The Top Alternative Things to See and Do in East London

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Kathryn Beeson

Just a short journey from Central London’s tourist spots, as you make your way through the ‘E’ postcodes, you’ll find all sorts of unusual activities to impress dates, spend time with your friends or give your out-of-town guest a view of London that goes beyond Big Ben and Mamma Mia’s endless domination of the West End. To help you out, Culture Trip has asked our local insiders for the lowdown on alternative things to see and do in East London, from live music to film and theatre, from lengthy walks to homely pubs and one-of-a-kind independent record stores.

Catch a show at the Pleasance Theatre

Avoid the busy, touristy (and extortionately priced) West End shows and check the listings for something more low key at Islington’s internationally rated theatre and comedy value. The venue is explicitly LGBT-friendly and hosts regular drag nights too, which go down a storm among the local community. The Pleasance Theatre shows off-West-End and fringe shows in an altogether more relaxing setting, with a first-rate bar and outdoor terrace that’s perfect for interval catch-ups with friends or as a romantic, getting-to-know-your-date setting.

Explore the Limehouse Basin

At the crossway with Wapping and St Katharine Docks, the Limehouse Basin (formerly the Regents Canal dock) is a huge surprise, and not only for those visiting London for the first time. A quiet and inviting lake-village atmosphere, the Limehouse Basin was a place that only a few decades ago was seen as an area of workboats and dangerous slums. Now, after a total redevelopment that started in 1983, along with the construction of the Docklands Light Railway, new housing and boats decorate this nice passage, starting with the hidden East End canals. Head to the Husk Coffee and Creative Space, just in front of Limehouse DLR Station, for a Colombian ground coffee in a relaxed indie atmosphere, or look for the Moo Canoes centre for kayak excursions or boat hire.

Browse for rarities at Yo-Yo Records

Music nerds will fall in love with this Hackney record store, whose renowned range of wares covers funk, soul, jazz, fusion, Latin, disco, boogie and rock/psych. If you commit to browsing, you’ll find numerous rare and limited edition pressings to excite even the most seasoned vinyl fiend. As with any record shop, a lot of the pleasure is in flicking through the covers and seeing what they have on offer, while chatting with the incredibly knowledgeable owner and regular clientele.

Find the Battle of Cable Street mural

Did you know that in the heart of Shadwell lies one of the most significant murals in London history? The Battle of Cable Street was painted by Paul Butler, David Binnington Savage, Desmond Rochfort and Ray Walker as a tribute to the demonstrators who fought against the British Union of Fascists in the famous Battle of Cable Street in 1936. You’ll find this colourful memorial to anti-fascism a few steps west of the Shadwell waterways – it’s well worth a trip into Tower Hamlets to find it.

Watch live music at Church of Sound

In the evenings, Clapton’s St James, which functions as a regular place of worship during the day, houses Church Of Sound – a regular live music night which gives a platform to up-and-coming jazz and funk musicians. Prepare to be dazzled by the talent on display, and make sure you’re ready to move your feet! One thing to note: Church of Sound is a popular night and sells out regularly. If there’s something you’re set on seeing, make sure to book in advance.

Watch a show at Wilton’s Music Hall

Situated in the heart of Whitechapel, Wilton’s is the world’s oldest surviving music hall and is proud of its 300-year history. Built originally as individual houses, the hall has seen various alterations and reconstruction over the years, but thanks to John Wilton in the 1860s, the place started its story of music and art. Today, Wilton’s Music Hall is a magnificent location where theatre, opera, dance, music, cinema, circus and other art forms are finding their natural home. Still reminiscent of the sights of the past, the charity currently managing the venue completed a restoration project to maintain its original charm.

Learn to screen-print at Print Club

Print Club is a well-loved Dalston art institution that’s all about creating, displaying and encouraging print work. As well as showcasing work from the country’s finest printmakers, there’s also plenty of opportunity for you to get hands-on and have a go yourself, with a full day beginners’ screen-printing workshop. Get messy, get creative and walk away with your own artwork, which you get to set up, screen and print yourself.

Go from pub to pub along Regent’s Canal

Carrying along the canal pathway from Limehouse, the Regent’s Canal in Mile End offers a nice place for a quiet walk, bike ride or a run. Starting from Mile End Park, the first thing you need to do is stop by The Palm Tree, an old-fashioned jazz pub that offers live music performers every weekend. Good beer and high-quality music can transform a quiet night out into a buzzing and unforgettable one. Carry on down the canal and gaze upon fascinating pond boats docked along the canal, and eventually you will stumble across a spectacular view of Victoria Park, where a beer in the People’s Park Tavern garden at sunset will make for a relaxing end to a day of exploring.

Learn to make candles at Earl of East

Earl of East started selling scented candles at a stall in Netil Market. Their travel-inspired scents soon proved popular, and it grew from there. Now, as well as their range of candles and skincare products, the shop runs organic candle-making workshops from their premises in Hackney. You’ll be able to experiment with different scents and learn from the masters themselves – all while sipping prosecco – to create a final soy-wax candle that sets overnight (don’t worry, if you’re not local enough to pick it up, the shop is happy to post it to you).

Take a cocktail making class at TT Liquor

Expect inclusion, expertise and fun at this premium cocktail bar and liquor store, set in a converted warehouse (it’s Shoreditch, darling). Their cocktail-making classes are led by bona-fide experts (you’ll be floored by their drinks-based knowledge) and use high-quality spirits as ingredients. You’re guaranteed to come out with a drink that tastes amazing and everything is fully interactive, so no one is left out. This makes their classes ideal as a group activity. Make a special occasion of it and book out a private room for you and your pals.

Take in the colours of Columbia Road Flower Market

Columbia Road Flower Market offers the chance to brighten your house this winter with an impressive array of flowers. The street market, held every Sunday from 8am to 3pm, transforms the area into a village for flower lovers. Aside from the independent flowers stands, there are many coffee shops, restaurants and pubs that also make this an authentic and unique market.

Watch something arty at the Castle Cinema

Take a step back in time to the golden age of Hollywood with a trip to Hackney’s Art Deco Castle Cinema. Originally built in 1913, the interiors have been lovingly brought back to life thanks to a community project and extensive crowdfunding campaign. Sink back into your plush, comfy armchair and admire the architecture as you take in a range of independent films and documentaries. Be sure to check out the bar too, which serves alcoholic drinks, pizzas and a good range of vegan options, all with fabulous 20s-themed decor.

Test your brain at AIM Escape

“The most advanced escape room experience ever designed” according to their own website – a bold claim, but does it hold up to scrutiny? You’ll have to do it to find out. Without giving anything away though, AIM is super slick. Expect complex narratives and hyper-realistic sets and props that are a far cry from the usual loveable-but-clunky escape room aesthetic. It’s totally immersive – you won’t ever have to speak to a staff member while you’re in the room – and, for the hour that you’re in there, you’ll forget there’s a world outside.

Visit Whitechapel Gallery

East London’s trailblazing Whitechapel Gallery bills itself as “the artists’ gallery for everyone”. It has a comprehensive programme of talks, workshops, masterclasses and film screenings alongside the usual exhibitions and fixed exhibits. There’s a refreshing focus on work from up-and-coming artists as well as big names. The Whitechapel Gallery enjoys a strong reputation internationally (it remains the only British gallery to have exhibited Picasso’s Guernica), so you’re sure to see something interesting.

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