Hackney is considered one of London’s coolest areas. It’s the heart of music, youth culture and creativity. Having lived in East London for over a year, just moments away from the hip, happenin’ and downright beautiful, Broadway Market.
I got to experience the life and soul of this place. The magic of the East can be found on every pavement, round every corner and inside every building. So follow my guide to discover the very best of Hackney.
by Lindsey Henderson;
Lindsey is a Northern girl living in London. Since moving to the big smoke in 2012, she’s spent every spare moment she has walking the length and breadth of the city, on the hunt for the most exciting parties, quirkiest side streets and the best cup of coffee she can get her mits on.;
What to see and do in Hackney?
1. Shop Ethically at the Retro, Vintage and Second Hand Shops
If you’re hunting down a second-hand piece or a vintage gem, then Hackney is a good place to start. Follow Kingsland Road from Old Street and you’ll find loads of vintage and charity shops.
The best of the best is Beyond Retro, a huge vintage warehouse on the Northside of Dalston Kingsland station. They have a couple scattered across the city, but here you’ll find the greatest collection of jackets.
If you’re after the perfect leather number visit at the beginning of the week when they’ve just had a delivery. Oh, and don’t be scared to ask the staff they’ll happily rifle through the stuff in the back for you.
— Lindsey Henderson
2. Experience Farm Life at Hackney City Farm
If you don’t want to stumble across farm life in the middle of the city, then I’m not sure we can be friends (I’m totally kidding, I’m always looking for new friends!).
Hackney City farm is full of animals and wildlife and it’s the best place to discover the smell of fresh manure. It may sound a bit gross, but it makes a welcome change from exhaust fumes and people on the underground – I swear.
The cafe is really cute and the beehives and bee workshops are so un-bee-lievable, you won’t be able to stop buzzing about them!
3. Spend a Lazy Sunday Morning on Broadway Market
It might be full of crowds, but Broadway Market is at its best on the weekend. The market will be on top form, with hot food, fresh vegetables and local produce up for grabs (they also have the most amazing Scotch eggs).
The pubs and cafes down the Broadway have a great reputation and bookworms will be in their element in the Broadway Bookshop which has a huge selection. If you’re after a recommendation then ask the owner Jane Howe – what she doesn’t know about books isn’t worth knowing.
Come prepared with cash from the ATM outside Sainsbury’s on Cambridge Heath road - the one on the market charges and the queue is always longgggg.
— Lindsey Henderson
4. Celebrate Classic Films at the Old Gainsborough Studios
Hackney was once home to the legendary Gainsborough Studios, which was used by Alfred Hitchcock to film The Landlord in its heyday.
Sadly, the studio was torn down and transformed into a block of flats, but if you’re a film fanatic then I’m just giving you a heads up, as it’s still worth heading on down to the old sight.
You can see the huge sculpture of the masked head poking through the roof of the central building and get a feel for the place. It’ll be heads above anything else you see that day (I’ll stop with the head jokes now).
5. Dance Away at the Oval Space
Oval Space is one of the borough’s most beloved venues, it hosts international DJs more often than I change my socks (which is very often – just so we’re clear).
Inside it’s not much of a looker, but if you head out onto the decking there is the perfect view of the oval gas holders (where the space gets its name).
You’ll be gagging to take a picture so make sure your phone is fully charged and there’s enough memory for a quick snap. On your visit take a trip to the bathroom – the graffiti makes a very interesting read – trust me!
6. Catch a Film at the Groovy Old School Cinemas
Thanks to the architecture, the cinemas in Hackney are some of the coolest places to catch a film. Genesis in Whitechapel is a real treasure and the Grade II Listed, Rio cinema in Dalston is a beautiful example of art deco.
As well as the usual mainstream films they host live music, cabaret and indie. If you want to experience cinema as they did in the good old days then come at peak times on the weekend, they open up the balcony and you get a cracking view.
If neither of these takes your fancy then the Hackney Picturehouse is a smart cinema with a special lounge screen that’s super comfortable.
7. Live Like a Soap Star on Fassett Square
Telly addicts and soap opera fans need to take a trip to Fassett Square. This square was the inspiration for the Eastenders set, Albert Square.
Although you may not find a Queen Vic pub, or a crazy Cat Slater crying in the street, you can find a nice spot in the communal garden and sulk about love, life and family until the credits role.
8. Check Out the Bomb Sight on Nevill Road
No, no, I’m not talking about a messy teenagers bedroom here, I’m talking about an actual bomb site. Neville Road was the first place to be bombed in WW1.
