The artist J M W Turner, who spent many happy years in Margate, once told the critic John Ruskin: ‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe.’ Witness the sunlight filtering through the clouds and casting glitter across the sea and you will be hard pressed to disagree. Raffishly louche, artily bohemian and democratic in its many sensory pleasures, Margate epitomises the boom, bust and boom again cycle of Kent’s seaside resorts.

Like many of Kent’s seaside towns, Margate languished as the new millennium approached and it’s still tackling ingrained problems of poverty and deprivation. However, the resort’s general revival since the opening of the Turner Contemporary gallery in 2011 has been remarkable, and cheap property prices have tempted many creative and entrepreneurial types to ditch London in favour of a relaxed seaside life. The Old Town and Northdown Road, which runs through the neighbouring suburb of Cliftonville, are both hives of activity, packed with appealing places to eat and drink, boutiques selling vintage jeans and retro light fittings, and small galleries exhibiting works by up-and-coming artists.

What to see and do

Explore the town’s artworks

Art lovers in search of creative stimulation need only cast their eye around the gently stepped sea defences and across the sands to the geometric form of the Turner Contemporary. Designed by David Chipperfield, this gallery is credited with kickstarting Margate’s revival. It takes its name from the celebrated Victorian painter who used to stay at a guesthouse that once stood on the same site. Works by Turner – often ones he completed in and around Margate – are regularly on display in the gallery, sparking a lively artistic conversation with the regularly changing and expertly curated contemporary works also exhibited here.

The gallery’s panoramic, sea-facing windows provide an ideal frame for Antony Gormley’s Another Time, which stands on Fulsam Rock on the seashore. One in a series of 100 solid cast-iron sculptures by the artist, it has stoically endured Margate’s rising and falling tides since 2017 and is scheduled to stay until at least 2030. If the tide is out, walk across the sand and seaweed slathered rocks for a close-up view of this barnacle encrusted figure.

The geometric form of the Turner Contemporary stands out on Margate’s coast © Visit Kent

Before heading inland, take a look at a couple of other public artworks. I Never Stopped Loving You is a neon sign by Tracey Emin who grew up in Margate and has returned to live and work in the town. It hangs over the entrance to Droit House, which now houses the tourist information centre but which was once the harbour customs building. At the end of the curving stone pier, known as the Harbour Arm, is a tall, brass sculpture of a lady made from seashells.

Mrs Booth, by Ann Carrington, is a homage to Sophia Booth, the twice-widowed Margate landlady with whom Turner had a long love affair. The Harbour Arm is lined with bars, cafés and galleries and a walk along it to the lighthouse at the end provides wonderful views out to sea and back towards the town.

Old Town

From the Turner Contemporary it’s a very short walk into Margate’s Old Town, an attractive quarter of tight-knit Georgian and Victorian buildings, most now turned into cafés, restaurants and shops. Here you’ll find the town’s oldest building, Tudor House, a half-timbered beauty dating back to 1525. The original owners were clearly wealthy as the house sports unusual features for its time, including glazed windows and two chimneys. The house is not often open, but the low surrounding walls permit views across into its Tudor knot garden and box hedge squares.

There’s a chance to learn about Margate’s history in the Margate Museum which is housed in the old Town Hall, a building that also served as a Victorian police station and magistrates’ court. The exhibits cover a broad range of local topics from sea bathing machines and donkeys on the beach to artworks that trace the town’s development from a humble fishing village to the holiday resort it is today.

Dreamland

Nearby, Dreamland has been entertaining with its classic fairground rides and amusement arcades for over a century. John Henry Iles spent the equivalent of £15 million in developing the original park, which has gone through several iterations during its lifetime.

Dreamland is a family favourite © seanseyeview, Shutterstock

The star of the show remains the Scenic Railway, the UK’s oldest rollercoaster, which opened along with the amusement park in 1920. There’s also dodgems, waltzers, a ghost train, roller disco and much more. Entry to the park is free with fees for each of the attractions.

Margate Caves

The intriguing Margate Caves can be reached by walking up Northdown Road from the Old Town. ‘The most surprising discovery of the age!’ proclaimed posters promoting this attraction to Victorians as the Vortigen Caves in 1863. Said to date to 454 AD, these underground caverns were in reality an early 18th-century chalk mine that had been covered over and forgotten.

Rediscovered in the early 19th century, their potential as a tourist attraction was given a boost by the addition of colourful paintings of soldiers, wild beasts and a hunting expedition across the towering chalk walls. Local art students added the Virgin Mary and a fluorescent Thanet Giant to these images in the 1950s. The caves closed in 2004 but, following a campaign to have them reopened, they have been made fit as a contemporary attraction – this time with accurate and fascinating historical interpretation in the award-winning visitor centre and café that sits above ground.

The beach

Directly opposite the train station and spanning a gently curved bay is Margate’s main beach, which includes a tidal swimming pool. Take in the scene from the Nayland Rock promenade shelter, a Grade II-listed Victorian structure where TS Eliot is believed to have drafted some lines of his poem The Wasteland. For Eliot, who was recovering from a nervous breakdown at the time, Margate Sands was a place where he could connect ‘nothing with nothing’. Hopefully, your impressions will be nowhere as near as bleak.

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