A town transformed by an arty renaissance, visit Folkestone to enjoy eclectic eats, the ultimate creative culture and stunning sea views.
In March 2023, Folkestone was heralded by The Times as one of the best places to live in the UK. Dubbing it a ‘funky example of the power of well-aimed regeneration’, the newspaper likened our Kentish seaside town to a ‘younger, fresher and cheaper version of Brighton’ and with a plethora of places to eat, drink and socialise at, plus a whole heap of arty places to visit, it’s easy to see why so many are packing up their bags (whether those ‘bags’ be removal boxes or beach bags) and heading to this town that gave Kent yet another wave of creative regeneration like a blast of fresh ocean air.
Some refer to Folkestone as ‘the next Margate’, but like a younger sibling eager to stand out with its own unique identity (albeit with some characteristically Kentish family traits), Folkestone is continuing to define its own pathway through its arty renaissance and into a new era of being an acclaimed, cultural seaside town in its own right. Go back only 10 years and Folkestone was, like Margate, somewhat washed out and looking slightly worse for wear after decades of disparity caused by holidaymakers favouring cheap trips abroad and tossing the town aside for the Mediterranean sun. Remnants of the seaside-loving Victorians and Edwardians can still be seen today and play an important part in Folkestone’s current persona, including decadent architecture and one of the town’s most defining and adored features: the Folkestone Harbour Arm.
Originally built in the early 1800s, partly to provide potential anchorages for warships during the Napoleonic Wars, it wasn’t until 1843 that the arm came into its own as a rival to Dover for steam packets to France. Refurbished by the South Eastern Railway Company, the arrival of the railway meant that over the next 50 years the new resort of Folkestone grew rapidly and by Edwardian times had established itself as one of England’s most fashionable coastal towns. After some years being quite literally ‘lost at sea’ having been sold off in the 1980s as part of Thatcher’s privatisation programme, it wasn’t until 2014 that once again the Harbour Arm found its new reimagined calling. Repurposed as a promenade where people come to savour magnificent views, as well as a wide choice of incredible food and drink, the Harbour Arm has become a vibrant, pulsating social hub. Under the summer sun, it is enlivened and invigorated further still, playing host to live music, arts events and other entertainment.
Visitors to the revitalised Harbour Arm can choose from an abundance of hip and happening places to eat and dine at, with a myriad of different cuisines on offer. An unmissable addition to the arm is The Big Greek Bus which serves sensational Greek food from a double decker. There’s plenty more to choose from on the Harbour Arm when it comes to food, including bites perfect for taking with you on a seaside stroll. Burgers from That Burger, burritos from Burrito Buoy, or a scrumptious dessert (or classic seaside ice cream) from Instagram sensation Dessert Folkes, all act as brilliant choices to accompany a walk down to the iconic lighthouse at the end of the arm. Destined to transfix any visitor within its vicinity’s gaze, The Lighthouse has been a beacon of conviviality at the Harbour Arm since it first opened in 2015, with its dramatic location and striking architectural setting. Dreamed up as a Champagne bar, today The Lighthouse is replete with fine English sparkling, as well as an extensive list of wines and Champagnes. The vista from the bar’s prime position at the end of the arm has to be one of the most enviable views in the South East – with France over yonder, the White Cliffs up the way and the vast expanse of sea and coast. The perfect spot for sipping as you enjoy gentle music drifting on the breeze and bound to be one of the most unique bars you’ll ever visit.
As well as this pier-like section, there’s plenty more to Folkestone Harbour Arm, which includes a beautifully restored railway platform and a myriad of other bars, eateries and shops. This includes outdoor street food plaza and events space: The Goods Yard. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of independent street food businesses and bars serving mussels, locally brewed craft beers, pulled pork rolls, hot seafood classics, fragrant Thai, fresh coffee, inventive cocktails from Wild Box, wood fired pizza and more. Anchoring all these businesses is the LED Big Screen, which shows the sports of the day and a varied cinema programme throughout the year.
