Kent’s fertile countryside, ancient woodlands and dramatic white cliffs have earned the county its nickname “the Garden of England”. Within this garden are the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the Kent Heritage Coast, an area between Folkestone and Dover.
Recent years have seen the economic regeneration of Kent as well as the arrival of high-speed rail which brings the county’s natural landscapes and distinctive historic buildings within even easier reach of London and the rest of the country. Its wild swimming opportunities, cycle paths, vast nature reserves and nature parks all offer an antidote to a life lived on Zoom, while its castles and cathedrals reveal the fascinating history of this beautiful county.
From Folkestone to Dover and beyond, here are some of the best things to do along Kent’s heritage coast.
Explore Lower Leas Coastal Park
You can easily waste an entire day with kids in Folkestone’s Lower Leas Coastal Park, which has a “is-this-really-the-UK?” quality thanks in part to the spectacular botanical architecture of its manicured gardens, with many Mediterranean and non-native plants.
Much of the park overlooks the sea, while other parts are set back and sheltered from sea winds by greenery. The elaborate Adventure Playground — the largest free playground in the Southeast with wooden pirate ships, sandboxes, ziplines, and tunnel slides — will keep younger kids busy. Once they’re done, take them to a nearby cafe, such as The Lift Cafe, which serves thick sourdough toast made with bread from the local Docker Bakery.
Follow the distinctive zigzag path of the Coastal Path, which was created in the 1920s from a mixture of man-made sandstone called Pulhamite. The path descends into the park from its starting point on the Victorian promenade of The Leas, passing through planters of Mediterranean vegetation and caves that appear to be cut into natural rock. Photogenic Mermaid Beach is nearby and has a popular swimming spot with locals all year round.
Spend a family day at Dover Castle
A seasonal program of weekend events, from Easter egg hunts to a Christmas adventure quest, keep families coming back to Dover Castle. Panoramic views of the English Channel from the ramparts never lose their ‘wow’ factor either.
Its secret wartime tunnels are arguably as appealing as the medieval history and grand tower of the castle. These chalk passages give a good insight into how the castle found new life as a base during WW1 and WW2, including housing an underground hospital. Be careful, the underground paths are narrow, dark and wet, which may bother some visitors.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive deals straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
Discover Folkestone’s site-specific artwork
Encountering contemporary art, whether you like it or not, is becoming an essential part of the Kent Coast experience. Since 2008, the Folkestone Triennial has seen new site-specific artwork by high profile and international artists appear every three years across the seaside town (a pandemic-related delay in 2020 aside). Each edition also leaves permanent works behind and as a result Folkestone now hosts the UK’s largest open-air exhibition of contemporary art throughout the year. The best part is that the visit is free.
There are over 70 permanent Folkestone works of art to spot – sculptures and art objects, including the figures of Antony Gormley and the bronze cast of Tracey Emin baby things to seaside pavilions, graphic-adorned beach huts and a Morse code message from Yoko Ono. The artwork is widely scattered and you’ll never see them all in one day, so follow one of the suggested walking routes from Creative Folkestone – or just keep your eyes peeled.
Hike the White Cliffs to the South Foreland Lighthouse
The Victorian South Foreland Lighthouse – the world’s first to use electric light and the site of various pioneering international radio experiments – and its wonderfully retro tea room are your reward at the end of an invigorating walk along the cliffs whites of Dover. Mrs. Knotts’ Tea Room ticks the boxes of authenticity that English tea rooms should: fine china, loose pots of tea and generous slices of cake.
Getting here is part of the fun, either via a 2 mile clifftop trail from Dover to really earn that cup of tea, or a shorter walk from St Margaret’s Bay. Choose a calm day to be able to contemplate the lighthouse at your leisure; when it’s more windy, lawns are a popular spot for kite flying. Note that there is nowhere to park at the lighthouse itself.
Splash around at Sunny Sands Beach
As far as Kent’s sandy beaches go, Margate seems to capture the imagination of many day-trippers, but Folkestone’s smaller beach of Sunny Sands, adjacent to the town’s reclaimed harbor area, is almost as tempting (and a journey by shorter train from London).
