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Everything I learned at my first Whitby Goth Weekend

This review of Whitby Goth Weekend 2023 is part of my regular posts on strange and alternative travel destinations and gatherings. Subscribe for more recommendations like this!

I’m standing by the sea, thinking about Dracula.

The first place most people associate with the infamous vampire count is of course Transylvania, Romania. But Bram Stoker’s original story also takes place in Whitby, England. Which is one reason why thousands of Goths and people dressed in their Gothic finest descend on this small Northern fishing town each year to celebrate a dark romantic aesthetic and lifestyle.

Whitby Goth Weekend has been happening here since the mid-1990s, and I’ve been wanting to come here almost as long. So I was excited to finally make my way over for this year’s spring gathering.

I’ll admit that at first I didn’t really understand what the festival was all about in 2023. The official website has very little information beyond the dates and an application for potential vendors, ditto for their social media accounts, and nobody seems to answer their emails. I wondered if it would be worth it. Did I miss the boat? But after asking around and finding a helpful Facebook group for photographers I realized that Whitby Goth is still very much alive, albeit different from its original format, and any other festivals I’ve been to for that matter.

So for anyone else looking at beautiful photos of Gothic babes (of all genders) hanging out in Whitby and pondering if they should go, here’s are some practical things I learned on my first time at Whitby Goth Weekend.

For a more poetic take on my Whitby Goth Weekend experience, read my report Goth’s Not Dead for Spin magazine.

Gothic couple at Whitby Goth Weekend
An English couple who are regular visitors to Whitby

What is Whitby Goth Weekend?

Whitby Goth is a twice-annual event that attracts goths as well as other alternative subcultures mostly from around England but also all over the world. It started as a gathering of friends and quickly grew to an internationally known event that fills the entire town each spring (rotating dates) and fall, generally on Halloween weekend.

The festival is at its core a celebration of all things gothic — music, fashion, art, literature, lifestyle. An opportunity for Gothic people to get together and enjoy these things in a safe and communal setting that has its own Gothic history.

It also attracts many others who just like the aesthetic and want to dress up for a weekend, or just come and enjoy the views. I felt at times there were more people in steampunk garb, or even Halloween/horror-themed outfits, than actual goths. If you’re a goth person reading this, especially a long-time Whitby goer, that probably makes you roll your eyes. I personally loved seeing everyone in their finest. But the costume/cosplay element is contentious for sure.

Couple in vampire cosplay at Whitby Goth Weekend 2023
Inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula

What I found most surprising, and I think is the most important thing for other first-timers to know, is that Whitby Goth is does not have any specific programming. There are no passes or tickets to buy for “Whitby Goth.” No published schedule of events. No one event venue. Instead, there are a variety of events put on by individual promoters and businesses all around town, including club/DJ nights, live bands and plenty of markets with vendors. And probably plenty that I didn’t find out about because, again, there’s no centralized source of info. There is a lot to choose from and you can pick based on your budget and interests.

Timing wise, most of this happens on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with some club events extending to Thursday or Monday as well. I went for Friday night, and left Monday morning. If I went back I’d probably arrive Thursday and leave Sunday afternoon, since Whitby seems to shut down on Sundays at 4pm.

Post-punk band Ist Ist
Ist Ist from Manchester performed at Tomorrow’s Ghost festival

The music festival is called Tomorrow’s Ghosts

The main music event does not have Whitby Goth in its name. Tomorrow’s Ghost is a music festival happening on the Friday and Saturday nights featuring A-list Goth rock, post-punk, synthpop and other related alternative bands from the ‘80s to today, plus hot and critically acclaimed up-and-coming acts. The weekend I attended had Cold Cave, Christian Death, New Model Army, Lebanon Hanover and more including my favourite new-to-me discovery, Ist Ist, a post-punk group from Manchester. The October event is generally even bigger, with 2023’s line-up set to include The Mission, March Violets and The 69 Eyes.

Tomorrow’s Ghost takes place at the Whitby Pavilion, a large general admission event space right on the cliff overlooking the sea.  There is a lovely patio, mostly used for smoking. It did feel a bit like a convention centre or wedding space inside, but the sound system was excellent, with decent sightlines. There is very limited seating to watch the bands, which I would have appreciated after walking up and down Whitby all day. But they have a reserved section for those who need accessible seats, just contact them in advance. There’s also lounge outside to rest where some of the acts sell merch and mingle.

