The Best of London’s Markets

In a city’s markets, stories are both created and told. They are places where community and loneliness collide amongst the hustle and bustle, where layers of history are stacked up and sometimes destroyed, where vibrant characters go to pass their days. This post is an unedited version of one I wrote originally for Town Fish on some of London’s most vivid pockets of life. Photos are all mine.

Portobello MarketPhoto: Portobello Market

Early Saturday morning, under a light London drizzle, a vendor tosses a handful of crumpled newspapers into a pile of rubbish along the edge of Portobello Road. Around him, others are putting the finishing touches on their fruit and vegetable tables and a few stray shoppers have begun to wander through the streets, coffees in hand.

Portobello MarketPhoto: Portobello Market

Another man wheels a stack of cardboard boxes bursting with tomatoes and carrots, red and orange, an unlit cigarette dangling from one corner of his lips. He parks his boxes and fishes for a lighter in his shirt pocket. Seconds later, one flies through the air and he says, “Cheers mate” and cups one hand around his light to block out the wind.

Vendor and Jewellery
Photo: Portobello Market

Further down toward Ladbroke Grove, earrings are being arranged on tables, vintage dresses hung on rails, mirrors positioned, boots lined up for sale. A bird lands on a street lamp and cocks its head. At the opposite end of one of London’s most famous markets, antique sellers are setting up their treasures from a time long gone. Old film cameras are stacked on wooden tables, teapots and silver spoons laid out, white buckets for “Norfolk Lavender” and “Chilled Wine” hanging in the doorway of Alice’s.

Portobello Buckets
Photo: Portobello Market

Like many of these antiques, plenty of London’s market stalls are passed down through generations, an important slice of family history.

Buying Fruit
Photo: Portobello Market

In the book/blog, both entitled Spitalfields Life, the anonymous “Gentle Author” interviewed a market vendor called Molly the Swagman. Over breakfast at Dino’s Café on East London’s Commercial Street, she said, “My first market was down the lane. I was about three, toddling around on my first day in Petticoat Lane, where we lived. My great-grandfather had the pitch and it went down through the family. That’s how it was in those days. I used to take the money. It’s where I learned to add up.”

Skates in SpitalfieldsPhoto: Spitalfields Market

Sir Alan Sugar started his business career in a stall in Petticoat Lane Market, boiling and selling beetroot for a bit of extra cash. Now, the market is mainly a collection of secondhand or inexpensive clothing and fabrics.

Sunday Upmarket - Ethiopian
Photo: Sunday UpMarket, Spitalfields

If you’re out and about in that corner of East London, don’t forget to swing by the covered Old Spitalfields Market, followed by the Sunday UpMarket for a vibrant collection of clothing from young designers. The mingling scents of food from around the world will lure you in if the fashion doesn’t. This is your chance to try Tibetan momos, Japanese okonomiyaki or Turkish Gözleme, not to mention Sri Lankan curry, sushi, Venezuelan arepas and beautiful Ethiopian veggies. You get the point.

Japanese Food!
Photo: Sunday UpMarket

From there, head down Brick Lane where blankets are spread with knickknacks and make your way toward Columbia Road Flower Market. Brace yourself for crowds, but dive in and listen to the Cockney vendors shout excitedly about their roses and tulips. It’s a great place to pick up some cheap but beautiful flowers to liven up the flat on a Sunday afternoon.

Flower Vendor
Photo: Colombia Road Flower Market

The area in and around these markets has become home to a mix of Bangladeshi families and 20-something hipsters, curry houses, bagel shops, street art tours and indie music nights.

Home Sweet Home
Photo: Near Brick Lane

There are more than 100 street markets that spark to life in every corner of the city, impossible to mention all of them in one blog post but here are a few more.

Brixton Vendor
Photo: Brixton Market

In Brixton Market, reggae beats pump through the stalls and you’ll find delicious Caribbean and Guyana street food – goat curry, beans and rice, cassava and ginger beer. Every Saturday sees a themed market take over Brixton Station Road.

Record Exchange
Photo: Brixton Market

Leather Lane Market is another that goes back some 400 years. You won’t find leather there (it was actually named after a local merchant called Le Vrunelane, which was twisted over the years to become what it is today). However, there are a few raving reviews for the food, in particular a certain Turkish lamb sandwich tent which is only open a few hours in the afternoon. Top it with feta. Avoid the cell phone accessories, pillows and bootleg DVDs.

Deptford Market Scene
Photo: Deptford Market

In fact many of the markets thriving in London today are a mumble jumble of treasures and trash. In Deptford Market, one of South London’s busiest, bargains can be found if hunted down among a dizzying mix of electronics, fresh fish, second-hand clothing, fruits and veggies and children’s toys. There are gigantic live snails, sinister dolls and discounted nail polish.

