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Our insider guide to Southend & Leigh-on-Sea

Oh we do like to be beside the seaside! Fancy visiting the UK's newest city this spring? Don't miss Muddy's insider guide to this picturesque stretch of Essex coast.

Boasting picture-perfect cocklesheds, the longest pleasure pier in the world, buzzy beaches, and the requisite charm of a 19th century seaside resort, the UK’s newest city is the perfect spring / summer staycation. The broader area of Southend is made up of historically distinct towns: Leigh-on-Sea, Westcliff-on-Sea, Southend proper, Thorpe Bay, Southchurch, and Shoeburyness. Today it exists as one large seaside settlement, but you can still notice differences as you pass from one to the other — Leigh, for example, has been named the happiest location in England twice, and is one of our Best Places to Live. Planning a visit? Here’s where to hit up.

EAT OUT

The Mary Amelia, Osborne Bros’ latest cockle boat

With a long fishing history and about 25 fishing boats still active out of Southend today, seafood is the name of the game here. For the freshest catch, head to Osborne’s at the entrance to Old Leigh, a famous café and fishmonger business that’s been in the same family since 1880. No surprise it retains an enchantingly nostalgic feel: seasonal, just-caught seafood sold out of an old cockle shed, and a café based in an 18th century stable mews selling unpretentious, skilfully dressed fish.

The Peterboat, Old Leigh

For proper fish and chips, Southend is spoilt for choice. Oldham’s Fish Restaurant in Westcliff is unpretentiously, unapologetically excellent. If you want a knockout view with your cod head to The Peterboat in Old Leigh, which boasts an especially good house tartare sauce as well as seafront location. But then, why stop at a seafront view? At Ocean Beach Restaurant in Thorpe Bay you can sit entirely on the beach, exotic holiday style, enjoying a huge menu of enticing bits (and a good brunch, too).

Ugo’s Pizza Bar, Broadway West

If you’ve had your fill of fish, head to Ugo’s Pizza Bar on Broadway West, another family-run gem selling arguably the best damn pizza this side of Naples. (Tip: take the pizzas to go and sit in the Leigh Library Gardens, just across the road, for hilltop views and pretty flowers). Or, eat your fill at Henry Burgers on Broadway: classic American comfort food done brilliantly, with a clutch of cool cocktails and lots of pleasing vegan options. A bit further out from the coast, Legend Deli on Sutton Road does more comfort food and huge roasts at a pleasing price.

If you’re after something fully vegan / veggie, The Oak Tree on Leigh Road is 100% plant-based and all the better for it — modern brunch and dinner classics reinvented with no compromise. There’s also an excellent vegan pie spin-off, Acorn Pie & Mash, on Leigh Hill.

Rossi’s ice cream

Fancy something sweet? Walk anywhere in Southend and you’ll see signs advertising Rossi’s ice cream — it’s no surprise people want to shout about it, as the Rossi family have been slinging their excellent gelato and soft-serve here since 1932. Lemon Witch on Broadway, meanwhile, does knock-your-socks-off milkshakes, ice cream sundaes, and crepes with a whole vegan menu. Over on Broadway West, the Home Made Bakery is a charmingly old-school English bakery: iced buns, seasonally-decorated biscuits, and fat cream cakes sit temptingly in the window. Also amazing is Wilma’s Bakery on Broadway: a more modern, Instagram-able kind of vibe, think heart-attack cookies oozing biscoff spread.

If it’s a slice of cake and a sit-down you’re after, you can’t do much better than La Petite Pétanque, a very beautiful little French place sat in the 1920s bowling green pavilion, just up from Southend’s famous Cliff Lift. (Tip: full afternoon tea here must be booked in advance, but it’s very good).

DRINK

The Peterboat, Old Leigh

You’ve got your pick of the pubs here. In Old Leigh, The Crooked Billet is the oldest (indeed, it’s the oldest building in Leigh), while the hottest ticket is probably The Peterboat thanks to an array of picturesque picnic tables looking out to sea — perfect place for a pint — and an accordingly buzzy atmosphere. If you’re a bit of a beer snob, head to Mile and a Third in Westcliff, named for the length of Southend pier, and partake of its eclectic vibe and extensive craft beer menu (with many local options).

For good cocktails, head to the bar at The Royal Hotel on the High Street, which hosts lots of comedy and drag events. If you want a full party atmosphere with your espresso martini, head to The Oakleigh on London Road, or go the whole hog and enjoy the live concerts and lively buzz at Chinnery’s on the Marine Parade.

And now coffee, please! Barlow and Fields, down the back of Elm Road, is quite probably the best coffee in Leigh, and a bit of an under-the-radar find, too. For Shoreditch-style-cool try The Hatch in Old Leigh, which boasts industrial and quirky décor (think: a whole renovated, retro train carriage smack in the middle of the room). If you want to drink your coffee to the sound of gently lapping waves, or fancy a pitstop on the coastal walk, Saltwater Beach Café on Chalkwell Beach is a must-visit. (As well as good joe, the food here is lovely and vegan-friendly, and in the winter they even sell mulled wine).

