Although it is often overlooked by visitors to the counties of Hampshire and Wiltshire or even East Sussex, West Sussex has many pockets of true beauty. From its coastal towns, popular in Regency times, to its ancient forests and rolling downs, West Sussex has a tantalizing mix of natural gorgeousness and reminders of its previous inhabitants, starting with the Palaeolithic “Boxgrove Man”, who roamed the South Downs some 500 000 years ago. Chichester, with its strategic positioning on the southern shores, was linked directly to London in Roman times by Stane Street, one of Britain’s most famous Roman roads, and is the chief town of the county. From fine majestic castles to impossibly pretty harbour villages, here are the best and most beautiful places to visit in West Sussex, UK…
1. Chichester – a charming cathedral city which makes a lovely place to visit in West Sussex
Chichester has everything that is special about Britain encompassed in a charming city and is a fantastic place to visit in West Sussex. From the reminders of its importance as a Roman stronghold to the tranquillity expressed in its parks and gardens, this city, surrounded by the natural beauty of its harbour and the South Downs, has something for everyone. Be prepared for lots of walking to get the best experience of Chichester, whether it is exploring the cobbled streets to find the Market Cross, following the Roman City Walls or enjoying the birdlife, and the views of the South Downs along the Chichester Canal.
After a visit to Chichester Cathedral with its mix of medieval and modern art, including a stained glass window by Chagall, catch your breath in the Bishops Palace Gardens. Don’t miss the Novium Museum, which documents Chichester’s history, past and present, and contains what remains of a massive Roman bathhouse. As with nearby Fishbourne Palace, the discovery of the bathhouse is surprisingly recent, and archaeologists are still finding new sites, including a bathhouse under Priory Park, excavated in 2017 and 2018.
Fishbourne Palace is en route to Bosham and was discovered in 1960 when water mains were being laid. It is the largest Roman villa in Northern Europe and well worth a visit.
2. West Wittering – one of the most stunning places to explore in West Sussex
For lovers of sun and sea, West Wittering is just a few kilometres from Chichester. Although a very popular venue, West Wittering’s Blue Flag beach is large enough to accommodate visitors even at the height of summer. The beautiful sandy beach offers wonderful vistas of the Isle of Wight, Chichester harbour, and the South Downs and is well worth a long walk even in winter when it is almost deserted.
A detour from the beach to visit the Norman church is recommended, and when strolling around the village you will understand why this is a favourite location for some British celebrities.
3. Bosham – one of the prettiest villages to explore in West Sussex
Travelling west from Chichester, the small village of Bosham can be found. This picturesque place has an impressive history; it was the place where King Canute was reputed to have sat on his throne and commanded the incoming sea to go back, as an object lesson to his courtiers. Sadly, Canute’s young daughter drowned and her coffin can be found inside Bosham Church.
The church is also famous for being depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows England’s last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold II entering it before his ill-fated voyage where he ended up in the hands of William of Normandy. Harold’s reign lasted only 9 months before he was killed at the battle of Hastings.
Today, Bosham is a popular venue for sailing, which you can watch while strolling along the Quay. You can also meander through the narrow streets where arts and craft shops can be found. All in all, a very charming place to explore in West Sussex.
4. Arundel and Arundel Castle – a gorgeous village and one of the best castles to visit in England
Situated on the river Arun and at the foot of the South Downs, Arundel is a colourful market town populated with Georgian and Victorian houses, with the constant presence of Arundel Castle perched on a hill above the town. This impressive castle has been the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk for most of its thousand-year history, and you can imagine what it was like to live there, from medieval times when defensive structures like the Keep were built, through the difficult times of the Civil War, when the Fitzalan Chapel was damaged, till more recent centuries, when it became a dwelling place, with ornate staterooms and valuable works of art. The Castle gardens are as magnificent, with different spectacles depending on what time of year you visit, such as the stunning Tulip Garden in April.
While the castle is a must-see as it’s one of the best castles to visit in England, Arundel Cathedral, a relatively modern church built in French Gothic style, is worth a visit. If you still have enough energy, you can try one of the many walks in the area, such as part of the Monarch’s Way, which goes through the park of the Castle and is a small section of King Charles II’s 625-mile escape route.
