Originally a poverty stricken slum area, Bethnal Green is shaking off its dour high-rise image and becoming a destination in its own right. For over a century it’s been a melting pot of original East Enders, Jewish, Italian, and Bangladeshi families but its proximity to the City of London has seen working professionals moving in, and with it, rapid gentrification. Think £3 coffees, grown men wearing dungarees & £500,000 shoebox flats. It still retains a rough-around-the-edges charm and an authentic, working-class atmosphere, but for how much longer remains to be seen.
With some fantastic drinking options which range from sleek cocktail bars to old-school boozers to drag shows in the Working Man’s Club and iconic eating spots like Pellici’s and the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. It has a fascinating local history (it was the birthplace of The Kray twins). There’s even a (somewhat defaced) Banksy painting on Pollard Street. Bordered by the trend centres of yesteryear, Shoreditch and Hackney, it’s an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the city with Spitalfields Market and Tech City nearby. All this and much, much more only 15 minutes from Central London and the West End on the Central Line. It’s also the birthplace of yours truly.
Museum of Childhood:
Established almost 150 years ago and part of the Victoria & Albert collection, this museum houses the UK’s largest collection of children’s toys and games. The permanent collection has items from the 1600’s to the present day. There’s a cafe for grown-ups too for when you need a triple espresso after spending all day surrounded by screaming, excited children.
This much loved art-deco leisure centre, once threatened with closure but now fully refurbished, has a state-of-the-art gym, a swimming pool and a spa. It’s also the spiritual home of British boxing and frequently hosts amateur boxing events featuring local fighters from the famous Repton Boxing Club just down the road.
Columbia Road Flower Market:
This wonderful Sunday-only market is a delightful stroll with plants and flowers of every type imaginable available. The old “secret” of getting there late to grab a bargain is well and truly out of the bag but it’s fun to practise your haggling skills and see if you can snag a discount. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike and gets very busy around midday. Columbia Road is also a charming street when the market isn’t out.
One of East London’s most historic and eclectic streets. It’s somewhat over-saturated with tourists these days but there’s an interesting Sunday street market, a plethora of dining options including several curry houses and street food stalls with cuisine from all over the world. There are bars and clubs galore and even a bowling alley. The side-streets have a wealth of independent and vintage shops.
Eating and Drinking:
Iconic grade-2 listed “caff” with a decor untouched since the 50’s. This atmospheric, family run establishment has been serving up coffee and full English breakfasts to hungry Londoners since 1900.
Rustic-style Spanish restaurant serving up raciones, larger portions of tapas. This charming space is located on Columbia Road and is as good for a coffee on a Sunday as it is for dinner.
The Sun Tavern:
Mid 19th-century pub specialising in Irish spirits. It also serves up craft ales and cocktails in a laid-back setting with bare brick walls and red leather booths. There’s a limited food menu and a DJ several nights a week.
Where to Stay:
This ubiquitous 3* U.K. hotel chain has a branch here offering simple, well-priced albeit charmless rooms. Probably the best budget option in the area, it has an on-site cafe and restaurant and even offers (paid) parking on a first-come-first-served basis
RE Hotel- ££:
Confusingly labelling itself as “The RE London Shoreditch” this 4* hotel offers clean, minimalist designed bedrooms a short 10 minute walk from the Underground. With a bar and restaurant available, this is a good choice for those conscious of style but who don’t necessarily want to pay 5* prices.
Town Hall Hotel- £££:
A 5* hotel housed in the former Town hall. A stay here promises exceptional service in a unique setting. With two on-site restaurants, a swimming pool, a gym and even an on-site screening room, this dog-friendly hotel offers exquisite period decor only a 2-minute walk from the Underground station.
Where to Shop and What For:
Once dubbed “London’s trendiest street”, it runs from Bethnal Green Road to Shoreditch and has a multitude of cutting edge design shops, independent clothing stores, coffee shops and a gentleman’s barbers. The luxury Electric Cinema is also located here.
Brick Lane Beigel Bake:
Another local icon, the famous Beigel Bake serves up freshly hand-made beigels 24/7 to tourists, clubbers, and cabbies alike. Customer service is brusque, verging on obnoxious but the salt beef is a classic and portions are generous. Locals tip: Buy an extra plain beigel and get 2 salt beefs for the price of one.
What Else is in the Area…?
World War 2 Tube Memorial:
Few places embodied the Blitz spirit more than Bethnal Green during World War 2. This memorial outside the Tube station commemorates the 1943 disaster, the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War, when 173 people lost their lives, injuring almost 100 more.
Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium:
Inspired by similar establishments in Japan, this is the UK’s first cat cafe. Have a coffee and some cake surrounded by friendly felines. There are some strict house rules and children aren’t allowed. Booking is absolutely essential.
London is an incredibly multi-faceted city. Every Borough has its own smells, character and indeed, their own story. Maybe I’m biased as it’s where I grew up but for me, for somewhere off the beaten track in London, Bethnal Green takes some beating.
Thanks for reading,