Scanning our selection of things to do in east London, it’s immediately clear that the East End – more than anywhere else in London – is an irresistible mix of old and new. On one hand, it’s home to a flower market established way back in 1869 and, on the other, it’s where you can slide down a work of art, traverse the Thames at a great height, be an animal at one of the top city farms in London and dive into the best pop-ups and club nights in town. Cast your Shoreditch assumptions aside, and go explore the best bits that east London has to offer.
RECOMMENDED: 101 things to do in London
The best things to do in east London
Anish Kapoor’s curiously curvaceous ArcelorMittal Orbit was one of the more unexpected sights at the Olympic Park in 2012, but if you thought it was its least sporting, think again! We consider a good hurtle down the slide that now winds round its tower all the way to the ground a pretty thrilling experience. Belgian artist Carsten Höller has created the slide, which will speed you from top to bottom in just 40 seconds. There are clear plastic windows at strategic points so you can see out – if you dare to take the drop without closing your eyes.
With 2016 being the 350th anniversary of the fire that started in a baker’s shop, burned for four days and destroyed much of the old City of London, it’s no surprise that the Museum of London has dedicated a (ticketed) exhibition to it. Walk into seventeenth-century London as it would’ve been before and during the fire, hear eyewitness accounts and see if you can identify real objects that melted in the blaze. Until April 2017 there’s also a special ‘Out of the Fire’ exhibition at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Sutton House in east London isn’t yer average National Trust property. Yes, it’s beautifully maintained and there are lots of original architectural features spanning centuries, but in the house’s empty years it was occupied by squatters and in 1982, hosted gigs as The Blue House. See the painted walls they left behind and time your visit for one of the community art happenings in the Breaker’s Yard next door.
Get a taste of the countryside in central London at this welcoming and brilliantly maintained green spot just off Brick Lane. Friendly residents up for a pat include Bayleaf the donkey and a loveable pair of hairy hogs. The farm shop sells homegrown produce like freshly laid eggs – the range of veg grown is remarkable for the location. There’s always something going on, from the homely café and laid-back weekend festivals to the kids’ Wild Club. A proper city gem with a lovely vibe.
Having played host to some heroic oarwork during the London 2012 Olympic Games, Lee Valley White Water Centre is now open to aquatic adventurers of all abilities. Activities on offer include canoeing, kayaking and – for those with an appetite for some real adrenaline – white water rafting. The latter costs as little as £30 per person (for a full raft of nine during special off-peak times), and includes some basic training and use of the centre’s equipment.
Remember your old Star Wars, He-Man or Sylvanian Families toys? They're all here, in fun displays that make for a fab afternoon of browsing and reminiscing. That's adults covered, and if you have kids you're in for an even fuller day of activities. Favourites include coin-operated vintage automata and old-school trains chuffing around tracks, dressing-up gear, the famous indoor sandpit, a nightclub-like baby sensory pod, plus craft activities galore in school holidays. As you’d expect from the V&A, the café’s pretty decent too.
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 London 2012 Olympics has left us with a collection of wonderful venues and attractions, and among the many great reasons to visit the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – playgrounds, waterways, meadows and a squiggly red sculpture – are the professional-level sporting facilities. Try track cycling in the velodrome where Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton won gold medals in 2012, or sign up for a beginners’ course at the Tom Daley Diving Academy, which is based in the London Aquatics Centre.
With great London nightclub Fabric passing into legend thanks to neighbourhood disapproval, clubbers in one of the most exciting nighttime cities in the world need somewhere to party, and XOYO is two floors of first-class DJing. A variety of curated DJing residencies keeps things fresh but consistent, with live music gigs during the week. Put on your glad rags and do your bit on the dancefloor.
Whether you’re a ping-pong pro or a wiff-waff wally there’s fun to be had at Bounce Shoreditch, the second of two vast bars dedicated to table tennis. Just like its Holborn predecessor this place buzzes with fun as balls land everywhere but the table. The music is loud, the pizza is good and when the lights go low you’d better hope you’re not wearing white underwear because those UV lights make more than the balls glow.
The craze for wild swimming continues to gather pace and you don't have to leave London to indulge a taste for adventure. For a bracing weekend dip in a spectacular setting, head to London’s Royal Docks, where on Sundays you can take advantage of sessions that cater for both casual swimmers and those training for competitive events. There are lifeguards to watch over you and all swimmers are issued with a safety tag in case they find themselves in metaphorical as well as literal deep water.
Board games are for life, not just for Christmas. If you’re already skilled at Carcassonne, Pandemic, Seven Wonders and other modern classics then Draughts, with its library of over 500 games, is going to rock your geeky world. If you’re a Monopoly fan looking to experiment then step this way – there’s a whole world of serious gaming to get stuck into.
You can’t but gawp at the staggeringly invaluable collection of diamonds, crowns, tiaras and sceptres that make up the Crown Jewels. Rock up early to catch a glimpse of these precious rocks that the Royal Family still uses in official occasions. The 900-year-old Tower is one of the country’s finest historical attractions and has enough to see to fill a whole day. Don’t miss the entertaining tours by real live Beefeaters.
After suspiciously cheap curry, Brick Lane’s second greatest contribution to London’s gastronomic index is the salt beef beigel, which have been served up at this charmingly scruffy bakery since 1977. It allegedly churns out 7,000 of the boiled bready beauties a day (that’s why it never closes), which are consumed by everyone from night-shifting taxi drivers and party people to savvy tourists and local pensioners. At just £3.70 a pop, it’d be rude not to.
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.
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.
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.
It’s far from the most vertiginous landmark in London these days, but the Monument still offers a darn fine view of the City. Tower Bridge, City Hall and the various skyscrapers of the financial district can all be seen from the top of the Christopher Wren-designed column, which was built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London. There’s a certificate for everyone who completes the 60-metre climb to the top, while those unable to make the ascent can check out a live stream of the view via a screen at the entrance.
Part tourist attraction, part overly ostentatious public transport, it’s fair to say the Emirates Air Line (as the cable car that runs from Greenwich Peninsula to Royal Docks is officially known) has proven itself a bit of a white elephant. Oddly enough, not many Londoners are factoring it into their daily commute. Still, the flipside to its lack of popularity is that, unlike pretty much every other attraction offering a grand view of the city, you shouldn’t have to queue to have a go. Nor will you have to part with much cash – using an Oyster card, a 20-minute round trip costs just £7. Bargain. Why not take your bike onboard and follow The Line art trail from south of the river to Olympic Park?
How many things have you done?
Whether you’ve lived here all your life or you’ve just arrived at Heathrow, we're all spoilt for brilliant things to do in London. From picture-postcard attractions to hotspots in odd spots, by day and night, from art to wildlife, there are, in fact, many more than 101 things to do in London.