Archaeological evidence of settlement in the area dates back to the Bronze Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. The ancient settlement of "Brighthelmstone" was documented in the Domesday Book (1086). The town's importance grew in the Middle Ages as the Old Town developed, but it languished in the early modern period, affected by foreign attacks, storms, a suffering economy and a declining population. Brighton began to attract more visitors following improved road transport to London and becoming a boarding point for boats travelling to France. The town also developed in popularity as a health resort for sea bathing as a purported cure for illnesses.
In the Georgian era, Brighton developed as a fashionable seaside resort, encouraged by the patronage of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who spent much time in the town and constructed the Royal Pavilion in the Regency era. Brighton continued to grow as a major centre of tourism following the arrival of the railways in 1841, becoming a popular destination for day-trippers from London. Many of the major attractions were built in the Victorian era, including the Metropole Hotel (now Hilton) Grand Hotel, the West Pier, and the Brighton Palace Pier. The town continued to grow into the 20th century, expanding to incorporate more areas into the town's boundaries before joining the town of Hove to form the unitary authority of Brighton and Hove in 1997, which was granted city status in 2000. Today, Brighton and Hove district has a resident population of about 290,395 and the wider Brighton and Hove conurbation has a population of 474,485 (2011 census).[note 1]
Brighton's location has made it a popular destination for tourists, renowned for its diverse communities, quirky shopping areas, large cultural, music and arts scene and its large LGBT population, leading to its recognition as the "unofficial gay capital of the UK". Brighton attracted 7.5 million day visitors in 2015/16 and 4.9 million overnight visitors, and is the most popular seaside destination in the UK for overseas tourists. Brighton has also been called the UK's "hippest city", and "the happiest place to live in the UK".
Brighton's earliest name was Bristelmestune, recorded in the Domesday Book. Although more than 40 variations have been documented, Brighthelmstone (or Brighthelmston) was the standard rendering between the 14th and 18th centuries.
"Brighton" was originally an informal shortened form, first seen in 1660; it gradually supplanted the longer name and was in general use from the late 18th century, although Brighthelmstone remained the town's official name until 1810. The name is of Anglo-Saxon origin. Most scholars believe that it derives from Beorthelm + tūn—the homestead of Beorthelm, a common Old English name associated with villages elsewhere in England. The tūn element is common in Sussex, especially on the coast, although it occurs infrequently in combination with a personal name. An alternative etymology taken from the Old English words for "stony valley" is sometimes given but has less acceptance.Brighthelm gives its name to, among other things, a church and a pub in Brighton and some halls of residence at the University of Sussex. Writing in 1950, historian Antony Dale noted that unnamed antiquaries had suggested an Old English word "brist" or "briz", meaning "divided", could have contributed the first part of the historic name Brighthelmstone. The town was originally split in half by the Wellesbourne, a winterbourne which was culverted and buried in the 18th century.
Brighton has several nicknames. Poet Horace Smith called it "The Queen of Watering Places", which is still widely used, and "Old Ocean's Bauble". Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray referred to "Doctor Brighton", calling the town "one of the best of Physicians". "London-by-the-Sea" is well-known, reflecting Brighton's popularity with Londoners as a day-trip resort, a commuter dormitory and a desirable destination for those wanting to move out of the metropolis. "The Queen of Slaughtering Places", a pun on Smith's description, became popular when the Brighton trunk murders came to the public's attention in the 1930s. The mid 19th-century nickname "School Town" referred to the remarkable number of boarding, charity and church schools in the town at the time.