What springs to mind when you imagine Rye in East Sussex? Maybe a labyrinth of cobbled streets and passageways, wonky half-timbered buildings or maybe even a haunted pub? Well, guess what – you are right on all counts. Rye is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in England, nestled on the South coast and steeped in history, folktales, and charm.
Rye is the perfect choice if you’re looking for a great day out from London or a quintessentially English town to spend a cosy weekend break by the coast. It’s an hour train journey from London to Rye, so it makes an easy getaway from the capital.
With plenty of cool things to do in Rye East Sussex, you might not want to look further afield, but if you do, then one of England’s best beaches, Camber Sands, is just down the road as well as the beautiful Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and the hauntingly stark coastal landscape of Dungeness, home to the UK’s only desert!
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Fascinating Facts About Rye
Rye is one of the historic South-East coastal ports known as the “Cinque Ports“. This 12th-century scheme allowed privileges to be given by the Crown to maintain defence ships for the Royal fleet. A series of Cinque port towns stretched across Kent, Sussex and Essex.
In medieval times Rye was surrounded by the sea and was a leading port until the estuary dried up. The River Rother now leads out to the sea which is over 2 miles away.
The Mermaid Inn is one of the most haunted pubs in England.
In 1573 the title “Rye Royale” was bestowed upon the town by Queen Elizabeth I after a three-day stay.
The old English saying “to get away Scot free” comes from a tax called the “Scot”. When flooding was prevalent in Rye, people living in the floodplains had to pay “Scot Tax” to help maintain these areas. People living on higher ground and not affected by flooding did not – hence getting off Scot free!
What’s on in Rye
There is always a festival or celebration happening in Rye, so why not plan your trip around one of them?
Bay Scallops Week – February
Jazz and Blues Festival – August
Arts Festival – September
Festival of the Sea – September
Bonfire Pageant and Burning Boat – November
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Rye Heritage Centre #1
Start your time in Rye with a visit to the Heritage Centre. A light show and model will take you back to Victorian times and tell the story of this unique historical town, bringing to life Rye’s rich history and folklore
This is the place to book guided tours, including the popular ghost tours and find maps and books on the town and surrounding area. A printable Rye Town Map will help you find your way around the winding streets.
Explore Rye’s Independent Shops #2
Rye has not allowed big brands to infiltrate its beautiful town. All the shops are independent and give the customer that personal touch. Find quirky and charming restaurants and rustic tea rooms, alongside delicious speciality shops such as Rye chocolates and Rye Deli which will make your mouth water.
Visit the haunted Mermaid Inn #3
The most photographed place in Rye is undoubtedly Mermaid Street, housing the pub of the same name.
A charming cobbled road, lined with half-timbered buildings, owning whimsical names such as ‘The House with Two Doors’ and ‘The House Opposite’ is a magnet for visitors to this beautiful medieval town. But look past its charismatic exterior and focus your attention on The Mermaid Inn, possibly the most haunted pub in England!
The Mermaid’s cellars date from 1156, and the existing building was rebuilt in 1420 after The Mermaid, and the Town of Rye was burnt to the ground by French Raiders in 1377.
The Mermaid Inn was the meeting place for the notorious Hawkhurst Gang, who terrorised the residents of Rye in the early 1800s with their smuggling exploits and who eventually were hung for their crimes. It is said that the ghosts that wander the hallways and rooms of The Mermaid Inn are the gang members and some of their victims. The Kingsmill Bedroom is very popular with tourists as the former gang leader’s wife is said to have been sighted paying a ghoulish visit to guests during the night.
During the day, The Mermaid Inn offers guests a chance to sample local beers and good wholesome grub, although on my visit, as I entered, a cold chill run down my back. A ghostly presence perhaps or just a winter’s chill, you can decide!
Climb to the top of the Church of St Mary #4
St Mary’s Church is one of the most historic buildings in Rye dating back over 900 years. It stands on the hill opposite Ypres Tower.
Climb to the top of St Mary’s Church tower for a bird’s eye view over the rooftops and on a good day over to France. Back down to the ground don’t forget to look up to see the Quarter Boys clock tower, which strikes on the quarter-hour rather than the full hour.
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Wander around Church Square #5
Church Square is really amazing and will transport you back in time. Wander past higgeldy-piggeldy half-timbered buildings dating back to the 15th-century – a photographer’s delight. Look out for cottages draped in wisteria vines and pretty potted plants lining doorways. You can see why Rye features heavily on Instagram due to its charming authenticity.
Enjoy a beer at Rye’s Award-Winning Micropub #6
Situated on Tower Street, the Rye Waterworks Micropub is in an old building originally used for 300 years as the Town Pump House. It continued as a soup kitchen in the late 1900s and then as public toilets before opening up as South East Sussex’s first micropub. Expect a warm welcome and enjoy a local beer accompanied by side dishes such as scotch eggs and pork pies – simple but delicious.
