The constituency of the current leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, Islington is a borough in his image.
Very popular with young, progressive people, this area has a history of radical left-wing politics.
The not so radical left-wingers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made the deal that would define UK politics at the restaurant Granita on Upper Street, now a Tex-Mex joint.
Arsenal, Corbyn’s favourite football club is also in Islington, having moved to N5 from Woolwich in 1913. The Emirates Stadium is a glittering modern arena, and the home of a team known for its panache.
There’s a big helping of culture at the cutting-edge Almeida Theatre, and Sadler’s Wells, the world-renowned dance venue.
And if you want a culinary trip around the world just take a walk down Upper Street or Camden Passage, where crêperies vie for your business with Scandinavian smoke-houses.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Islington:
1. Eating Out
With a population of diverse, young and well-heeled locals with refined palates, Islington is one of London’s best areas for food.
Among the top reviewed eateries are a gluten-free bakery (Beyond Bread), a cafe-deli (Ottolenghi), contemporary European seafood restaurant (Prawn on the Lawn) and Puglia-style trattoria (Trullo). What’s amazing is that all of these can be found within moments of each other, on or near Upper Street, which is also a go-to for top-class Chinese and Thai food, and has no lack of gastropubs in gentrified boozers.
Afghan Kitchen and Frederick’s and Oldroyd (both modern European cuisine), deserve your attention in Angel while Little Georgia in Pentonville will introduce you to the underappreciated delights of Eurasian dining.
2. Upper Street
Islington’s main thoroughfare has been around since the Middle Ages, but up until the 1700s was in agricultural land.
Henry VIII used to hunt ducks here, while the spy, courtier and poet Sir Walter Raleigh had a plush residence on Upper Street.
After being developed, Upper Street became an urban nightmare in the 19th century, decried by Charles Dickens and nicknamed the “Devil’s Mile” in the 1880s for its prostitution, crime and drunkenness.
Fast forward 135 years and Upper Street has kept its bustle, but become an altogether more fashionable artery.
We’re talking gluten-free bakeries, gin bars, concept retro-chic restaurants and spots that are many things rolled into one: The Library is a cross between a restaurant, bar, live music venue and exhibition space, while the King’s Head, a pub-cum-theatre.
Passing Islington Town Hall, you may be interested to know that this was the scene of the UK’s first legal same-sex marriage in 2014.
3. Almeida Theatre
One of the capital’s top producing theatres, named London Theatre of the Year at the Stage Awards, is just off Upper Street.
The Almeida Theatre is a small venue with an international reputation, and is the first place to watch plays before they hit the West End.
Under the directorship of Rupert Goold the Almeida Theatre has a reputation for taking risks, acting as a springboard for the next generation of British Artists, producing new work and reinvigorating classics.
In that vein, in autumn/winter 2018 there was a new version of Ibsen’s the Wild Duck, created by one of the rising stars of UK theatre, Robert Icke.
4. Screen on the Green
An Upper Street linchpin since 1913, the Screen on the Green is one of the UK’s longest functioning cinemas.
The building faces Islington Green and stands out at night for its neon outline and glowing marquee.
A one-screen cinema of this age has a few quirks that you may not encounter at modern multiplexes.
One is that the cinema’s bar is in the auditorium, which makes getting refreshments easy, while overhead is a beautiful barrel vault and there’s a classic working red curtain.
As for the movies, these are fresh Hollywood productions, sprinkled with seasonal classics.
John Carpenter’s Halloween was on the programme in October 2018.
5. Sadler’s Wells Theatre
One of the world’s top dance venues, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre is in the south of the borough, close to Angel tube.
The current 1,500-seat venue is from 1998 and is the sixth on this site since 1683. Sadler’s Wells is both a receiving theatre, hosting the world’s most prestigious dance companies, and a producing house, with a total of 16 associated companies and artists working on original productions.
Despite the pedigree of the setting, Sadler’s Wells has moved with the times, since artistic director Alistair Spalding took over in 2004. Since then, cross disciplinary shows like “zero degrees”, with sculptor Anthony Gormley, and the annual Breakin’ Convention hip-hop dance festival in May have helped keep the theatre relevant in 21st-century London.
6. London Canal Museum
West of the Islington Tunnel on the Regent’s Canal is a museum all about London’s waterways.
The building needs a mention; it’s a Victorian warehouse that went up in 1863 and was used by early ice cream entrepreneur Carlo Gatti to import ice from Norway.
On a visit you can see one of the warehouse’s two ice wells.
The museum goes into depth on all the huge variety of goods carried on London’s canals, and recalls what it was like to live and work in this environment in the 19th century.
You can see the interior of a narrowboat, and board the Bantam IV, a pusher tug launched in 1950 and moored outside.
7. Arsenal F.C.
A club known for its class and innovation, Arsenal Football Club was the first club to introduce floodlighting and numbered shirts, and even had a tube station (Gillespie Road) renamed in its honour.
That was all under the auspices of Herbert Chapman, manager in the interwar years.
Another long-term manager, erudite Frenchman Arsène Wenger, led the club through an entire league campaign unbeaten in 2003-04. You can take a tour of the 60,000-seater stadium that his successful teams helped finance, and for a bit extra you can do this in the company of a fan favourite like Charlie George, Nigel Winterburn or Perry Groves.
The stadium museum reopened in 2016 after a renovation, and has memorabilia like the boots worn by Michael Thomas when he scored the last-minute winner in the title decider of 1988-89. To attend a match it’s best to sign up for membership, though tickets for less in-demand fixtures do go on general sale.