5. South Downs National Park – one of the most famously beautiful places to visit in England
The South Downs National Park is still in its infancy and was only proclaimed a decade ago but it’s quickly risen to become one of the most famously beautiful places to visit in not only in West Sussex but in England. Over 1600 square kilometres of parkland is now available to roam and includes other reserves and important sites, such as Kingley Vale and Petworth Park.
Within the Park, there is something to entertain everyone, whether it is visiting the towns and villages there, or searching for some of the fauna and flora to be found. Some of the rarer species are endemic to the Park, having disappeared from other unprotected habitats, such as the greater mouse-eared bat. For the history buff, evidence of past inhabitants can be found across the Downs, for instance, the Trundle, an Iron-age fort atop of St Roche’s Hill, which was built over an earlier Neolithic causeway.
There are great views of Chichester and the Channel from the Trundle, and it is accessible via several routes. from Lavant (4km), West Dean (2,8km), or Singleton (2.3km). There are Roman buildings, such as Bignor Roman Villa, which boasted underfloor heating and is decorated with fine mosaics.
Talking of routes, there are many ways to get around and enjoy some recreation, walking some of the extensive footpaths and byways, cycling, or even by bus. Route markers are located along each path and also indicate whether bicycles and horses are permitted or whether it is reserved for pedestrians.
6. Thorney Island – a beautiful island that juts into Chichester Harbour
Taking the main road (A259) from Bosham westwards, you will find Thorney Island, which is accessible for walks along its lovely southern beaches, although it is the Ministry of Defence property. There is a circular walk, which is about 14 km in length, for those who love walking, but there are numerous shorter walks on this unspoilt island.
For the bird watchers, there is a hide near Longmere Point, which overlooks Pilsey Island, which has been an RSPB reserve since 1889. The mudflats attract numerous species of waders, as well as waterfowl, terns, herons, and cormorants. A wonderful place to explore in West Sussex!
7. Bognor Regis – one of the most popular places to visit in West Sussex
Bognor was a sleepy fishing village that Sir Richard Hotham developed in the 18th century, hoping to rival nearby Brighton. The suffix “Regis” was added after King George V convalesced there after lung surgery. Although most people associate Bognor Regis with Butlin’s holiday resort, it also has quiet and contemplative spots to visit. Hotham Park was where Sir Richard lived; this 20-acre park is attractive and child-friendly. For the sun-lovers, Elmer Beach, to the east, is quieter than East Beach, which borders on the town centre.
Journey west to Pagham Harbour, where there is an RSPB bird sanctuary as well as Pagham Beach. For World War II buffs, this was a key site from where the Mulberry floating harbours were launched in preparation for the invasion at Normandy, and there are 2 reminders at Pagham, a pontoon and a caisson (breakwater), popular with divers.
8. Littlehampton – a charming West Sussex seaside resort and pleasure harbour
Just east of Bognor is the pleasant resort of Littlehampton which is a popular and one of the best places to visit in West Sussex. Situated on the mouth of the River Arun, the character of this town has evolved over time from a fishing village to a shipbuilding centre into a place of relaxation and leisure today, earning its nickname as the Children’s Paradise during the 1920s. It has two long beaches, West Beach, which has a Local Nature Reserve, preserving the dunes and flats and the flora and fauna that flourish there.
For energetic visitors, there is a pleasant 5-mile river walk along the Arun to Arundel, from which you can return by train.
9. Goring-by-Sea – a classic West Sussex beach which is a great place to explore in the county
While Goring is a quiet seaside town with a Blue Flag beach, it has several pleasant walks, notably the Ilex Way, which is an avenue of Ilex, or Holm Oaks. You can also make your way up to the Highdown Saxon Fort.
There is very little left of the fort, but there is a Saxon cemetery, where the kings of Sussex were reputed to be buried. This site was used during the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman times before the Saxons.
10. Worthing – once a favourite destination of Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen
Worthing is a large town that enjoyed equal popularity with Brighton as a seaside resort in Regency times, with impressive homes like those on Park Crescent. It was even once a favourite destination of Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen and today it’s also still a very charming place to go and explore in West Sussex.
It also has some good examples of Art Deco, from Worthing’s Pier to the Connaught Theatre. Do pay a visit to Highdown Gardens, lovingly created by Sir Frederick Stern, and planted with specimens collected in China and the Himalayas by various botanists.
