I’ve loved London since I first visited the city in my late teens and particularly by discovering the creativity and edginess of its East side. As most tourists I was astonished by the Spitalfields market and the joined density of Curry restaurants and second hand clothing shops in Brick Lane – in a time when we had neither in my own hometown.
Throughout the years I’ve learned there’s a lot more to East London than that, and by currently residing here I’ve decided to create a gems guide to celebrate my love for this part of the city.
I’ve tried to make the guide visitor-friendly for the newbies, but still hope it portrays the way locals see East London. I highly recommend that you follow the guide by foot* or by bike as those are the best ways to get around from A to H on the route I’ve set up below.
*Walking all the way from A to H would be too far, so if you don’t have a bike, make sure to take the overground from F (Dalston Junction) to Shoreditch (G).
The destinations are subjects of change depending on your time schedule and location, but these eight spots and their surroundings connect the essential attractions of East London.
This part of the city is historically known as an industrial labour-class area, but has gone through an extreme makeover the last few years. However, it still offers plenty of rather worn out looking streets and buildings, but more than anything it represents the most vibrant part of one of the world’s biggest cities.
Everywhere you go you’ll find authentic British brown breakfast places next to “exotic” food stalls and stylish healthy farmer cafes or vintage shops, quirky galleries and old & new street art. It’s not a secret I’m a fan of all of that, thus constantly find myself going back to these gems of East London.
In this post I’ll share them with you!
Please note: I’ve deliberately chosen a somewhat backward route chronology, leaving Shoreditch and Brick Lane till the end, because those areas are more frequently visited by tourists. They’ve had a popular reputation for years and due to that as well as their centrality I assume that most people that have been to London know them already. Anyway, you can obviously choose to do the route (or parts of it) the other way round.
So. Let’s say you start this tour in the morning. You’ll need a breakfast or early lunch.
A) On Bethnal Green road and by the underground station there are many typical British breakfast places where you can get veggie and non-veggie options for between 3 and 10 pounds. Including an Earl Grey tea, of course. Find a decent looking one, suck in the local atmosphere, and get warm and full before you walk towards Vyner street.
The way from A to B takes you by some vintage stores and other random quirky shops that can be worth checking out. I’d also recommend a stop by Town Hall hotel on the way (google its location). It’s an old & beautiful building, renovated into a chic design hotel. If you would prefer your breakfast of lunch here, beware their kitchen has a Michelin star (book in advance).
Whatever you choose to do, just make sure you’re not hungry when on Vyner street, cause here you’ll easily spend some time gawking at fascinating art.
B) Vyner Street has for many years played a big part in the emerging art scene. This vibrant street has showcased up and coming artists in the many warehouse galleries around for over 40 years. Depending on what day of the week it is (and on the managers’ mood), most galleries are open to visitors. Be aware that the galleries are quite hidden, or even off track (in backyards) and commonly identified by small letters next to a door and not necessarily by crowds coming out of them. Ring on door bells when galleries seem closed. Also search online for what’s going on when you’re around.
When you’re perfectly cultivated, head towards Broadway market (C).
C) As most other markets Broadway market is at its best on weekends. However, this is a street that hosts many random and interesting shops, cafes and bars, and personally I love spending any day of the week here. There are plenty of bars and fun small cafes and independent shops (+vintage!!!) to choose between according to your mood. The market itself has become very hipstery (or perhaps it always was), so this is a good spot for fashion addicts (or people that like observing them). Check what’s on in terms of the market, sales and shows whenever you’re around.
Depending on the season and temperature of the day, walk over to the relaxed park London Fields (D).
(D) If you’re lucky it’s sunny and warm the day you’re visiting, which will mean the park is full of happy people flashing their pale bodies. Or maybe you’re lucky and there is a secret cinema event on… Grab some beers from a super store nearby and celebrate the spring or summer here.
If the weather allows it when you’re on your way to Hackney Central (E), you should do a small detour alongside the canal next to the Victoria park (check the map). Here you’ll get a glimpse of what – to me – living the dream in a hectic city like London is like. The idyllic canal side houses with their small gardens tuck away from traffic and rush hours.
…Not to mention the colorful, authentic canal boats (most of which happen to be houseboats) attractive to people that see a good lifestyle by combining their home with pleasure, the closeness to nature and the escape from day-to-day pressures of life ashore (yes, please).
