If you have to choose one borough that epitomises the real London in the 21st century, Hackney may be as close as it gets.
Vibrant and culturally diverse, Hackney in London’s old East End is scattered with social housing, so still has a working class spirit and a bit of an edge.
But since the 2000s trendy young things have also moved in, bringing with them innovative bars and nightspots, international cuisine and lots of fun places to shop.
Gentrification has accelerated with the London Olympics in 2012, as well as the London Overground rail network which drew Hackney even closer to the City.
This article covers the entirety of the London Borough, from Shoreditch across to the Hackney Marshes.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hackney:
“Shoreditch” is a byword for gentrification and its many consequences, good and not so good.
Twenty years ago what was a working class area on the periphery of London’s financial district suddenly became appealing to creative companies for its cheap space in old factories and warehouses.
Hoxton Square was ground zero and is now the world’s most expensive creative and tech district, a world away from the musicians, artists and photographers who moved here back in the 90s.
But what’s strange about Shoreditch is how much character remains, evident in the graffiti on the walls and a dining scene full of surprises.
It’s the kind of place to come if you’re hankering for a Peruvian burger or an Indian-style cooked breakfast.
See what’s going on at the Rich Mix cultural centre and revel in the sights and scents of the Columbia Road flower market on Sundays.
2. Victoria Park
London’s oldest public park is in Tower Hamlets but bordered to the north by Hackney.
In almost 90 acres, Victoria Park opened in 1845 and has been awarded a Green Flag every year since 2010. Like the best of London’s public spaces, Victoria Park abounds with intriguing stories and monuments.
You may stumble upon two semi-circular stone shelters; these are actually alcoves from the Old London Bridge, brought here after it was demolished in 1831.Victoria Park has two cafes, two playgrounds, walks along the Hertford Union and Regent’s Canals and a lovely boating lake overlooked by a Chinese Pagoda (based on an original from 1842). The smaller model boating lake is used by the world’s oldest model boating club, dating back to 1904. We haven’t even mentioned the many annual events, like All Points, a festival every May, booking LCD Soundsystem, Björk, Lorde and Beck in 2018.
Once gritty and down-at-heel, Dalston is cool and actually rather posh these days.
But the area has defied the usual cycles of gentrification by holding onto its boisterous nightlife.
You’ll never run out of old-school boozers or fun concept bars.
One has been converted from an old butcher’s shop, and many more are hidden away in dingy cellars.
There are stylish bakeries, jaunty cocktail bars, globe-trotting restaurants and clubs aplenty.
Take Dalston Roof Park, a bar/venue inspired by New York’s High Line, hosting DJ sets, but also outdoor movie screenings, pop-up shops and yoga classes, all looking over the London skyline.
Ridley Road Market has been trading since the 1880s, and is a go-to for fresh produce and ingredients from all over the world.
We also have to mention the Rio Cinema, an Art Deco wonder showing new releases and independent films, and paired with a fantastic bar.
4. Broadway Market
Bending down from London Fields to the Regent’s Canal, Broadway Market is a shopping street on the course of a Medieval droving route taken by herders into the City of London.
During the week head here for twee cafes and an incredibly international choice of restaurants, for mezze, ramen, contemporary Italian, via an American barbecue and the highly-rated Argentine grill, Buen Ayre.
Saturday is market day when more than 130 traders set up shop along the street selling fresh produce, second-hand books, flowers, vintage odds and ends, specialty foods, coffee and loads more.
Congregated around the north end, by Westgate Street, the street food options on Saturdays are delectable and even more cosmopolitan, and could be anything from waffles to chicken katsu, Yorkshire puddings and falafel.
5. Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
The very east of the borough contains a large chunk of the park that hosted the 2012 London Olympics.
This includes the Olympic Village, which has since become a residential district, as well as the London Stadium, now the home ground of Premier League club West Ham United.
The old media centre is a TV studio, while the London Aquatics Centre, where the diving and swimming events took place, has been converted into a public swimming pool.
You have to come to be wowed the architecture of the site and to relive some recent sporting history.
Climb the 114.5-metre ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower, do some shopping at the humungous Westfield, or have a kick around on the Hackney Marshes, laid with 80 football, rugby and cricket pitches.
6. Hackney Empire
This feted venue was built in 1901 to a design by the prolific Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham.
In the early 20th century Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd all played the Hackney Empire, and in that rich tradition the theatre has been reborn as one of the capital’s premier live comedy venues.
After a couple of fallow decades as a bingo hall it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s but was resuscitated and later given a £17m refurbishment in the early 2000s.
A wealth of talent has performed here since the 80s, including Bill Hicks, John Cleese, Ben Elton and more recent stars like Russell Brand and Jack Whitehall.
But there’s more besides stand-up, with an eclectic programme that includes musicals, tribute acts and performances by companies like the English Touring Opera.
7. Abney Park Cemetery
Spooky, maybe, but also beautiful and riveting, Abney Park Cemetery is an overgrown Victorian parkland cemetery.
This dates from 1840 when it became the first arboretum-cum-cemetery in Europe.
There was an educational purpose to Abney Park, as each of its 2,500 trees and shrubs were labelled and even arranged in alphabetical order.
Abney Park was for non-conformists not aligned with the Church of England and has some pivotal figures, like William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army.
There are also lots of half-forgotten Victorian entertainers like the male impersonator Nelly Power and pantomime star Herbert Campbell.