Learn about Rye’s history in Ypres Tower #7
Ypres Tower, constructed in 1249, is one of the oldest buildings in Rye. It was built to protect the town from French invaders. In medieval times it directly overlooked the harbour, which can now only be seen in the distance. Ypres Tower has been a prison, a mortuary and a private house but now forms part of the Rye Castle Museum, housing paintings and displays about local history. A nominal entrance fee of £4 (adults) applies.
The grounds in front of the tower have replica canons and balls to remind us of what this fortification was used for in times gone by. And if you are looking for good beers and small nibbles the 17th-century Ypres Castle pub is down some steps in the grounds of the castle.
Walk through Rye’s Landgate Arch #8
The 13th-century Landgate Arch is part of the original town walls and the gateway into the town of Rye. Originally there would have been four gates in Rye. This one would have had a portcullis and drawbridge for the defence of the town. Keep an eye out for Knoop’s hot chocolate shop just by the arch – delicious!
Search for treasure in Rye’s antique shops #9
Search secondhand shops, like Rye Old Books on Lion Street and Grammar School Records, a record shop inside a 17th-century grammar school to find hidden treasures.
Head to The Strand in Rye and rummage in antique and bric-a-brac shops like The Quay Antiques and Collectibles, Halcyon Days and The Old Grain Store. Every street will lead you to some kind of art, craft or antique shop, so if that’s your kind of thing, then this will be the perfect place for you to visit.
Discover Rye’s Quirky Front Doors #10
Rye has a lot of quirky front door names. From “the house with two doors” to “the house with the secret garden”, see how many you can find. While you are at it, check out how old some of the houses are.
Explore National Trust’s Lamb House #11
This National Trust property was once home to the writer Henry James who penned the classic novel “The Wings of a Dove“. He escaped the pressures of social life in London to live in East Sussex and bought Lamb House as his country abode. The house has one of the largest and most beautiful private gardens in Rye, where visitors can sit by the lake and contemplate why this outdoor space inspired Henry James.
Go bird-spotting at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve #12
Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is one of the largest and most important wildlife sites in England. It is home to many wildlife species and a bird-watchers paradise, set in a beautiful landscape comprising coastal and wetland areas. If you are fortunate, you might even spot a seal basking along the coastline.
Numerous walks will take you around the wetlands and to the pebble beach. There are three suggested circular routes to choose from which cover either 2 miles, 4.3 miles or 6 miles. A map of the footpaths can be printed off to help you explore the reserve.
The Discovery Centre (open 10 am – 4 pm) will give you plenty of information about the nature reserve and also serves refreshments. You will also find “pillboxes” – concrete machine gun defences dotted along the shoreline, last used in WW2.
Rye to Rye Harbour takes 10 minutes by car and parking is free in the harbour car park postcode TN31 7TX. If you are coming by bus then hop on the number 312 from Rye train station.
16th-century Camber Castle is located in the nature reserve. It is around one mile from the harbour.
Hire a bike in Rye Harbour #13
Visit the Rye Harbour Lifeboat Station and check out the Mary Stanford Lifeboat Pebble Memorial. Stop for a bite to eat at William the Conqueror Pub or hire some bikes from Harbour Cycles or go one better and indulge in an E-bike from Rye Bay E-Bikes to explore the nature reserve and surrounding East Sussex coastline.
How to Get to Rye
It will take just over one hour by train from London Pancras (with a change at Ashford International).
By car, it will take around 2 hours 30 mins from central London.
Parking In Rye
There are several pay-and-display car parks in Rye, but it gets busy, especially at weekends, so arrive early. Good places to park in Rye are the train station (£2.50 per day) sat nav TN31 7AB and Jempson’s supermarket (£2 for 2 hours) just opposite the station.
Where to Stay in Rye
The George in Rye – A luxury boutique hotel dating back to the 17th-century. Being in the high street, this is a popular place to sleep and to dine.
The Mermaid Inn – Ghosts, creaky floorboards, open fireplaces and oozing 15th-century history from every inch!
Whitehouse – Modern decor in a Grade 2 building.
The Lookout Rye – located in the centre of the historical town of Rye, high on the East Cliff with views across the river.
Restaurants and Cafes in Rye
The George – gastro pub grub.
The Devil in Rye – Asian fusion.
Cobbles Tea Room – quintessential afternoon tea
Marino’s Fish Bar – British fish and chips at its best
Hayden’s – Brunch and Lunch catering for Vegan and Vegetarian.
The Fig – a delicious healthy lunch menu served alongside coffee or cocktails.
The Apothecary – coffee and cake served in eclectic surroundings.
Pubs in Rye
Local Attractions near Rye
If you are travelling by car, you could visit some of the other great places in Sussex and Kent. Some ideas for your itinerary could include:
Hastings and Battle
Have you visited Rye? Let me know your thoughts in the comments box below