Whether you’ve been to London before or have only ever dreamt of seeing it, if you’re planning a trip to this city of cities I highly recommend scheduling a day in the East End.
Why? It’s a fiercely characteristic place brimming with culture, history, enigma, and intellect. Simply put, this underrated nook of Britain’s capital is nothing short of incredible. And it’s got a story to tell.
Certainly, it’s a contrast of cultures; one part hosts one of the wealthiest and most powerful financial districts in the world, one boasts a haven of hipster haunts and made-for-social-media meccas, and yet another comprises of one of the most impoverished boroughs in the country. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition that nonetheless contributes to the fascination of the scene.
When you visit, be sure to sign up for the East End and Street Art walking tour from Undiscovered London. The tour will have you and a small group of others wandering through the East End’s cultural cobblestones, guided by a street artist who will explain the dichotomy of the neighborhoods, and point out artwork animating the area that might otherwise have escaped less-trained eyes.
These guides know everything about the East End’s history – the collision of cultures that characterize it, the politics behind the artwork, and the silent war occurring between the financial extremes.
You may catch a colorful octopus brightening a wall, or perhaps lay eyes on a streetlamp discreetly altered. You’ll learn the stories behind both the art and the artists, and gain an introductory glimpse into the history and culture teeming from the streets. You may amble past the only building in the world that has ever housed 4 different religions throughout its history (it’s now a mosque), and maybe catch a glimpse of a Banksy piece.
The tour is a fascinating way to be introduced to one of the most interesting parts of London – not to mention, a refreshing means of escaping the cliche tourist scene for a while. The tours are designed on a pay-what-you-like basis, and they fill quickly, so book in advance.
Following your tour, venture on to the havens of vintage shops and thrift stores tucked around every corner. In the Brick Lane Market, gape at 1980s Burberry trench coats, ancient Louis Vuitton bags, and succulent Louboutins, most with a sticker price of under £100.
Wander amongst street markets, taking your culinary pick of everything from Moroccan to Italian to Spanish to Ethiopian cuisine, with gourmet hot dogs and pina colada-filled pineapples in between. Take in the famed halls of Spitalfield’s Market, where the collections of records, handmade jewelry, clothing, and decadent treats will burn a hole in your pocket.
And we can’t forget about Brick Lane, with its famous fusion of some of the best Indian cuisine outside of India. You can smell the curry wafting from the street practically as soon as you hit the pavement, and each restaurant plays host to a realm of delicious opportunities.
While my personal mecca on Brick Lane is no longer there, you can’t go wrong with any of the curry houses holding court along the pedestrian retreat. Don’t be afraid to haggle as you meander down the road – Brick Lane is home to dozens of curry houses, each one better than the next, and you can take advantage of the competition to score some incredible deals.
Down at the end of Brick Lane is the old Truman Brewery, which – on top of housing retail and dining shops – plays host to numerous incredible events throughout the year. If you’re in town around April, one of these events is the London Coffee Festival, an incredible multi-day affair featuring demonstrations, shopping, and tastings galore from every espresso vendor in London. If you’re a fan of coffee, chocolate, tea, or any assortment of the three, it’s a can’t-miss.
But street art, vintage stores, curry houses, and espresso festivals are not all that makes the East End unique. There’s also the hipster pubs, eclectic coffee houses, and trendy nightlife spots of Shoreditch that will keep you entertained while simultaneously upping your Instagram game. Get your caffeine fix at the bicycle-workshop-turned-cafe-and-wine-bar, Look mum no hands!, and try to catch a show at The Old Blue Last – a two-story venue where legend has it the likes of Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys played before they got their big breaks.
The East End is also a part of town where Jack the Ripper liked to hang around, so if you’re in the area past sundown (and you’re also into creepy things), I highly recommend taking a Jack the Ripper tour. You’ll visit some of the places that the infamous serial killer got up to no good, and puzzle over the murder mysteries’ many twisted elements. It’s a thrilling way to end a day spent in one of London’s most interesting neighborhoods.
If tracking down an historical murderer has worked up an appetite, Brick Lane Beigel is one of the best bakeries in the entire city. And the best part? It’s open 24 hours, making it a frequent stop following a jaunt at one of the nearby clubs or music scenes.
All in all, the East End is amazing, and one of my favorite parts of a city I hold very dear to my heart. If you have a day or two to spare in London, I highly suggest you catch the Tube to its eastern reaches and explore this fascinating piece of the city’s big picture.