London baby! This stunner of a city has so much to offer that a single visit just won’t suffice. If you have already seen the city’s main tourist highlights (I’m talking Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum and the likes) and are keen to explore a different part of town, then stay tuned because in this guide I’ll take you on a journey through one of London’s coolest and most up and coming areas: the city’s East End. This is the kind of London you won’t find in the tourist brochures. East London is scruffy, edgy and at times even run-down. But it’s also wonderfully creative, colourful and incredibly exciting.
The East London borough of Hackney has been my home for the past five years and I’ve seen the area change non-stop ever I first set foot here. And that’s what makes East London so invigorating. Every time you venture out you discover something new, whether it’s a piece of street art, a nice coffee shop or a great bar or restaurant. Here are 10 things I believe you should do in this inspiring part of London:
- Do a street art tour of Shoreditch
- Sip flat whites in cool coffee shops
- Find unique vintage and designer wear at Old Spitalfields Market
- Get a flavour of the East at Brick Lane
- Discover the small boutiques and bars in Rivington Street and Redchurch Street
- Spend a Saturday morning at lively Broadway Market
- Stroll along Regent’s Canal
- Get two for a fiver at Columbia Road Flower Market
- Indulge in an international food feast
- Drink IPAs with the hipsters in Hackney Wick
Do a street art tour of Shoreditch
If you’ve been to London, you might have heard of Shoreditch. This East End area once used to be a run-down working class district (like most of East London) but has experienced a true metamorphosis over the past decade or so. Young creatives, who moved here because of the cheaper rents, made this part of town trendy and although housing prices have since soared and the area is becoming increasingly mainstream these days (Amazon is opening their HQ here), Shoreditch certainly is one of the liveliest corners in all of London.
The countless cool bars and restaurants may be enticing, but I believe a much more appropriate way of getting to know this area is through a street art tour. Shoreditch is full of the most amazing hidden and not-so-hidden pieces of street art, including works from famous street artists such as Banksy. A street art tour also allows you to discover more off-the-beaten path corners of Shoreditch and get a glimpse of real life beyond the facades of the high street.
Sip flat whites in cool coffee shops
Where the young creatives go, the independent coffee shops follow. And so East London is filled with some pretty great places to still your caffeine craving. Fancy a flat white or a soy latte? You don’t have to look far in this part of town. Some of my favourite spots for a coffee (with a slice of vegan, gluten-free cake, of course) include Ozone Coffee Roasters and Allpress (both in Shoreditch).
A bit more off the beaten track is Fabrique, a Swedish bakery in Hoxton that not only does great coffee but also makes the best cinnamon rolls in London (or so I think). If you’re around Broadway Market then definitely go and check out E5 Bakehouse, a bakery-cum-coffee shop, or Footnote, a lovely small corner café and lunch room. For more East London coffee inspiration, check out this caffeine-themed blog post.
Find unique vintage and designer wear at Old Spitalfields Market
Spitalfields Market, on the edge of the City (London’s financial district), used to be the East End’s wholesale food market until the 1990s when it moved to the outskirts of the city. Since then, the halls have been renovated and converted into a giant covered crafts and design market. Now known as Old Spitalfields Market, it’s become one of the most popular markets in London. Seven days a week, hundreds of vendors sell their crafts here, be it handmade clothes, bags or cupcakes. So, if you’re looking for a unique piece of designer or vintage wear, this is the place to be!
Get a flavour of the East on Brick Lane
Just around the corner, but worlds apart from Old Spitalfields Market, you’ll find Brick Lane, one of East London’s most iconic streets. This is the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community (you will notice the street names are written in both English and Bengali here). Brick Lane has a plethora of Bengali and Indian restaurants, so if you’re looking for some East Asian flavours you’re in the right place here. And although more and more innovative new cafes and shops have started to pop up over the past couple of years, the area hasn’t lost its authenticity. On the contrary, it’s become an even more eclectic mix of people and places.
