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Top 8 Things to Do in Brick Lane and Spitalfields – And 1 to Avoid

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6 months ago

If London is new to you, you’d be forgiven for thinking that that East London is just Shoreditch. Tucked away just between Shoreditch and the City of London is what I think is the most exciting pocket of London: Spitalfields and Brick Lane – and there’s too many things to do in Brick Lane and Spitalfields.

Spitalfields and Brick Lane are full of surprises. Beyond the curry houses that basically drag you inside by the hand and the endless food stalls and markets on Brick Lane, you’re guaranteed an interesting and unexpected experience if you turn down basically any street.

You’ll find everything from beautiful multimillion pound homes from the 17th century, unknown art galleries, amazing rooftops, relaxing cafes, great bars, incredible Indian food. And one of the world’s most well-known food and shopping markets. There is so much to fill a day in Spitalfields and Brick Lane.

So here it is: the definitive list of the top things to do in Brick Lane and Spitalfields (and one thing you should probably miss), from someone who lives in the heart of it

8. Check out the hall in Truman Brewery Yard

From the corner of Hanbury Street and Commercial Street, you’ll see the entrance to the Truman Brewery Yard (just where DF Tacos is). The Old Truman Brewery now plays hosts to a number of pop-up exhibitions that sometimes just aren’t advertised.

I’ve seen everything from a sneakers exhibition to a jazz festival to the New Artist Fair (which actually sells affordable art). There’s always something exciting going on here, so it’s worth walking by.

The Truman Brewery Yard also has a number of very peculiar art installations dotted around it (my personal favorite is the pink monster-like thing that seems to be chewing on a gold coin). Take a moment to look up and around and see if you can spot something strange.

7. Step back in time in Dennis Severs’s House

This is an experience that I can’t recommend enough. In Dennis Severs’s House, you’ll get to experience what life was like in the 18th century for residents of London. And it’s not just your eyes that you’ll be using: the curators recreate the smells of the time so as to capture the warmth and eeriness of the time.

Everything you’ll see and smell is genuinely from that era. It feels like you’re entering a painting from one of the old masters.

And if you’ve been before, I’ll tell you why another visit to Dennis Severs’s House is a good idea. The curators are constantly refining and changing the experience, so you’ll always have a new pungent smell or a strange new mishap in one of the rooms (think a scene of broken glass that is unexplained).

Local tip: It’s particularly amazing to go for their famous Silent Night in the winter. Get a glass of mulled wine just to make the experience that extra bit more exciting.

You should absolutely buy your tickets in advance for Dennis Severs’s House. It’s a popular attraction because everyone who visits Spitalfields should see this.

A word of warning to the vision-impaired: the interiors can get very dark, and the floor is uneven (in keeping with the times), so it can be a tough one to navigate.

6. Eat in Spitalfields Market

There’s a reason that Spitalfields Market is one of the most famous in London. The market is chock-full of incredible food choices that will keep you excited for hours, but you’ll eventually have to make your decision as to what to eat at Spitalfields Market.

Make sure you check out both sides of Spitalfields Market. Aside from the food, there’s a whole array of street vendors selling everything from clothes to CBD gummies to art. There’s plenty here to keep you entertained for hours.

And if you’re visiting Spitalfields and Brick Lane on a weekend, there’s a whole other food and shopping market that takes places on Brick Lane on the weekend.

5. Check out the best vintage shopping in London

It’s no secret that Brick Lane has one of the highest concentration of vintage shops in all of London. All of the vintage shops are located on the north side of Brick Lane, so if you’re coming from Shoreditch High Street station then you should find them as soon as you get to Brick Lane.

A lot of people who come to Brick Lane for vintage shopping forget to turn down the side streets. I would honestly say that Cheshire Street just off Brick Lane probably has better vintage shops than Brick Lane itself.

If you like antiques generally, locals know that Spitalfields Market plays host to antique shops every Thursday. It’s always different vendors, so you’ll never know what you’ll find.

Also, if you’re into vinyls, you’ll find a huge selection on Brick Lane. Just look up and around and you’ll see signs for shops selling vinyls everywhere.

4. Count the bronze elephants dotted around Spitalfields Market

Very conspicuously placed around Spitalfields Market is a herd of bronze elephants. They’ve become a symbol of community spirit in Spitalfields as each elephant features a plaque on its holding plate which tells you a bit about who he or she is.

