If you’ve got a big appetite and a day to spare, you can do worse than heading to East London to eat your way around Spitalfields and Shoreditch.
An area that Londoner’s know and love, which is gradually becoming frequented by tourists to London too, it should be a firm fixture on anyone’s London travel itinerary.
Spitalfields history – why come?
The one thing everyone knows about this area is that it’s squarely in Jack the Ripper territory. A number of tours criss-cross the area throughout the year, which are probably a good way to see this part of town (although I’ve never been on one)- although I much prefer the approach of eating your way around.
But the history of the area is far more interesting and diverse than the elusive Jack. The area was first made home by French Huguenot silk weaves in the 17th century, hoping to escape the restrictions of the City Guilds by settling outside the City. Terraced houses were built in the late 17th and 18th centuries to house the silk weavers, with some larger houses built around Spital Square. A number of these original Georgian townhouses can still be seen in the centre of Spitalfields, towered over by the 18th Century Nicholas Hawksmoor church, Christ Church Spitalfields.
As the silk trade declined, Victorian Spitalfields became synonymous with slums and poverty, with the once grand houses becoming multi-occupancy tenements. It was against this backdrop that Jack the Ripper stalked Spitalfields and the surrounding area in 1888.
Through the years, the area had continued to be centred on the textile trade, with Jewish settlers first taking over from the French, and later the Bangladeshi community moved in and made the area home.
Its history has conspired to leave Spitalfields and the surrounding environs a fascinating and culturally rich area, where you can sample foods from every corner of the globe, while marvelling at the beautiful architecture, the hustle and bustle of daily London life, and the concrete and glass spectre of the City of London which looms ever closer to the West.
The food tour – what to eat
So what better way to get acquainted with some of London’s diverse history, than to sample its food? I’ve pulled together a self-directed walking tour, which takes in a some of my favourite places to eat, as well as a few other notable sights along the way. The amount of food choices here can seem overwhelming and searching for the best bites can be tricky if you’re not local. The selection below will steer you through this minefield and to some top notch East London eating.
The tour is probably best done as a group of at least 4, to give you the opportunity to try as much food as possible before you’re fit to burst. The loop starts and finishes at Aldgate East Underground station (although you can mix and match with Liverpool Street if it’s easier) and covers about 2.5 miles (4km). It’s all flat and easy walking and you can make it last all day if you want- otherwise go as fast or as slow as your stomach will allow!
Here’s the first half of the map, and then it’s straight on to the food!
- Start on Whitechapel Road as you emerge from Aldgate East underground station (served by Hammersmith and City and District lines), using the exit for Whitechapel Gallery (feel free to peep inside). Head to the corner of Osborne street where you’ll see Efes Turkish restaurant. This is such a good staple in the area (there are several, you’ll probably pass another on the tour!). Share a mixed grill for a sample of their lamb and chicken shish and adana kebab. They bring you free bread and salad so don’t over order!
Graffiti and Georgian houses
- Head up Osborne Street (it’s going to become the famed Brick Lane in a few hundred metres or so) and watch out for all the graffiti down the side alleys, the subject of walking tours in its own right. If you see groups of people with cameras heading down an alley, then follow them, you’ll probably find something good.
- Take a left on Fournier street to see some of the beautiful original Georgian townhouses and make a loop back to Brick Lane by taking a right onto Wilkes street and then right again onto Princelet Street (this is a whole block of Georgian houses). 19 Princelet Street is preserved by a charity and sometimes open for viewing, so check their website before your trip for a chance to see inside one of these amazing buildings. If you really want to push the boat out, you can even rent one of the houses for your stay in London through the Landmark Trust. Once you’re back on Brick Lane, pop in to Taj Stores for a spot of shopping- this is a veritable library of spices so if there’s anything you struggle to get back home, stock up.
- Take a right down Hanbury Street for Dosa World, a tiny but delicious South Indian restaurant (and one of my recent finds). So it’s not Bangladeshi, but the best Bangladeshi food is not found in Brick Lane, so unfortunately none of hundred has restaurants have made my discerning list. I highly recommend the mutton kotthu poratha and the cabbage thoran, and you should also try some dosa since you’re in Dosa World- the rasa dosa (with onions) is especially good.