Brick Lane is also home to no fewer than four über cool indoor markets, which are open most weekends. Brick Lane Food Hall is an indoor street food market where vendors prepare and sell the most mouth-watering dishes from all over the globe. Just next to it you’ll find Backyard Market, where on Saturdays and Sundays East London’s creative community comes together to showcase their arts and crafts, such as handmade jewellery and clothing. On the other side of the road, in the buildings of the Old Truman Brewery, is Brick Lane’s Sunday UpMarket, a weekly market that houses more than 140 creative traders selling everything from fashion, accessories, interior design and food. The same building is also the home of Vintage (Up)Market, a huge indoor vintage clothing market that’s open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
So, for a real taste of the liveliness and vibrancy of East London, head to Brick Lane during the weekend.
Discover the small boutiques and bars of Rivington Street and Redchurch Street
Can’t get enough of (window) shopping? Then continue your shopping spree in Shoreditch, which has become the scene of more and more small boutiques and shops in the last couple of years. Personally, I love Rivington Street and Redchurch Street for an afternoon of retail relaxation. Both still have that nitty-gritty feel of Shoreditch, but without the traffic and pollution of Shoreditch High Street or the mainstream shops and restaurant chains you’ll nowadays see in some other parts of the neighbourhood. You’ll find a couple of brilliant independent book stores and fashion boutiques here. Even if you’re not in the mood for shopping these streets are worth checking out because they also have some great coffee shops, intimate bars and pubs and colourful street art.
And to top it all off, running parallel to Redchurch Street is Boxpark, a series of sea containers that have been turned into small designer wear stores that rotate on a regular basis. This place is dangerous for your wallet…!
Spend a Saturday at lively Broadway Market
This is one of my absolute favourite parts of East London, not just because I live around the corner but also because it’s simply the most wonderful little street and has so much to offer. Rundown and dodgy, Broadway Market was almost bulldozed in the 1990s, but locals managed to prevent its destruction and reintroduced the weekly Saturday market to reinvigorate the area. Now, although increasingly gentrified (which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing), it’s one of the liveliest places in East London. Come here on a Saturday and you’ll find hundreds of local hipsters and not-so-hipsters strolling along the market stalls that sell fresh produce, handmade goods and street food. As it’s a bit more off the beaten track, tourists have yet to discover this part of town, as a result of which it feels refreshingly authentic compared to some other London markets.
Around the corner, Broadway Market continues into Broadway Vegan Market, a Saturday vegan street food market that takes place on the play grounds of the local primary school, and Netil Market, where local traders sell their bakes, crafts and drinks.
And when you’ve made it here anyways, you might as well just check out Mare Street Market, which is not really a market but an ultra cool deli and liquor store with a dining room and garden. Or, if the sun is out (which, believe me, it does every now and then in London) make sure to check out the roof terrace of Netil360, from where you’ll have incredible panoramas all over East London.
Oh and a sneaky little tip for those of you who have a weak spot for buttery pastry (like me, ahum). Go and get a kouign-amman (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) at Yeast Bakery, located underneath the railway arches just behind Netil Market and only open on Saturdays. These little croissant-like pastries from Normandy are just divine…!
Stroll along Regent’s Canal
East London can be quite overwhelming so I won’t blame you if at some point you feel like escaping the hustle and bustle for a moment. One of the nicest places for a quiet stroll and a breath of fresh(ish) air is Regent’s Canal. This 19th century canal provides a welcome sense of calm and serenity in the busy city that’s London. The eastern stretch of Regent’s Canal runs from the river Thames near Limehouse via leafy Victoria Park and lively Broadway Market to Kingsland Road, after which it continues all the way to Paddington. A stroll along the quaint towpath allows you to see East London from a different perspective. It’s also a popular space for cycling, running or rollerblading and on a sunny day you can even see people canoeing on the canal between the narrowboats.
Along the towpath there are also a couple cute little cafes and bars. Most of them are located on Kingsland Towpath, between Kingsland Road and Whitmore Road. They include the quirky and tiny Towpath Café and Proud East – perfect spots to sit down and rewind.
Get two for a fiver at Columbia Road Flower Market
You may have noticed that Londoners love a good market. And in the list of great markets Columbia Road Flower Market has to be represented. With its cute little houses, colourful doors and independent shops Columbia Road is brilliant Instagram material, even when there’s no market. However, the ambiance in this street is at its best on Sundays, when dozens of flower vendors set up shop here.
