After living in London for almost four years now, I like to think that I know all the best places to go, and all the best things to do. Of course, I’m kidding myself—London is massive, a city made up of almost nine million people and likely about nine million things to do. However, I do have a knack for crafting days out that take in as much as humanly possible in a short space of time, and I’m aiming to detail some of those days out in this short series. We’re starting with a touristy one—a walk from Shoreditch in East London to the Southbank, taking in hipster cafes, hidden city parks, and the best of London’s many food markets.
Last year, Time Out asked 3,000 Londoners questions about their beloved city, and when the results came back, Shoreditch was overwhelmingly voted the most overrated part of London. I can see why; on a weekend, it can be as busy as Oxford Circus, with every visitor packed into the narrow, cobbled streets of Brick Lane. On the other hand, there are still some decent things to do in Shoreditch, and if you get there early enough, you can escape the crowds too. This walk starts in Shoreditch, the most convenient tube stations being Shoreditch High Street or Whitechapel. They’re both on the Overground line, but if you’re coming from zone 2 or further out, get off at Whitechapel and you’ll pay a cheaper fare (hooray!) Brick Lane is still only a five-minute walk from Whitechapel station, and this way you’ll also get to walk through the quieter, suburban back streets of Whitechapel, the skyscrapers of the city just peeking their heads out from behind the blocks of flats.
Brick Lane is a London institution, and, true to its reputation, there are a lot of cool things to do there. Take advantage of the various vintage markets and shops along the half kilometre stretch from the Truman Brewery up to Bethnal Green Road, where Brick Lane ends: Rokit is a firm favourite if you’re looking for something specific (they have everything arranged very neatly), but the vintage markets in the Truman Brewery building are fun for browsing. If you’re more of a foodie, the shops on the bottom half of Brick Lane, which has been a hub of the Bangladeshi community since the early 20th century. The Indian supermarkets here are great for sourcing foods that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else, and the smell of spices when you walk through the door is hard to beat.
Brick Lane made headlines in 2014 when the world’s first cereal cafe opened there, aptly named Cereal Killer Cafe—I had a friend who queued to get one Saturday just a few months after it opened, and had little to say about it apart from the fact that they just served cereal. Since then, they’ve expanded their offerings, adding a savoury menu intended to entice customers into the shop after 11am, but really the draw still is the cereal. If you’ve never been, I’d say maybe go once if you have the time—it’s not particularly cheap considering you can get multiple boxes of cereal in Sainsbury’s for less than the price of a bowl in store—but it’s the experience that’s interesting, with old-school cereal boxes lining the walls, and children’s beds to sit on.
If you don’t fancy cereal, or if you want something savoury to soak up all that sugar afterwards, head just up the road from Cereal Killer to the two bagel shops—Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop. To tell the truth, I do not know the difference between these two, but people have their favourite and will stick loyally to their decision. I’ve always bought from Beigel Shop, the garishly yellow-fronted outlet, but if you’re just picking up a filled bagel, either will do. Get there at the right time, and your bagel will be fresh out of the oven, or be extra and go for a rainbow bagel (only available from Beigel Shop, as far as I know). Personally, I have a sweet tooth, and just next door to Beigel Shop is the Shoreditch location of Crosstown Doughnuts, one of the best doughnut places in London. I always leave with something, and I’m on a mission to try every flavour they have (the cinnamon scroll and lemon-thyme versions hold the trophy currently).
Since Shoreditch is only a stone’s throw away from the city, it’s easier to walk there than it is to take a bus or a tube—and the route from Brick Lane to Bishopsgate takes you through Old Spitalfields Market, one of the best indoor markets in London. Time this right and if you’re not full from all the cereal, doughnuts, and bagels, you can pick up lunch here (my days in London always end up revolving around food) from the many food stalls—from entrance to the market on the Brick Lane side, you’re greeted by the warm smell of fresh pasta and cheese, and it’ll definitely make you hungry.
