For much of its history Croydon, ten miles south of Central London, was in the estates of the Archbishops of Canterbury, the principal leaders of the church of England.
Croydon Palace and the Whitgift Almshouse are historic reminders from their time here.
Recently the town has made its mark on UK popular culture thanks to Croydon College and the Brit School, where the likes of Adele and Jessie J learned their craft.
There’s pulsating nightlife, a fresh dining scene and a shopping centre that was the largest in Greater London up to 2008. You can get to London Bridge in less than 15 minutes from South Croydon Station, and in 2000 the town introduced Tramlink, the first tram system in the capital since 1952.
Let’s exlore the best things to do in Croydon:
1. Croydon Airport Visitor Centre
The UK’s first international airport was right here in Croydon.
This evolved from an airfield built in the First World War to help defend the capital against Zeppelin attacks.
Scheduled flights started in 1920, and Croydon Airport became the first in the world to have a control tower and air traffic control using radio position-fixing procedures.
The last scheduled flight departed in 1959 and the former terminal building became a listed monument, while the control tower contains the visitor centre.
This little interactive museum records some of the “firsts” that took place at Croydon Airport, including the UK’s first major civil aviation accident in 1924 and Amy Johnson’s first female solo flight from England to Australia, departing the airport in 1930.
2. Croydon Clocktower
An instant identifier for Croydon, the Clocktower is part of an ensemble that includes Croydon Town Hall and Braithwaite Hall, a former theatre and concert venue.
With a neo-Baroque design, the Croydon Clocktower went up between 1892 and 1896, and holds the Croydon Central Library in a modern extension, and the Museum of Croydon, which we’ll bring up next.
There’s a cafe inside, open six days a week, while the David Lean Cinema is a real asset to the town, showing vintage and independent movies in a compact auditorium.
3. Museum of Croydon
The main galleries at the Museum of Croydon are a social history of the town from 1800 to the 21st century.
Some fun exhibits here are a bubble car manufactured in the town in the mid-20th century and a 19th-century clock from the Greyhound Inn, a famed pub and live music venue that closed in the 1980s, as well as artefacts from the local football team, Crystal Palace and the furniture first sold at the local IKEA when it opened in 1992. The Riesco Gallery features an array of Roman and Anglo-Saxon artefacts unearthed locally, along with a sublime collection of Chinese ceramics from 2500 BC to the 1800s.
There’s also art by some famous people who studied at the art school, Croydon College, like the famous punk impresario Malcolm McLaren.
4. Croydon Palace
The Archbishops of Canterbury had ties to the Manor of Croydon from Anglo-Saxon times.
This complex of buildings dating to the 14th and 16th centuries was their summer residence for more than five centuries.
Croydon Palace is now the Old Palace School, an independent school for girls, but if you check online there’s a calendar of tours during half-term and school holidays.
These are worthwhile to see the stunning 15th-century Great Hall, with a timber roof from the 16th century and a beautiful Gothic interior porch.
Also essential are the former state apartments to the west, where you’ll find the Guard Room (now the library), with an oriel window and supports in carved stone.
Also see the 17th-century chapel, with ornately carved choir stalls and a decorative corner gallery.
5. Whitgift Almshouses
In the chaotic centre of Croydon, against the packed pedestrian streets, shopping centres and high rise office blocks there’s an exceedingly old building that might pique your attention.
This is the Whitgift Almshouses, founded by Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift in 1596. This site at the corner of George Street and North End remains an almshouse for elderly local residents over the age of 60, while the Whitgift Foundation still runs three independent schools in the borough, including the Old Palace School listed above.
You can’t go inside the Whitgift Almshouses, but you can take in the exterior’s 16th-century brickwork, gables, quoins, fine main portal, mullioned windows, turreted chimneys and window tracery.
6. Croydon Minster
John Whitgift’s tomb sits inside Croydon Minster, which is also the burial site of five other Archbishops of Canterbury.
Previously a parish church, it was upgraded to “minster” in 2011 and has a history that goes all the way back to Saxon times.
Sadly, the 14th-century building was gutted by fire during a restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1850s and needed a full reconstruction, completed in 1870. Those tomb monuments have survived intact , and the must-sees are for Whitgift (1605) and Gilbert Sheldon (1677). The church also has fabulous stained glass by the Clayton and Bell workshop, which produced glass for church restorations all over the UK in the Victorian period.
7. Surrey Street Market
The biggest market in the borough of Croydon is also the oldest street market in the capital.
A market has traded on this exact spot since 1276. Almost entirely dedicated to fresh produce like fruit and vegetables, Surrey Street Market fills the namesake road behind the Croydon Grants Cinema.
Monday to Saturday there are around 70 fruit and veg traders, while on Sunday you can visit the special artisan market for international and specialty foods.
If you have to pick a day to feel the noise and bustle London street market, make it Saturday, which remains the busiest trading day.