Each one of these corresponds to a real elephant that is currently in protection. I won’t spoil it by telling you which one is my favorite, but what I will say is that if look at Spitalfields Market straight on from Crispin Street, you’ll see it (and you’ll see why pretty quickly – it’s so cute).

Having said that, the Market does frequently change the location of the elephants. So you might not find your favorite elephant in the same place when you go back next time.

3. Stop and actually read the graffiti and murals

East London generally is packed full of amazing art installations, graffiti and murals. Spitalfields is a microcosm of that scene. When you get to Hanbury Street (the street that connects Spitalfields Market with Brick Lane), walk to the corner of Corbet Place and Grey Eagle Street. The walls of these two streets are covered in graffiti art.

That’s not the only place to find it. Next to one of the best vegan restaurants in East London on the corner of Brick Lane, you’ll see posters and art running the length of the building. I’ve walked by these so many times but never actually stopped to read some of the messages.

Take a minute to read some of the posters and graffiti on the wall. It might just make your head tick with something new.

2. Take a photo in front of the iconic Eleven and a Half on Fournier Street

Fournier Street is one of the most beautiful and perfectly picturesque streets in all of London, and that’s no surprise given that this part of London was first settled by a community of French people known as the Huguenots.

Most of London was never built with the mindset of a qualified urban planner. The streets aren’t in a grid format like you’ll find in New York City, but rather the streets are all organic, giving so much character to the city.

There’s no better example of this than Fournier Street and the adjoining Wilkes Street. These streets are often used for film sets because of their striking architectural beauty. When you’re walking down Fournier Street, keep an eye out for the blue door labelled Eleven and a Half. It’s perfectly London, perfectly English.

This one is super easy to miss if you’re not looking. It’s reminiscent of Harry Potter (it reminds me of the house of the Order of the Phoenix in the fifth film).

1. Visit the Gilbert & George Centre

Let yourself be taken on a journey through the world of Gilbert & George, the famous London artist duo who are longstanding residents of Spitalfields.

The opening of the Gilbert & George Centre in April 2023 continues the tradition of high creativity that defines Spitalfields. As the artists who are the namesake of the Centre are famous for saying, “nothing happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End” of London.

The former brewery that the Centre is located in is on the 18th-century Heneage Street. It’s no surprise that Gilbert and George built their centre here: Spitalfields has been the subject of their art for decades, and their home.

Gilbert and George have lived just one minute away from the Centre by foot on Fournier Street since the late 60s. I often see them on their walks through East London.

The first thing you’ll notice before you enter is the entrance to the Centre itself: it’s a hand-forged green, iron gate that already dons C-III-R (this stands for Charles Regina the Third, the current reigning monarch after Queen Elizabeth II died in September 2022).

Walk through the cobbled courtyard past the film room pavilion to the main reception area which leads to three exhibition spaces.

It’s a badly kept secret that Gilbert and George decided to cut their relationship with the famous Tate Museum and establish their own institution. These self-described existential visionaries took out all of their art from the Tate and relocated the majority of it next to their home in the Gilbert & George Centre in East London’s Spitalfields.

This makes a lot of sense to residents of the area, because virtually all of Gilbert and George’s art was created in East London. It’s still not on the tourist trail because it was only recently opened, but it absolutely will be soon.

Given the “art for all” ethos of Gilbert and George, the Centre is free to enter. But take note (and this isn’t easy to find just yet):

The Centre has new opening hours. It’s only open Thursday to Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm (though I have seen it closed some Sundays so you might want to ring again if you plan to go on a Sunday).

And the 1 to avoid…

You’ve almost certainly heard of this one because pretty much every tourist guide will tell you that it’s a must-do when you’re in East London. The Van Gogh London Exhibit on Commercial Street looks like a super enticing way to spend your day (and it might be for some!), but I found it to be a little bit lacking and there was a distinct lack of imagination.

If you are going to go, leave about an hour and a half. Probably the highlight is the virtual reality experience, but that’s just because the rest of the exhibit isn’t particularly well curated.

It’s just very much inferior to seeing a Van Gogh painting in the flesh. I think it has the potential to be something special, but it isn’t there quite yet.

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