An exciting recent discovery is the grave for Joanna Vassa (1795-1857) the only daughter of the former slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.
Mushrooms are plentiful in autumn, but even the edible ones are poisonous because of the arsenic and lead content in the soil left over from Victorian burials.
8. Church of St John-at-Hackney
In its own park on the south side of Clapton Square, the cavernous Church of St John-at-Hackney is the parish church, dating to 1792. It was built to replace the medieval St Augustine’s Church, the tower of which remains at the edge of the park.
This early-16th-century Perpendicular structure is both the oldest building in the borough and a lasting symbol for Hackney, appearing on the coat of arms.
The new church meanwhile is a place of worship by day, and one of Hackney’s most distinctive spaces for live music at night, with a capacity of 1,400 and perfect acoustics.
Some past performers are Cat Power, Bonnie Prince Billy, Jamie XX, Purity Ring and even Coldplay.
9. Sutton House
You may not even notice, but on Homerton High Street there’s a Tudor townhouse dating back to 1535. The oldest residential building in the borough, this was ordered by Ralph Sadler, Henry VIII’s principal secretary of state.
From the street this National Trust property looks Georgian as the facade was remodelled in the 18th century, but the inside is original and has housed a wonderful cast of characters from merchants to sea captains to Huguenot silk weavers.
There are lots of Tudor details, including oak panelling, some leaded windows and carved fireplaces.
You can tour the building, step out into the restful courtyard, see artwork from when Sutton House was occupied by anarchist squatters in the 80s and catch an ever-changing array of exhibitions.
10. Hackney City Farm
Open Tuesday to Sunday the Hackney City Farm in the south of the borough is a rare opportunity for London kids to experience rural life in the middle of the city.
Open Tuesday to Sunday, the Hackney City Farm keeps pigs, donkeys, goats, ducks, chickens, sheep, geese and smaller animals like guinea pigs and rabbits.
Children can interact with many of these animals as well as learn new skills like planting seeds at the vegetable garden.
The farm is such a part of the community that new residents in neighbouring flats have to agree not to complain about any noise the animals make.
Drop by the farm shop for fresh eggs, and see what’s on the menu at the cafe, using produce from the vegetable garden.
11. London Fields
The name of both a park and fashionable area beside Mare Street, London Fields can betraced back to the 1200s.
The park is a Green Flag winner, which has much to do with its super facilities, with two children’s play areas, tennis courts, a BMX track and a wildflower meadow that was created in 2012. The headline though is the Olympic size lido, which is heated, open all year round and features a cafe, sundeck and sunbathing area.
Sunday brings a farmers’ market to the playground of London Fields Primary School.
The southern end of Mare Street has a trendy feel, partly thanks to the presence of the London College of Fashion, but in true London style there’s also a lot of tempting spots to get pho and bánh mì, as this area has had a Vietnamese community since the mid-1970s.
12. Stamford Hill
As if to underline 21st-century London’s wild diversity, a tight geographic area in the north of the borough is home to Europe’s largest population of Haredi Hasidic Jews.
In 2018 the community was 30,000 strong, although that may change in the future as Hackney’s rocketing house prices have caused many to relocate to Canvey Island in Essex.
The community is rooted in the 1920s and swelled during the Second World War with new arrivals fleeing the Holocaust, and then again in recent decades with Adeni immigrants from Yemen.
If you’re a casual visitor taking in London’s kaleidoscope of cultures there’s a big choice of kosher supermarkets, delicatessens and bakeries.
13. Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History
A modern cabinet of curiosities, this attraction in Mare Street with an exceedingly long name is the first all-encompassing museum to open in London since Forest Hill’s Horniman in 1901. In the spirit of collections before the days of museums, it’s a strange jumble of disparate artefacts without modern museology or categorisation.
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities features its own cocktail bar, all part of the bizarre experience.
And for an idea of what awaits you in the display cases, there are dodo bones, shrunken human heads, a preserved two-headed kitten, doodles by prison inmates, paintings by occultists and ephemera for Stephen Tennant, a louche socialite in 1920s London.
14. The London Loom
Paradise for crafters, the London Loom bills itself as the capital’s first drop-in weaving studio.
If you’re curious about learning the art of fabric making or are already on your way to becoming an expert weaver, London Loom provides two and five-hour workshops.
For beginners there’s freestyle weaving, teaching you the basics on a two-pedal loom, allowing you to choose from a colourful array of yarns (400 in total) to weave your very own fabric.
Once you’ve picked up the rhythm of weaving, it’s a creative way to zone out for a couple of hours of mindfulness.
The London Loom also offers workshops for yarn spinning, yarn dyeing and tapestry weaving.
15. West Reservoir Centre
Ten minutes on the tube from the City of London, you wouldn’t expect to be able to go on a watersports odyssey in peaceful nature, but that’s exactly what’s in store at Woodberry Down.
In 30 acres next to Finsbury Park there’s a pair of water reservoirs, now a wetland site visited by waterfowl and waders like pochards, gadwalls, shovelers and grey herons.
Since 2016 the West Reservoir has been given over to a range of water activities.
The West Reservoir Centre is recognised by the Royal Yachting Association and British Canoeing, and offers courses with expert tuition for both activities.
There’s also open water swimming, and you can recover with a hot drink at the new waterfront cafe.