Art and shopping
- You might be struggling a bit now, but that’s ok, you can digest as you walk. Get yourself back on Brick Lane and keep heading up towards Shoreditch. There are loads of great shops and markets from vintage and antiques, records, independent artists studios, everything you could want. So spare your stomach for a bit and have a look around. I love looking in Adrian Boswell’s studio on Brick Lane, just before you enter Backyard Market, which contains a range of interesting craft goods.
- So good it has its own Wikipedia entry, and favourite of East End gangsters and hipsters alike over the years, Beigel Bake is a nod to East London’s Jewish history, where you can get a salt beef sandwich 24 hours a day. Join the queue (it goes quickly) and enjoy the best value meal you’re going to eat in London while standing in the street outside. For more on Beigel Bake, check out the Londonist.
- Too much good honest food, not enough hipster pretence? Never fear, grab a sweet treat at Soft Serve Society in Shoreditch’s Boxpark. I particularly like the soft serve matcha ice cream, but I notice they are now making towering ‘freakshakes’- whatever floats your boat. There’s plenty of other great food to choose from here, and if you prefer savoury to sweet then you should absolutely pick up a souvlaki wrap from The Athenian. Meaty, chippy, tzatziki-y goodness…it makes me salivate writing about it, ‘nuff said.
- You’re probably suffering food overload now, but don’t worry, there’s a break in the eating, cross the road and head down Redchurch Street. There’s plenty more to eat, but you don’t have to, there are tonnes of different shops here, from interior design to skin care, so take some time to poke around and digest. If you fancy a takeaway treat for another day, then pick up some delicious hand made pasta from Burro e Salvia.
- For more tasty souvenirs, head to Leila’s shop, a café and grocery store on Calvert Avenue. Produce changes all the time, but you can always get really tasty marcona almonds and also a freshly sliced loaf of sourdough from John’s Bakery (London life hack- St. John’s Spitalfields won’t slice it for you, if you like yours sliced then head to Leila’s). There’s always seasonal produce including beautiful fruit; I like a bag of donut peaches in the summer. Calvert Avenue is also home to Calvert 22 Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to displaying contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe. Well worth a look; it’s only small but they have a great bookshop to boot.
I’ve now maxed out the number of stops Google maps will allow me, so the second half of the trip continues on a second map!
Columbia Road Flower Market
- If it’s a Sunday and you fancy it, you can add an extra 1 mile loop on your journey and head off to Columbia Road Flower Market (open 8am to 2pm Sundays only). The street is lined with independent shops and galleries as well, so there’s plenty to see and do if you’re looking for a full day in East London.
Old Spitalfields Market
- It’s time to start eating your way back to Aldgate East. Head South towards Spitalfields Market. Here you can shop and eat your way around. If you fancy some tasty snacks for later, then head to Androuet for cheese (pick your favourites, it’s all good!) and to Crosstown Donuts for super light donuts in unusual, but delicious flavours (they also deliver, by the way).
- If you’re not done yet, there are still two great places I recommend grabbing a(nother) bite to eat. Sud Italia pizza, working from a van in the market (it’s just out the back of Androuet), is proper Neapolitan pizza and it is amazing. I’m tempted to say it’s the best pizza in London. There’s a mushroom and truffle one that I absolutely love, but you’re not going to go wrong here, so have whatever takes your fancy.
- If you need a rest and, more importantly, a drink, then you can grab a seat in Vagabond Wines, where you pay for wine credits on a card, you can then try different wines of your choosing from the self-service machines (it’s a lot classier than it sounds). They also have a good selection of beers.
- Finish off the tour with some ‘proper’ East London food in Poppies Fish & Chips. Go to the proper one in Hanbury Street just opposite the market, rather than the little market booth. You’ll still have to stand in the street most likely, but it’s a more authentic experience. You can wash it down with a pint from The Golden Heart pub next door.
- Then make your way back to Aldgate East, or you can head across to Liverpool Street Station, which is about the same distance. On your way past, check out the Nicholas Hawksmoor church, built between 1714 and 1729- Christ Church Spitalfields. It was one of the first of the churches built for the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches (now known as the ‘Queen Anne Churches), which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1711.
Head home laden with food and edible souvenirs!
I’d love to hear about your experiences if you use any or all of this itinerary, so feel free to get in touch. You might also like my favourite ‘hidden gem’ restaurants in London, which you can read about here.