The best things to do in east London
What is it? One of London’s most visually appealing markets that overflows with bucketfuls of beautiful flowers every Sunday.
Why go? Because it’s a weekend institution in east London, 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. Turn up early to avoid the crowds or late to pick up a bunch of bargains.
What is it? The fascinating story of the Thames, its port and the people who settled there, all housed in a warehouse built over 200 years ago.
Why go? To trace the area’s history, from the arrival of the Romans to the rise of Canary Wharf. View historic photographs, printed material from the Port of London Authority Archive, Metropolitan Fire Brigade footage and captured Nazi footage and testimonies that explore the port’s role in secret wartime projects.
What is it? A 376ft tall tower, with two spectacular viewing platforms and a tunnel slide.
Why go? Anish Kapoor’s curiously curvaceous ArcelorMittal Orbit was one of the more unexpected sights at the Olympic Park in 2012. But even more thrilling than the architecture? A good hurtle down it. If you dare to take the drop (without closing your eyes) there are clear plastic windows at strategic points so you can see out.
What is it? Tasty to-go items that've been served up at this charmingly scruffy bakery since 1977.
Why go? After wonderfully cheap curry, Brick Lane’s second greatest contribution to London’s gastronomic index is the salt beef beigel (or bagel). It’s salty, it’s beefy, the mustard will singe a layer of skin from the inside of your throat (you have been warned) and it’s an absolute classic. That’s why they’re consumed by everyone from night-shifting taxi drivers to savvy tourists.
What is it? A restored, boutique cinema with an art deco bar.
Why go? Homerton’s cinema has had more iterations than Madonna: it’s been a bingo hall, a shoe factory and a snooker club. That was until a local couple stepped in and restored it to its 1913 cinematic glory. It has a gorgeous curved ceiling covered in ornate gold plasterwork and just 80 seats – all of which are bum-hugging velvet armchairs.
What is it? Proof that all caffs are not equal.
Why go? This greasy spoon has provided carbs and protein in eggy, meaty and pan-fried form to the good people of east London since 1900. 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.
What is it? Known as the ‘People’s Park’, Victoria Park is one of London’s favourite open spaces.
Why go? In the summer it’s often taken over by festivals while in the autumn park-goers are treated to epic fireworks displays. But that’s not all: parts of the park are Grade II-listed, there are two expansive lakes (one with a Chinese pagoda island), a boating pond and the Pavilion Café, where you can grab a bite to eat.
What is it? Housed in a set of eighteenth-century almshouses, the Geffrye Museum offers a vivid physical history of the English interior.
Why go? Displaying original furniture, paintings, textiles and decorative arts, the museum recreates a sequence of typical middle-class living rooms from 1600 to the present. It’s an oddly interesting way to take in domestic history. The Geffrye Museum is now closed until early 2020, but you can still drop by to visit their lovely gardens.
What is it? Part tourist attraction, part overly ostentatious public transport option, the Emirates Air Line is a cable car that runs from Greenwich Peninsula to Royal Docks.
Why go? 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?
What is it? A time capsule attraction in which visitors are immersed in a unique form of theatre.
Why go? Imagine you’ve stepped into a painting by one of the Old Masters. Walking into Dennis Severs’ House is rather like that. 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.
What is it? One of the 2012 Olympic Games’ iconic venues, designed by the late, great starchitect Zaha Hadid.
Why go? To swim in the pool of champions and by some kind of peculiar chlorine-osmosis, perhaps become one yourself. You can use the ten-lane 50m competition pool, which is 3m deep; the training pool, where you can frolic or swim; and the diving pool or a dry-land diving facility for both newcomers and Tom Daley-level twizzlers.
What is it? Home to one of the world’s finest collections of children’s toys, dolls’ houses, games and costumes.
Why go? An afternoon at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood affords all kinds of nostalgia. Remember your old Star Wars, He-Man or Sylvanian Families toys? They’re all here. Besides, who doesn’t love a good meander down memory lane?
What is it? A taste of the countryside in central London.
