By Nick Huxsted
As a Londoner I often take this marvellous city for granted. Long gone are the days I used to visit as a tourist (ok bewildered child) and marvel at the sheer scale, size and complexity of the city. As with anything in life the familiar becomes routine, sometimes mundane, and it takes something or someone to change your perspective and look at what’s on your doorstep with fresh eyes.
Such a thing happened to me recently when a friend of mine visited from Perth and I was given the duty of chief tour guide for the day. I donned my special tour guide hat, got out a map and had the daunting task of trying to figure out what would be of most interest, and fun, in the 24 hours she had.
Now comes the epic question. East or west? Both are very different and your preference will often come down to your personal level of bohemianism. In its simplest terms if you like sushi – head left. If you prefer the nutty taste of lentils and chick peas – turn right.
To put it all in perspective, when London was starting to turn into the metropolis it is today, the rich, wealthy and those void of donkey doo settled in the west. The leafy parks made an ideal sanctuary for polo matches and endless cups of tea.
Additionally the wind across London primarily blew from the west and it seemed sensible to set up the industrial centre of the capital in the east. The toxic fumes so prevalent in the days of coal, were pushed out to the north sea and away from the vast majority of London’s inhabitants. In a time when cigarettes were seen as a health benefit, this masterstroke of town planning seems slightly hypocritical, nevertheless, the first ‘class divide’ of the city was born. Rich in the west. Poor in the east. And part of this still rings true today.
The wealth has spread and started to make inroads, but the east is still the poorer cousin. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any less interesting. Yes, the west has the more traditional tourist attractions, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the not so ironically named ‘West-End’ with its multitude of theatres and shows.
But the east-end, today at least, is a hot spot of creativity, street art and ethnic diversity that hosts some of the finest curries outside of Delhi.
So, in the spirit of fairness here are some of my personal haunts for both the east and west….
With the influx of investment and finance over recent years, the east has an eclectic mix of the new and old, the refined and the grungy. McQueen is one of the newer, more elegant venues in east London with great food and even better cocktails. For all the homesick Americans this Steve McQueen styled bar is one of the best Shoreditch bars and a great stop before a night out in lively Shoreditch.
If you’re looking for a great atmosphere with a wide selection of bars and clubs, you can’t go wrong with Shoreditch. The Hoxton Pony is more suitable for a younger crowd with a unique take on the world renowned ‘Tea at the Ritz’. You can enjoy an afternoon ‘tea’ at the Pony which involves an infusion jar of cocktails that serves up to 6 people. After one of these you and your friends won’t be needing another… For a great pleace to stay that’s right by the action, head to The Dictionary.
In contrast the west does have its fair share of chain pubs that you can frequent in almost every major city in the UK, but it also has some hidden gems a little off the beaten track. Head to Gordons wine bar and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to the 1800s. Built in 1890, it’s said to be the oldest wine bar in London. A great venue for a cosy winters day.
If visiting during summer then a more suitable location would be the famous Kensington Roof Gardens. Truly one of the most beautiful spots to have a drink in London and its unique setting makes it one of a kind , and you may just bump into some celebrities… if that’s your thing.
In the east, Brick Lane is one of the most vibrant places to be in London. The market on a Sunday – trust me, Sunday is the best time to go – is an eclectic mix of live music, independent designers and creative arty types. It’s an east-end institution but be careful, this was the old stomping ground of Jack the Ripper.
Here you can sample food from Ethiopia to Bangladesh, buy clothes from many independent designers or simply soak up the musical atmosphere, which has been known to include a guy playing a drum kit from the back of his van.
Colombia Market (again on a Sunday) is one of the nicest smelling places in London, the flower market is full of exotic scents and even if you’re not planning to buy anything, it’s worth going to simply see the east-end market vendors drum up trade. If you’ve ever seen the start of Lock Stock, you’ll get the idea.
Portobello Market in Notting Hill is one of the most famous markets in the world and was the setting of the Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts film aptly named ‘Notting Hill’. Originally named after a small Caribbean town called Peurto Bello, the market is one of the prettiest locations in London and you can spend an entire afternoon wandering the stalls, filling your belly up with fresh bread and cheese. There’s a variety of items on show throughout the week and weekend so make sure you check to see what’s on.
Art & culture
While the majority of museums are situated in the west there is still an abundance of art in the east, you just have to know where to look. Street art has become much more prevalent over recent years and the recent works from Banksy and Stik can be seen all across east London.
You obviously won’t find the works of Van Gogh or Rembrandt hanging on the local street corner, but if modern art is your preference, much of the entire east-end will have something for you. Hot spots are in Shoreditch and Old Street. Additionally restaurants like the Tram Shed (great chicken and steak) also have the works of Damien Hirst hanging from the ceiling. Food and culture all at the same time!
The more recognised museums in the west include my personal favourite, the Natural History Museum. If you have an interest in the world around you, its animals, dinosaurs, evolution and Darwin himself, make sure you pay this beautiful museum a visit. It’s great fun if you have children and if the unpredictable English weather takes a turn for the worse, it makes a beautiful rain shelter.
The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is home to arguable the best art collection in the UK. Vincent van Gogh, da Vinci and Monet can all be found in this collection. It may not be the most interesting venue for a young family but seeing as it’s free, you can quickly pop in to see the classics and move on before restlessness sets in. Stay at the YHA London Earl’s Court to be close to the galleries and museums.
So, back to my original point. My friend, being of the lentil pursasion, decided to head east. After a day visiting Brick Lane, taking photos of the frequent street art and chatting with some of the most open and friendly people in London, we returned more than happy with our decision. And I for one prefer the east-end of London, but whatever your decision, it’s difficult to find a city that waits patiently to greet you with so much history and culture, literally round every corner.
Which do you prefer? East or west? Let us know in the comments…
Author Bio: Nick Huxsted is a freelance travel writer specialising in the sights, sounds and bars of London. After 4 years at the Guardian Newspaper Nick now writes about his main passion, travel, food and beer.
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Thanks to Jesus Arturo Romero, TheDaddy_Chaz, eGuide Travel, coolinsights and Charlie Dave for the images off Flickr. Also, thanks to McQueen. Please note, all Flickr images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.