This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure policy for details.
Rye is a gorgeous quintessential English town in East Sussex that is famous for its ancient and cobbled Mermaid Street.
There are plenty of magical things to do in Rye that make it a great day out or weekend break in 1066 Country.
From Tudor buildings, historic castles, cobbled streets, heritage centres, literary connections, breweries, church towers and the coast. There’s plenty to keep you entertained here!
After my visit, Rye quickly moved its way to my favourite town in the South East of England. So, here are all the amazing things to do in Rye on your visit.
Things to do in Rye
1. Take a walk down Mermaid Street
One of the top things to do in Rye has to be taking a stroll down the stunning Mermaid Street.
This is by far one of the prettiest streets in the UK and you can expect to find all manner of quirky and ancient timber-framed buildings that line the cobbled lane.
You’ll find The House with Two Front Doors, the Mermaid Inn, Mermaid Street Café, Jeakes House and a clothing shop. You could spend a long time here.
As one of the most popular places to visit in Rye, expect this place to be crowded throughout the day. If you want empty photos, I’d be up for sunrise to capture it.
2. Visit Mermaid Inn
One of the top places to visit on Mermaid Street has to be The Mermaid Inn, a delightful timber-framed pub.
This ancient inn is where Mermaid Lane gets its name and it has a history stretching back to 1156 where it had its humble beginnings as a medieval alehouse.
This is when Rye gained membership in the Cinque Ports. These were five historic ports in Essex, Kent, and Sussex.
In the 14th century, the tavern was burned to the ground and so only the cellars remained. It was rebuilt in the 1420s and, at the time, this street was the ‘poorer’ end of town.
It became a safe haven for Catholic priests during the Reformation in the 1530s with a secret passageway inside.
You’ll see an oak-panelled wall inscribed with “Syn’s Lounge” where people could escape!
Later, The Mermaid Inn was a base of operations for the famous Hawkhurst Gang who would smuggle their contraband into the pub.
Later, it became a club under the ownership of May Aldington, mother of the novelist Richard Aldington. Famous literary names like E.F. Benson (author of Map & Lucia) would visit here.
After World War II, this inn became a hotel and was Grade II listed and briefly featured in Monty Python’s ‘Yellowbeard’.
They have lodgings you can stay in. But, even if you don’t, it’s worth visiting their bar for a drink or some food in their restaurant!
3. Learn about the Hawkhurst Gang on the Smuggler’s Trail
Just like Cornwall in the South West of England, the South East has its fair share of smuggling tales to tell.
Smuggling was a huge part of the economy in the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a wide-scale and dangerous business.
When taxes were on the rise to fund a monarch’s wars, working people couldn’t afford the levies placed on necessities like salt. Smuggling was the only way for many to get by!
Smuggling was completely illegal and meant stealing imported goods and hiding contraband to sell to buyers at a lower price.
Some smuggling gangs were more violent and would even purposely wreck ships on the shores to steal the cargo and kill any witnesses to tell the tale.
The Hawkhurst Gang were a band of notorious criminals who were named after the village of Hawkhurst. They based their operations at the Oak and Ivy Inn there.
They would smuggle contraband in pubs along the South Coast and they used The Mermaid Inn as one of their secondary hideouts.
It is documented that they would smuggle Brandy here and many would sit around the pub with their weapons on the table!
The Mermaid Inn is now part of the Smuggler’s Trail and includes 12 hotels across Sussex and Kent that have smuggler stories! You’ll find the plaque on the front of the hotel.
4. Explore Lamb House
Just around the corner from the top of Mermaid Street, you’ll find the delightful Lamb House on West Street.
A Georgian red-brick home that has lots of history to uncover and literary associations too.
Henry James came upon this house by chance on his visit and decided to buy it two years later. Whilst residing here, he wrote his novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’.
His friend, E. F. Benson lived here as well and was the author of the Mapp & Lucia novels.
Benson used many locations around Rye for the fictional setting of Tilling. Lamb House became the setting for ‘Mallards’ which was the home of Miss Mapp.
On your visit, you can explore the old rooms, learn about ghost stories and walk around a delightful walled garden at the back of the house.
Today it’s owned and protected by the National Trust. Click here for more information on opening times and prices
5. Rye Castle & Ypres Tower
Rye Castle is located near St Mary’s Church in Rye and it towers over the town with an advantageous view over the coastline.
