pool, but it looks very unlikely that that’s still the case.
However, there are also some real architectural gems if you know where to look. There are approximately 2,500 listed buildings in Thanet and 27 conservation areas. These include a lovely Tudor building in the heart of the old town and wonderful Georgian terraces with bow-fronted windows.
Wonder around the Old Town, and you are transported into an idyllic English village. Independent shops and art galleries are perfect for a day’s browsing, as well as The Old Kent Market, a big red building which houses independent craft pop-ups alongside takeaway food stalls.
3. The Shell Grotto
It’s always fun when you live somewhere to do a tourist day. Often when you’ve been somewhere for so long you don’t actually see the sights. My brother already lives in the town, but hadn’t seen some of the top attractions on his doorstep. So we ventured out to try them.
It turns out that the concept of the Shell Grotto is somewhat more exciting than the actual place. Shrouded in mystery as to why it’s even there, any guess is welcome. A meeting place? A temple? An over zealous shell collector’s treasure chest? Either way, it’s worth a nosey to see the 2,000 square feet of mosaics made from 4.6 million shells in 70 ft of underground tunnels.
A seaside town wouldn’t be a seaside town without a kitsch theme park. And Margate has the perfect one. Dreamland not only has ferris wheels and rollercoasters, it’s also a busy venue for some live acts. Chasing Status, Scouting For Girls and Faithless are all performing in the summer (hopefully).
As soon as it opens again, get yourself a ticket to the dodgems, the Mirror Maze, or the Wedgwood Teacups. It’s a real riot.
5. Bars and pubs
Margate has a cracking selection of watering holes and some come with quaint sea views. Ziggy’s is a rooftop bar and BBQ with views over the main Margate beach. Head here for chilled Caribbean vibes, juicy rum cocktails and reggae beats.
Elsewhere, there are classic English pubs with independent ales and British fare. The Rose in June has friendly staff, great outside space and chic interiors. You can while away an afternoon here or wander on to The George & Heart which always has a busy, friendly crowd, and more benches outside if it’s sunny. There’s also The Little Swift, a wine bar and deli that sells a super collection of independent pale ales and lagers in the Old Town.
6. Turner Contemporary
If you didn’t know it yet, Margate is the hometown of one of the most famous YBAs – Tracey Emin. The sometimes controversial artist has a studio in the town that she is renovating and has definitely boosted the town’s reputation as an artistic hub. There’s a healthy amount of studio space dotted around Margate for budding artists and everyone who lives here seems to have some creative streak, whether that’s art, music or fashion.
The Turner Contemporary opened in 2011 and has been credited as being the catalyst for regeneration in the area. The gallery is named after the 19th century painter J.W.Turner, who went to school in the town and visited the place throughout his life. He’s also said to have claimed that: “the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe”. Take that Saint-Tropez.
Visit the gallery for a sight of Tracey’s unmade bed, an Antony Gormley sculpture and a unique selection of modern art.
7. Harbourside food
If you’ve watched Seaspiracy, now might be the time to switch off – because Margate is home to a delightful selection of seafood restaurants and independent harbourside eateries.
However, if you’re going to eat fish sustainably this is the best way to do it. Angela’s is a tiny seafood restaurant with just a couple of tables, but serves up the most exquisite lemon sole, clams, and turbot dishes. All the fish is caught by local fisherman to reduce the impact on the environment. You can also pop next door to the sister restaurant Dory’s for a selection of small plates. Or try some seafood Japanese style at cool little bistro Hantverk & Found.
There are plenty of vegetarian options, too. Roost does a delicious seaweed tempura served with mushy peas and along the harbour you’ll find plenty of food options. Dive do fresh tacos, there’s the microbrewery The Harbour Arms, and Sargasso some super veggie options and occasional live music.
8. Cool cafés
A lot of people complain about the DFLs (Down From Londoners) gentrifying the area – and it’s true, there are a lot of people shipping in from the Big Smoke (myself included). But it’s a double-edged sword, because it means that there are some lovely new openings that come with it…
Ed Warren and Kier Muddiman moved to Margate from London in 2015 and set up Cliff’s. It’s a record shop / hair salon / cafe / yoga studio… basically everything. And very popular.
9. Fish and chips
A seaside getaway is not complete without a soggy fish and chips. Everyone will have a different answer for serves up the best but you can go upmarket at the Buoy & Oyster or have a takeaway from Peter’s Fish Factory on the beach.
10. Margate Caves
Another unusual attraction are the Margate Caves. Originally dug as a chalk mine in the 18th century it went largely forgotten for over 100 years before being rediscovered and restored for personal recreation and then, eventually, as a tourist attraction. Despite its huge popularity during the Victorian period and on into the 20th Century, the Caves were closed in 2004 and face being built on.
However, the Friends of Margate Caves and The Margate Caves Community Education Trust (TMCCET) began a campaign to save the Caves and reopen them to to public. Thanks to lots of extra funding the attraction was reopened in 2019 to around 5,000 visitors in the first two weeks.
11. Walpole Bay Hotel
If moving here isn’t something you’re willing to do just yet, then a visit to the Walpole Bay Hotel has to be at the top of your list. It has a certain Fawlty Towers element to it with an odd collection of antiques scattered around the hallways, including creepy mannequins and old doilies. Tracey Emin must have stayed here once or maybe it’s just a tribute to her being the town’s greatest export, but her prints and photos line the dining room like a child’s artwork in a proud mum’s kitchen.
Calor gas fires offer heat in the winter (just about) and you have to make your way to your room in an ancient rickety gold lift that just about works. I love everything about it. And if you don’t love it too, maybe Margate’s not for you.