Recently I stumbled across a girl on Tiktok who was aiming to visit every location mentioned in Taylor Swift’s song “London Boy.” She got off the overground at Hackney Central, walked around seemingly lost and deflated, ordered a coffee from a sad looking cafe, peered into the windows of some uninteresting looking shops, and then turned around to leave again. My heart sank. I wanted to scream through the screen, but I left a comment instead. PLEASE give Hackney another chance, I promise you’ll love it!
Hackney is a borough in inner East London. It encompasses plenty of neighborhoods, some you may have heard of—Shoreditch, Hoxton, Haggerston, Dalston, Hackney Wick and Stoke Newington. These are the neighborhoods that usually don’t make it into guidebooks, but it’s not due to a lack of brilliant things to see and do. Hackney is the creative hub of the city, brimming with restaurants, cafes, bars, music venues, independent shops, markets, street art, green spaces and just plain old, youthful, exuberant life!
The trick with Hackney is that it is full of treasures waiting to be discovered, but you need to know where to go. It won’t always be obvious from the outside, just like our poor friend on Tiktok discovered, but that’s where I come in, ready to give you the rundown on all things Hackney.
The best place to start your Hackney adventure is in Shoreditch. It’s the closest of Hackney’s neighborhoods to central London, perfect for easing you into the East End and getting your bearings. Shoreditch is busy, with a real inner city feel, an eclectic mix of old and new and some of the best street art in the city, including some of Banksy’s work. Seriously, keep your eyes peeled, or if you’re really keen, take a street art walking tour. Stroll down Redchurch Street for trendy shops, cafes and bars. Visit BOXPARK, the world’s first shipping container pop-up mall full of independent stores, up and coming designers, delicious street food and tasty treats. Stop for coffee at The Attendant, or community-focused Kahaila. For drinks, go to The Old Blue Last, a popular boozer and live music venue, or for cocktails, try Callooh Callay, or my personal favorite in neighboring Hoxton Square, Happiness Forgets. They do a killer coffee flip. You are completely spoiled for choice for restaurants too; check out Dishoom, Pizza East, Brat or Lyle’s.
Of course, no trip to Shoreditch is complete without a stroll down Brick Lane. Have lunch in one of the street’s many curry houses (the neighborhood is home to a huge portion of London’s Bengali population), or have a salt beef bagel at Beigel Bake—open 24 hours, it’s a Shoreditch institution and a rite of passage for any night out. Brick Lane is always bustling with a variety of markets too, mostly street food, antiques, vintage clothing and bric-a-brac, but make sure to look online to confirm days and locations. While you’re there, Spitalfields Market is a short walk from Shoreditch and it is an absolute must, especially on weekends. If it’s a Sunday, take a stroll to Columbia Road Flower Market and enjoy the huge array of plants and flowers for sale, the cockney-accented sellers yelling ‘three for a fiver’ and the most beautiful, well dressed people you’ve ever seen, buying flowers for their stylish Hackney homes.
Speaking of markets, the next must-do on your Hackney tour is Broadway Market. On Saturdays, you’ll find the street full of vendors selling street food and makers selling their wares; the street itself is full of independent shops and incredible restaurants, bars and cafes, though, so it’s worth a visit any day of the week. Have coffee at Climpson & Sons, pick up your next read at Donlon Books and then enjoy tapas at El Ganso or a cold pint at The Cat and Mutton. If it’s a sunny day, get a takeaway salad from L’eau à La Bouche and lie in London Fields, the gorgeous leafy green park across the way. For cocktails, go to Off Broadway and check out Kansas Smitty’s, a hidden jazz bar nestled underneath. If it’s views that you’re after, make your way to rooftop bars Netil 360 or Night Tales Loft. Other spots definitely worth a mention are Mare Street Market and the restaurant Bright.
Next on the list is Dalston, Shoreditch’s edgier younger sister. As Shoreditch has become more and more gentrified, many young people have made their way to Dalston instead. You’ll rarely find any tourists here. Kingsland Road runs through Dalston and there’s no shortage of places to eat, drink and dance. It’s a queer friendly neighborhood, filled with gay bars, and it comes alive on the weekends. You’ll be sure to spot your fair share of drag queens too. Have dinner at House of Momo or one of the neighborhood’s many Turkish restaurants, enjoy cocktails at High Water or Three Sheets, and then dance the night away at Dalston Superstore or The Shacklewell Arms. For a more lowkey evening, see what’s on at the Rio, a gorgeous, independent art deco cinema. If it’s brunch you’re looking for, go to Dusty Knuckle or Brunswick East and then spend the day searching for vintage gems at Beyond Retro.
If you’d prefer a quieter day out, make your way to Stoke Newington, a cozy neighborhood filled with young families and a slower pace of life. Wander through peaceful Clissold Park and admire the 18th century mansion Clissold House and the stunning architecture of The Old Church next door, then stroll down Church Street and enjoy the independent shops selling homewares and designer clothes. Make sure to visit Search & Rescue and Nook. Have brunch at The Good Egg or venture a little further for Jolene, then have dinner at Rasa, Escocesa or Wander.
As a long time resident of the London borough, I am used to Hackney being overlooked, looked down upon or even considered dangerous, but I’m here to tell you that it deserves a chance. A visit to Hackney will show you how the locals live, away from the tourist traps and overrated attractions. You’ll eat well, drink well, shop well and rub shoulders with the city’s best, brightest and most creative. Hackney deserves its place on any London itinerary, but don’t just take my word for it; go and see for yourself.
Bryony Parker is a writer and artist currently living in São Paulo, Brazil and working on her Masters in International Affairs. You can find her at @par666ker on all social media.