This golden expanse welcomes toddlers, sunbathers and occasional swimmers in the summer, before the cooler weather gives way to bundled-up dog walkers enjoying the ever-glittering views across the English Channel. Locals who love cold water bathe here in droves every December 26. A word of warning, though: the beach disappears entirely at high tide, so check the tide tables before visiting.
There are ice cream kiosks and buckets and shovels, and you’re also within walking distance of the stylish Rocksalt restaurant and cocktail bar, with lovely harbor views.
See biodiversity on reclaimed land at Samphire Hoe
Samphire Hoe is a unique nature reserve which was created during the construction of the Channel Tunnel, when nearly 5 million cubic meters of spoil was deposited at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff near Dover to reclaim land on the Handle.
This area was seeded with wildflowers and opened to the public in 1997. Since then it has gained stellar biodiversity, as the 30 ha (74 acre) area is home to over 200 species of plants and even more species of birds . Despite the site’s youthfulness, what strikes you as a visitor here is a sense of timelessness, thanks to its meditative views of the expansive sea and dramatic vistas of the rugged white cliffs of Dover.
Complete the Cathedral-to-Coast Bike Ride
In Canterbury, expect to be moved by the scale and serenity of its vast cathedral, whether you are of the Christian faith or not. This medieval place of pilgrimage still attracts nearly a million visitors a year to its interior with soaring ceilings adorned with stained glass. From here the full cycle route follows part of the North Downs Way through rolling countryside, pretty villages and a nature reserve near Elham. As you approach the Heritage Coast, you will be rewarded with spectacular sea views.
You can also choose a single section of the cycle route, such as the 17 miles (27 km) from Canterbury to Folkestone. The area is well served by train stations, so you can continue your journey by train.
Shop at Deal’s Saturday Market
Making plans to browse the long-established Saturday market in Deal will give some direction to a weekend day trip to this coastal hotspot, where the thoughtful refurbishment of local establishments like the Rose Hotel attracted interest from glossy magazine editors and London professionals trying to buy a house. Less than a 10-minute walk from the station, the morning market (open from 8 or 9 a.m. depending on the time of year) is also just a few blocks from the long, refreshing pebble beach of Deal.
The market has existed here in various forms since the late 1600s. Today’s merchants sell everything from handmade soaps and vintage toys to quality food from Kentish farmers and manufacturers. Pick up what you need—and a few things you don’t—before you eat lunch and make the most of the sea air.
Take the Miniature Railway from Hythe
Hythe has plenty to recommend, including some choice second-hand shops worth looking into and a walkable stretch of the Royal Military Canal. But one of the best things to do here is to go aboard the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. Locomotives the size of a third of the railway take passengers to the eerily beautiful nature reserve of Dungeness (just over an hour, each way).
Once there, enjoy the shingle beach and visit the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s garden, before catching the little train to Hythe and choosing between its gastropubs for dinner.
Wildlife viewing at Sandwich and Pegwell Bay National Nature Reserve
The largest of the Kent Wildlife Trust’s reserves is Sandwich and Pegwell Bay National Nature Reserve, where you can spend some time surrounded by nature. It is rich in biodiversity with varied habitats including beaches and salt marshes, as well as a more orderly and easy to navigate natural park.
It’s not uncommon to spot seals from here, especially in winter, and in spring watch out for the rare green hairstreak butterflies. But this reserve is mainly the domain of birdwatchers, where you might hear nightingales or spot a short-eared owl, snipe, kestrel or tern.
Get closer to France in beautiful St Margaret’s Bay
An aesthetically pleasing curve of shingle beach and green sea, St Margaret’s Bay appears on several popular walking routes in this part of White Cliffs country.
Its resident boozer, The Coastguard, bills itself as the closest UK pub to France (on this stretch of coast you might even get a “Welcome to France” message from your phone operator or French radio stations on your car radio). The best selling point of the 300-year-old establishment is its sea-view terrace where visitors take in views of the bay over a cold pint or warming whiskey.
There is sometimes an informal get-together at the beach school for outdoor under-5s and their parents here too. But in general, you have a good chance of having the bay almost all to yourself.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change quickly. Lonely Planet recommends travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date advice before traveling during Covid-19.