Ah, Sussex. Home to castles and seaside towns aplenty, not to mention dozens of other fascinating museums, galleries and attractions. Despite being a fairly countryside-heavy county (well, two: East and West Sussex are separate counties), there are plenty of action-packed days out to be had, even if you don't have a car. These attractions can all be easily reached by public transport — just hop on a train and get exploring. And when you've exhausted all that Sussex has to offer, check out these car-free days out in neighbouring Kent, too.
Note: we're focusing on specific attractions here, though there are of course many towns in Sussex worth a visit in their own right and easily accessible by train — Lewes being one of them.
1) Battle Abbey, Battle, East Sussex
Many a parent has joked that organising a day out with the kids feels like going into battle. Take that literally with a trip to the quaint East Sussex town which takes its name from the Battle of Hastings.
Whether you've got kids in tow or not, Battle Abbey and Battlefield is the main attraction here, its gatehouse looming large over the high street. The English Heritage-owned property was the site of the 1066 skirmish where King Harold was killed — or so the story goes, though there's a bit of debate about the accuracy of that claim.
The site consists of a visitor centre with exhibits and films giving some historical background, and the battlefield, which can be viewed on a walking route (though if the weather's iffy, you've got little ones with you, or can't face a long walk, you're not missing too much by ignoring that, in our opinion). You can also wander around the abbey ruins, and — the best bit — climb to the top of the gatehouse for views down Battle High Street and beyond. You can easily spend a few hours here.
Battle Abbey and Battlefield, High Street, Battle, East Sussex, TN33 0AE.
Getting there: Battle Abbey is a 10-minute (uphill) walk from Battle station, with direct trains to London Bridge taking just over an hour.
Nearby: Battle itself is a quaint town, with plenty of independent shops and cafes to explore, and an excellent local museum (have a read about our visit in 2021). Otherwise, continue on the train for a further 20 minutes to the seaside town of Hastings.
2) Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park-East Grinstead, East and West Sussex
We LOVE a train-themed day out, and this heritage steam railway doesn't disappoint. Bluebell Railway runs vintage carriages between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead, with stops at Horsted Keynes and Kingscote, manned by staff in period costumes. Cleverly, each of the stations has been preserved in a different time period, from the Victorian era to the 1950s, and they've been used for TV shows and films including Downton Abbey.
Along the way, you can learn about the history and science of the trains, and the industrial age they belong to, and see how an original signal box works. There are regular events on the Bluebell Railway too — think beer festivals, afternoon tea rides, Christmas light shows and visits from Santa as the big day approaches.
Bluebell Railway, East Grinstead Station, RH19 1EB (though the main address is Sheffield Park Station, TN22 3QL).
Getting there: Though Sheffield Park is the main station on the Bluebell Railway, East Grinstead mainline station is your best bet for reaching the heritage railway via public transport. The Bluebell Railway station runs alongside the mainline station, operating from platform 3. Southern trains between East Grinstead and Victoria take about an hour, or you can change at East Croydon for London Bridge.
Nearby: The town is home to the East Grinstead Museum, which specialises in local history, but also houses the Queen Victoria Hospital Collection, charting the history of the nearby hospital, known for its pioneering work in burns care and plastic surgery.
3) Arundel Castle, Arundel, West Sussex
There's something rather Disney-esque about Arundel Castle, in the way its many turrets and battlements tower over the town below. It's a seriously impressive — and underrated — fortress complex, consisting of a medieval gatehouse and barbican, an 11th century keep and 14th century chapel, and ornate 18th and 19th century state rooms, all open to the public. Throw in wonderful gardens, and stunning views over the Sussex countryside, and you've got yourself a top-notch day out.
Look out for regular events including jousting displays, history days, plant fairs and outdoor theatre performances.
Arundel Castle, Arundel, West Sussex, BN18 9AB.
Getting there: Arundel Castle is about a 20-minute walk from Arundel station — be aware that the route is partly along the busy A27. There are footpaths the whole way, and traffic lights to help you cross safely, but you'll want to keep a tight hold of any kiddies with you. Direct trains between Arundel and either London Bridge or Victoria take about 90 minutes.
Nearby: Arundel's a fairly compact and remote, pretty and historic town. The equally impressive Arundel Cathedral is just a couple of minutes walk from the castle (and is often mistaken for it in photos of the town). The area is also home to the Arundel Museum, and Arundel Lido (summer months only). It's not short of cafes and tea rooms, but we've heard good things about LG Cafe in particular.
See also: Other Sussex castles within walking distance of a railway station are Lewes Castle, Pevensey Castle and Hastings Castle, though none of them are quite as impressive as Arundel's fortress.
4) Newhaven Fort, East Sussex
View this post on Instagram
Newhaven doesn't feature on the radar of many tourists and day trippers, and with good reason — it's primarily an industrial town, with ferries over to Dieppe, and its location means it was previously used as a defence strategy.
The 19th century Newhaven Fort is the largest defence structure ever built in Sussex, and is now open as a museum. Sitting on a cliff overlooking the harbour, some of the buildings, including the casemates, are now home to exhibitions about the fort's role in the first and second world wars, including details of different raids, and a look at life on the home front.
Wander out onto the ramparts for some serious views over the English Channel and along this stretch of the Sussex coast. There's also a 1940s-themed tea room within the complex, complete with Union Jack bunting and serving classic cream teas, and an outdoor adventure playground for kids to let off steam.
Newhaven Fort, Fort Road, Newhaven, BN9, 9DS
Getting there: Newhaven Town station (NOT Newhaven Harbour) is under half an hour's walk away. Trains take just over 90 minutes to London Victoria, though you'll have to change at Lewes.