Why go? To meet the characterful creatures at this welcoming and brilliantly maintained green spot just off Brick Lane. Friendly residents up for a pat include Bayleaf the donkey and a lovable pair of hairy hogs. Plus, the farm shop sells homegrown produce like freshly laid eggs and the range of veg grown is remarkable for the location.
What is it? A green-tiled beacon in Hoxton, which dishes up gut-bustingly good, classic pies and still serves jellied eels.
Why go? Flaky, fatty and full of steak: pie isn’t fancy, and that’s why we love it. Pie is the warm, comforting hug we turn to in times of need – like the unbearably long winter months. Lavvly-jubbly.
What is it? A meat-free market curated by food dude Fat Gay Vegan.
Why go? To sample the offerings of independent traders like Temple of Seitan, Young Vegans and Lazy Boy Kitchen. Also featured is vegan cheese, soaps and candles, which are sure to cure the growing demand for cruelty-free shopping. But you don’t need us to tell you that veganism is on the rise; you’re probably stirring almond milk into your coffee right now.
What is it? A board game café with over 500 games, here to rock your geeky world.
Why go? Because board games are for life, not just for Christmas. Not only is Draughts great if you’re already skilled at Carcassonne, Pandemic and Seven Wonders but 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.
What is it? A curiosity shop filled with eerily surreal objects.
Why go? Viktor Wynd is both on the art circuit and determinedly off any beaten track. Peek through the windows and you’ll see a world in which velvet-cloaked Victorians, or perhaps The Mighty Boosh, might reside. Expect a wunderkammer of shells, skulls, taxidermy specimens and assorted oddities.
What is it? The oldest music hall in the world.
Why go? If ever there was a venue the term ‘shabby chic’ was invented for, Wilton’s Music Hall is it. Starting life as five humble houses in 1690, the venue has undergone multiple regenerations, including a stint as an alehouse. Now, after a little restoration, it's still standing as the oldest grand music hall in the world. The Grade II-listed building is now home to plays, opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance and magic shows once more.
What is it? Refitted shipping containers plonked artfully underneath the elevated Shoreditch High Street Overground station.
Why go? This contemporary shopping and eating mall is filled with labels such as Evisu, Wandering Minds and Scandi-inspired fashion stores Swedish Hasbeens and Nordic Poetry. If you’re hunting accessories, pop into Astrid & Miyu or for food and drink the eateries Voodoo Ray’s, Falafelicious and Poptata are sure to satisfy your appetite.
What is it? The largest urban wetland in Europe, measuring at an astonishing 211 hectares.
Why go? Consisting of ten reservoirs, it’s a prime wildlife-spotting site, particularly for swans, kestrels and geese. E17’s industrial history gives the area an unusual aesthetic, with old metalworks and even gunpowder mills dotting the fecund green spaces. It’s a place to fish, spy, walk and go on smug couple runs. No need to escape to the countryside: it’s all right here.
What is it? A 50-metre lido that underwent massive regeneration in 2017.
Why go? Open year-round, London Fields Lido is a glittering open-air pool where you can splash about beneath the sun. Loved by locals, it gets pretty busy during the summer holiday period and although picnicking is not allowed, you can find post-swim grub at one of the on-site cafés. But if you’re visiting in cooler months, don't worry – the lido is nicely heated, too.
What is it? An eclectic shopping street and market which runs between London Fields and the Regent’s Canal.
Why go? Broadway Market continues to thrive following its clever makeover nearly 15 years ago. A bustling hub for the Hackney hipsters and East End creatives who have settled down and started families, it welcomes around 135 stalls selling a fabulous array of fresh produce, vintage clothes, flowers, coffee, books and groceries. There’s also plenty of delectable street food too, including a modern cult classic: the Yorkshire Burrito.
What is it? A leafy sanctuary and garden on an old railway line.
Why go? Hidden behind Dalston’s hectic junction, the Curve Garden has fresh produce which is all maintained by locals. For a peaceful afternoon, sip juice or coffee from the café and take part in a workshop for either gardening or craft. Head there in October for a glut of glittering Halloween pumpkins.
What is it? A surprising and delightful dining experience on Shoreditch High Street.
