A hilltop town with a picturesque jumble of cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings, Rye in East Sussex has the charm and beauty to match England’s most popular spots, but has managed to escape a huge influx of visitors and keep its unspoilt mix of unique local shops, pubs and restaurants. Add in historic sites, sandy beaches and even a local winery and you’ve got a perfect weekend. Rye’s just an hour from London too, so it makes an easy getaway from the capital. So here’s my 48-hour itinerary for the perfect weekend in Rye.
Read more: 10 Great British weekend break ideas
How to spend a weekend in Rye
Start your weekend in Rye by checking in to your accommodation. The Standard Inn* is a restored 15th-century pub in the centre of town that’s bursting with character, especially in winter when the log fire is roaring. Its five history-filled rooms – named after the Cinque Ports – have beamed ceilings and some come with fireplaces and rolltop baths.
Or if you prefer self-catering, Cadborough Farm Cottages are four cottages set among tranquil countryside just outside Rye. The buildings date back to the 1800s, so each cottage’s layout is different – from the cosy old dairy to the luxuriously renovated Coach House with its open-plan living area and private garden (though note the three-day minimum stay).
Follow the footpath across the fields for the 15-minute walk to The Standard for dinner. Among the local specialities on the menu are lamb from Romney Marshes and Sussex beef and chorizo burgers – and the inn has won CAMRA awards for its beer selection.
Today Rye is two miles from the coast, but back in the 16th century it was one of the Cinque Ports – a series of port towns across Kent, Sussex and Essex who provided ships for the royal fleet. The silting up of the estuary put paid to its seafaring role, but it still has the feel of a coastal town with echoes of its past life as a haunt for sailors and smugglers.
Spend the morning exploring Rye’s history, starting with the medieval Ypres Tower. The tower’s origins are a bit of a mystery, but it was probably originally part of the town’s 13th-century defensive walls. It’s been a house, prison and mortuary over the years since then, but is now home to the Rye Castle Museum (entry £4 adults, £3 seniors, free for under 16s).
Inside the museum are exhibits about the tower and town’s history, including a smugglers’ lamp, medieval weapons and the old jail cells. There’s also a recreated medieval herb garden and a rooftop terrace where you can look out over Rye’s former harbour.
Next head to the top of the tower of St Mary’s Church for a bird’s eye view over the rooftops of Rye to the surrounding countryside and out towards the coast. It’s a narrow spiraling climb to reach the top, but along the way you can see the mechanism of the historic church clock. It was built in 1560 which makes it the oldest church turret clock still in use, but it’s still known as the ‘new’ clock because it was added 400 years after the church was built.
Spend the afternoon wandering around Rye’s cobbled streets, including pretty Mermaid Street – voted one of the most picturesque streets in Britain. It’s overflowing with charming half-timbered buildings draped with flowers and leaves. Call into The Mermaid for lunch, a 15th-century inn once a favourite with smugglers which is packed with original features like sloping ceilings, creaking floorboards, secret passageways and a ghost or two.
Explore some of Rye’s quirky antique, art and gift shops. Try Glass Etc for period glassware and stained glass, Byzantium for jewellery and fossils, Marsha by the Sea for gorgeous seaside-inspired gifts, Rye Pottery for handmade ceramics and Crock and Cosy for vintage cookware. And don’t miss stopping off for a decadent hot chocolate at Knoops.
Rye also has a few literary links to discover. It starred in the book Mapp and Lucia, which was made into a BBC TV series a few years ago. Author EF Benson rechristened the town Tilling for the book but used a lot of real-life locations from around Rye. If you’re a fan you can do a self-guided tour of locations from both the book and its two TV adaptions.
Lamb House in Rye features in the series but was also the home of EF Benson in the 1920s. That’s not its only literary connection either as Henry James also lived there 30 years earlier. It’s now run by the National Trust and is open to visitors in summer (£7.50 adults and £3.75 children). Then finish your day with drinks and dinner at The George in Rye, a stylish gastropub with a grill restaurant which serves local seafood from Rye Bay.
Start the day with a coastal walk in Rye Harbour, guaranteed to blow away any cobwebs. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is a couple of miles out of town. The reserve is a conservation area covering 475 hectares of wetlands, salt marshes and coastline which is home to 4500 different species, including 91 types of bird and rare British wildlife like the water vole.
There’s a visitor’s centre where you can find out more about the reserve and its conservation work. There are also lots of footpaths through the reserve to explore, with three suggested circular routes to choose from which cover either 2 miles, 4.3 miles or 6 miles.
The longest route takes in the ruins of Camber Castle, which is part of the reserve. The castle was built by Henry VIII to protect Rye Harbour but wasn’t in use for long before the estuary silted up and it ended up away from the sea. If you’re visiting on the first Saturday of the month in July, August or September you can take a guided tour of the interior (£3 adults, £1.50 concessions, free for children under 16 or English Heritage* members).
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, stop for lunch at the William the Conqueror pub in Rye Harbour. It has lots of cool design touches like decorated oars along the edge of the bar and seaside memorabilia. They serve pub food with a Greek twist, with souvlaki and stifado alongside the gourmet burgers and Sunday roasts. They also have a good range of real ales.
Take a post-lunch stroll along golden Camber Sands, a two-mile-long, wide sandy stretch of beach backed with giant sand dunes which could easily pass as the Mediterranean on a sunny day. Its the only dune system in East Sussex and its gorgeous good looks mean its been featured in plenty of films and TV series, often passing itself off in desert shots.
Then finish your weekend in Rye by heading eight miles north of town to Chapel Down vineyard. It’s one of the best-known English wine producers and does good sparkling wines and rosés – they also make their own ‘Curious Brewery’ beers and ciders too.
Chapel Down run guided tours of the vineyards and winery at weekends, which take 1 hour 45 minutes and include a tutored wine tasting (£20 per person). Or you can just try some of their wines in their tasting room and pick up a bottle or two to take home with you.
Have you visited Rye? Do you have any tips to add on what to see, do and eat?
*Thanks to Cadborough Cottages for hosting me in Rye. This article contains affiliate links where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.