London has a different market for all the days and all the ways there is cash to spend.
It has street markets, indoor markets, markets in arcades, archways and shipping containers, markets selling fish and meat or fruit and vegetables or bric-a-brac, book fairs, flea markets, car-boots and pop-ups, vinyl fairs, collectibles and antique bazaars, makers’ markets and art fairs, farmers’ markets, Christmas markets and charity fetes, street-food markets, and of course a stock market.
Choose from workaday markets in neighbourhoods such as Tooting, Peckham and Southall – where locals fill their larders with plantains from the Caribbean, jaggery from India and hot mint from Vietnam – to the weekly farmers’ markets that set up in gentrified districts, including Islington, Hackney and Swiss Cottage. They offer artisan bread, cheeses, homemade chutneys and jams, and organic, biodynamic fare.
If it’s lunchtime, head to Exmouth Market, Bermondsey’s Maltby Street or Rupert Street in Soho for on-trend street food: everything from Korean BBQ tacos and custard doughnuts to fusion tapas and cold-drip coffee. If it’s 4am, try a full English breakfast at the cafés around the early-hours wholesale markets at Smithfield, Borough or Billingsgate.
Markets are part of the London vernacular: cockney rhyming slang started in the markets. The historic market on Bethnal Green’s Roman Road (where cockneys originate) is known as ‘The Roman’, and Walthamstow’s (the longest street market in Europe) as ‘Wally Market‘. They are celebrated, and they are lampooned. Covent Garden (originally a great fruit, vegetable and flower market) was mockingly referred to as ‘Mud-Salad Market’ by satirical magazine Punch back in the day.
You just have to look at street and area names to understand the centuries-old importance of market culture to the capital. Well-to-do Mayfair was named after a market-and-festival that came in the springtime; there are Cloth Fair, Haymarket, Shepherd Market, New Change (short for ‘exchange’), Leathermarket, and the list goes on. Tell people you’re going to ‘Portobello‘ or ‘Lower Marsh‘ or ‘Petticoat Lane‘ and they might give you a shopping list. Across this great city there are countless Market Places, Yards, Lanes, Streets, Squares and Parades. Some place names are initially obscure, like Cheapside and Eastcheap (thoroughfares in the financial district), but their names come from the Old English word chepe or ‘market’.
Not far from Eastcheap, Leadenhall is a handsome example of a 130-year-old arcade market. It was built by the Victorians who were continuing a concept – the equivalent of today’s indoor shopping mall – that was seen in the 16th-century Royal Exchange and probably before that. Leadenhall’s shopfronts retain many original features, including century-old racks of hooks from which pheasant or oxtail or spring lamb would hang when this was home to poultry, meat and dairy traders. Today the shops have turned to restaurants and retail, but visitors can still marvel at the stunning canopy that was erected in 1881 at about the same time as another popular market – Spitalfields – also acquired a new edifice.
Spitalfields (close to Liverpool Street station) was then a bustling fruit and vegetable market, but it has since been reinvented and now draws hoards of hungry browsers to its art, fashion and collectibles stalls that pitch alongside street-food trucks and restaurants. Close to Brick Lane (with its ‘Curry Mile‘ of South Asian restaurants and grungy, edgy or hipster weekend markets), it originally supplied fruit and vegetables to London’s East End in the same way Covent Garden did to its West End. Smithfield Meat Market, located midway between them both, is still going strong in its vast 1868 Victorian complex (designed coincidentally by the same architect as Leadenhall Market). They say that the ground beneath it is in a state of permafrost – and has been since the first ice blocks were deposited in its cold stores.
London visitors would do well to organise some sightseeing around the capital’s markets – they tend to be within sniffing distance of good food, historic sights and plentiful transport. Here are four suggestions for a busy weekend:
Thursday: Greenwich Market
Greenwich is easily reached by bus or train, but by far the most fitting way to get there is by the Thames Clipper boat service that runs from various piers including Bankside and London Bridge City near Borough Market. Britain was a seagoing powerhouse in the 18th century – and at Greenwich visitors (having arrived by river bus) can explore what was the heart of its naval prowess at the splendid National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark (a majestic tea clipper, now museum), and of course the Royal Observatory (where the 0˚ meridian line runs and time begins and ends). Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its market is nearly as old as parts of the stunning Royal Naval College. Signs announce that it has been going since 1737 – the covered courtyard and cobbled side lanes attest to that – and there is an appealing atmosphere around its haphazard collection of craft, collectibles and fashion stalls. Particularly busy at weekends, it’s gaining a reputation for dozens of taste-the world street-food stalls too.
Friday: Borough Market
In a Harry Potter-esque setting amongst the railway viaducts feeding London Bridge station, Borough Market is the kind of place you couldn’t make up. Crowded into arches, along cobbled streets and under Victorian and contemporary glass-roofed sheds, a hundred and more stalls and shops provide unbeatable fresh and cooked fare. With the proximity of so many key tourist sights – from Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, Tate Modern, HMS Belfast, up to The Shard’s 72nd-floor observation deck (the highest in Western Europe) – it’s perfect for a midway, midday meal. The peckish can eat their way through the UK (think oysters from Essex, roast-meat sandwiches, chutneys and cheeses, Scottish smoked salmon and Norfolk kippers), and if they’re ravenous they can eat their way around the world
(Ethiopian stews, Italian truffles, Egyptian koshari, street snacks from Thailand and Argentinian pastries).
Saturday: Portobello Road Market
Brought to international attention by the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill, it’s hard to believe that Portobello Road is not a film set. With its rows of pastel-painted Georgian townhouses, quaint antiques shops, trendy little eateries and distractions such as the Electric Cinema (dating from 1910, it has just 83 seats, some of them armchairs), it’s hard to imagine somewhere that is more romantically London. The market is best explored on a Friday or Saturday, and it’s an epic journey that starts at the southern end as an antiques fair, becomes a fruit and vegetable and household goods market around Westbourne Park Road, changes into a vintage clothes and collectibles bazaar under the Westway flyover, and ends as a flea market before Golborne Road. Turn right there and the market continues through the long-standing northern Moroccan and Portuguese communities – the cafés are a welcome spot for a lunchtime lamb tagine followed by Portuguese coffee with a pastel de nata egg tart.
Sunday: Columbia Road Flower Market
If ever a market epitomises the 21st-century London street scene, then Columbia Road does it in spades. This is where greenfingered Londoners head for their cut flowers, pot plants, shrubs and trees, bulbs and seeds. The choice is so daunting that the market can occupy visitors for an entire morning, but agreeable little shops in the surrounding terraces (often hidden behind the stalls) distract those who are not so flora- or foliage-focused, including interiors, vintage and antiques, and craft and handmade shops, and of course some good coffee, street food and restaurants to keep energy and enthusiasm levels topped up. Columbia Road is a satisfying meeting of the horticulturalist, the hipster and the hungry. It’s best visited between 10am and 1pm (only on Sundays) and is handy to the dozens of Vietnamese eateries on Kingsland Road or the buzz around Brick Lane and its markets.