STAY

Breakfast at The Seven Hotel, Clifton Terrace

Somewhere to lay your head? Relative newcomer The Seven Hotel offers indulgent style and golden natural light on Clifton Terrace: 37 bedrooms, five luxury suites, a gin-centric cocktail bar, and a whopper of an outdoor sun terrace. Best of all is its accompanying restaurant, Aurum, serving a high standard of fine food.

Roslin Beach Hotel, Thorpe Bay

Or, head to the Roslin Beach Hotel in Thorpe Bay. It’s a favourite haunt of many an Essex celeb, and no surprise when it boasts sumptuous rooms, an AA rosette-awarded restaurant, and a spa bursting with ESPA and Elemis goodies. Book into The Mulberry Suite for super-king luxury and panoramic sea views.

Hamilton’s Boutique Hotel, the Royal Terrace

For a more boutique vibe, head to Hamilton’s Boutique Hotel on the Royal Terrace, a Grade II Listed Georgian building (which played host to royalty in 1803) with gorgeous sea views. Or, book yourself into a charming fisherman’s cottage in Old Leigh: try Cooper Cottage for a bright, cosy space and balcony overlooking the estuary. There’s also Old Leigh Cottage, based right in the pretty cobbled centre next door to The Old Foundry.

WALK

Plenty of options if you want a walk. The immediate answer is along the seafront, as the footpath passes through Leigh, Chalkwell, Westcliff, past the pier and even onto Shoeburyness. It’s a pretty route that takes you past most of the main attractions, with plenty to stop at and admire along the way. If you’re up for it, the whole route from Leigh to Shoeburyness is about 7.5 miles and will take roughly two and a half hours, but you can walk whichever part suits you.

Want something wilder? The nature reserve Two Tree Island is very near to Leigh-on-Sea train station, with 6km of trails to tackle. A reclaimed saltmarsh, it’s full of water birds and marsh flowers (golden samphire, sea purslane, sea lavender) and makes for a beautiful wander, glittering with pools of water.

Another lovely option is Belfairs Woods, also a nature reserve (spoilt for choice!), that offers picture-perfect ancient woodland and a very handy visitor’s centre and café. Dogs are welcome and the woods span around 469 hectares.

SHOP

Other Kids, Leigh Road

Leigh-on-Sea’s the place to hot-foot it if you want lovely local independents. The Broadway, Broadway West, and Leigh Road are all lined with quirky businesses, high-end antique stores, and homeware emporiums. Our pick? Wilde & Idle for quirky retro furniture finds; exquisite blooms from 2021 Muddy winner Scent, and Muddy Award finalist Tin Design for local artisan pieces. For gorgeous, curated kids’ fashion and professional baby shoe-fitting (is there a cuter sentence?), you should make a beeline for Other Kids on Leigh Road.

TOURIST

Southend Pier is the obvious must. The longest pleasure pier in the world, it’s 1.33 miles long and takes just over 20 minutes at a brisk walk to reach the end — or you can take the dinky little train instead. Enjoy tea a mile out to sea at the Tea with the Tide café, which has seen a staggeringly high quantity of celebs by being the set of Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast (entirely fitting for Essex boy Jamie Oliver!). Then there are the arcades galore along Marine Parade, for the obligatory seaside ritual of trying your luck at a game.

Southend Cliff Lift

Heading up from the seafront? Take the famous Southend Cliff Lift, the shortest funicular railway in Britain (makes a nice foil to the extra-long pier) to save wandering up all those steep steps. And why not, it only costs 50p!

If you want to do the whole seaside trip properly, you can hire a beach hut for the day at Thorpe Bay, and it’s also here that you’ll find places for paddle boarding and other water sports .

Sealife Adventure, Eastern Esplanade

And you’ve come to the sea, so why not admire some amazing sea creatures? Southend’s Sealife Adventure aquarium on the Eastern Esplanade is an especially great aquarium, as they go, with amazingly immersive set-ups and a broad range of things to see. And though they don’t (as far as we’re aware, at least!) count as sealife, you can go on a rather cute meerkat experience, too.

Over in Old Leigh, it’s well-worth a visit to the Leigh Heritage Centre in the old smithy. Free to enter, the staff are overflowing with local history and keen to chat, while the walls are full of interesting details charting a history that stretches from prehistory until today. Don’t miss the restored 19th century fisherman’s cottage round the back, complete with recording of the old Essex accent.

KIDS

Adventure Island, Western Esplanade

Not having lived with kids in the area, we chatted to Gemma Simpson, the owner of local kids’ fashion shop Other Kids (a right Muddy fave!) to get her scoop on where to take your little ones. No surprise she’s a veritable font of recommendations, starting with the obvious and entirely obligatory Adventure Island, right next to the pier. An entirely free-to-enter fun park, it’s — sure, a little bit naff — exactly what the kids are after. Rollercoasters, doughnuts, fairground games, soft-play… all the funfair hits, and right beside the sea.