Although there isn’t much sign of the devastating effects now, there is a small blue plaque on the north face of the railway bridge on Grove Road.
The V1 flying bomb was released on the 13th June 1944, killing six people, destroying the railway track and the surrounding houses.
The original plaque, which was erected by the council was stolen, so the plaque you see today is a replacement from the English Heritage group in 1998.
9. Spend a Night at the Theatre
If you want to get your fill of live entertainment then Hackney can satisfy your appetite. Hackney Empire is a huge venue, originally constructed in 1901, by architect Frank Matcham.
It attracts some big names and productions (when he was alive and kicking, Charlie Chaplin walked the stage). On the smaller and more modern side, is the Arcola Theatre, a converted paint factory which is great if you’re strapped for cash – they have pay-what-you-can for tickets on Tuesday.
If you struggle for a ticket just visit during the day and have a friendly word with the staff - they’ll let you peep inside at the vintage interior.
— Lindsey Henderson
10. Have a Wheelie Good Time Cycling Around the Borough
Hackney residents (especially the hipsters) love to travel by bike, so experience life like a true East Ender and invest in a fixed gear bike.
It does make uphill difficult, but the lightness of the frame means it’s easy to lift and you can squeeze into the overpriced coffee shops.
There are plenty of cycle paths, bike shops and repair stations in the area, so what you waiting for? Get on your bike mate!
11. Climb a Tower and Peer onto the Rooftops of Hackney
You may need to keep your eyes peeled for St Augustine’s Tower. Although it’s tall, it can be easy to miss hiding behind the betting office in the town centre.
The Grade 1-listed tower was built way, way, way back in 1292, making it the oldest building in Hackney and why it appears on the Borough’s coat of arms.
The view from the top is sublime and if you’re lucky enough to get inside (it’s only open to the public on the last Sunday of every month), then take note of the graffiti on the walls, there are some ancient skulls and hourglasses on the stone next to the entrance.
12. Get Spooked Out at Sutton House
This Tudor house was originally built in 1535 by Sir Ralph Sadler, a colleague of that lovely King, Henry VII. As one of the oldest domestic buildings in Hackney, it’s not surprising there are a few ghost stories levitating around.
The most famous ghost is believed to be Frances Machell, nicknamed the White Lady, who has passed through the bedrooms since she died in the house while delivering twins. Her friend, the Blue Lady, also haunts the bedrooms waking people in the dead of night by shaking their beds (yikes!).
If you’re feeling brave, don’t leave without seeing the squatters art from the 1980s and the Grange sculpture by Daniel Lobb in the Breaker’s Yard – it’s guaranteed to give you goosebumps even if the ghosts don’t.
13. Shop Like a True East Ender at the Street Markets
It’s the East End, so of course, there are some exceptional markets. Columbia Flower Market is wonderful on the weekend, if you can visit at the beginning and the end of the day, you’ll get your pick of the best in the morning and a right bargain when they get reduced at night.
On a Sunday, Chatsworth Road market has some outrageously good food to buy and if you’re vegan then the new Hackney Downs Vegan Market is where you’ll find your peas and carrots.
If the weather is being mardy then Mare Street Market is all indoors and with the deli, open kitchen, bar, record shop and antique shop, you can easily spend an hour or two hiding from the rain.
14. Get Arty on a Thursday
Ok, so you can experience art any day of the week, but if you want some art and some free booze (who doesn’t right?!), then pay a visit on the first Thursday of every month when the galleries open late and they offer complimentary beer and wine.
If I were you, I’d make Monika Bobinska, Space and Vyner Street Gallery top of the list. If these aren’t your vibe then you can always go street art hunting. The place is filled with graffiti from artists like Banksy, Thierry Noir, D-face and Stik Man.
If you hang about Cambridge Heath station after dark you might just see some of them in action.
— Lindsey Henderson
15. Lose Yourself in the East End Parks
Londoners love their parks which is lucky because the city is full of them. Victoria Park is probably the most popular and the perfect spot for a picnic, but you’d be missing a trick if you didn’t visit Clissold Park with its Manor House and wild deer.
It would also be a crime to miss out on London Fields which is a popular spot for BBQs, BMX riding and swimming in the heated lido. You can also play a game of ping-pong on the ping-pong tables.
Just grab a set from the pound shop on the high street. Feeling entrepreneurial? Sell the set after you’re done to aspiring players for double the price – now that’s a real win!
16. Hunt Out the Ghost Signs
A new tour-trend has kicked off in London, but don’t worry, you can remove your hands from your eyes, it’s way less spooky than it sounds.
