London travel guide: Shoreditch
Shoreditch. The word doesn't conjure up visions of dainty terraced houses and pink magnolia trees, does it? But this artistic neighbourhood, nestled just outside the more classic and formal City of London, doesn't need pretty. It has edge.
It's a gritty, creative area shared by two of London's poorest boroughs, which has become a haven for self-expression, alternative ideas and a whole lot of street art. There are curry houses and tech companies, a grand town hall turned creative community space, kebab shops and a plethora of creative entrepreneurs who spend their days in cafés and co-working spaces.
Shoreditch has a long, twisty history that includes not one but two Elizabethan playhouses (including England's first theatre). It was historically an area known for entertainment, home to working class residents and later industries such as furniture and textiles. Before it became this motley gentrified hipster hangout, Shoreditch was a space for immigrants and artists; a great cauldron of influences and ideas.
The nature of Shoreditch seems to be centered on evolution. It feels as though there are new pop up shops, elaborate spray-painted art pieces, and market stalls every week. By the time you visit, it will probably already look different to how it is captured in my photos. But I can give you a basic travel guide to get you started.
Getting to Shoreditch
There doesn't appear to be a hard borderline demarcating this little slice of London, as buildings and businesses bearing the name "Shoreditch" can be found pretty far away. The central core is comprised of the main roads - Great Eastern Street / Commercial Street, Old Street and Shoreditch High Street. These converge to create the "Shoreditch triangle" and are either home to most of the sights, or are within walking distance of them.
Depending on which direction you're travelling from, you can either arrive via Underground (Old Street station on the Northern Line) or Overground (the stops are Shoreditch High Street or Hoxton towards the north). Liverpool Street (Overground, TFL Rail, Central, Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines) is also within walking distance of the more southern attractions.
What to see, eat and do in Shoreditch:
Eat and explore Brick Lane
Let's start with the place you've probably already heard about. Brick Lane isn't the official high street, but it feels like a central spine: all roads seem to lead there.
It's an open-air street art gallery, a people-watching dream, a never-ending market and a foodie fantasy. The northern end is home to famous bagel shops (open 24/7) alongside a vegan bakery, chocolatier and a café that only serves different varieties of cereal (it's called Cereal Killer).
There is Bricklane Bookshop, various vintage and quirky stores, and, of course, curry spots. A Sunday market also takes over a section of Brick Lane, so if you visit on the weekend, prepare for busyness.
Shop and snack at BoxPark
Located near the exit of Shoreditch High Street station, BoxPark is a hulking shipping container construction that cuts a striking shape next to the train tracks. Its ground floor is filled with various stores and pop-ups selling wonderful things, from paper goods to doughnuts, cruelty-free makeup, handmade bags, quirky home décor and street-smart shoes.
BoxPark's upper level is part bar, part food court (but cooler, obviously). There are many outposts of deliciousness here, all squirreled away in their containers, serving everything from Greek food to loaded French fries.
It's a good spot to go if you're in a group and can't pick one place - everyone can split up, order what they want, and return to communal tables when they're done. It's especially jovial when there is any kind of sport on, as the bar area gets crowded with enthusiastic fans focused on the TV and their team.
Stop off at the Old Truman Brewery
The Old Truman Brewery's tendrils pop up quite liberally in this area, from old time pubs bearing its name to the various yards and event spaces on the site of the former brewery.
The latter are a hub for pop-ups and events, cool stores and handmade markets. There you will find bars and music venues, a bowling lane, design and arts fairs, and a very popular monthly vegan party. There is also an outpost of the music store Rough Trade, which is fantastic to browse (even if you don't care for vinyl).
From the street food trucks in Ely's Yard to the double-volume space housing House of Vegan, there is food aplenty too.
Take a moment at St Leonard's Church
Need a break from all the new and now? (St Leonard's) Shoreditch Church has a tranquil space for you to take a breather. The beautiful and artsy gardens are carefully maintained, featuring everything from cobbled-together pallet benches to a fishing scarecrow being dragged through a vegetable patch by his catch.
The church itself is quite famous to unknowing children - it's referred to in the nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons' ("when I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch"). Famous members of the Elizabethan playhouse community are also buried underneath it, including the men who built The (first) Theatre and The Globe Theatre, and the first actor to play the lead in many of Shakespeare's plays.
In summer, the churchyard can become packed with workers on their lunch breaks, sunning themselves on its lawns, but you can usually find a spot to sit and enjoy the scenery or munch a takeaway. Look out for the Shakespeare quotes and mosaics nestled in between the plants.
Visit the sites of Shakespeare's first performances
Shakespeare's legacy lingers all over Shoreditch. Before The Globe set up on the other side of the Thames River, there were two playhouses which performed his works in the area of modern-day Curtain Road and New Inn Broadway. Neither are still (totally) standing today.
The first - simply named "The Theatre" - was near to the modern-day Amnesty International office in New Inn Yard, and was dismantled and partly used to construct The Globe. Its existence is commemorated by a flowery Romeo and Juliet mural on one of the buildings nearby, and a plaque on the side of an estate agent's office at 86-90 Curtain Road.
The second ("The Curtain Theatre") is currently encased underneath a construction site a short walk away, around 20 Curtain Road. When complete, the building will be a mega residential, retail and office space with a viewing section for the remnants of the former playhouse, which were only discovered in 2012.