When I walk along some of the London canals I like having a chat with the people living in/working on the boats. It always strikes me they don’t remind you of typical Londoners, but have an attitude as if they just came from a meditation retreat in India.
E) Regardless of the canal walk, when you’re around Hackney Central, you should walk through various residential streets checking out the contrasting architecture according to era of construction and social classes. Here are plenty of barber shops, Asian food stores, second hand shops (look out for the charity shops, they’re often full of random vintage gems!), brown pubs and hipster coffee shops. Get a bite at an amazing North African cafe called Bohemia (on Bohemia Place, just of the major Amhurst road), and look out for random events outside the local church next door where street preachers and youth choirs often hang.
If you’ve been following this guide by foot, your feet are probably sore by now and you could be better of taking the public transport between Hackney and Dalston (F) (see the map).
F) Dalston was a hub for 1970s and 1980s rock and punk venues, and still represents a music hub for the young, though the genres have expanded. The area is currently undergoing a rapid habitation growth partly because of the redevelopment of the railway station at Dalston Junction and large parts of east London in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics. Hence contemporary Dalston is an ever changing vibrant neighbourhood with an ethnically varied population.
Architecturally it’s similar to Hackney with a mixture of 18th, 19th century and 20th century council states, including the iconic Art Deco cinema:
Also, be ready for some street art out of another world, with the famous Peace mural on Lane street being a key point.
There’s also plenty of Banksy around (just like in Hackney) and if you’re interested in such, I recommend you stroll the streets searching for them on all kinds of buildings, not forgetting the back yards.
Part from architecture and art what you do in Dalston is to gawk at the hipsters, get a bit of shopping, attend a food or record sales market, followed by dinner at one of the many restaurants in the area. And early night time (which is likely your time now if you’ve followed this guide) some of the coolest East side kids in London come out to play, giving the area the vibe it’s now famous for. If you get sucked in to Dalston and end the day there, I don’t blame you. It happens to the best! In Dalston by night you can take in some of the funkiest jazz in the city, see new plays, discover an unsigned band and dance the night away.
Dalston superstore for instance, blows away most people with its cocktail happy hours, disco nights, people in fancy dresses (on any day of the week), random but great DJ sets, gay friendly atmosphere and dark basement.
If you’re not in a partymood yet and still got time for a visit to Shoreditch and Brick Lane (or perhaps went straight there) get ready for another great (and crowded) part of East London.
G) Shoreditch is known as the hipster area that expanded from neighbouring Brick Lane back in the days, where tons of (South East) Asian restaurants, yoga centers, funky shops and art galleries have been popping up recently. Depending on your schedule and needs, I highly recommend you go for a dinner here or in Brick Lane.
If you’ve planned the route the other way around, there are fortunately still many awesome (and independent) jointed coffee/book/clothing/ interior shops around. The reason I’m not focusing too much on this area, however is due to its obvious popularity. Also, you’ll find plenty of blogs/magazines with their say on this neighbourhood by googling.
H) Then, finally, ladies and gentlemen. Time has come for Brick Lane!
One of the most interesting areas of London what immigration history concerns, with its nick name Banglatown stemming from being considered the heart of London’s Bangladeshi-Sylheti community for decades. Over the 90s and 2000s Brick Lane developed into a Mecca for young and arty people where night clubs, street art and increasingly popular second hand shops kept popping up in between all the Curries (Sri Lankan/ Indian/ Bangladeshi/ Pakistani/ restaurants) and Asian fashion shops.
Recently Brick Lane is considered by many locals as overly touristy, which mirrors the increasing amount of fancy bars and more commercialised – and occasionally overpriced– shops. Fortunately the authentic and delicious Curries keep it up competing with (and benefiting from) a popular three day long food (and clothing) weekend market and new coming funky restaurants and bars along the 2,5 km long lane (and its side streets).
Indeed. I love Brick Lane, and I love a good Curry meal.
Some of my Londoner friends find it funny I keep insisting to have my curries here where it’s common that doormen throw you in to the restaurants, offering a meal for less than 10 pounds. To me that’s Brick Lane though, and besides; I love the creative, chill and young vibe in this area. Not to mention the random club nights at Cafe 1001, or drinking on the streets during summer or any fortunate warm evening.
That’s all for now folks.
Enjoy East London!