Ribbons Galore
Photo: Deptford Market

Another much-loved market in the south is Greenwich Market, more of an organised environment with artists and some 150 craft stalls making it a fantastic place to look for unique gifts. Ceramic ware from Jerusalem, green rhubarb tea, an antique chair from the 1870s? Find it here.

Camera Shy
Photo: Borough Market

If it’s food you’re after, head to London’s oldest food market (and one of the biggest) – Borough Market. Fresh cheese, fresh fish, fresh tomatoes and strawberries, freshly baked brownies. Imagine the smell, stomach rumbling. But go on an empty stomach. You will soon fill it.

Posh Banger BoyPhoto: Borough Market

If you want to talk about smelly markets, how about Billingsgate Fish Market – London’s oldest wholesale market? Bring home the catch of the day, but remember they mainly sell in bulk. It’s worth catching BBC Two’s recent documentary on Billingsgate. It is a sure example of the pressures put on market vendors today from their competitors – Tesco, Sainsburys and the like.

Camden Mohawks
Photo: Camden Market

Up north, although Camden Market is a popular tourist destination, it remains a favourite among locals as well. Walk along the canal, sip some freshly squeezed Orange Juice, browse the photography in Proud Galleries and count the mohawks, tattoos and Doc Martins. Though some high street shops have moved into the area, it maintains an eclectic vibe with its funky colourful shop fronts and a brilliant music scene. Check out up and coming bands at The Dublin Castle and the late night saxophonists at Marathon. Pop into Cyberdog for a futuristic fashion fix and smoke a shisha pipe outside at one of the lounge cafes. Camden is a place like no other in London.

Cosplay in Camden
Photo: Camden Market

There’s plenty of history to be discovered in Hackney’s Broadway Market. For example, Fred Cooke started selling jellied eels there in 1900 and the shop F. Cooke still stands today. Stop in for some traditional East London pie and mash before browsing the vintage dresses, smoked salmon and oysters and lingerie.

Portobello MarketPhoto: Portobello Market

Still stuck for choice? Try Marylebone Farmers Market for cabbages and frocks, East Street Market in Elephant and Castle to taste some Ghanaian fufu or Whitecross Street Market in Moorgate which always brings back raving revi

Woman and Sewing MachinePhoto: Camden Market

The markets of London are certainly changing and sadly dwindling, but they remain a very important piece of history and still today a very important piece of London culture. They are a whirlwind of bodies, smells, sights and sounds and a kaleidoscope of cultures where stories are circulated, where the characters of a neighbourhood come together and where the vibe they generate reflects the different areas of London they call home.

Listen to a Londoner: Cemay Ilgu

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email

Cemay Ilgu, 28

Cemay has just moved back to London after seven years in North Cyprus and is very excited about it! She can’t wait to introduce the delights of London to her husband Berat and son Onur, as well as the newborn they are expecting any day now.

LLO:  Which part of London are you most familiar with and what’s the best thing about it?
CI: I guess Hampstead High Street, which has a lot of great childhood memories for me. The best thing about it is the combination of little pavement cafes and cute little boutiques – it’s not the most affordable of places, but it has a certain ambience that I like every now and then.

LLO: I’ve got one night in London and want to stay away from the tourist trail. Where would you recommend I go to eat and drink?
CI: Ah, there are so many places! But I guess the one place I know that has it all is The North Pole Bar, in Greenwich. You start off in the main bar for a pre-dinner drink, then go up to the Piano Restaurant, and then if you have the energy after the gorgeous food (or you just want to work it off!) you can go down to the South Pole Club and dance the night away! It’s a complete night out in one venue.

LLO: You’ve got a small son and another one due this week! Where’s the best place in London to take the kiddies?
CI: We took Onur, who’s now 21 months, to the Science Museum last month and he adored it. It’s great fun for the kids but they also get to learn stuff – a perfect combination!

LLO: After living abroad for quite a while and coming back to us, where’s the best place in London to go to get a taste of the food you’d find near your other home in Cyprus?
CI: Absolutely without a doubt it’s Kervan Sofrasi Restaurant, on Hertford Road in Edmonton. Not only is the food affordable, but it’s just outstanding quality. If you like Turkish food, I could recommend no better place.

LLO: Where’s your favourite bakery in London and the best thing they serve?
CI: I am a sucker for Pain au Chocolat, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than they serve at Maison Blanc, on Hampstead High Street.

