Michel Foucault, the great theorist of nineteenth-century power, would have had a field day with the Cally. To Victorian Londoners, there was something about this mile-or-so-long stretch between King’s Cross and Islington that screamed, ‘Erect disciplinary facilities here!’ Formerly Chalk Road, in 1861 the street was renamed Caledonian Road after the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which had moved to nearby Copenhagen Fields. The Great Northern Hospital was here until 1884, Pentonville Prison was built just south of the asylum in 1842 and the recently closed HMP Holloway is a few minutes away from the top end.
It’s a forbidding legacy, but today’s Cally Road, throbbing with the down-to-earth character and multiculturalism you’d expect from a working-class slice of London, is practically unique in leafy Islington. With cheap global cuisine, happy-hour bars and pubs, cool galleries and even a prog-politics bookshop catering to Cally Road’s sizeable student population, the area is an antidote to the artisan delis of Clerkenwell and moneyed crowds in Angel. The skint students, as well as Bangladeshi, Ethiopian and other immigrant communities make the Cally one of the most authentically ‘London’ parts of the borough. Even though the Victorian hospital and asylum have disappeared, Cally Road will always be an institution.
A ‘pimp steak’ dog from New York-inspired Big Apple Hot Dogs. There are loads of free toppings, too, so you can have your sausage and eat it.
Charcoal-grilled lamb kebab and fresh injera flatbread from Ethiopian joint Addis.
Chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce from no-frills Russian/Georgian/Uzbek joint Azeri Cuisine.
Progressive literature from the independent, not-for-profit Housmans Bookshop. Since opening in 1945 they’ve amassed the largest selection of radical pamphlets, newsletters and zines in the country.
A tattoo to commemorate the year of your visit to Cally Road (or a loved one, if you must), from the hip and highly rated ink shop Jolie Rouge.
A lazy flat white in funky café Drink, Shop & Do, which also moonlights as a hip bar running quirky craft and disco events.
A pint of real ale at revamped trad pub The Scottish Stores, formerly known to King’s Cross regulars as The Flying Scotsman strip club.
Beers and cocktails from Simmons, a mini-chain bar popular with students thanks to its shabby-chic decor, chill DJ sets and five happy hours every day.
A canalside glass of plonk at stylish bar-restaurant Canal 125, whose terrace overlooks the handsome Regent’s Canal.
Take a dip or get warm in the sauna at the much-loved Cally Pool.
Geek out while supping your pint at gamers’ bar Meltdown.
Dance to world music at The Cally Festival, an annual street bash with art exhibitions, performances and parades.
Stroke your chin (or scratch your head) in front of contemporary art at Large Glass. There’s a full calendar of highbrow events too, including poetry and wine-pairing sessions for anyone who prefers their Marlowe with merlot.
And if you only do one thing…
Visit the London Canal Museum, in a nineteenth-century warehouse off the Cally, before taking your new knowledge of the waterways for a stroll along the Regent’s Canal towards Camden.