If you have already been to London once, you sure have seen the BigBen, the British Museum and even sung “Portobello Road” while visiting Portobello Market… But there’s more to London than the traditional sights. Like the unique neighbourhoods I am telling you about now, almost unknown for the tourists and not far from the London you already know. Feel like exploring London more?
A trip to the old docklands of London
Not long ago, the docklands of Thames river were the departure point for all those ships that sailed the 7 seas looking for a better future, a new market or another ship to assault. Today, the skyscrappers and the artful bridges provide a different landscape of the river, far from the times when the British ruled the seas.
That past is better understood when you go east by the river towards Canary Wharf and its wooden beams, the big cranes and the house boats. Don’t know what I’m talking about?
This picture above might not look like facy and ever changing London, but any small village by the coast at any other place in the world. But it is London! The old neighbourhoods of Limehouse and Stepney Green (they have different underground / DLR stops, but are only 10 minutes apart by foot) were once the outskirts of London and they still are one of those rare places where it is hard to find a Satrbucks or McDonalds (something I love, as it forced us to test every option and find one of our new London favorites.)
But getting to the point, why should you visit the east of London?
1. Birdwatching without leaving London
Well, there are plenty of places in London where you can see birds. The crows in the Tower of London or the pigeons from Mary Poppins at St. Paul’s Cathedral… but that’s not what I mean by birdwatching. Here in the docklands of Limehouse you can watch different birds: cormoran, grey herons, terns, swans and even kingfishers can be found at the riverside and the channels through the year.
Imagine all that you can enjoy with the right conditions and the best of patience.
But this is not the only option to enjoy nature at East London: Stepney Green park was once part of the Mile End Park and is still a great reference for green and open spaces for Londoners. And nearby is the Stepney City Farm, a small community farm with animals (ducks, chicken, goats…) that has an organic coffee shop and a farmers’ market on Saturdays.
2.- Go ‘hiking’ by the docklands
One of the best walks in London is the Thames Walk by the river, which goes all accross London, from the popular touristic areas to the lesser known ones, like Limehouse and Stepney Green. It is a great way to discover some of the hidden secrets of the city.
For example, at Limehouse you will find The Narrow, a pub that is located at what used to be the house of the harbor master, who controled the network of river channels and that is now run by Gordon Ramsey.
If you cross the docks by the bridge, you will also find a nice old pub: The Grapes, over 500 years old (it appeared at Dickens’ Our Mutual Friends as the Six Jolly Felowship Porters. They say it keeps a Dickensian feeling (whatever that means) and it is sure a nice spot to stop by.
And, if you keep walking, the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf with some incredible views of the river ans some quirky spots.
3.- Live at the docks
You may never have thought of sailing through London or live in a boat, but this is something that you can do in Limehouse. The houseboats are there all year round, but you can also book a spot there and stay a couple of days.
Take a look at the different water levels, from the river base to the marine, the XIX Century system uses drawbridges, floodgates, etc. to connect the boats with the rivers within London.
4. VIsit the best cinema in all london
Ok. It might not be on your travel list to plan a movie night, but the Genesis Cinema (5 minutes walk from Stepney Green underground station) is worth a trip. It has been considered the best independent cinema in all UK. Charles Chaplin performed here when it was called Paragon Theatre of Varieties and it is considered the oldest cinema in London (it opened in 1912.)
It is also quite affordable for London: from Monday to Wednesday it is 5.5 pounds / person and 10.5 pounds on Weekends. They have plenty of events, from premieres to special sessions including swing dance metups, poetry sessions… And they do serve cocktails, meatpies and coffee.
5. Return to St. Dunstan’s Church
The Church of St. Dunstan’s and All Saints is one of the main churches in all London, but everyone skips i twhen they travel to the East End. I won’t blame you for that, we got inside just because we were passing by on our way to the DLR, but didn’t find a mention at our travel guides or any other travel blogs. Which is a shame.