The promoters also host a Goth market at the pavilion during the day, and your concert tickets get you into an afterhours DJ event as well. You can purchase tickets for one night ($75 Canadian), or a weekend pass ($150 CDN.) These often sell out in advance. I feel that you could travel to Whitby just to attend Tomorrow’s Ghost and it would be worthwhile.

While wandering the town I saw posters for other free or cheap live music in various bars. Keep your eyes open!

Photographers at Whitby Goth Weekend 2023
Expect a lot of photographers

What else is there to do?

The main activity at Whitby Goth Weekend seems to be walking around and getting your photo taken.

The town (pop: 13,000) is compact and walkable, although it does seem to be uphill in every direction! So pack comfortable shoes and prepare to explore.

The town is split into two sides, East and West of the River Esk, which is joined by a drawbridge. There are bars and restaurants on either side, most in the centre near the pier, where you’ll also find amusements and boat tours. The Tomorrow’s Ghost event and markets are on the West side, as are most of the accommodations, and access to the beach. The East side has a pedestrian-only street lined with shops, sweat treats and souvenirs, plus the famous Abbey.

Whitby Abbey is a former monastery perched on a hill overlooking the town—if you love Dracula like I do, you will probably recognize this from the novel. Bram Stoker spent time in Whitby while researching his vampire story and set quite a few spooky scenes here. Note that this is an architectural ruin, and there is no shelter from the elements.

As you can imagine, the Abbey is a busy place on Whitby Goth Weekend.

Whitby Abbey as seen from behind
Photo by Tony Williams via Unsplash

You can reach Whitby Abbey by climbing 199 steps from the East side of town. Or you can take this hop-on-hop-off yellow sightseeing bus for 8 pounds, which drops you off at the top and is also handy for getting around Whitby.

Some guests simply visit the nearby St. Mary’s Church and wander its graveyard, both free. You can see the ruins from there without going in. But pay the 10 pounds entry fee and you can get up close and really appreciate the splendour. There’s an extensive gift shop on site for Dracula books and other goth-branded souvenirs. Tickets and info for Whitby Abbey here.

Speaking of Dracula, there is a cheeky carny attraction called The Dracula Experience on the pier. Did I go inside? Of course I did! It’s part museum exhibition that aims to teach you the story and part haunted house and takes about 10 minutes to go through. Fun for 5 pounds.  

If you want to actually learn more about the Stoker connections to Whitby, there’s a guided walking tour called In Search of Dracula, Sunday nights at 7:30pm. Just show up to the meeting point at the Whalebone arches in front of the Royal Hotel.

Did I say whalebone arches? Yes, a stand-out landmark in Whitby are the two towering whalebones standing upright at the edge of a cliff opposite the Royal Hotel. It’s a great place for a photo and this spot attracted a steady stream of super dressed up Goths throughout the weekend, as well as some musicians and other buskers, plus cool classic cars. A great place to meet up with friends or just sit on a bench and enjoy the sunset views.

Fun fact: In 2022, a gathering at Whitby Abbey smashed the world record for the number of people in vampire fancy dress. A total of 1,369 people took part in the attempt.

Dracula books at the Whitby Abbey gift shop

Shopping at Whitby Goth Weekend

As mentioned, there are several markets with goth and alternative vendors set up specifically for this event. These are indoor markets, and the weekend I attended were held in the pavilion, the Royal Hotel, the Whitby Leisure Centre and Whitby Brunswick Centre. So pretty spread out but still walkable.

Expect mostly independent clothing and accessory designers, selling romantic goth velvet ballgowns, jackets, corsets and the like, for both men and women. There are a lot of top hats, fascinators, crowns, jewelry, etc. A few vintage clothing and antique vendors. Some larger booths selling mass-produced goth clothing (T-shirts, hoodies, etc) and cheap jewelry. To a lesser extent there are some vinyl records, authors with their books, candles, shoes and other assorted treasures. Most vendors take cards as well as cash.

