I love London. But then what’s not to love? It’s a city with culture in abundance and I’ve written before about my favourite places to go in London. But when I based myself at Cheval Residences Three Quays by the Tower of London I’d found the perfect excuse to explore more of the best places to visit in London.
Call this the City of London, or east edition, if you will. I’ll be bringing you a round-up of the best of the west soon. But in the meantime allow me to introduce you to some of the cultural highlights of the City and East End.
From Stratford to Barbican, the east of London has much more to offer than people realise.
Though every city is a master of transformation, this area of London is constantly on the move. Not so much sweeping out the old, but regenerating, reinventing and recycling to bring new ideas and an unmistakable verve.
This is a in-depth travel guide, so here’s some quick links:
First a place to stay – Cheval Residences Three Quays
But first let me introduce you to a place to stay. I knew I’d like Cheval Residences Three Quays the moment I arrived. Perhaps even before I did, as its ethos chimes with much of what we write about here on LiveShareTravel. It’s a luxury place to stay in what is an expensive city, but one that gives you more than just a hotel room.
I had an apartment with views over the River Thames, and the City’s evocative skyline. The Shard pointing proudly into the sky-high above the likes of Hay’s Galleria now a boutique shopping stop. But before that it was Hay’s Wharf, famed in the 19th century as the Larder of London when it saw 80% of the dry produce imported to London. Then there’s HMS Belfast moored on the river in front of Hay’s Galleria – a Royal Navy museum ship since 1963.
It’s perhaps easy to forget history when you are building a shining apartment building for modern travellers. But this hasn’t been overlooked by Cheval Residences. Their website includes a photo of the same riverside view – from a different angle. And there were a few retro ornaments such as a toy double-decker bus, plus recipe books with the best of British cooking so you could make yourself at home.
Feeling at home at Cheval Residences
And this is where we hit the crux of places like Cheval Residences. As serviced, or executive apartments, they are designed to be much more than a hotel, but to make you feel at home while enjoying luxury surrounds.
As I was shown around my apartment by a well-dressed member of staff I was first taken by the view, and then by the quality of the accommodation. The one-bedroom apartment had a quality finish with a living area, fully equipped kitchen and bathroom with Hermès’ Eau d’Orange Verte toiletries, plus a very comfortable king-size bed.
Places to visit in London – the City and beyond
Let’s start our guide of the City with the Tower of London seeing as it is a stone’s throw (well probably less as they’re neighbours) from Cheval Residences Three Quays.
The Tower of London is one of the most culturally significant sights in London, and one of the oldest. Started in the 1080s with the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London was expanded by successive monarchs and it became a fortress, palace and prison.
Not only does it have layer upon layer of history, but it’s also home to the Crown Jewels, and if you visit at the right time of year, you can catch a little British pageantry.
During my stay at Cheval Residences I witnessed a ceremony for the State Opening of Parliament, including gun salutes, a parade of Coldstream Guards and Yeoman Warders (the guards that look after the Tower of London) and more.
London’s history isn’t all rosy. Much of it is dark.
From Tower Hill it’s a short walk to the ornate magnificence of Tower Bridge and just below it, St Katherine Docks. Though I’d heard of it many times I didn’t visit until my stay in the area, and I was impressed!
The docks, which are actually just outside The City, is one of London’s many old dockyards given a new lease of life by 1990s regeneration. It’s now home to shops and restaurants, and a pub, The Dickens Inn, a former brewery dating back to the 18th century, but it’s also a peaceful place to while away a couple of hours.
Heading back into the City, you can get a sense of London and the UK’s wealth at the Bank of England museum. Covering 300-years of history with collections of old bank notes and coins, you’ll leave culturally, if not financially, richer. It is however, free to enter.
Continuing on the museums’ trail, the Museum of London, in London Wall near Barbican, is perhaps my favourite of all. Charting the history, people and stories that have shaped the city from the Bronze Age to the modern-day, the museum is fascinating and immersive even for those who know the city well. In fact especially for those people – and this coming from someone who grew up in London.
Beneath the cobbled pathways of London’s ‘Square Mile’ lies a rich Roman history and Lower Thames Street is home to one its most fascinating remains. The Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse was discovered in 1848, and was recently opened to the public – explore it with a 45-min guided tour.
Another cultural highlight in the City of London is the Guildhall Galleries. I once attended a wedding at the Guildhall and promised to go back soon after to see its collections of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite masterpieces. I still haven’t been – but will one day! But the Guildhall itself is a treat too for its wonderful architecture and long history. Beneath the square outside the building – highlighted by a black circle of stones – are the ruins of London’s Roman Amphitheatre – the largest in Britannia.
Leave Roman Britain and head into the modern day. First stop at St Paul’s Cathedral, but then take the Millennium Bridge south of the Thames to take in Bankside.
Millennium Bridge has fantastic views at either end – the classic lines of St Paul’s and the City to the north and Tate Modern’s chimney and industrial edifice to the south.
The former power station was transformed into Britain’s national gallery of modern art in 2000 and has collections of British and international modern and contemporary art. It has works by Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Pollock to name just a few.
Its Turbine Hall, which once housed the power station’s electricity generators, displays specially commissioned works. At 35 metres high and 152 metres long is a uniquely spectacular space for an art installation – and a tricky one to fill.
