It’s the hipster capital of England—and maybe the world. Home to galleries, graffiti, a famed flower market, curries, bagels, and countless vintage shops, East London has weathered a wave of gentrification and stayed wicked in all the right ways. Absent of parks, prams, or big-ticket tourist bait, it instead stocks great pop-up boutiques, gorgeous galleries, and chaotic urban markets hawking everything from old-school Adidas to frilly frocks from the ‘50s to the ‘80s.
By night, a new breed of action dominates, from raucous rooftop bars like Shoreditch House and The Boundary to swank, subterranean scenes like the Czech-run Lounge Bohemia. There’s also the ever-reliable LoungeLover, and of course a diversity of restaurants like none other. GWS happens to have an apartment in East London, which, upon hearing, nearly gave her posh West End pals an aneurysm. And when I say East London, I mean Shoreditch—those of you expecting sterile Canary Wharf, think again. In my neighborhood, you will find grimy and glass-strewn streets, lots of leather, vintage shades, furs, and odd-looking tights. And of course art, culture, and an army of trend-setters. The punk movement started here, as did the infamous Cockney Rhyming Slang. I’m even told that this is where famed gallery owner Charles Saatchi comes to spot up-and-coming artists. There are bargains of the mind and spirit. Pack your skinny jeans and let’s go.
The polished wood-paneled Rookery Hotel calls itself “Soho in the East” and frankly, that undersells it. Subtle and fine, this sultry, grown-up boutique marries old-world charm with a modern traveler’s comfy necessities. 33 rooms, from £175, including the gorgeous two-story Rook’s Nest penthouse, complete with views of St. Paul’s, from £495.
12 Peter's Lane
The Boundary is famed British designer Sir Terence Conran’s latest winning creation. With a wildly popular roof terrace, a casual street-level café called The Albion, and a sexy underground bar (skip the restaurant; there are better places), it’s easy to forget that this is a hotel. There are only 12 guest rooms and five duplex suites, so book early. For the budget conscious, rooms start at £140. For the design minded, try Sir David Tang’s duplex suite from £250. Weekdays are most expensive; Sunday night yields a deal.
2-4 Boundary Street
A trendy gem with an appreciated nod to the credit crunch, the Hoxton Urban Lodge models itself on the budget airlines: Book early and you could score one of the coveted rooms for a quid. The eclectic art is worth a visit in and of itself. There are 205 rooms, normally from £59.
81 Great Eastern Street
I. Love. The Wapping Project. Without question, it is the most visually arresting restaurant I’ve experienced in London. Set in a decommissioned hydraulic pumping station, it’s an industrial building converted by the effervescent Dr. Jules Wright into a work of art (literally) in the back, with a restaurant out front. At night, the candles and old machines radiate faded majesty; by day the light floods in from every direction. Order one of the signature cocktails (I like the watermelon martini), risotto, and anything chocolate for dessert. Great Sunday brunch, too.
Newcomer Pizza East has quickly become a favorite. Opened in October by the ( shh) Soho House group in the famous Tea Building, this industrial ditty is divine. With exposed brick, concrete, and steel, Pizza East is a stylish destination. Try a few sharing plates to start—the Cippoline onions or mint faro and squash. Then move on to pizza (margherita with spicy sausage was a GWS creation), and for goodness sake, get the salted chocolate caramel tart for dessert. Be sure to book ahead; even with room for 170 this place is often packed.
56 Shoreditch High Street
Phone: 020 7729 1888
For breakfast, one place stands out above all. Leila’s Shop is a find; scrumptious and the bargain of your life (the average dish costs 4 quid). If you’re one to be spoilt for choice, get a grip—you can either have fried eggs with sage or fried eggs with ham, both served in vintage Le Creuset pans. Choose your toast and delicious coffee and you’re done. Get here early to avoid a wait, or simply kill time next door at the darling accessories shop, Ally Capellino, which has great hats, bags, scarves, and leathery treats.
17 Calvert Avenue
Phone: 020 7729 9789
9 Calvert Avenue
Phone: 020 7613 3073
If you’re craving a big English-style breakfast and an a.m. retro atmosphere, come to Hoxton Square for The Breakfast Club. This funky chain (I know, I know) is scattered throughout London, but I love this particular outlet. A sign on the door to the loo says, “Bathroom and World’s Smallest Disco.” Order anything with sausage and you won’t be disappointed.
The Breakfast Club
2-4 Rufus Street
Phone: 020 7729 5252
Set in an old school, Rochelle School Canteen channels its former residents—it’ll only feed you Monday through Friday. Try to make it. The tasty organic lunch menu changes daily; the people-watching doesn’t.
Phone: 020 7729 5677
Explore your way through dozens of nooks on Brick Lane, from wicked vintage shops like the hidden jewelry shop Rokit to Halo Jones (email them at firstname.lastname@example.org) in the Pop-Up Market. Come with an eye for a bargain and you won’t leave empty-handed. A personal favorite is Caravan where you’ll find everything from funky Deborah Bowness wallpaper to varying types of ornamental birds and bug magnets. Tell Emily I sent you. Once you’ve shopped up an appetite stop for a nosh at Beigel Bake, the best bagels in London hands-down.
Broadway Market is a must if you find yourself in East London on a Saturday. With roots reaching back to the 1890s, this Hackney institution has it all, from fruit to fashion to tchotchkes galore.
On Sundays, Columbia Road Flower Market is a destination, year-round. Wander through this horticulturists’ dream and expect to find a crowded floral street fair with cute shops all around. Get here early; they’re gone by around 2 p.m.
When you can’t smell any more roses, take a left down Ezra Street to find Seamus Ryan Photography, an enchanting gallery and studio. They offer “Sunday Shoots” in which the public is invited to watch or pose. It’s voyeuristic, gorgeous fun. More bashful visitors can try one of the private photo booths; it’ll cost you 3 pounds for the memory and the quality is amazing.
The East Room is poser-central. One would think with respectable sister members-only clubs like Milk & Honey and The Player that this could be something—especially in this neighborhood—but it sure isn’t. Awful food and service is reason enough to give this place a pass.
And much as I’ve tried to get on board with Jamie Oliver’s charitable upstart Fifteen, I can’t. They’re snooty about reservations (charging 20 pounds per head if you have to cancel) and offer limited prix fixe-only food options that are just too precious. I’d love to get on board, especially since I live right next door. Alas.
Jolie Hunt is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters. Prior to that, she served as global director of corporate and business affairs for IBM. She was the director of PR for the Financial Times. She lives between New York and London.