For those who are a bit more adventurous, a climb up to Cissbury Ring, a hill fort built about 2500 BC, which provides amazing 360-degree views of its surroundings and is dotted with wildflowers in spring.
11. Lancing – a lovely large village which is gateway to the South Downs
The seaside town of Lancing has a shingle beach, in common with other Sussex towns, and is overlooked by Lancing Ring, a small hill that overlooks the town and is a nature reserve, as well as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Nearby, just west of the Ring, are the remains of a Roman temple, which was built on an earlier Bronze age site. Also worth a visit is Lancing College; the chapel is a National Monument, typifying nineteenth-century Gothic Revival architecture, which is open daily for visitors.
12. The High Weald and Horsham – an area of outstanding natural beauty and a charming historic market town
The High Weald is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) , of over 1400 square kilometres, which spreads across Kent, Surrey, and Sussex. Characterized by woods and rocky outcrops on undulating hills, interspersed with half-timbered farms and fields that have not changed over the centuries, the Weald has retained much of the character of a medieval English landscape. It is traversed by nearly 2400 km of footpaths and bridlepaths, as well as small nature reserves and picturesque small castles and old mansions. Some attractive woods near Horsham include St Leonard’s Forest and Leechpool and Owlbeech woods.
A good base to explore the Weald and its many routes and footpaths is the town of Horsham, at its westernmost point. Horsham is a peaceful market town in West Sussex which is home to many great shops, restaurants, cafes, and pubs.
The Causeway, lined with lime trees, is recommended for a stroll and was already famed for being one of England’s most pleasant streets a century ago. Here can be found in the Museum, which is housed in a merchant’s home that is 600 years old. Some attractive woods near Horsham include St Leonard’s Forest and Leechpool and Owlbeech woods, each are well worth a visit.
13. Kingley Vale – a pretty area to explore which is known for its twisted and ancient yew trees
This National Nature Reserve is situated in the Southern section of the South Downs National Park. While originally proclaimed to protect its yew forest, with some of the oldest yew trees in the country growing here, recent surveys by LiDAR have revealed evidence of human settlements among the forests. The Secrets of the High Woods project is busy surveying sites such as the Bronze Age “Devil’s Humps” burial mounds and has a brochure available indicating sites of interest.
For the nature lover, visiting and walking through this yew forest in West Sussex is a must! Yew was the preferred wood for the longbow, which led to massive deforestation of yews across Europe, with Kingley Vale remaining as a reminder of what was lost. The chalk grasslands which form part of the Reserve are a rich habitat for British fauna and flora, with 39 butterfly species being found here, as well as eleven species of orchids. Birdlife is abundant too, the chalklands are a good spot to find green woodpeckers and buzzards and kites can be seen flying overhead.
14. Petworth House and Petworth Park – easily one of the most stunning places to visit in West Sussex
Nestled in the heart of South Downs National Park, the pretty West Sussex town of Petworth has several attractions to visit and explore as well as lush walks, fine restaurants, cosy traditional pubs, and art galleries. It’s well worth a stay here to enjoy some of the best of what West Sussex.
The most famous attraction to visit here is Petworth House, which stands on the Percy estate. The land and its surrounds have been owned by the Percy family for 900 years, and the original house has been rebuilt over the years, with the current building being constructed between 1688 to 1696, with the family chapel remaining as part of the earlier fourteenth-century manor house.
The family were prodigious art collectors and there is a fine collection of sculptures and paintings, including works by Van Dyck, Reynolds, Blake and Turner. Turner was a frequent visitor to the estate and its surrounds and most of the works displayed were commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Egremont, owner of Petworth House at the time.
For those who prefer exploring nature, there are 700 acres of very beautiful parkland to explore, housing 700 fallow deer. The renowned landscaper, Capability Brown, was commissioned to transform the earlier formal gardens into his own inimitable relaxed style.
15. The Hamlet of Halnaker – a gorgeous area known for its magical tunnel of trees
Last, but definitely not least, we recommend visiting the quaint hamlet of Halnaker in West Sussex, which boasts a windmill that can be accessed along Mill Lane, which follows the Stane Street Roman road from Chichester to London. The path passes through a beautiful and very unique tunnel of trees, along a route worn down by thousands of feet over the ages.
Recently, vineyards have been established in Sussex, and you might enjoy a visit to Tinwood Estate in the area, which specializes in sparkling wines, and conducts daily tours. Enjoy!