Just an hour and a half drive from London, Whitstable is a perfect (long or short) weekend staycation in a quaint seaside town offering relaxing days out and culinary delights. We took the whole family to celebrate our Grandad’s 95th birthday and had three nights in a Victorian cottage a short walk from the high street. Parking in Whitstable is a bit of a challenge, but perseverance should reward you with a space on a local street and from there the majority of activities can be enjoyed on foot. Here’s a rundown of what we got up to and our top suggestions for a weekend stay of your own.
Watch the catches come in at the harbour
It would be rude not to visit the harbour when in Whitstable! We went for a wander there on our first morning and enjoyed seeing the fishing boats and catching some sea air. If you’re lucky, you may even see a catch being brought in. For us it was a haul of whelks, so fresh they were still squirming. The harbour market is also a nice little place to browse with a selection of souvenirs, sea themed artwork and the obligatory oyster stall!
Get some fresh oysters down your hatch
Whitstable is known for its seafood given its location smack bang on the coast. You don’t have to venture far for offers of the freshest fish and chips you’ve tried. Oysters are always on the menu. They come in two types. Native oysters are only in season during months of the year with an ‘r’ in their name. So we were told, they have a meatier, saltier flavour with a slightly metallic after taste. They also look rather big and scary which is why we didn’t give them a go…
We opted for the smaller Rock oysters instead which are available year-round. The knowledgeable gent at The Forge on Sea Wall gave us the tip to chew rather than simply swallow, how most of us would think to eat an oyster. With a splash of lemon juice and tabasco, they went down rather nicely (certainly a far better experience than the first attempt at a food festival in London). Mum and Grandad even gave them a try after a fair bit of persuasion. We’re confident even the most nervous of eaters could handle at least one!
Make the most of al fresco dining
Given our weekend was in mid-October we were super lucky with the weather and were able to discard our jackets to enjoy the sunshine on most days. This opened up the opportunity to indulge in a couple of the alfresco dining options which would otherwise be constrained to the summer months.
First stop was the Lobster Shack for a round of pints and oysters after our stroll from Tankerton Beach. It’s got countless picnic benches outside by the jetty and quirky touches like deck chairs and a huge sack of oyster shells discarded by customers. The menu is unsurprisingly fish focused with seafood platters and oysters cooked to order alongside local Whitstable and Kentish ales. Just watch out for the seagulls who don’t hesitate in swooping down and helping themselves to leftovers before the staff are able to clear the tables!
Our other al fresco lunch was at The Old Neptune pub, right on the beach. We went on a Sunday and it was a bit of a mission to secure a table after 12pm (a rather gymnastic dive got us one in the end). It’s not particularly pram / wheelchair friendly either with the combo of steps, pebbles and a small wall. Once again, it was mainly seafood on the menu with a couple of classic pub options, all reasonably priced. It was about an hour before the food arrived given the crowds, but we were more than content enjoying the sunshine and our fish and chips were definitely worth the wait. Whilst no seagull issue, this pub does seem to attract a lot of people with their (mostly well behaved) dogs which may not be for all.
The bonus is that both places offer inside dining options, although not on the same scale as outside, making them year-round venues, come rain or shine.
Wander down Oxford Street and the High Street
Whitstable isn’t the typical British seaside town. In place of the usual arcades and tacky gifts shops are independent and quirky shops offering everything from local souvenirs to high end home furnishings and up-cycled antiques. The high street comes with the usual chains you’d expect from any town but it’s still worth a visit to spot the gems in between. We bought a delicious loaf of sourdough from Hubbard’s Bakery, which also has a rather tempting window display, and purchased some arty postcards in Sundae Sundae.
Walking away from the harbour side of town, the High Street turns into Oxford Street with cool looking cafes and coffee shops and a further selection of independent stores. We enjoyed browsing Warehams antiques with its funky printed lamp shade range and more than one piece of art caught our eyes in the Chappell Contemporary gallery. It was a nice change from the Oxford Street we are so used to in London!
Squeeze your gut through squeeze gut alley
Wandering around Whitstable you soon start to notice the number of small alleyways squeezed in among the shops and houses. Our Mum was adamant that we had to pay a visit to Squeeze Gut Alley, a place she remembered from a trip to the town years before. At first sight, when approaching from Middle Wall, it just looks like a normal alleyway and we weren’t particularly impressed. But walking through you soon appreciate how it got its name, as the space gets narrower and narrower and poor Sienna got left behind as her pram wouldn’t fit! It’s not an activity that occupies you for very long but it’s certainly a bit novel and a good place to get some funny snaps.
Visit the castle
Whitstable castle is about a 10-minute walk along from the harbour and a popular wedding venue. We went as we’d read reviews about the great children’s playground and decided to check it out with Sienna. Based in a beautiful setting the playground, albeit aimed at slightly older children, entertained for a good hour or so with its slide, wooden ship and roundabout and was clearly very popular among locals.
We then discovered the beautiful rose garden and fountain, set behind the castle which was a lovely place to sit for a while. We got chatting to some ladies who told us they’d had a delicious afternoon tea in the castle; not something we got around to but on the list for next time! Take the exit out of the castle grounds to the left of the rose garden (when looking at the fountain) and continue right, along the coast, to discover Tankerton Beach…
Search for shells on Tankerton Beach
If you’ve made it as far as the castle (it really isn’t that far either!) you may as well continue to Tankerton Beach, just a little way along the coast and down a gentle slope. Here beach huts of all colours are lined up in neat rows with their balconies looking out to sea. Don’t get too excited for sand as there isn’t much in between all the pebbles but it’s a gorgeous stretch of beach nonetheless. We spent our time searching for shells and soaking in the views across to the offshore wind farm and each way along the coastline. The perfect place for a lazy afternoon stroll and ample photo opportunities.
Opt for fine dining at The Reads Restaurant
If you’re looking for a place for a more upmarket meal look no further than The Reads Restaurant (and rooms). We ended up there based on a well-timed recommendation and booked a couple of months in advance. It was described to us as Michelin star quality without the price tag and they weren’t wrong! A three course set lunch is just £32 per person with the option of adding coffee and sweet treats for £4. A good selection of wine is also available to accompany the menu at £28 a bottle.
Set in an old Manor House, tables are spread across various rooms and we found ourselves at a very generously sized table for six in a bright room (with just two other tables) with original illustrations adorning the walls. The menu offered something for everyone with a selection of vegetarian, meat and fish dishes followed by a range of daily dessert specials. All dishes were beautifully presented with the substance matching the style without a doubt (Sienna even got her own bowl of tasty pasta free of charge!). Everyone was more than happy with their choices and we continued to rave about it for the rest of the trip! Certainly a highlight and definitely the place to go for a little treat or to celebrate something special.
Don’t get us wrong, we love our adventures abroad. But there was something special about discovering a gem so close to home. We wouldn’t hesitate in heading back for a relaxing weekend of sea air, fresh seafood and pottering.