The church was founded by the 10th Century and has a long tradition here in the docklands, where they call it “the church of the high seas”. When migrants left for the new world and had kids, they would send notice to the priests to be registered at the Church. This way, if things went wrong, they would keep their status as English citizens and would be able to come back. This is the reason why many people come here looking for the roots of their relatives, some of which had never set a foot in London.
We learnt all of this from local artist Ian Brice, who helps at the Church (on Thursdays) and toured us around for free about the amazing findings and history of the place.
If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have learn of some amazing facts. For example, that St. Dunstan himself founded the church when he was archbishop at Canterbury and that the building survived the great wars (with the only exception of the windows) and many people seeked refuge here.
And, while these windows may not seem the most beautiful ones, they are worth taking a look at. To tell the story short, during the war, there was a Scottish priest that helped all of those who seeked for shelter there, helping so much that when they had to rebuilt the windows, the communtity voted to picture him as every single image. Jesus, the saints and even Virgin Mary look alike for this same reason. But that is not the only interesting fact: the main window behind the altar shows the neighborhood as it was after the bombings. Something you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
More ideas of what to see and do near Limehouse and Stepney Green stations
A.Street art and food
Only 20 minutes away by foot from Stepney Green station (5 minutes if you take bus 25 or 205, which work 24hrs and connect the area with Central London) are Shoreditch and Brick Lane. These are a must for all of us in love with Street Art, open markets and alternative London. For food lovers, Spitafields market and its foodie scene is another must you can’t miss.
You can even learn a bit of graffiti with this half-day street art tour and graffiti workshop that starts at Spitafields market. Or join a 2 hour tour that takes you to some of the most iconic pieces of the moment.
b.Jack the Ripper
Just around the corner, between Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper made everybody fear of the night around 1888.
While there are a few tours in central London that talk about the crimes of Jack the Ripper, you can take a few of them right at where everything happened, here at the East End. Take for example this tour that departs from Aldgate by foot or the “museum” of the killer and the victims-
c.The yuppie and the docks
Looking opposite to the City, you will find Canary Wharf, tall buildings, many white collars, and the Museum of Docklands (connecting London history with International Trade, Slavery and the Romans!)
d.A different market
If you are around here on a Sunday, go to Columbia Road Flower Market. It’s usually crowded, but has some nice things and makes an easy walk to Brick Lane.
e.A very weird “museum”
Cross to the other side of the river through the tunnels (yes you can cross by foot underwater) to find Brunel museum, dedicated to the first underwater tunnel, the first underground museum and many other weird records. It is not the only tunnel that you can use to explore London from one side of the Thames to the other (and most of them allow cicling through them).
f.Another one just for kids
If you have already been to Victoria & Albert museum, you will love this spot t Bethnal Green: the “Museum of Childhood“, in between a toy museum and a playground, they have plenty of activities for kids (and adults). And entrance is free!
g. The Emirates’ cable car
Ok. This is not truly near, but it will give you a great perspective on how this area of London looks like from air. If you are attending ExCel, for example, they usually offer free tickets or great discounts to use it. Just beware that if there is a major show at the O2, it can be a bit crowded. You can buy your tickets there, or book in advance a ticket that also includes the “Aviation Experience” from Emirates, or with a River Roamer ticket that allows you to take as many ships as you want through Thames river.
Where to sleep near Limehouse and stepney green
For this trip to London, we’ve slept at Airbnb instead of a hotel to experience the area as true locals. We chose to book a room at an old sinagogue transformed in apartments near the park. A great place with our own bathroom where the hosts recommended one of our top favorites in London #needtosaynomore.
We have also stayed near Liverpool station at the Z Hotel Shoreditch. A comfortable, no-frills hotel in a refurbished building within The Bower area, that is really well connected with central London and the Shoreditch area (bus and underground). Tip here: basic rooms are windowless in the basement but still very comfortable. Higher prices mean bigger rooms in upper floors (with windows).