One of London’s oldest and most famous theatres is in Bankside. But the popular Globe Theatre was preceded by the Rose Theatre, the first Elizabethan theatre on Bankside. Built in 1587, it was here that one William Shakespeare learnt his craft. Remains of the Rose Theatre are protected but there is an exhibition, accessed from Park Street, and open days on the site every Saturday from 10am to 5pm.
Along the river bank, the Globe, is a faithful reconstruction of the open air playhouse designed in 1599, where Shakespeare worked and wrote most of his greatest plays. It is also home to new indoor Jacobean theatre, The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The Globe’s theatre season runs outside from April-October and inside from November-March.
London’s history isn’t all rosy. Much of it is dark and nowhere is this more so than in its historic prisons. The Clink Prison Museum may seem an unusual attraction, but it tells many a fascinating (and at times lurid) story. Based on the site of the notorious prison known as The Clink, it provides a snapshot of London’s unsavoury past from 1144 to 1780.
It had inmates from priests to prostitutes, and some were involved with famous events including the Gunpowder Plot, The Babington Plot and the sailing of the Mayflower.
Shoreditch and Hoxton re-invent themselves with the panache of a Madonna makeover
Speaking of historic ships, close to the Clink Prison Museum, you’ll find the Golden Hinde – a historically accurate replica of the ship in which Sir Francis Drake completed the second-ever circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. Tours of the ship transport you back to this era and you’ll marvel at how such a small vessel sailed the seven seas.
Culture doesn’t only come in historic form in London. Tucked away in the back streets of Bankside is wine tasting experience, Vinopolis. They have experts on hand to answer your wine questions and make recommendations, masterclasses where you’ll perfect your tasting skills and live music events.
Stratford to Shoreditch – a hipster reinvention
Until 2012 there were few reasons to recommend Stratford. It simply was not one of the places to go in London. But millions of pounds investment, a revitalisation programme and perhaps the best Olympic Games ever (ok, maybe I’m biased) and Stratford has plenty to entice people out of the City of London.
This inner city area now has designer and chain store shopping at Westfield Stratford, stellar sports facilities and a beautiful park in the former Olympic Park area, plus the unusual attraction in the Arcelormittal Orbit. Love it or hate it, the UK’s tallest sculpture – at 115 metres high – delivers views of the London skyline up to 32 kilometres away.
Shoreditch has become famous for street art with Banksys on Rivington Street and Brick Lane
But Stratford isn’t all shiny new bits of metal. The area has a long history and plenty for cultural travellers, such as the Theatre Royal Stratford East which dates back to 1884. It was the starting point for many an entertainers’ career and made famous through the work of legendary theatre director, Joan Littlewood.
Shoreditch and Hoxton among the places to visit in London
Years ago – way back in the mid 1990s – I landed my first journalism job in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area. Back then it was a cool place to be – perhaps even a little too cool for its own good.
It was a shabby young upstart where old warehouses were being refurbished into photographers’, art and design studios, and funky, at times down-at-heel restaurants and bars were pulling in young hipsters. Of course, they weren’t called hipsters at the time – this is quite a millennial phenomenon. They were “pre-hipsters” if you like.
Going back to this area just east of Liverpool Street and Bishopsgate – it seems as though everything has changed and yet nothing has at all. It’s because Shoreditch and Hoxton re-invent themselves with the panache of a Madonna-makeover. They have been gentrified yet somehow still hold on to the shabby-chic this area is known for. It’s also a great place to get to grips with London’s multicultural mix.
Starting in Shoreditch, BOXPARK is a must for hipster fashions and emerging design talent. Under the arches of the Overground rail and Shoreditch High Street station, you’ll find all manner of pop up shops and restaurants.
Markets too are something of a cultural experience in Shoreditch – Old Truman Brewery, in Brick Lane, hosts a market with up-and-coming designers selling a unique range of clothes, handbags and jewellery every Sunday. There’s also vintage finds and chic boutiques there too.
If that doesn’t sate your shopping appetite you can keep up with the cool kids at Spitalfields Market, where you can haggle with aspiring designers or purchase plenty of organic produce.
Shoreditch has become famous for its street art and from its twisting backstreets to main roads like Commercial Street and Great Eastern Street, artists have made political and social statements through their works. There’s even a few Banksys in Rivington Street, and in four locations on Brick Lane.
Finally head further into Shoreditch and connect with the area’s history at the Geffrye Museum, which illustrates the domestic life of Londoners over the past 400 years.
Hungry for more?
You may have quenched your appetite for culture but perhaps you are looking for some great eats in and around the City and east London. Immerse yourself in London’s Bangladeshi culture with a curry there – not only will it treat your tastebuds but you’ll also discover the East End take on Asian culture.
One of the things that has made Shoreditch what it is today is its regular influx of immigrants and the way they have shaped the area – from Chinese, to Jews and most recently Bangladeshis. Nowhere is this more relevant than in Brick Lane.
I also bought food at some of my favourite markets to have in my apartment. You’ll find great delicatessens, restaurants and bars in the likes of Borough Market, in Bankside, and the beautiful Leadenhall Market, between Gracechurch Street and Lime Street, in the City.
The former is well-known for its eclectic mix of world cuisines, creative and colourful foods, and its cosy atmosphere. Leadenhall is less well-known, but is an experience not to be missed for its cobbled walkways and glass Victorian roof.
For more food experiences in east London, take a look at this tasty tour.
This guide to the best places to go in the City and east of London, follows my review stay at Cheval Residences Three Quays, I’ve also written about other places to stay in London for a luxury travel break.
As always, as ever, all views and recommendations are entirely my own.