Nearby: Newhaven is predominantly a port town so has a fairly industrial feel, and isn't really designed for tourists. However, walk 20 minutes in the opposite direction from Newhaven Town station and you'll find Paradise Park, casually described as a garden centre but home to a miniature railway, soft play area, gardens and trails, the Planet Earth Museum and Newhaven Museum.
5) Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex
Chichester Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, has been around in some form since 1075. These days, it's a blend of Norman and Gothic architecture, right in the middle of the town centre, and although it is a functioning place of worship, visitors are welcome.
You can book on to a guided tour, starting in the North Transept and lasting about 45 minutes. Look out for a couple of special features — it's the only medieval cathedral in England to have a free-standing medieval bell tower and double aisles. It's also worth checking for any special exhibitions which are on at the time of your visit — they're often spread through the cathedral and grounds, and tend to change every few months.
Chichester Cathedral, West Street, Chichester, PO19 1PX.
Getting there: Chichester Cathedral is a 10-minute walk from Chichester station. Direct trains to Victoria take about 90 minutes.
Nearby: The Novium Museum is a few minutes walk away, built over the remains of a Roman bath house, and covering Chichester's history from Roman times to the present day. Alternatively, take a 20-minute stroll to the South Downs Planetarium, and watch a family-friendly show projected onto the dome (check show times before you travel, as the building only opens for shows).
6) Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, East Sussex
You can't miss Towner Eastbourne — the contemporary art gallery is housed in a building covered in a brightly-coloured geometric mural, by Lothar Goetz, and looks more like something you'd expect to find in LA than Eastbourne.
Inside is just as eclectic. The gallery usually has multiple exhibitions running concurrently, making the most of its extensive collection of more than 5,000 works (Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore feature...), including a permanent gallery of Eric Ravilious paintings. The impressive events programme includes curator and art store tours and talks, as well as regular film screenings.
Towner Eastbourne, Devonshire Park, College Road, Eastbourne, BN21 4JJ.
Getting there: Less than 15 minutes walk to Eastbourne station. Direct trains to Victoria take about 90 minutes.
Nearby: You're at the seaside! Eastbourne's beach is a pebbly one, but still popular on a summer's day, and has a pier with amusements. Alternatively, head south-west out of the town centre for a wander out towards the iconic Seven Sisters cliffs and Birling Gap — just stay well away from the cliff edge.
7) Amberley Museum, West Sussex
Located in a former chalk quarry, Amberley Museum is an open-air industrial heritage museum, set up to preserve the industrial and social history of the local area, and covering topics including transport, communications and rural crafts. It's like stepping into a bygone era.
For our money, the industrial narrow gauge railway is where it's at, with restored locomotives and rolling stock used to offer rides to visitors. A life-size replica of a 1920s Southdown bus garage (Southdown is a bus company) complete with restored buses and tramcars, a replica 1950s-style fire station, displays of electrical equipment, a printing press, a brick drying shed, a pottery workshop, and ironmongers and a blacksmith are just some of the other things to see.
Amberley Museum, New Barn Road, Amberley, West Sussex, BN18 9LT. If you enjoy Amberley Museum, you might also like the Chiltern Open Air Museum on the London-Buckinghamshire border.
Getting there: Though Google Maps pinpoints Amberley Museum as a few minutes' walk away from Amberley station, the museum's entrance is actually directly opposite the station. Direct trains between Amberley and either Victoria or London Bridge take around 90 minutes.
Nearby: Amberley's a small hamlet so there's not a lot in the area surrounding the museum, though you could drop by Amberley Village Tearoom for lunch. There are plenty of countryside walking routes, or you could hop back on the train for another four minutes to Arundel, with its castle and old world charm (see above).
8) Royal Pavilion, Brighton, East Sussex
You didn't think you were going to get through a guide to things to do in Sussex without mention of Brighton, did you? 'London-on-Sea' is replete with entertainment, but one underrated attraction worth your time is the Royal Pavilion (not to be confused with the Brighton Dome, a building in a similar architectural style, located nearby and now used as a theatre).
If you've ever been to Brighton, you've probably seen it, and pondered over its existence — it's the building that looks like the Taj Mahal. Inside, there's a distinct Chinese and Indian theme to the decor too, as requested by the Prince of Wales (later George IV), for whom it was designed. Visitors can wander through some seriously lavish rooms, including the rotunda-style music room and the impressive banqueting room, dripping in gold opulence.
One tip: learn from our mistake and pay the extra couple of quid for the audio guide they offer at the entrance. The rooms don't have much in the way of information signs, so though it's all very pretty, there's no context to without the guide.
Royal Pavilion, 4-5 Pavilion Buildings, Brighton, BN1 1EE.
Getting there: 10 minute walk to Brighton station, with direct trains to London Bridge or Victoria taking just over an hour.
Nearby: Brighton Palace Pier! Brighton Museum and Art Gallery! i360 Brighton! You're in Brighton — there's enough to keep you going for days. See our guide to spending a weekend in Brighton, and quirky and unusual things to do in Brighton.
9) Hastings Aquarium, East Sussex
A family-friendly, weather-safe day out, Hastings Aquarium is home to sharks, rays, seahorses, octopus and, unexpectedly, tree pythons — among all manner of other fish. Various talks and feeding demonstrations take place throughout the day, so you can get a closer look at the creatures and learn more about them, plus there are nursery tanks, where aquarium staff breed different species, a tank dedicated to UK shoreline wildlife and — the highlight — an underwater glass tunnel through the ocean tank, with blacktip reef sharks swimming above you.
Hastings Aquarium, Rock-A-Nore Road, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 3DW.
Getting there: Around 25 minutes walk from Hastings station, which offers direct trains to Charing Cross taking just over 90 minutes.
Nearby: Take a look at our guide to visiting Hastings — the seaside town is home to a pier, castle, funicular railways, beautiful old buildings, and plenty more.