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The historic spa resort of Royal Tunbridge Wells is a vibrant and upmarket town which has certainly not forgotten its country roots. Surrounded by glorious parks and elegant Georgian buildings, and with an array of independent shops, smart restaurants and hip bars, it is loved by singles, young couples and families alike. While the centre is home to large malls and department stores with well-known names, it still retains much of the charm of its Georgian heyday with the historic Pantiles, known as 'the village', a smart and artistic quarter which offers a more relaxed and bohemian alternative to the mainstream.
By day, you can browse local food markets and antique shops, and as night falls, the choice is yours: sit outside a pavement café, people-watching and listening to live jazz in the summer months, take a stroll under the elegant colonnades, or tuck yourselves away in one of the little restaurants to sample some of the best cuisine in the area.
Don't forget the wealth of historical attractions that the town and its surroundings are famous for. Discover romantic National Trust castles and houses, spend sunny afternoons exploring the glorious gardens and parks, and seek out ancient Cinque Ports towns with their cobbled streets, packed with interesting vintage shops and welcoming tearooms.
To start you off, we have put together a guide to everything you need to know about Tunbridge Wells, so sit down with a well-deserved coffee, have a leaf through and start planning your escape to this enchanting town.
Learn a little royal and spa history before you go...
This fashionable Georgian spa town wasn't always so. Founded in 1606 with the discovery of the Chalybeate Springs, it became a popular resort for well-heeled visitors during the 18th and 19th centuries, who would come to take the healing waters. Though this tradition has diminished, you can still try the famous water if you like. Pop into the Chalybeate Spring on the Pantiles where you will be served some water by tour guides dressed in the traditional 'dipper' costumes. A great way to start your tour of the town!
The town was granted a 'Royal' before its name in 1909 by King Edward VII to commemorate the fact that his mother, Queen Victoria had so loved visiting the area. You can still see this nod to the past in the historic Pantiles, a colonnaded walk which was the meeting place for visiting gentry during this time.
Historical fact! Why the name The Pantiles? The story goes that these special tiles were laid at the instruction of Queen Anne in 1698 after her young son fell on the slippery surface, although there is some confusion as to whether the tiles were actually laid before her next visit. They were later replaced with stone, but the name has remained.
Delight in Regency villas, follow historical trails and taste some spring water
The town's historic past is very much reflected in its stunning architecture, with Regency villas jostling for space with large Victorian houses and pretty white clapboard cottages. You will see many of these beautiful buildings, surrounded by elegant leafy parks on the outskirts as you drive in but they are also dotted throughout the rest of the town itself, so you won't miss out if you come to Tunbridge Wells by train.
As the main area of interest in the town is the Pantiles, this is the place to start. After you have tasted a little of the spring water, discover the history of the Pantiles with the Guided Tour of the Pantiles and the Old High Street with an accredited Blue Badge Guide - book at the Tourist Information Centre.
Another popular tour is the Heritage Walking Trail which invites visitors to view a series of plaques commemorating famous residents and visitors to the town. Pick up a copy of the trail from the TIC and find out who lived in the town - and indeed, who famously doesn't have a plaque!
If you prefer to take your history at a more leisurely pace, pay a visit instead to the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery (closed for redevelopment in 2019 - please check as there may be a temporary space in the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre) which welcomes visitors all year round. One of its most popular exhibits are the Tunbridge Ware decoratively inlaid woodwork boxes - you can still buy these today in the many antique shops around the town.
Shop until you drop at the designer stores, markets and historic Pantiles
Whatever you need, you'll find it in either the main town centre or in the more artisan Pantiles area. If you've come to shop, start up the hill at the Royal Victoria Place Shopping Centre which offers traditional High Street names as well as some newer ones - flowery Cath Kidston and a new Yankee Candle for everything candle related - their Christmas ones are especially enticing. It also has a Fenwick for those who want a touch of luxury, where halls of designer bags and cosmetics including Benefit and Bobbi Brown invite you to try out the latest looks.
Just down the street from the Royal Victoria is the town's original department store, Hooper's - not quite as glamorous as Fenwick but a solid more traditional alternative.