Kids will also love Southend’s Open Top Bus, which runs along the Southend seafront from April and throughout the summer. Passing through Leigh, Chalkwell, Westcliff, past Southend Pier and to The Kursaal, you can hop on or off as you like.

Outside Saltwater Beach Café, Chalkwell Beach

Heading to the beach? Gemma’s pick for families is Chalkwell Beach, as it has shallow water and a lot of rock pools for kids to poke around in, plus is near the station if you’re only in town for the day. (It’s also the location of Saltwater Beach Café, one of our picks for coffee, so that’s Mum’s caffeine hit sorted).

If you’ve had enough of the beach or got a skating-mad kid, Gemma recommends Leigh-on-Sea Skate Park, a cool new addition to the area that just happens to also be not-for-profit. (Gemma also notes the great skateboarding shop on Broadway, June Store, if that’s of interest). If the weather’s turned and you need something indoors, Gemma recommends bouldering (a simpler form of rock-climbing that doesn’t require ropes) at IndiRock in the Victoria Plaza. There are options for all ages so it can entertain the whole family. There’s also Caddies Crazy Golf on London Road — which can make for a fun dinner option as they do proper burgers and chips.

Toppers & Toast, Leigh Road

And to feed those hungry blighters? Plenty of sweet treats to choose from: Ru’s Bubble Waffles on Leigh Road is a dead-cert, or opt for a huge cookie / ice cream from Cookies & Cones on Broadway (there’s also one in Victoria Shopping Centre). Toppers & Toast on Leigh Road do a great, kid-pleasing breakfast of pancakes and (no surprise) toast, plus it has a beautiful terrace garden for soaking up the sun (as your toast soaks up the butter). Also great is The Brunch Co on Broadway.

QUIRKY

Kilted ceilidhs, jangly Morris dancing — there’s all this and more at the annual Leigh Folk Festival, this year taking place 23-26 June. For the most part free to attend, the festival is based in venues across Leigh, particularly the pretty Leigh Library Gardens as well as St Clements Church. Expect storytelling sessions, craft workshops, dance routines, open mics, street food, and a lot of great folk outfits.

CULTURE

Bit of a culture vulture? There are several great museums to visit in Southend, particularly on Victoria Avenue. Beecroft Art Gallery has a great selection of art to admire, ranging from 17th-century Dutch seascapes to Constable and Rosetti to trendy contemporary local artists. There’s also a cool fashion collection, including more than 500 swimsuits dating throughout the 1900s. There’s something so unbeatably charming about a vintage cozzie, don’t you think?

An item on display at the Central Museum’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’

If it’s history you’re after, the Central Museum (also on Victoria Avenue) has some real gems: its ‘cabinet of curiosities’ exhibit explores the history of collecting via a treasure trove of historical oddities, and you can also find out all about the earliest dated Anglo-Saxon princely burial in England, discovered in Southend in 2003. Pretty neat!

Fancy catching a show? The Cliffs Pavilion just off Westcliff Parade and the Palace Theatre on London Road are the two big-hitters, with a steady stream of comedians, musicals, and plays feeding through.

By photographer Graham Cann, featured in the Leigh Art Trail

And if you’re visiting at the right time, the annual Leigh Art Trail (this year taking place 3-11 Sept) bedecks the businesses and venues of Leigh-on-Sea with hundreds of artworks. If you like, you can ‘collect’ them by following the trail from a booklet with information about the different local artists.

WHEN TO VISIT

Data taken from 2010-2019 so as to not be misled by Covid lockdowns. Source: Southend-on-Sea Borough Council

Like your holidays buzzy and bustling or cool and quiet? It pays to know the rush-hour-equivalents for visiting a place, and no surprise that this seaside city is hopping in the summer. We’ve taken Southend Pier as a good indicator of monthly visitor numbers to the city (since it’s such a must-visit), and compared the volume of tourists across the year. You can see August’s the clear favourite time of year to visit at an average of just under 60,000 visitors to the pier in that month. If you like the liveliness of a busy city, August’s the time to go! But if you’re after a quieter summer vibe, September and June are safer bets — we were interested to see that more people on average visit Southend in May than in June, possibly skewed by the multiple May bank holidays. And if you want to avoid the crowds? October – March is your best bet, though you’ll want to wrap up warm and eat plenty of hot chips (not a bum deal!).

ON THE MOVE? 

Check out the Insider Guides to cities and towns from the other Muddy Stilettos editors…

ISLE OF WIGHT THE COTSWOLDS ST IVES EXETER BATH BRIGHTON WINDSOR BURY ST EDUNDS ST ALBANS SALISBURY NORTHAMPTON GUILFORD CANTERBURY LEICESTER LEAMINGTON SPA OXFORD

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