We’ve uncovered some of East London’s best-kept secrets. Find the best shops, markets and museums with our East End guide.
What you associate with London’s East End will probably depend on your age. Younger people instantly tie the area to hipsters, beards and flannel shirts. A little while ago it was primarily the home of London’s immigrant population, which has now spread more evenly across the capital. Stretch further back and the East End was the city’s capital of trade and crime, where the factories squatted and the gangs ran free. Today, London’s East End is not any one of these things; it’s a mixture of them all. Join us on a guide to some of its most unusual features.
Behind Closed Doors
One of the area’s most unusual marvels is the museum at 19 Princelet Street. You’d never know that anything interested lurked behind that shabby exterior, but this happens to be one of London’s most intriguing buildings. The space is home to Europe’s first museum of immigration and diversity, and is only open on request, booked in advance. It was built in 1719 by the Ogier family; Huguenots who escaped persecution in France and entered the silk weaving trade. The building was passed down through different families and ended up in the hands of Polish Jewish immigrants who built a beautiful synagogue in its garden which you can still see today.
While we’re on the subject of Huguenot sillk-weavers, the astonishing ‘still-life drama’ of Dennis Severs’ House is an essential visit for any history buffs. The museum is an intimate portrait of the lives of a family of weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th century, and walking around it is like stepping through the surface of a painting. You are privy to the sights, sounds and smells of this family’s life, but they always seem to be just around the corner. The best experience at the Severs’ House is on Monday and Wednesday night, where you walk through the ten firelit rooms in silence before champagne and a Q&A with the curators.
The East End has a seemingly infinite variety of restaurants and cafes, and is even known as the curry capital of the UK. If you’re looking for a meal that’s a little further from the beaten track, you could try the Rochelle School Canteen. Ring the buzzer and you’ll find one of London’s best-kept restaurant secrets in a space that was once a school bike shed. The canteen serves simple dishes with fresh ingredients from an ever-changing menu. The locale adds a nostalgic feel, with no need to worry about cardboard school dinners! If you’re in Brick Lane and looking for a quick foodie fix, you can’t do better than Brick Lane Beigel Bake, a ridiculously cheap and delicious bakery that’s inexplicably open 24/7.
Some of the city’s best spots to shop are scattered across the East End’s many market areas. Grab a coffee and some fresh blooms at Columbia Road Flower Market or vintage clothes and knick-knacks from Brick Lane. Spitalfields offers a more upmarket selection, check it out at the weekend for a fantastic second-hand book market. The space itself was the ancient site of a Medieval hospital, ‘The Priory of St Mary of the Spittle’. For more fascinating London history, have a look at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in Britain, which since 1570 has made many famous bells, including the Liberty Bell, Big Ben and those at Westminster Abbey.
There are more chains and upmarket shops in the East End than ever, but the area retains some of its strangest commercial outlets. Check out film buff’s delight Umit, where the obsessive owner sells only Super 8 cartridges. He’ll even come round to your house with a projector to play a film of your choice for £150. Over by Broadway Market there’s Lock 7, a café-cum-bike-shop where you can eat cake overlooking the canal while your punctures are repaired. If you’re a hardcore Whovian, there’s The Who Shop which sells basically all Dr. Who merchandise ever, and regularly hosts signings from little-remembered actors from the show’s early days.
This is just a taster of the delights and hidden pleasures that London’s East End has to offer. If you’d like to learn more, why not try our East End Walking Tour which is full of the area’s history, quirky facts and even a chance for a pint at one of the best local pubs.