As if there wasn’t already enough to this incredible area, the Harbour Arm is also home to Folkestone Marketplace, a community of independent and artisan traders in beach-hut style kiosks. Creatives, producers, makers, brands and artisans of all shapes and sizes populate Folkestone Marketplace. Whether just having a mooch or searching for a gift, you are sure to be inspired and enthralled when having a look round. The Harbour Arm has also made brilliant use of its pebble beach with the addition of Beach Side, a relaxed, oasis-like environment emulating the slick beachy style Old Town Ibiza during the summer months. With breathtaking sea views and the roar of the ocean, feel transported to the Mediterranean when you visit the ultra-trendy Pilot Beach Bar, The Steampunk Sauna – a beautifully converted sauna housed in a cleverly converted horsebox – or Little Rock. Coming from the team behind the heralded Rocksalt which sits just across the harbour, Little Rock is housed in a collection of shipping containers right on the beach. Serving the freshest fish from Folkestone Trawlers and a few hand-picked, high-quality suppliers nearby, expect the best of Kent’s seafood both supremely cooked and perfectly presented – seaside dining at its finest and sure to be picture-perfect.
There is, of course, so much more to Folkestone than just the seafront and harbour. The creative vibe that embraces the arts scene in all its glory stretches from the ocean and floods into the town coming together as Creative Folkestone. Known as the town’s ‘cultural heart’, venture up the iconic Old High Street, one of the most photographed streets in the South East, and you will find the plethora that is Folkestone’s Creative Quarter – a community of independent shops, artists and makers. From art galleries, jewellers and vintage stores to artisan food shops, interior havens and gift shops of all shapes and sizes, any visitor will be consumed with the sheer abundance of exciting creativity and arts on offer here. Having restored 90 buildings and now also looking after around 80 flats, 115 studios and offices and over 50 shops, Creative Folkestone has made the town a hive of activity. Visitors can enjoy watching artists paint in their galleries, sign up to classes run by skilled makers, or visit the bars which transform into micro-performance spaces.
As well as plenty of creative businesses, the Old High Street is home to lots of fabulous places to eat and drink. Steep Street Coffee is a must-go; with walls lined with shelves of books from floor to ceiling, it is a lovely spot to enjoy coffee and cake. For those wanting more of a meal, step into Marley’s who serve exquisite dishes inspired by Kentish produce and famously good pancake brunches; pay a visit to El Cortador serving authentic tapas in Spanish style; or Pick Up Pintxos to delight in the wonder that is Basque cooking. Whatever your taste buds might be craving, Folkestone is certain to have the answer. With coffee shops aplenty, you will not be short on cosy corners to catch up in either, whether that be with friends or simply yourself. One such place is Folkelore, specialising in locally roasted organic coffee, award-winning cocktails, mouth-watering food throughout the day and into the evening, and free weekly events.
Creative Folkestone is also responsible for several initiatives, events and exhibitions that honour the arts. One such example is Folkestone Artworks, the UK’s largest urban contemporary art exhibition, which is free and accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sited outdoors around the town and harbour, the artworks pop up in both scenic and surprising locations. The changing exhibition, currently consisting of 74 artworks by 46 artists – including Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Yoko Ono, Mark Wallinger, Cornelia Parker, Bill Woodrow, Michael Craig-Martin and Ian Hamilton Finlay – offers an experience like nowhere else in the world: great contemporary art with an invitation to explore, examine and understand the town’s geography, history and potential future.
As well as visual arts, Creative Folkestone embraces performing arts, comedy, music and more, not only through events held at its bars and eateries, but at the Quarterhouse. Presenting a regular programme, the Quarterhouse venue welcomes creatives and performers from both afar and closer to home, including the people of Folkestone themselves, to help continue to make creativity happen.
While staycationing in Folkestone, there are some truly wonderful places to stay. Whether that be in a fabulous self-catering holiday home via Bloom Stays, or at one of the town’s treasured hotels and B&Bs. One such seaside retreat is The View hotel. With rooms tastefully modernised while retaining many period features of this beautiful building, expect the utmost comfort, spectacular sea views and a good night’s sleep after a day of exploring this vibrant town.