Looking for something a little different? Then you must head down towards the splendid Georgian Pantiles (passing Russell and Bromley, Jigsaw and Joules on the way), packed with gorgeous listed buildings which are home to small boutiques, quirky cafés and art galleries. Browse for gifts in the antique shops under the colonnades (35 at the last count), and pop into one of the little pavement cafés or restaurants for an artisan coffee or an original dish that you might not find in the larger restaurants.
You will also find some lovely little delicatessens where you can pick up some mouthwatering local produce - we suggest the famous Kent apple juice, made in local orchards and bursting with southern flavour. If you are a summer visitor, then make sure that you take away a punnet or two of the delicious Kent strawberries for a picnic - we're not at all biased but they are the best you will find!
Stop for a bite to eat at some famous names (and some great cake shops)
One of our favourite and ever-so-slightly glamorous places to dine has to be Thackeray's, situated in a gorgeous historic house once owned by the author William Makepeace Thackeray. If you prefer a touch of vintage style and possibly the yummiest cakes in the area, then head to the bohemian Juliet's Café on the High Street where you can indulge your sweet tooth, or to the Cakeshed in the Pantiles for cakes to take home, stopping only for one of their expertly crafted coffees and a browse of the local artwork.
Now while there's nothing wrong with a good old Wetherspoons, the selling point in some has to be the wonderful old buildings that they are housed in - the Tunbridge Wells Opera House is one of the best without a doubt. Exquisite both outside and inside, its pale green domed structure can be seen from miles around - a beacon to tempt hungry shoppers to refuel for the afternoon. Inside, you will dine under the opulent (and original) stalls and boxes - possibly one of the most splendid places to have a burger and chips in the land!
If you like your ambience accompanied by some excellent cuisine, the gloriously Art-Deco Ivy will take you back in time without having to step a foot outside Kent. Its vintage bar and stylish décor really are outstanding - perfect if you are coming to Tunbridge Wells for a glittering special occasion. If you aren't but want something equally as tasty, head to the teeny-tiny Soprano which will serve you some fabulous tapas and a few glasses of vino for good measure.
We haven't forgotten the excellent pubs - whether you want to cosy up at a country inn in one of the surrounding villages, have a traditional pint in the town or choose a new craft beer at one of the smart beer cafés, there's lots of choice. The locals love Fuggles Beer Café which boasts over 120 different European beers - it also has an excellent gin and whisky selection if you prefer the hard stuff!
Those who have come by car should take the opportunity to discover The Poet at Matfield, an olde-worlde-looking pub with out-of-this-world food about 5 miles east of the town. It offers a taste of Modern-European cuisine and some of the best local pale ale and bitter around, all set in a traditionally-themed style - wooden-beamed low ceilings and mismatched floor tiles to boot. Also known for their love of spirits, the pub has some excellent cocktails to try as well as a brilliant gin festival in August if you're a summer visitor.
Come for the jazz festivals, a famous name or a panto at Christmas
Two theatres deserve your attention in the town. The Assembly Hall Theatre and the Trinity Arts Centre, both at the top end of town, hold various shows throughout the year including ballet, opera, musicals - and a Christmas panto of course. If you love live music, The characterful Forum is well-known for having attracted up and coming young artists including the likes of Adele and Coldplay. A former toilet block (bear with us), it has been a permanent venue for over 25 years.
Jazz lovers should try to visit between May and September when live Jazz at the Bandstand on the Pantiles brings all the locals out with a heady mix of African roots to Cuban spice, Dixieland to big band - our advice is to book a table at one of the restaurants well in advance as it's a hugely popular occasion.
Feel the fresh air on your face at conifer pinetums, glacial lakes and elegant parks
Nestled in the heart of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the glorious Kent and East Sussex countryside. Under 10 miles away, the stunning Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest is a magical place to visit, especially at Christmas when over 300 acres of snow-topped conifers provide a glistening backdrop for a wonderful walk with all the family - not forgetting the dog!
The same distance on the other side of the A21 (the main road down to the sea) is Bewl Water Country Park, the largest body of inland water in the South East with 21 km of shoreline. Go for bracing walks around the reservoir, mountain bike around the waterside tracks (you can hire bikes) or just mess about on the water in the pedalos or rowing boats.