Be prepared for an abundance of colourful flowers and plants, loud salesmen and women and lots and lots of people. Because despite the fact that it’s not on the main tourist path, more and more people are finding their way to this place. It all adds to the lively and buoyant atmosphere though. For great coffee and cake, check out Lilly Vanilly Bakery (only open on Sundays), which is situated in a small courtyard just off Columbia Road.
Indulge in an international food fest
The reason why I love London is because it’s THE most cosmopolitan city in Europe, and perhaps the entire world. East London is no different. People from all corners of the globe have made this place their home over the decades. This is reflected in the local cuisine. English, European, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Asian – you can find it all and more in the East End’s restaurant scene.
Some of my favourite restaurants in Shoreditch include Andina, which does the most delicious Peruvian tapas dishes (think ceviche) and Dishoom, a Bombay-style brasserie serving Iranian-Indian food. Both have sister restaurants elsewhere in London, but these East End locations are simply much cooler (doh). For great Vietnamese pho or noodles head to Kingsland Road, where you’ll find a legion of Vietnamese restaurants, the coolest of which is Viet Grill. Pizza East and Amici Miei are great for an Italian carb overload and nearby Lyle’s is the place to be to try elegant, modern British dishes with a Scandinavian twist. Other nice (Spanish, Korean, American) restaurants can be found around Old Street and Curtain Road. For many place in Shoreditch the same rule applies: book in advance or be prepared to queue…
The railway arches of Haggerston (near Regent’s Canal) are home to a number of great places for lunch and dinner. Berber and Q does some of the best grilled meats and Middle Eastern food in town and next door Tonkotsu East is the place to try Japanese ramen and noodles.
On and near Broadway Market there are also a plenty of lovely restaurants. Hill & Szrok is a butcher that turns into a small diner in the evenings serving great steaks and other meat-based dishes. Not far away is Little Georgia, a cozy Georgian restaurant. It’s not licenced to serve alcohol but don’t worry because you can bring your own bottle.
Finally, for a fancy hipster brunch, lunch or dinner, check out Bistrotheque or Pidgin. The former is a clothing factory converted into a spacious minimalist-style restaurant with a modern European menu, the latter is a small eatery offering a refined set menu that changes on a weekly basis. Both are brilliant places for a special occasion.
The list of great dining places in East London can go on and on. If it doesn’t exist here, it doesn’t exist anywhere!
Drink IPAs with the hipsters in Hackney Wick
Shoreditch’s artists and designers may have been priced out of the neighbourhood, it doesn’t mean they have deserted the East End. They simply moved further East. So, for a real taste of alternative, creative London you should make your way to Hackney Wick. Many of the former factories and warehouses in this canal-side district have been converted into ateliers, studios AND amazing bars. The area still has that gritty, industrial look and feel but young artists have brought in new life – there’s an incredible sense of creativity and urban renewal here but without the crowds of Shoreditch. This is a piece of East Berlin in East London.
Micro-breweries such as Crate and Howling Hops have given old industrial buildings a new leash of life and have become popular hangouts among the young and cool. One of my favourite new spots in the area is Giant Steps, a pop-up bar at a canal-side warehouse complex. In the spring and summer months they play live music on their waterside terrace and it’s just a wonderful place to have a drink, a chat and relax.
So, get a pint of locally brewed IPA, grab a seat overlooking the canal and join the locals for a true East End experience. Here’s to the East!
East London’s best… (IMHO):
- Coffee: check out this blog post for a whole list of brilliant coffee places in the East End
- Street food: the street food markets at Brick Lane offer an incredible array of dishes from all over the world
- Contemporary British cuisine: Lyle’s (Shoreditch) and Pidgin (London Fields)
- Cocktails: Lounge Bohemia, innovative cocktails, booking required (Shoreditch); and Off Broadway (Broadway Market/London Fields)
- Sunny Sunday hangout: London Fields park or one of the warehouse bars in Hackney Wick