I tend to think of Old Spitalfields Market as the boundary between Shoreditch, which can feel quite suburban-y at times, and the City of London, a place that seems to be busy 24/7. Walk down Bishopsgate and you’ll sink further and further into the heart of the city, past Liverpool Street station—one of the busiest train stations in the country—and appearing at the bases of the many skyscrapers that make up the unique skyline of the city. If you have time, take a literal walk underneath Tower 42, which is cantilevered so that the floors seem to magically cling to its central tower (this will make sense when you see it.) Also just off Bishopsgate is the 13th-century St. Helen’s Church, a building more suited to appearing in a quaint English village than the very centre of bustling London. It’s especially interesting to see the church completely dwarfed in size by the Gherkin skyscraper just behind it: a curious contrast between old and new.
When you reach Monument, right at the bottom of Bishopsgate and Gracechurch Street, rather than going straight over London Bridge, take a detour to St. Dunstan-in-the-East. The hulled church is the product of bombing in the Second World War, and remained an empty church until 1967 when plans were put in place to turn the church into a garden. It’s a great pit-stop from all the walking, and a really unique place—trees and flowers crawl up the walls of the church, and the pews have been replaced by small water features.
Carrying on over London Bridge, you reach the start of one of my favourite walks in London: Borough Market to Southbank. This stretch is full of interesting sights, and is the best place to take a first-time visitor to London as it passes many of the most famous sights. Of course, Borough Market is a London institution—I know I said Old Spitalfields Market is one of the best in London, but Borough Market really takes the crown. Come on a day when the full market is open (Wednesday to Sunday) and spend an hour wandering all the stalls before you decide what to eat. Expect to queue for your food from the hot stalls if you come at a weekday lunchtime or on a weekend (when it is always busy), but it’s so worth it—I don’t think you can get this much variety of food in one place anywhere else in London. Ethiopian, Greek, British, Indian, Italian, Spanish—you can really choose anything.
From Borough Market head towards the river and a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hinde. From here, the walk takes you past through the old wharves on the edge of the Thames, passing the ruins of Winchester Palace, a 13th-century Bishop’s Palace, and the site of the Clink Prison. After the Clink, you reach a stretch of riverside walk that offers the best views of the City of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as a branch of Nando’s that must be the best-located branch in London. After walking past the various other restaurants that line Bankside, you reach the goals of the walk—Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, conveniently located right next to each other.
Tate Modern is possibly my favourite art gallery in London. I never come away from a visit feeling like it wasn’t worth it, and there’s always an exhibition that I haven’t seen before, or I find something interesting that I want to look up later. If there’s an installation on in the Turbine Hall, then your visit is doubly worth-it; the massive shelled remains of the Bankside Power Station are huge, and perfect for large-scale, strange, interactive pieces of art (I was once there in 2009 when the entire hall was occupied by a shipping container painted black. I didn’t fully understand the concept at the time, but it was certainly interesting, and I still remember it now.)
It always seemed strange to me that, though the power station was one of the biggest and tallest buildings on this side of the river (this was before the Shard made everything seem tiny), there wasn’t a very impressive viewing platform. That changed in 2016 when the Blavatnik building opened just behind the original main part of the Tate Modern, with a free viewing gallery on the very top floor. If you didn’t manage to get tickets for Sky Garden, and are avoiding the tourist trap of the London Eye, this is the next best place to get views over central London as well as the southeast. It’s also possible to peer into the apartments opposite, and marvel at their carefully-curated living rooms and kitchens.
From Tate, it’s just a short walk down the river past the Oxo Tower and Gabriel’s Wharf to Southbank, where you’ll find the National Theatre and Southbank Centre. I love this area: the little makeshift secondhand book market under Waterloo Bridge, the skate park under the arches, the Swiss-style winter markets that are on near Christmas. Usually, I avoid walking any further than the Hungerford Bridge; after this, it’s all tourists visiting the London Eye and the Sea Life Centre. Limiting yourself to Southbank, there’s still plenty to see, including the Southbank centre shop which has the best selection of gift-y things, and the Southbank food market, carefully hidden behind the building. From here, it’s a quick walk into the shopping haven of Covent Garden and Leicester Square if you’re so inclined, or head over Waterloo Bridge to Somerset House and Holborn.