If that sounds like too much hard work, take a trip around the lake on the Bewl Belle, and take in the sights as you treat yourself to an afternoon tea - we'll choose that one any time!
For some of the prettiest grounds around, Groombridge Place Gardens is only 4 miles away, a 17th-century moated manor house with sculpted formal terraced gardens and a magical 'enchanted forest'. Lovers of the author Vita Sackville-West may like to head over instead to the world-renowned gardens of her former home, Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Just 15 miles away (you pass Bedgebury Pinetum on the way if you wanted to combine the two), it is now a National Trust property and a charming way to spend a few hours in the spring and summer months.
Pashley Manor Gardens is also a favourite in spring with its colourful display of over 20,000 tulips at the annual Tulip Festival.
If you want to stay in the town itself, the beautiful Dunorlan Park is the place to go. Nearly 80 acres of parkland and formal gardens set around a central boating lake, it's a great place for little ones to run about and for enthusiastic dogs to stretch their legs. Landscaped in the mid-19th century by the prominent Victorian horticulturalist Robert Marnock, it provides a feast for the senses whatever the season.
Take a picnic or buy an ice cream from the café and stroll around the tree-lined paths; in winter, wrap up warm and take a wander around with a creamy hot chocolate in hand as you admire the glistening wonderland before you.
Want to visit more glorious gardens? Have a leaf through our guide to the best gardens in Kent and Sussex.
Visit romantic castles, houses of prime ministers and famous authors
Tunbridge Wells is blessed with some beautiful historic buildings, not only in the town but in the surrounding countryside. You could spend days discovering all the houses and castles, both nearby and further afield but there are so many that you'd never leave! The one you will really want to keep your diary free for, in our opinion, is the fairytale Scotney Castle.
A wisteria-clad turreted Elizabethan manor house and crumbling 14th-century moated castle, it's full of secrets to discover and intriguing stories to listen to. It really is the most glorious sight, and if you've come for a romantic weekend, you won't go wrong with a few hours exploring the house and gardens before settling down for something scrumptious in the tearoom.
Though you may be trying to get away from politics - and we wouldn't blame you - we would still recommend that you visit Winston Churchill's former country abode, The National Trust's Chartwell House, 15 miles from Tunbridge Wells. View the collections of photographs, books and mementoes and wander the grounds with its dog-friendly lakes, wooded trails, delightful kitchen garden and playhouse built for Churchill's little daughter.
One for the kids: look out for the resident marmalade cat called Jock - we'll leave you to find out why!
Jungle Book fans will love a day out at the magnificent Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's former home. Visit the 17th-century Jacobean house and its famous study which is just as he left it and walk around the rose-filled gardens, finishing with a walk along Burwash High Street, taking in the historic buildings and sweet little shops.
If we can squeeze in a few more historic houses - and we can't resist - then the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Hever Castle, is a must-visit, while the 650-year-old moated manor house of Ightham Mote and the glorious Penshurst Place should be firmly on your itinerary. All of these are within 15 miles of the town - there really is so much fascinating history in such a small area that you'll really need to come back again to see it all!
Other wonderful National Trust properties in Kent can be found in our guide here.
Come and stay with us in Tunbridge Wells!
Stylish apartments in the heart of the town, pretty cottages close to the Pantiles, or converted stable blocks on working stud farms... we pretty much have everything for a wonderful stay in and around Tunbridge Wells. Be close to the action or squirrel yourself away in the countryside - the choice is yours.
To help you decide, here are three of our favourites, all offering something different:
- Apartment 15, Tunbridge Wells (sleeps two and one dog) - perfect if you want to walk to all the shops, bars and restaurants.
- The Stables, Frant (sleeps six and one dog) – surrounded by picture-perfect countryside, there are scenic walks right from the front door.
- Snaffles, Frant (sleeps four) - in the midst of a stable block of horses and stunning countryside, you'll really adore this escape to the country.
We have a superb collection of cottages in and around Tunbridge Wells - just click to find the perfect one for your next visit.