Why go? For truly excellent food cooked by a zeitgeist chef in a zeitgeist restaurant. If you’re a picky eater, then visit this excellent Shoreditch eatery at lunch: you’ll be able to choose what you like, and in what order. Come in the evening, however, and you’ll get a no-choice four-course set menu of acutely seasonal dishes.
What is it? Built in 1535 for Henry VIII’s first secretary of state, Sir Ralph Sadleir, the red-brick Sutton House is the oldest house in east London.
Why go? Now beautifully restored with authentic original decor and real Tudor kitchens, Sutton House boasts Jacobean and Georgian interiors, as well as an Edwardian chapel, medieval foundations in the cellar and 1980s graffiti under the roof.
What is it? Formerly one of the ‘magnificent seven’ garden cemeteries of London and now a woodland memorial park and local nature reserve.
Why go? Managed by the Abney Park Trust, this large, eighteenth-century cemetery often has live music and other events hosted within its grounds. If you’ve got a penchant for wood-based activities, you can also take a wood carving course.
What is it? A showcase of the late neon artist Chris Bracey’s personal collection of work.
Why go? Based in a salvage yard in Walthamstow, God’s Own Junkyard contains everything from Bracey’s signage for Soho sex clubs from the ‘60s to his work for the movie industry, including pieces that were used in ‘Captain America’, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Byzantium’ and more. Sandwiched in between all of this, you’ll find his artwork, some of which have been exhibited in his gallery shows, and others that were specially commissioned by other artists and clients.
What is it? A popular fried chicken and sour cocktail joint.
Why go? Lights are set low – just a touch of blue neon – and music up high as diners and takeout customers file in. The chicks in question are marinated in buttermilk Southern-style and cooked in rapeseed oil. Since it's the very best finger food, be warned: it’s gonna get messy.
What is it? Shoreditch’s independent cultural centre which houses three cinema screens alongside exhibition and performance spaces and a café/bar.
Why go? Run as a charity, it’s a vibrant arts hub and any given week could see it hosting an assortment of music gigs, theatre shows, art exhibitions, themed festivals and all manner of workshops. Families are well catered for too, with weekly parent and baby cinema screenings and the fortnightly Wiggly Jigglers active play session for under-twos.
What is it? An edgy studio (there are venues in both Shoreditch and Clapton) that incorporates food and art into its fitness space.
Why go? The concrete-meets-steel space that could be mistaken for a swanky gallery but instead of studying some art, you can take classes in HIIT, pilates, yoga, barre and cardio sessions. Plus there’s a whole load of slightly more unusual choices too, such as sparring, callisthenics, BLOKbeat (with dancing) and BLOKparty (with strobe lighting). The three workout rooms are stripped-back, urban-style spaces while the café does food and smoothies with on-trend ingredients – think turmeric, matcha and activated walnuts.
What is it? An adult ‘playpen’ set over two floors.
Why go? Because kidulting’s a thing, ok? Downstairs, you’ll find an underground club with 250,000 glow-in-the-dark balls illuminated by LED lights, with an upstairs UV cocktail bar serving ‘space’-themed drinks. Winner.
What is it? A cocktail extravaganza from bartending brothers Max and Noel Venning.
Why go? Tucked underneath Blixen restaurant, Bar Three has a mysterious air. There’s a compact bar at the foot of the stairs as you enter, surrounded by elegant, modern and minimal decor, and plants that pop out to echo the greenery-decked restaurant up above. The best thing? Striking cocktails that you could drink like water (but probably, don’t).
What is it? Yoga classes that use light and colour therapy techniques to help you chill the hell out.
Why go? Chroma Yoga classes combine ancient healing practices with innovative modern technology. Founder Nina wanted to devise an exercise class that bridged the gap between the commercial and the experimental. Based in a Shoreditch studio, the classes adhere to the theory that light frequencies affect our bodies – Chroma Yoga is therefore believed to help with insomnia and anxiety. Worth a try, eh?
What is it? A cycling centre in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which opened to the public in 2014.
Why go? During the Olympics, London went cycle-crazy, probably because we were winning quite a bit. Now the famous Pringle-shaped venue is open to the public, and there’s plenty to encourage you to get back on your bike. The velo park offers a wide programme of events, from classes for first-time riders to major world championships.
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