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13 Great Things to Do in Rye in East Sussex

13 Great Things to Do in Rye in East Sussex

What springs to mind when you imagine Rye in East Sussex? Maybe a labyrinth of cobbled streets, narrow passageways, wonky half-timbered buildings, or 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.

Add a sprinkling of modernity with cosy coffee shops and tea rooms nestled beside art galleries and even a brewery, and you have the perfect combination of old meets new.

All this makes Rye 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’s train journey from London to Rye, making it an easy getaway from the capital.

With so many cool things to do in Rye, East Sussex, it is worth visiting as a destination for a fun-packed short break with friends or loved ones.

Rye is near one of England’s best beaches, Camber Sands, and the beautiful Rye Nature Reserve.

Slightly further along the coastal road is the hauntingly stark landscape of Dungeness, home to the UK’s only desert and another great place to visit.

Half -timbered medieval house on the corner of Church Square in Rye

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Interesting facts about Rye

The town of Rye is famous for many things, from its town walls encompassing the old part of Rye to its haunted pub and medieval timbered buildings. Here are a few fun facts about Rye:

  • Rye in Sussex is one of the historic Southeast coastal ports known as the “Cinque Ports.” This 12th-century scheme gave the Crown privileges to maintain defence ships for the Royal fleet. 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 to the English Channel, over two miles away.
  • The Mermaid Inn on Mermaid Street is one of the most haunted pubs in England.
  • In 1573, Queen Elizabeth I bestowed the title “Rye Royale” on Rye town centre 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 unaffected by flooding did not – hence getting off Scot free!
White clapperboard houses lining Mermaid Street in Rye

What’s on in Rye During Your Visit

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

A passageway lined with small houses in Rye
A black and white timbered house with lilac wisteria climbing over it in Rye

Rye Attractions

Visit 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 Rye’s rich history and folklore to life.

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 navigate 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.

Rye Candy
Lola and Sidney Shop Front in Rye
Rye Deli
Rye's Handmade shop front

Look inside 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 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, a cold chill ran down my back as I entered. A ghostly presence perhaps, or just a winter’s chill, you can decide!

You can take an interactive tour of The Mermaid Inn here, or if you are brave enough, you can book to stay a night in the Mermaid Inn.

Entrance to the Mermaid Inn Rye
Mermaid Street Rye

Climb to the top of the Church of St Mary #4

St Mary’s parish 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 bell 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.

view of St Mary's Church Rye from a side street
St Mary's Church in Rye

Wander around Church Square #5

Church Square is 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. Rye’s charming authenticity is why it is featured heavily on the internet.

Enjoy a beer at Rye’s Award-Winning Micropub #6

Situated on Tower Street in the old town, the Rye Waterworks Micropub is in a building that was originally the town pump house for 300 years.

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 with 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 be seen only in the distance.

Once a prison, a mortuary and even a private house, the Rye Castle Museum – Ypres Tower now houses paintings and displays of local history. A nominal entrance fee 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 castle grounds.

Ypres Tower Rye
Ypres Tower with canons and balls in front of it

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 East Sussex. This one would have had a portcullis and drawbridge for the town’s defence.

Keep an eye out for Knoop’s hot chocolate shop just by the arch – delicious!

Search for treasure in Rye’s antique shops #9

To find hidden treasures, search secondhand shops like Rye Old Books on Lion Street and Grammar School Records, a record shop inside a 17th-century grammar school.

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 art galleries, artisan crafts and antique shops, so if that’s your kind of thing, Rye will be the perfect place for you to visit.

Rye antique shop

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 at it, check out how old some of the houses are.

A black front door with the name The House with Two Front Doors above its entrance
A black front door with the name The First House above its entrance
A black front door with the name The House Opposite above its entrance
A black front door with the name The House with the Secret Garden above its entrance

Explore the National Trust Lamb House #11

This National Trust property was once home to the writer Henry James, who wrote 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 England’s largest and most important wildlife sites.

It is home to many wildlife species, making it a bird-watcher’s paradise in a beautiful coastal and wetland landscape. 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, hop on number 312 from Rye train station. 

16th-century Camber Castle is located in the nature reserve. It is around one mile from the harbour.

A black house with a red roof and white windows on the beach in Rye 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).

It will take around 2 hours and 30 minutes to get to central London by car.

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 (£3.70 Mon-Sat / £4.30 Sundays) sat nav TN31 7AB and Jempson’s supermarket, pay-and-display for up to 2 hours, just opposite the station.

Popular Places 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 historic town of Rye, high on the East Cliff, with views across the river.

Where to eat 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

Mermaid Inn

Ship Inn

Standard Inn

Old Borough Arms

Globe Inn Marsh

Places to visit near Rye

If you travel by car, you could visit other great places in Sussex and Kent. Some ideas for your itinerary could include the following:

Great Dixter House and Gardens

Hastings and Battle

Camber Sands

Dungeness

Need to arrange travel insurance, car hire or accommodation? Please check out my resources page to help you plan your trip.

Linda (LD Holland)

Thursday 3rd of June 2021

It was good to learn that Rye is just a short train trip from London. Who wouldn’t want to visit the most haunted pubs in England! I love small towns with quaint main streets to wander. That look of ivy and flowers climbing the walls would have my camera snapping over and over again. But hubby would pull me on to explore the Ypres Tower! Another small town to check out on our next visit to England. 

WhereAngieWanders

Thursday 3rd of June 2021

I hope you make it there one day. There is so many other great places to visit that are really close to Rye.

Georgina

Thursday 3rd of June 2021

I have been to Rye many years ago but certainly did not explore it well enough! Love this medieval town and this inspiring post has me penning a visit soon. I would love to visit Mermaid Inn among others!

WhereAngieWanders

Thursday 3rd of June 2021

I think every time I visit I discover something new! It's such a great town to just wander around. Hope you get back there soon!

Jan

Thursday 3rd of June 2021

Lovely blog post! I have not been to Rye but love old English medieval towns, the architecture of buildings, beautiful gardens and historical castles. 'The house with two front doors' is truly quirky! I would love to visit the Ypres Tower and castle museum. :-)

WhereAngieWanders

Thursday 3rd of June 2021

I agree about the two doors! Rye is full of hidden gems like this one.

Sue

Wednesday 2nd of June 2021

I have never been to Rye but just reading this & seeing your photos I can't wait until I do! I love that Rye has kept the big chains out & having so many independent shops & cafes in itself would be enough of a reason to visit for me. I love the names of the houses too - so quaint & original. And who can resist staying somewhere that's haunted...you never know! ;)

WhereAngieWanders

Wednesday 2nd of June 2021

Glad you found the post inspirational. I hope you get to visit - Rye has so much to offer.

Natascha

Wednesday 2nd of June 2021

Rye in East Sussex seems to be such a cute small town! I can see myself wandering the alleys and browsing the small shops (good that they managed to ban the generic chain stores). I would buy some useless small things and then have a couple of beers in the micropub. I am also a huge Henry James fan - so visitng Lamb House would be another highlight for me!

WhereAngieWanders

Wednesday 2nd of June 2021

It really sounds like the perfect place for you to visit Natascha!