East London’s attractions are an irresistible mix of old and new. You’ve been able to eat all-night bagels since 1977 and London’s favourite flower market was established in 1869. Those with less traditional tastes can traverse the Thames at a great height or come face to face with a Harris hawk.
Things to do in east London
Imagine you’ve stepped into a painting by one of the Old Masters. Walking into Dennis Severs’ House is rather like that. Restored in the style of east London’s Huguenot period, it’s open for tours throughout the year. In silence, visitors pass through its ‘still life drama’, visiting each room to see evidence of an eighteenth century silk weaver’s family life without ever meeting a soul: a dinner lies half-eaten, a fire still crackles, a chamber pot needs emptying. A unique experience.
The Geffrye is a museum dedicated to the living room. Focusing on this heart of the British home and furnishing a series of lounges in period style from 1600 onward, it tells a fascinating story of fashion, taste and social change. The mid-century room circa 1955-1965 shows the beginnings of contemporary interior design and the Scandinavian influence. Look closely and you’ll probably see a chair or shelves your parents still own.
Also known as the Toy Museum, this much-loved institution balances the need to protect priceless antique dolls and teddies behind glass with keeping its young visitors amused. While the adults get nostalgic over dolls house displays, children can raid the dressing-up box, play in the sandpit, do puppet shows and join craft sessions. There is also a shimmering, multi-textured ‘sensory pod’ for babies to prod and gaze at.
As the last athletes from the 2012 Olympic Games packed their kit bags and left, the trucks moved in to transform the Stratford site into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Some of the 2012 venues still host events but there is public access to the Velopark and the Aquatics Centre, plus loads of space for cycle rides, waterside picnics and games in the Tumbling Bay adventure playground.
With Canary Wharf’s shiny towers of high finance in the near distance, the alpacas, cows, shire horses and sheep at Newham City Farm bask in their vast green space in the park at the centre of the Isle of Dogs. Free to visit and open Tuesday to Sunday all year round, it’s a wonderful chance for us townies to remind ourselves what goats, chickens and ferrets look (and smell) like.
A great way to see upcoming talents, Comic Mondays is held in the bar at Theatre Royal Stratford East and is London’s longest running free comedy night. Sessions start at 8pm, with a full bill of stand-ups on a mission to make you smile. And if one of the comics doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you’ll still have cash in your pocket to buy a drink.
A weekend institution in east London, the Sunday flower market that lines Columbia Road is the hippest and one of the best places to buy flowers, bedding plants and even a banana tree if you’ve got the patio space at home. It goes on until 3pm in all weathers, but for the best buys you need to get there for 8am.
One of the trendiest places for bargain gear is a school playground in Stoke Newington. Every Saturday and Sunday sellers just roll up (no need to book a pitch) and spread out their wares. Keen shoppers look for vintage fashions, vinyl and anything stylishly retro. Gates open at 8am Saturdays and 7am Sundays.
Since 1900 this workers’ caff has provided carbs and protein in eggy, meaty and pan-fried form to the good people of east London. Traces of bygone eras, like art deco interior details and Formica tables have earned it Grade II-listed status but what diners love best is that the fry-ups, grills and Italian dishes are still served by the same family.
Banish thoughts of trouser clips and oily repair kits – now that pedal power is fashionable the savvy cyclist gets his bike checked while enjoying a barista-prepped coffee at a cycle café. Look Mum No Hands! is the cream of the crop. The Old Street branch has a large workshop, plus a menu of salads and hot dishes that changes seasonally, plus locally baked cakes and craft beers.
Boisdale of Canary Wharf
Venue says: £30 for a three course set menu with lobster, steak and strawberries. Available: 1st floor for lunch and dinner, 2nd floor for lunch.
This highly enjoyable member of the Boisdale triumvirate is almost laughably incongruous. On the second floor is an appropriately smart bar-diner that offers a brasserie menu and mollifying puffs in the Cigar Library or on the terrace, but the third-floor main restaurant has a cod-Scottish gentlemen’s-club theme entirely at odds with the office-casual modernist architecture around it. No cliché is knowingly ducked – mounted stag’s head and angling trophy, tartan carpet, table-top thistles – yet they’re delivered with a cheerful wink (a slightly lascivious wink when it comes to the waitresses’ tartan miniskirts). From the £19.75 ‘Jacobite’ menu, we were content with potted mackerel, despite it arriving cold rather than warm, and relished haggis with a quenelle each of orange neep and white mash: no fussy presentation, just gut-stuffing good flavours. A la carte prices trespass on expense-account territory, but crab tian (with another quenelle: avocado, this time) and king prawn caesar salad were up to the mark, big in size and taste. After 9pm there’s a stiff cover charge to watch jazz or blues from a stage at the far end of a pewter bar counter (where there’s a daunting number of fine whiskies).