8. Little Angel Theatre
For nearly 60 years this theatre has been staging high-quality puppetry productions remembered fondly by almost anyone who spent their childhoods in this corner of North London.
The 100-seat theatre is inside a handsome Neoclassical temperance hall from the 19th century.
The Little Angel Theatre puts on its own productions, sometimes based on popular children’s books (The Everywhere Bear was on in Autumn 2018), but also hosts touring puppetry companies from the UK and overseas.
The programme is multicultural to encourage universal participation and break down barriers, and there are constant opportunities for kids to join in, at the Saturday Puppet Club, the Crafty Kids Club, school holiday clubs and regular one-off Fun Days.
9. Camden Passage
Off Upper Street is an atmospheric Georgian alley with gaslights, flat-fronted houses and all sorts of shops.
From the 1950s, Camden Passage became one of London’s antiques hotspots, rivalling Portobello and Kensington Church Street.
Where the alley joins Charlton Place there’s an antiques market on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at the covered Pierrepoint Arcade Market space (a remnant of a tram shed). A book market trades here on Thursdays and Fridays, while further up there’s another outdoor market for vintage clothes, collectibles and assorted kitsch (Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun). Until recently almost every permanent shop on Camden Passage belonged to an antiques dealer, but now there’s a complement of boutiques, galleries, restaurants, cafes and vintage clothes shops, for a full afternoon of browsing.
10. Caledonian Road
In an increasingly posh borough, the Caledonian Road is a mile-long strip of London at its most down-to-earth and multicultural.
The road was plotted in the 1820s and was still being used by cattle drovers on their way to Smithfield Market up to 1852. Pentonville Prison (near Caledonian Road and Barnsbury Railway Station) opened here in 1842, and Oscar Wilde, Boy George, George Michael and Pete Doherty of the Libertines have all done time here.
In the late-20th century this less affluent stretch of the street was settled by a large Ethiopian community, which is still visible at the Merkato, Marathon and Addis restaurants, among pubs, independent shops and cafes.
Take a peek inside Housemans at no. 5, a not-for-profit bookshop established in 1945 and dealing in new and used radical and progressive books.
11. Union Chapel
A remarkable place, the Union Chapel is a working church but also one of the capital’s most beloved live music venues, and the base for the Margins homelessness project.
The church is a Grade I-listed Victorian neo-Gothic building raised in the 1870s and complete with superlative acoustics, but threatened with demolition in the 1980s.
Since 1992 it has become an award-winning venue, run independently and not for profit, with proceeds going towards the building’s ongoing restoration and community schemes.
It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s something going on practically every night of the week, while the roll-call of artists to have performed at the Union Chapel over the past 25 years is staggering.
Patti Smith, Elton John, Thurston Moore, Jeff Mangum, Beck, Ray Davies and Graham Nash have all taken to the stage in the last decade.
12. The Cally Festival
Every June the Caledonian Road shuts down to traffic for one day for a free street-long party attended by thousands of people.
The Cally Festival is a snapshot of London at its most diverse, with more than 70 market stalls and an international selection of food to try, from paella to French pastries, churros and Bangladeshi treats.
Local businesses and clubs put on all manner of demonstrations, and Arsenal Football Club even sets up a small pitch for shootouts.
You can take part in workshops for pottery, dance and mosaic-making, and there are lots of amusements for children.
On two stages you can also catch a genre-hopping line-up of live music including hip-hop, folk, jazz, funk, indie, soul, reggae and afrobeat.
13. Regent’s Canal
Built in the 1810s, this waterway runs for 8.6 miles through east and north-central London between the Grand Union Canal at Paddington and the River Thames at Limehouse.
The Regent’s Canal cuts right through Islington, but curiously is underground for the most part here.
This is thanks to the 878-metre Islington Tunnel.
If you fancy walking from the Canal Museum at Battlebridge Basin to the City Road Basin at the eastern end of the tunnel, there’s a waymarked path set into the pavement over ground, delivering you back to the canal at Colebrooke Row.
Alternatively you could amble along the very picturesque stretch of towpath west of the Canal Museum, which beckons you into a preserved 19th-century industrial landscape, where the art college Central St Martins is in a converted warehouse complex, and there’s a water tower and lock-keeper’s cottage at St Pancras Lock.
14. City Road Basin
A sight that may catch you by surprise, the City Road Basin is a large rectangular body of water built to serve the Regent’s Canal in 1820. Come the middle of the 20th century the area was totally derelict and wouldn’t be properly regenerated until the 2000s.
It was only in 2009 that the public could visit the basin for the first time.
You can come to ponder the water for a while, or pay a visit to the sleek Victoria Miro gallery, which is dedicated to contemporary art from around the world.
The Islington Boat Club is right on the City Road Basin and offers one-off paddle-boarding lessons and canal tours, as well as trips in the narrow-boat Peggotty Tom.
15. Business Design Centre
If you have a taste for Victorian metal and glass architecture you have to take a peek at this whopping Grade II-listed building.
When it was completed in 1861 the Royal Agricultural Hall was one of the largest exhibition halls in the world, staging prestigious events like the Royal Tournament from 1880 and the very firsts Crufts dog show in 1891.This gargantuan structure was used as a post office sorting depot in the Second World War and was then left empty before being rebranded as the Business Design Centre in 1986. The hall today is taken up by showrooms and offices, but opens up for dozens of events and trade shows throughout the year.
Most of these have free entry although you may have to book in advance.