LLO: You’re about to move house. Any flat-hunting tips for people just moving to the city?
CI: Don’t stick to just one agency and try not to limit yourself too much in terms of area – London has a fabulous public transport system and you’re always within reach of somewhere with great transport links – the best properties are often found a little way off the beaten track.

LLO: A new home means decorating… What are the best London shops to deck out the new place?
CI: For us normal folks, you can’t go wrong with Ikea! I’ll be honest, that’s where I have done most of my shopping! But I mixed and matched with bits and pieces I’ve found in places like Camden market, and charity shops are also great for sourcing one off pieces – we once found a 70’s style padded cocktail bar for a bargain £20!

LLO: Best place in London to go on a romantic date (when you get someone to watch the little ones!)?
CI: One of my favourite places that appeals to the Princess Jasmine in me is Pasha, on Gloucester Road. It feels really decadent. The food is exquisite, mostly Moroccan/Middle-Eastern cuisine, but it’s just a lovely, romantic place – all soft lighting and belly dancing!

LLO: What excites you most about being in London again?
CI: Honestly? The diversity and vibrancy, the way that you could do something new, eat something new, discover something new every day for years on end and never get bored! Very different to North Cyprus!

LLO: Favourite London discovery?
CI: A little Italian restaurant called Polpo on Beak Street in Soho. It’s tiny – seats about 50 people, and it doesn’t take bookings so you just kind of turn up and wait, but the food is out of this world – served in small tapas-like portions so you can try a bit of everything, and it’s a really lovely place to socialise with friends, so different as it’s designed to be like a Venetian wine bar. A fabulous little find! Prices are pretty reasonable too for London.

Thanks Cem!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

Listen to a Londoner: Wilfredo Arturo Diaz Ardila

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email

Wilfredo Arturo Diaz Ardila, 32

Wilfredo comes from a small town called Mogotes near Bucaramanga in Santander, Colombia. He talks to us for this week’s Listen to a Londoner about his life in the UK, where to find a Colombian experience in London and about a product called panela that he plans to import from home.

LLO: How long have you been in London and what brought you here originally?
I have been in London for almost 3 years. I came here for studying English and to do a master diploma in civil engineering which I just finished. Now I would like to work in London as a civil engineer and begin the importation of a product called panela from our family business in Colombia.

LLO: How does life in London compare to life in Colombia?
It took me almost one year to adapt to life in London, for the weather (in Colombia there are no seasons), the different food and different cultures. It was difficult to make good friends because everyone is always working or studying and don’t have time for friends. I miss my family and my friends. In Colombia I spend a lot of time with family and friends at the weekend having barbeques, playing football, dancing, eating out in restaurants. I’m impressed with the culture in London, the architecture and the history.

LLO: Favourite place to go dancing to Latin American music in London?
The Cuban in Camden Market, Salsa! on Charing Cross Road and Floridita in Soho.

LLO: Best place in London for a taste of authentic Colombian food?
Leños & Carbón on Rockingham Street in Elephant and Castle and The Latin Corner pub on Camden Road.

LLO: You were talking about your sugar cane plantation in Colombia where your family produces panela, a product that you plan to help import to sell in London. What is panela?
Panela is a product that is made with sugar cane, grown under the Colombian sun. It’s 100% natural and unrefined. It’s made in different presentations – compact in the shape of a square or circle or in powder form. My family has been producing this product for over 10 years with a team of 15-20 employees on our farm.

LLO: How is it used?
You can use it to make juice, cakes, sweeten tea and coffee. It’s a more natural substitute for more refined sugar.

LLO: Can you share a few photos of the production process and explain how it is made?
The first step is preparing the ground to grow the sugar cane on the plantation. Growing the sugar cane takes between 15 and 20 months depending on the type of plant. The plants are cut and transported to the factory to be processed. The sugar cane is passed through a machine where it is crushed and the juice is separated and cleaned through a filter. The juice flows through a series of three huge containers where it is boiled in each one growing thicker each time and changes to a slightly different colour. Then it is passed through more containers where it continues to thicken and the air is stirred out. It’s transferred into moulds where it sets for half hour into a solid form. When the product cools, it is packaged and ready to sell.

LLO: Where’s your favourite shop in London to pick up Colombian products you miss from home?
There’s a small shop in Elephant and Castle shopping centre that has cereals, beans, arepas, saltines, milo and different tropical fruits I use to make juice, yuca and plantains.

LLO: What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome since moving to the UK?
I think it is the English. I didn’t know any English when I arrived in London. I started studying in a beginner course. Getting the post study work visa I have now was difficult too.

LLO: Best London discovery?
Mi novia!

Thanks Wilfredo!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

If you have or know of a company interested in stocking panela imported from Wilfredo’s family farm, email him at