Apart from the temporary markets Whitby itself has several alternative shops year-round, including Pandemonium and something literally called The Great Goth. There are also many thrift or charity shops for second-hand goods that are popular for digging.

Whitby Jet is a popular souvenir item. The black semi-precious stone is local to the area and lovingly crafted into Victorian-era and contemporary pieces. Shops line the pedestrian Church Street on the East side, you can’t miss them. There’s also a Whitby Jet museum and a small display of an actual jet workshop from the 1860s (both free).

Whitby Jet Museum in England
Whitby Jet Museum

Drinking and dancing

Like any good gathering, Whitby Goth Weekend has a lot of nighttime merriment. Apart from the live music festival mentioned above, most of the pubs are hopping. I found the most dressed up guests and festive atmosphere at the Dolphin, right near the bridge on the East side. Great views of the parade of characters all afternoon.

For dancing, I could hug the random stranger on a train who told me to visit the Little Angel pub. I had been starting to wonder where the actual goths hung out and was pretty happy to walk in here and find it packed with cool people of all ages plus DJ Don spinning a rad set of my fave tunes, from the Clash to the Sisters of Mercy, for a small group of enthusiastic dancers. A poster said The Little Angel also hosted Drag Bingo and Karaoke during the weekend. 10/10 would recommend.

In general, every bar seemed welcoming of the weirdos so go see where the night takes you!

The Little Angel pub during Whitby Goth Weekend
Small pub; big night out.

How do you get to Whitby?

If you’re coming from outside of England, know that travel to/from Whitby can take a half day or more from the major airports.

I was in London and took the train from Kings Cross station. It took about 5 hours including wait time at two connections and cost me about $250 CDN return, but you can get that price lower if you book far in advance.

There is also a bus which is cheaper but takes up to 7 hours. Check out companies such as National Express and Megabus.

You can rent a car and drive from London to Whitby. The journey takes around 4-5 hours depending on traffic and route taken. Note that I overheard crew guys talking that this requires driving through the moors and doing so at night is kind of taking your life in your hands!

You may also want to fly into a different airport closer to Whitby, such as Manchester or Leeds, and travel from there.

Photo by Marc Angelo via Unsplash

Where can you stay?

Whitby is not a city – there are a limited number of hotel rooms and they get booked up well in advance by regulars.  If you’re travelling with a group, renting a whole house is a popular option. Locals also park their caravans near the abbey, an economical choice if you have one.

As a solo traveller, I chose a small B&B a short walk from the pavilion called The Captain’s Lodge, which came with a proper English breakfast cooked to order with vegetarian options, and was very happy with this.

If you are even considering a trip to Whitby Goth Weekend, book a refundable room as soon as possible while you’re thinking about it, before they are all snatched up! And in any case, if you’re driving enquire about parking – like hotel rooms, it’s at a premium.

Goth woman on the pier at Whitby England
One of my favourite outfits at Whitby Goth weekend, spotted on the pier

Good reasons to attend Whitby Goth Weekend

My first visit to Whitby was fascinating. What I knew before going was mostly what I’ve seen in photos in news media over the years—gorgeous people of all ages dressed up with romantic flair. I went hoping to surround myself with that beauty, but also to ask participants what attracts them in order to discover what keeps Goth alive there.

I found two distinct scenes – old school goths getting together to see bands and hang out, and cosplayers, including many couples in their 50s, 60s, and beyond but also baby bats, or even entire families, who appreciate the gothic aesthetic. Both of these contingents made Whitby, already a charming place, an even more charming place to visit for the weekend. It also felt very much like a safe and welcoming destination for a solo traveller—everyone I struck up conversation with was very friendly. I did hear multiple conversations about how it wasn’t as busy as usual, or as good as it used to be, but with nothing to compare it to first-hand, it still felt pretty special.

Should you go? If you’re a Dracula fan, definitely. If you’re looking mostly for a goth music festival, I’d say it depends on how much you’re into the bands playing at Tomorrow’s Ghost. I would recommend this one most for Goths of, ahem, a certain age, who might be over the club scene but still enjoy dressing up and being surrounded by thousands of people who feel the same.

For more on my experience at Whitby Goth Weekend 2023, check out my travel blog on my YouTube channel.

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