One of the most enjoyable aspects of London is its many markets.
From the fish market at Billingsgate to the antiques of Portobello Road, there’s an immense variety of markets. Each has its own atmosphere.
One that fascinates me is Smithfield, London’s main meat market. While Covent Garden (fruit and veg) and Billingsgate (fish) moved out of the centre to new industrial sites with better transport links, Smithfield has remained on its traditional site, in splendid Victorian buildings near the Barbican. If you want to see Smithfield at work, you have to start early – it’s already humming by three o’clock in the morning and all over by the time most people go to work. But it’s a fascinating sight, with huge sides of beef being carried down the corridors under the blueish glow of the lights.
To be nearby for an early start, you might give the Rookery Hotel off Cowcross Street a try. With its gentleman’s club looks and quirky antiques, it has bags of character and is just a minute’s walk from the market.
For a more contemporary experience you could try the Zetter in St John’s Square, just off Clerkenwell Road – a hotel with solid environmental credentials and free WiFi already covered extensively on this blog.
Portobello Road is of course a classic. Most people go at weekends, when the antiques market is in full flow, but Fridays are less busy and have a superb vintage clothes and jewellery market at the north end of the road. The lovely thing about Portobello Road is the wonderful hues in which the houses are painted – there’s pastel pink, sky blue, even bright red and purple, giving the market a vibrant and colourful background. And the prices are not unrealistic; haggling isn’t de rigueur as it is in some Middle Eastern markets, but a realistic offer often secures a bargain. Best bargain for lunch: £4 or so for lamb shawarma and hummus at the Lebanese caff.
Borough Market is another one of my favourites – London’s best food market bar none. I’m very stingy when I go there and only allow myself three separate purchases – otherwise I come back with an overdraft! What will it be this time? One of the superb English cheeses? A really good hot chorizo that I can use in my cooking over the next month? A bottle of top notch balsamic vinegar? Or a pork pie? You’re always spoilt for choice. Needless to say, the nosh-to-go is top class too. Go with an empty tummy.
Columbia Road flower market in East London is a great trip for Sunday morning. It’s full of colour and scent and some of the characters are just as colourful as the plants they’re selling. When I lived in underrated Stoke Newington I got all the lavender and herbs for my garden here – the garden plant stalls are on the east end, usually – and stopped off for a pate d’amandes or pain au chocolat at the little patissier’s stall. Oh and you can buy garden gnomes here too. What more could you want?
My final pick isn’t really a market, I suppose – it’s the booksellers on the promenade in front of the South Bank arts centre. If you’re looking for books on music, the arts, or the stage, this is a good place to come. The prices aren’t always keen, but the selection is vast and eclectic. Whether you want Joe Orton or Aeschylus, Peter O’Toole’s memoirs or the history of the Beatles, you’ll probably find it here. And you’ll probably also go home with something you didn’t want, but just found irresistible.
If you’ve got a bit more to spend you could stay at the hotel for salsa lovers – the huge new Park Plaza Westminster Bridge. It’s a modern hotel currently climbing up the ranks of the top 100 London hotels on TripAdvisor.
Photo credits: Steve Parker’s photostream, jekman’s photostream, SusanAstray’s photostream, Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, Rookery Hotel.