This fortress is thought to have been built as early as the 13th century and is now a Grade I-listed building.
It played a major role in Cinque Ports defence and protection of the trade route in this area all those years ago.
During King Henry VIII’s time and his Device Fort project, he built a battery here. It still played a major role in defending Britain centuries after including the events of the Spanish Armada.
As well as a fortification for Rye, it also played a role as a prison for the town and was the property of John de Iprys. This is why the castle is named the Ypres Tower.
It’s now the Rye Castle Museum and it’s worth exploring the towers and exhibitions whilst you’re here.
Even if you don’t decide to go inside, you can visit the Artillery Battery Garden for free and be treated to a spectacular view of the coast.
6. Have tea at Cobble’s Tea Room
If you’re looking for an adorable tearoom in Rye, then I would head over to Cobbles Tea Room!
This gorgeous café is located down a cobbled side street and even has a teapot sign swinging above the door.
They have a few tables outside when the weather is warm or you can treat yourself to an afternoon tea inside.
It’s a must-visit whilst you’re here and it doesn’t hurt that this place is super Instagrammable either.
7. Climb St Mary’s Church Tower
One of the best Rye viewpoints can be found at the top of St Mary’s Church Tower in the heart of the town
It has over 900 years of history and many features were built in the 12th century like the chancel and nave.
Many people call this the “Cathedral of East Sussex” and it has many gorgeous features from the Tudor and Reformation periods.
You can pay a small fee to climb up their church tower (not recommended if you’re claustrophobic) and get an amazing panoramic view from the top.
On a clear day, you can see out towards Camber Sands, Winchelsea and Rye Harbour Nature Reserve!
The churchyard is meant to be haunted. A butcher called John Breeds accidentally killed Grebell instead of the Mayor whom he actually wanted to kill.
Breeds was tried, hanged and held in a gibbet to slowly rot here. Both of the men are reported to haunt the graveyard today, so don’t visit at night.
8. Sneak down Needles Passage
As a medieval harbour town, Rye has a labyrinth of historic side streets and quaint passageways.
One of the ones I liked the most was Needles Passage next to Farthing House. It links the Cinque Ports Street with The Mint.
Although it looks ominous, if you head through here, you’ll be treated to some incredible historic buildings. You’ll find some boutiques to shop in like a Record Shop and Sailors of Rye.
This is another haunted street in Rye. Sometimes people can hear echoing footsteps when there is no one around!
9. Admire Land Gate
If you’re into your Norman history, then you must visit Landgate which was an ancient border gate to Rye.
It was one of two defence gates for Rye from invading forces which started with the Battle of 1066.
Its twin is Strandgate which survived until 1819. Today, it’s little more than a ruin but the foundations remain at the Old Borough Arms hotel.
Make sure to pop into Knoops Chocolate Café next to it for one of the best hot chocolates you’ll find on the south coast.
10. Rye Heritage Centre
If you’re interested to know more about the history of Rye, then you must pop inside Rye Heritage Centre.
Here, you can learn their interesting story and the exhibits are set inside a converted 19th-century sail loft.
They have several displays including a Rye Town Model and the ‘Story of Rye’ Sound and Light Show!
Why not take a stroll down memory lane at the Old Pier Penny Arcade? Or, buy some local handicrafts in their souvenir shop?
Tickets are £4.50 for an adult and £3 for children, those under 5-year-olds go free.
11. Chase real-life Mapp & Lucia locations
There are plenty of Mapp & Lucia literary locations to discover in Rye as this town was used to create the fictional town of Tilling in E F Benson’s classic novel.
I’ve already mentioned Lamb House which can be found at the top of Mermaid Street. This is where Benson resided in Rye from 1919 and he went on to become the Mayor of Rye.
You can also visit Mermaid Street which was the inspiration for Porpoise Street. Watchbell Street was used for Curfew Street. Even The George pub in Rye was used as the King’s Arms.
Another one is The House with Two Front Doors. As well as being a delightful photography spot, this building was an inspiration for Mallard’s Cottage in Benson’s Mapp & Lucia books.
The interior was featured as the Mallard’s Cottage for the BBC show. Benson fans will be delighted to discover that you can stay the night and see this place for yourself!
It’s a Bed & Breakfast with WiFi and access to a garden out the back.
12. Visit Ye Olde Bell
The Olde Bell in Rye, aka Ye Olde Bell is the oldest inn in Rye and was built in 1390. Today, it’s a Grade II listed building.
