I found myself with a spare day in London on my most recent trip to the capital and actually really struggled with what to do. I’ve been to London quite a few times in the last 7 years and have seen the big sights now; Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, V&A, Natural History Museum (which is AWESOME), St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe…you name it. So what alternative things are there to do in London for us tenth-time visitors? Well, apart from a magnificent Swedish bakery in Covent Garden (called Bageriet, check it out here and drool) you should spend a more alternative afternoon in Shoreditch in East London. The area has undergone a lot of gentrification but there are still a multitude of things to do in Shoreditch and you’re guaranteed to not leave bored.
Things to do in Shoreditch
Shoreditch is famous for two things nowadays; street art and hipster places to eat. To me, that is the definition of an ideal neighbourhood (who doesn’t like munching on a doughnut whilst looking at cool art? Just me?). However, I suggest you start your afternoon by booking onto one of the many Shoreditch tours. One of the more popular ones is Shoreditch Street Art Tours, however I decided to go down a more alternative route with Unseen Tours.
Unseen Tours, Shoreditch
Unseen Tours is a not for profit social enterprise that empowers homeless and vulnerably housed men and women by employing them as tour guides. The aim is to lead tours that showcase the area but also comment on social injustice and break down stereotypes of what a homeless person is. I picked the Shoreditch tour (there’s a separate one for Brick Lane) as I wanted to explore East London. The Shoreditch tour starts at Old Street Station and then snakes through the surrounding area. This is a perfect option if you are looking for alternative things to do in London.
Let’s be upfront. If you want a tour guide that knows the complete history of the area or can tell you everything about street art in Shoreditch, this is not the tour for you. However, if you want an account of life as a vulnerably housed individual in London or want to know more about social injustice, then you should book Unseen Tours. The tour does cover historical places and street art, but it is far from your run of the mill tour. Rather than history, you get personal anecdotes about life in Shoreditch and commentary from someone who has seen the area gentrify in the last 20 or so years. If you mention certain interests, e.g. Banksy, then the tour guide will point out more of your preferred sights.
Onto practicalities; Unseen Tours offers tours in 5 different neighbourhoods and they are all lead by different locals. Prices are £12 and 60% of the ticket price goes to your guide whilst the rest cover expenses such as guide phones. The Shoreditch tour runs for 2 hours and is available every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Book your tickets on their website here.
Street art in Shoreditch
Once you’ve finished your tour I suggest that you wander down random streets and admire the prolific street art in Shoreditch. I love neighbourhoods that are filled with street art and Shoreditch definitely didn’t disappoint! It seems like every time you turn a corner you stumble upon another amazing piece. I’ve gathered photos of some of my favourites in this post but there is an overwhelming amount to see!
One of the most unusual street art pieces (that was pointed out by our Unseen Tours guide) was a painted chewing gum on the sidewalk. A guy called Ben Wilson basically turns flattened pieces of chewing gum into miniature pieces of art. Sadly, he’s been arrested a number of times for vandalising property across London. Fortunately, he’s got the law on his side as the chewing gums aren’t actually part of a property. It’s just a shame that the council can’t appreciate an artist who turns rubbish into something beautiful.
A beautiful bird by Skyhigh, check out their Facebook page for more.
Pure Evil has a gallery you can visit in Shoreditch on 108 Leonard Street. The piece above is also opposite NikeLab 1948 on Bateman Row where Nike’s most loyal fans are catered for with the brand’s newest releases.
I really liked the above piece by Ananda Nahu which is close to the geisha artwork you can see earlier in the post. Check out more of Nahu’s art here. Also note the stick figures in the background by STIK, which are a comment on the past, present and future of artists in Shoreditch.
Where to Eat in Shoreditch
At the end of your afternoon in Shoreditch you should head for food to round off your Shoreditch visit. Boxpark, a pop up mall constructed from shipping containers, is probably the most well-known place to eat in Shoreditch. However, I opted to cross the road and instead visit the restaurant Smokestak. They specialise in smoked meats and the interior design makes me think of a love child between a butcher and a Scandinavian designer.
The meat is the hero of the show here and I opted for the ridiculously tasty pork rib. This dish literally melts in your mouth. Just remember to order some sides too. I was told that they don’t serve anything fried, so no chips on this menu. I also strongly recommend the passion fruit green tea mocktail, which was pretty divine. But then again, I would say that about anything that contains matcha.
This was my first visit to Shoreditch and I loved the vibe of the neighbourhood. In fact, despite my short visit, it has quickly gained the status of one of my favourite London areas. It’s a bit like a supersized version of Northern Quarter in Manchester, which also happens to be my favourite neighbourhood.
I think the Shoreditch tour from Unseen Tours is perfect for those looking for alternative things to do in London. It gives you an unusual introduction to the neighbourhood and allows you to see a different side to the hipster buzz of Shoreditch. Finally, the street art is a must among the things to do in Shoreditch and you should also explore the many cool places to eat in Shoreditch. What are you waiting for? East London is calling.