The sight of hundreds and hundreds of varieties of flowers and plants lining this picturesque East London street. The intoxicating scent of jasmine, lavender, mint or lilies as you wander down a gauntlet of blooms. The distinctive shouts of traders who’ve been manning stalls here at this Sunday market their whole lives. There’s nothing quite like a visit to the Columbia Road Flower Market.
There’s nowhere more atmospheric to browse for and buy flowers, plants and seeds, especially when you consider the fact that there’s been a market here since the mid 19th-century.
Location. It takes just 15 minutes to walk (or five minutes in an Uber) from The East London Hotel to Columbia Road. Once you’ve had your fill of all things green and floral, it’s only another 10 minutes on foot to Shoreditch, Brick Lane and Old Street.
Independent shopping. Boutiques selling vintage and artisan homewares, furniture, jewellery and more fill the quaint Victorian shopfronts of Columbia Road.
Hidden galleries. Tucked away among the shops and cafes you’ll find a handful of tiny commercial galleries selling work by local and British artists. Open by appointment Monday to Friday, you can just wander in at weekends and pick up a treasure.
Holiday atmosphere. Even on the coldest, greyest days, Columbia Road Flower Market has a special vibe, as stallholders keep up a lively patter, locals bump into friends old and new, and street musicians provide an upbeat soundtrack to proceedings.
Columbia Road owes its name to Columbia Market, an enormous neo-Gothic market building and square built in 1869 to supply food to the poor of the East End. Unpopular with the locals, it was barely used, then converted into workshops, and eventually demolished in 1960. The Victorian terrace of compact little shops that you can still see lining Columbia Road today dates back to the around the same time.
A weekly street market has taken place here, despite the unpopularity of the original market building, since 1869. As with many London street markets, including nearby Broadway Market, there was a decline in the 1970s. But locals fought back and the market has gone from strength to strength ever since. Many of the stalls have been in the same family for generations, with some traders selling plants from their own nurseries outside London. It’s a real community affair.
In terms of Columbia Road’s boutiques, what began as just a few intrepid shopkeepers selling mainly products relating to gardening has exploded into a busy shopping scene with an emphasis on exciting designer-makers from the UK and around the world.
The Sunday market kicks off at around 8am. But there’s no need to get there quite that early, especially in the winter months. So allow yourself a little lie in and plan to arrive by around 9am. You’ll be there before the crowds descend (peak time is 10.30am to 1pm), able to get a good view of it all, and have your pick of the flowers and plants. For the ultimate Columbia Road experience, hold off on breakfast until you get there. The street is full of independent cafes, great spots to grab a coffee and a pastry to eat as you stroll.
Then again, there are perks to arriving later in the day. Get there closer to the end of trading, around 2pm to 3pm. You stand a chance at finding some serious bargains. Traders sell off stock before packing up their stalls.
If you do find yourself at the market during a busy period, go with the flow, don’t get flustered, and take regular breaks away from the throng to check out the independent shops and cafes.
Be ready to barter and make sure you’ve got cash on you. There’s only one cash point on Columbia Road itself; the next closest one is outside the Co-op Food on Hackney Road, a few minutes’ walk away.
Ask stallholders’ permission before photographing them and their stalls. Even better, buy something first! Remember that they’re there to make a living, not just as a spectacle for tourists.
Dress for the elements. The market runs whatever the weather. You’re likely to get some great deals when rain (or even snow!) has kept the other punters away. A visit in December, when rows of Christmas trees sparkle in the misty morning sunshine, is a real seasonal treat.
Homewares and design are the driving focus at Columbia Road’s shops, with particular highlights the collectable vintage furniture at Two Columbia Road, sustainable design at Artisans & Adventurers, and kitchenware at Keeping House.
Most of Columbia Road’s shops are only open at the weekend but call ahead if you’re planning a visit during the week as lots of them are open by appointment Monday to Friday.
Café Columbia, now its third decade serving bagels and coffee to hungry Sunday morning market-goers, is a real Columbia Road institution. The queue is often out the door, but it’s worth persevering – harking back to the Jewish roots of the East End, a bagel is a must-try while you’re here, and these ones are hand-made.
Columbia Road is home to two beautiful traditional pubs, The Birdcage and The Royal Oak. Both boast the ornate exterior tiles that were a trademark of the Truman’s brewery in the early 20th century but are actually far older. They’re good spots to enjoy a couple of pints of beer (the Birdcage in particular has a great range), The Royal Oak serves a traditional Sunday lunch and The Birdcage is open from 9am for breakfast on Sundays. If these pubs are too busy for comfort, try The Marksman on Hackney Road, another tiled beauty from the same era.
Campania & Jones, just off the main drag of Columbia Road, serves rustic southern Italian cuisine at very reasonable prices. The surroundings – the restaurant occupies a former cowshed – are an Instagrammer’s dream. Or head to lovely neighbourhood restaurant Brawn for a classy European-inspired lunch. Its list of natural wines is one of the best in London.
There’s plenty more to do a short walk from Columbia Road once the flower sellers have gone home for the day. Just north of here is a farm, believe it or not, with goats, chickens, donkeys and all manner of small fluffy creatures. Hackney City Farm is dedicated to teaching local people about food, nature and the environment, and makes for a weird and wonderful stop on any visit to East London. The onsite café serves filling breakfasts and lunches, plus an Italian ‘agriturismo evening’ every Thursday.
Head west from Columbia Road to reach the buzzing bars, restaurants and boutiques of Shoreditch. It’ll all seem very urban after the pastoral feel of the flower market and its bijou shops.
Architecture enthusiasts will love the Geffrye Museum, housed in a series of 18th-century almshouses (dwellings built for the poor) in Hoxton. The museum is closed for renovation until spring 2020 but its pretty gardens are still open to the public and are an oasis in the midst of this busy part of town.
On weekend nights (though very rarely Sundays) the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club hosts live music, cabaret, comedy and club nights, mostly with a retro, tongue-in-cheek twist.