The Ghost signs tour is a tour of old hand-painted advertising signs from the likes of pen smiths, merchants and piano makers. The guided tour is a brilliant way of discovering London’s industrial past.
If you don’t have time for the whole thing then check out the listed Blooms Piano sign near the Geffrye Museum and the multi-layered sign for Cakebread Robey on Stoke Newington Road. There’s also a great app you can download if you have a smartphone.
17. Experience at Hackney Wick
Hackney Wick was a predominantly industrial area until the 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park made it the trendy place it is today.
The canals provide a strong boating community and many of the barges are used as bookshops, pubs and shops.
The canals also provide a great walk and you can stumble across open studios or underground parties (if you time it right). Look out for Fish Island on a Friday night – you might be able to bag yourself an invite.
If you walk along Lee Conservancy Road (in between the Wick woodland and Mabley Green) you’ll be standing on the old sight of Lesney’s factories, where Matchbox toys were made.
— Lindsey Henderson
18. Dance till the Break of Dawn in the Nightclubs and Pubs
Dance music fans love Hackney because the club scene is unreal. The Nest and Dalston Superstore are great High-Street clubs in Dalston and Mick’s Garage host a great line up in the Wick.
If you’re up late then the Dolphin in Hackney town (which does look a little worse for wear) is open all hours so you can make excellent use of the free jukebox and regular karaoke sessions. Are you ready to bring out your inner George Michael?
19. Put Your Brain to the Test in the Immersive Entertainment Centres
Escape rooms are always a fun day out with your friends and a perfect team building activity for the office (is it time you really got to know Nora from accounts?).
With games for 2-6 people, Time Run is 60 minutes of fun-packed action, but if you’re looking for something more ‘adult’ then visit Lady Chastity’s Reserve and be transported into another world entirely – plan early for this one, tickets sell out fast.
20. Learn All About Hackney in Hackney Museum
Walking the streets gives you a good idea of how Hackney life is today, but if you want to learn about its past then visit the Hackney Museum.
You’ll discover all there is to know and uncover all the dark secrets, through interviews, artefacts and archives.
It never gets too busy here, so don’t worry about skipping it at peak times and don’t go away without a picture of the knitted town model, it’s absolutely adorable.
21. Get Some Instagram Worthy Snaps
If you dream of being the next big influencer or just want some cool pictures to impress your friends, then Hackney is the place to strike a pose.
The warehouses, cobbled streets and canals make some great backdrops, but if you really want to get the followers up then the Palm Vaults on Hackney High Street and Conservatory Archives on Hackney Road are the prettiest places to get a snap.
The Conservatory Archives has enough plants to give you jungle fever and the staff really know their leaves, so head there early in the day if you need some expert advice. Just don’t blame me if you fall in love with the place, I only wanted to plant the seed!
22. Grab a Bargain at the Hackney Walk
This isn’t the largest collection of designer shops in London, but it could be the best.
If The Burberry Factory Shop is a little out your price range (yeah, I hear ya) then get your teeth into the likes of Nike and Matchesfashion.
It’s easy to navigate and it doesn’t get too manic if you’re not a lover of crowds.
I’d recommend shopping here the week before pay-day to find the best bargains.
— Lindsey Henderson
23. Be Gobsmacked by the Bizarre on Cambridge Heath Road
It’s difficult to walk past the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History and not wonder what lies behind the mysterious shop front. If you’re brave enough to step over the threshold then there is a weird and wonderful world to be discovered.
I won’t give too much away, but if you’re dying to sit next to a giant bear or see some Dodo bones then this is your lucky day. They also serve cocktails if you can handle sticking around long enough to finish a drink.
24. Learn Some Cockney from an ATM
Probably one of the most unusual things to do in London is learning Cockney rhyming slang from a cash machine. Yes, that’s right, a cash machine.
When you head to the ATM on Roman Road for your bees and honey, choose ‘Cockney’ as your preferred language.
Once you’ve polished up on your slang take your skills to the market close by and use it to bond with the locals. You might even be able to wangle yourself a sweet deal.
25. Put Your Hands to Work in the Craft Workshops
Creatives, look lively; the East End is where you can indulge in all things arts and craft.
Locals have gone absolutely potty for these workshops and now they’re popping up all over the place, so put your hands to work and be prepared to get some dirt under those fingernails.
The Crown Works Pottery School, Tea and Crafting and Freestyle Weaving should definitely be your first port of call, or should I say first ‘pot’ of call?