8. Boxpark Croydon
This pop-up mall concept was trialled in Shoreditch in 2011 and proved so successful that it expanded south of the river to Croydon in 2016. Boxpark provides affordable, flexible retail space for its tenants, and for customers this means shopping and dining you won’t normally find on the high street, all in 80 upcycled shipping containers.
Beatbox is Boxpark’s main nightspot, with established and up-and-coming djs playing sets on Thursday nights.
Most of Boxpark’s appeal comes from its cosmopolitan choice of street food joints, with souvlaki, falafel, Taiwanese pork buns, gourmet burgers, craft beer, Nashville hot chicken, tapas, Filipino snacks and even artisan porridge on the menu.
9. Spread Eagle Theatre
Something out of the ordinary next to the Croydon Clocktower, this grand Victorian former bank building has become a pub with a 50-seater studio theatre on its top floor.
The Spread Eagle Theatre is devoted to new writing and has the same owners as another unusual venue at the Old Joint Stock Theatre, a converted library in Birmingham.
Both belong to London’s Fuller’s brewery chain and have a mix of live music and plays.
In 2017 the Spread Eagle launched the Croydon Cabaret Festival, taking place in each May.
Downstairs is a typical London pub for a pint of ale and a pie, and every Sunday there’s a general knowledge quiz night.
10. Fairfield Halls
At the time of writing in 2018 this renowned performing arts venue was closed for a £30m refurbishment scheduled for completion in March 2019. Fairfield Halls opened in 1962 and became a regional centre for the arts, hosting the likes of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd and the The Who.
The BBC recognised the high quality of the acoustics in the main concert hall and used it for radio and television productions, as well as orchestral recordings.
When Fairfield Halls reopens it is expected to become the linchpin of a new cultural quarter in Croydon.
It will serve the community once more with plays, stand-up comedy, opera, musicals, ballet, classical and contemporary music and children’s productions, both by famous touring artists and local amateur performers.
11. South Norwood Country Park
Out in this 125-acre tract of landscaped parkland and countryside, you might be shocked to learn that you’re walking on what used to be a sewage farm.
The concrete channels still visible in the park are a remnant from a Victorian facility, while there’s a pitch and putt golf course on the site of a 20th-century treatment plant.
The park has a lake at the north end, and a visitor centre where you can find out about the animals and plants that inhabit this Local Nature Reserve.
The children’s playground in the park has been newly refurbished, there’s a large mound that once belonged to a Medieval moated house and is now a viewing point.
The park is also the southern terminus of the Waterlink Way, an eight-mile cycle trail that runs to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.
12. Addington Park
Across 24.5 acres of woods and landscaped parkland, this green space used to be the Addington Palace Estate.
In the 16th century the land was a hunting ground for King Henry VIII, while the current Addington Palace is a glorious Palladian mansion built in 1768 and used by the Archbishops of Canterbury as a summer home in the 19th century.
Now the property is hired out for events and used mainly as a wedding venue, framing the Addington Palace Golf Club, which welcomes visitors for rounds.
The park, in gentle flowing hills, was designed by the famed landscaper Capability Brown in the 1780s.
On the park’s eastern border is the Church of St Mary, with a Norman chancel and nave built around 1080.
13. Crystal Palace F. C.
Traditionally a team that flits between the top two divisions, in 2018 Crystal Place were savouring their longest spell in the English top flight, after gaining promotion in 2013. There are a few things to love about the Eagles.
First, in a city of glitzy arenas, Selhurst Park is an old-school English football ground, designed by Archibald Leitch in the 1920s.
In 2018 plans were announced to enlarge the main stand, extending the ground’s capacity to 34,000. Crystal Palace’s current owners have also broken the mould in the way they engage with their supporters: Even the team’s badge was designed by fans.
That rapport is felt on matchdays when Selhurst Park may be the noisiest stadium in the country.
There’s a membership package for international fans that allows you to get tickets for games, but you have to be quick as every home game sells out.
14. Shirley Windmill
This restored tower windmill is one of only four open to the public in Greater London.
The Shirley Windmill dates to 1854, replacing a predecessor that burnt down, and built reusing materials from other sites, as a beam with the date “1740” attests.
Seventeen metres high, the mill has had a few close calls, having been abandoned in 1892 and then struck by lightning in 1899 and 1906. There were two restorations, in the 1920s and 1930s, and the mill became a museum in the 1990s after receiving a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Today Shirley Windmill and its inner-working are almost completely intact, and you can pay a visit on the first Sunday of the month in summer.
There’s also a small visitor centre documenting the flour milling industry in Victorian times.
15. Wandle Park
In 21 acres just west of the town centre, Wandle Park takes its name from the river that flows through the middle.
The park was landscaped in the 1880s as a leisure and recreation for what was then a fast-growing industrial town.
At the start of the 2010s Wandle Park came through an update, cleaning up the riverbanks and building a new cafe, bandstand, pond, innovative play area and skate park.
Go online to see if there’s anything interesting happening when you’re here as the park has a programme of garden parties, outdoor theatre and movie screenings during the summer.