It is an authentic English pub that has many historical features and oozes charm in every corner.
They have a menu of traditional dishes, including a roast dinner on Sundays and you can wash it down with a selection of their Sussex real ales on tap.
You can find it on The Mint but they are very popular so I would recommend booking in advance.
13. Rye Bookshops
Rye is one of the best literary destinations in the UK and so it stands to reason that there are some amazing bookshops in the town.
You can take a wander around The Rye Bookshop which is a Waterstones. I was so surprised as it looked nothing like a traditional one.
Rye Old Books and Rye Books are also worth checking out. Plus, many charity shops have a large selection of discounted reads.
Most of the Rye Bookshops can be found on The Strand and it’s worth setting aside some bag room for all your purchases.
14. Fletchers House
There are many historic buildings in Rye and one of the most notorious is Fletchers House which formed part of an ancient vicarage. This was the birthplace of dramatist John Fletcher in 1579.
Today, it functions as a delightful restaurant where you can cosy up by the fire, admire the historic features and eat home-cooked food.
When the weather is warm, there is also a terraced garden and they serve up afternoon teas!
15. Kino Rye
If you were staying in Rye and fancy some entertainment in the evening, then you may like to check out Kino.
It’s a cinema complex that sits within a Victorian Library and they have two screens inside.
As well as movies, the complex has a bar, dining area, a mezzanine lounge and a terrace to relax on.
16. Rye Waterworks
If you’re into your breweries, you’ll want to check out the Rye Waterworks Micropub thats located in the town.
The building itself has had an interesting history from a Pump Room to a Soup Kitchen, a public toilet and then a micro pub which you can visit today.
They are listed with CAMRA which means Campaign For Real Ale and you can head inside to try some of their ales.
17. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve
Just outside of Rye, you’ll find the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve which has a discovery centre to visit.
Here, they will inform you of all the amazing wildlife and walks that you can take in the area!
There is wildlife to discover here all year, mainly birds, and they have five birdwatching hides to visit.
But, there is so much more to explore including a military history trail and scenic walks along the coastline. It’s worth checking out.
18. Camber Sands
So, Camber Sands isn’t in the centre of Rye but it’s only a short drive or bus ride away!
It’s a gorgeous stretch of beach that is perfect to visit all year but is best when the sun is out.
Did you know that Camber Sands is the only sand dune system in East Sussex? It’s east of the River Rother and Rye Bay and stretches for 3 miles.
The beach is free but do have to pay for parking. Prepare for quite a walk up a sandy hill to reach the sea, it will burn your leg muscles!
How to visit Rye in East Sussex
The gorgeous town of Rye is located in East Sussex in the South East of England. This is in 1066 country made famous by the Battle of Hastings.
You can access Rye on a train from St Pancras Station in London, there are many train route options and some take as little as an hour!
Alternatively, you can drive there within two hours from London if you fancy a day out. It makes a great day trip if you’re visiting the capital.
You’ll find plenty of off-road parking and time-restricted spaces at the bottom of Wish Ward near Rye Heritage Centre if you’re visiting early in the day (spaces are free before 8 am and after 6 pm).
You’ll find paid car parks on Rope Street and the Strand. Or, you can opt for the Riverside Parking.
All are open 24 hours so it makes a very convenient parking option if you’re planning a longer stay.
Where to stay in Rye
Rye is a small place but there are plenty of places to stay in this quintessential English town.
The most popular choice has to be the gorgeous timber-framed Mermaid Inn on Mermaid Street which has a popular restaurant and bar beneath.
It is full of charm and character and you’ll be staying right in the heart of the town!
Discover more of 1066 Country!
1066 country in East Sussex truly has something for everyone. Of course, the tourism here mainly surrounds The Battle of Hastings of 1066, one of the most important dates in England’s history.
This was the year when William the Conqueror of Normandy became king of England and changed our futures forever.
I would recommend visiting Battle Abbey and the Hastings Battlefield while you’re here to learn all about this historic event.
You can also visit Pevensey Castle where the Normans first landed on English shores and end your history tour in Winchelsea.
There are many more castles to see here like Bodiam Castle, Herstmonceux, and Scotney Castle in the wider High Weald AONB.
Or, you can head to more of the coastline by visiting Hastings, Bexhill-on-Sea, or Camber Sands.