Tour the street art
Chances are you'll pass some not-so-subtle spray-painted political statements or playful creations on your wanderings through Shoreditch - they're hard to miss. If you want to seek them out, some of the biggest and most striking can be found in:
Rivington Street (which cuts between Shoreditch High Street and Great Eastern Street)
New Inn Yard
Ebor Street (just opposite BoxPark)
The intersection of Old Street and Great Eastern Street
Sclater Street (the road from Shoreditch High Street Station to Brick Lane)
The street art in Shoreditch seems to be celebrated and always changing - there are a few spots where the original design is lost or adapted beneath layers of new additions, posters and spray paint. I've seen painted cauliflower stalks nailed to brick walls, a Brexit protest poster made to look like a Royal Mail postage slip, and a variety of detailed designs commissioned by brands ranging from shoe manufacturers to wildlife conservation charities.
See Columbia Road's shops and flower market
It's a bit of a walk (or take the Overground to Hoxton and follow the signs), but Columbia Road is worth a visit. On Sundays, it becomes a crazy mega flower market, saturated with blooms and those who buy them. The rest of the time, it feels like a cute village only inhabited by colourfully-fronted shops, cafés and restaurants.
The flower market is very popular - the typical advice is to get there as it opens while it's still quiet(ish), or just before it closes (if you want to haggle for deals). It doesn't just sell cut flowers though - there are hanging air plants, tiny succulents, giant indoor palms, and all the trendy plant babies you've probably seen on Instagram. Depending on where you're off to next, you may not be able to shop and take much with you, but it's still worth a browse.
Visit Old Spitalfields Market
This market is on the edges of what I would consider Shoreditch (it's actually in its own area, aptly called Spitalfields) but if you're in the vicinity, it's worth taking a look. Established in the 1800s, Old Spitalfields Market has lots of character and modern-day appeal.
It is home to a number of fixed, interesting, designer or independent stores, including a British chocolate shop, brands like & Other Stories and Dr Martens, and a quirky retro dress boutique. There are also small but mighty food stalls and restaurants, and a roving number of street food trucks.
The cavernous central space also plays host to day traders selling everything from jewellery and art prints to handmade gifts and clothing. Grab a coffee and browse the stalls for non-traditional gifts for those back home (I'd start at the chocolate shop, but that's just me).
Sit in a café window and people watch (or window shop)
There are many talented people selling excellent coffee or their wonderful creations (especially in Calvert Avenue, Shoreditch High Street and Red Church Street), but these are some of my favourite finds:
Artwords Bookshop: This small but bright bookshop on Rivington Street has an interesting selection of beautiful books on art, fashion, and design, including books from small presses and independent magazines.
AIDA: This is both a Scandi-inspired store and a café, famous for their (very Instagrammable) rose lattes.
Inspitalfields: A brilliant collection of interesting homeware, books and gifts... but be warned, it's hard not to buy something for yourself too!
CycleLab & JuiceBar: A vegan café inside a bike shop seems like a bit of a weird combination, but it works. There are lovely fresh salads and smoothies to enjoy from street-side tables as you watch the cyclists whiz by.
Attendant: This plant-filled café on Great Eastern Street has gorgeous interiors and good food, but my favourite part is the sidewalk seating. Perfect for people watching.
Where to eat in Shoreditch:
So. Many. Places. To. Eat. Again, these are just my (recent) favourite finds:
What the Pitta (BoxPark): Try the vegan döner kebab made out of spices and dreams (they have great ice cream tubs too). The wrap is basically two meals in one and requires real muscle power to lift to your face. Delicious.
The Athenian (BoxPark): I haven't chomped much Greek food (since um, I went to Greece) but the gyro wrap from The Athenian is a repeat order for me.
Genesis: This gorgeous pink spot on Commercial Street (pictured above and below) serves beautiful meals with influences ranging from Mexican to Korean to Thai.
Vida Bakery: Down on Brick Lane lives the cutest little vegan and gluten-free cake shop that you ever did see (pictured above). And it's all yummy too.
Vurger Co: This burger palace, just off Brick Lane, produces colourful and creative burgers with flavour combinations you haven't dreamed of yet. Their milkshakes are great too (try the Biscoff one!).
Unity Diner: Eat with a purpose - the profits from the delicious food made by this diner go to a non-profit and animal rescue sanctuary.
Vietnamese food on Kingsland Road's 'Pho Mile': No, there isn't just one Vietnamese restaurant... It's a full-on extended family. They all seem to have been drawn here by some kind of magnet, setting up shop one after the other. Whether you're into pretty decór or just plain good food, there is something for you in Kingsland Road.
General London tips:
For getting around the city, London's public transport network is famous and super functional. There are a few options depending on how long you're staying and how much you'll be travelling. You can get a multi-day travel card or invest in an Oyster card and top it up if you'll be in town for a while. Otherwise, if you have a contactless debit or credit card or Apple Pay / Google Pay on your phone, you can just tap and go. Just watch out how many zones you're crossing if you have a Zone x to y travel card (the zones radiate out from the centre of town - Shoreditch High Street is Zone 1) and try to travel in off-peak periods to avoid the higher fares and crush of commuters. There is also a fare cap on pay as you go journeys, so if you're travelling a lot, you eventually stop paying. Don't forget to tap in and out at train stations without gated readers, and you only have to tap in on busses, not out. Phew. I think that's all.
For navigating around the city, the best app I've found (which many residents use) is Citymapper. It has all the transport information you could possibly need, including travel times, easy route comparisons, the costs of different modes of transport and details of any outages or delays. Seriously a winner.
If you're visiting over a weekend, keep an eye out for signs or announcements in the train stations. There are often reduced services or closures since Transport for London does their maintenance and upgrades on the weekends, so you might have to take a rail replacement bus service or find another route.
Bring comfortable shoes and a small, collapsible umbrella. You have been warned - you will walk a lot. Despite its infamy, the rain in London is typically quite soft and short-lived, so you can usually carry on with whatever you're doing if you have an umbrella or a hooded rain jacket.