Few parts of the country have seen regeneration on the scale of east London in the last 20 years. The awarding of the Olympic Games in 2005 led to the promise of a legacy that has left Stratford unrecognisable and entirely for the better. A few years before then the much-hyped Millenium Dome opened to media derision in 2000 but went on to become a permanent (and very lucrative) fixture in Greenwich as the O2 Arena.
At the other end of the spectrum, the poverty and desperation of the 1800s still lingers in public imagination thanks to classic Dickens novels and the unsolved mystery of Jack the Ripper. Today’s east Londoners thankfully have a far higher and safer standard of living in most cases than the previous inhabitants of the region but the hardship of those times is immortalised in local museums. And however magnificent the present and future seem, a glimpse into the past can be just as fascinating at times.
Here, we round up the 15 must-see local places to visit whilst you’re studying here at UEL.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Whilst many of the world’s former Olympic venues have sadly fallen into disrepair (the decay of the Athens 2004 Olympic venues is an especially tragic case) London has made a special effort to ensure the venues of the 2012 Olympics became a permanent part of local life. To that end, you can watch West Ham Utd play in the former Olympic stadium, go swimming in the London Aquatics Centre where Michael Phelps became the most prolific medal winner of any sport of all time, or slide down the huge red modern art sculpture that towers over the park. If dining and shopping are more your thing, the Westfield Stratford mall that entertained fans between the events remains one of the biggest shopping centres in the country. There’s literally something for everyone here, any time of the year.
Museum of London Docklands
A museum in Canary Wharf that celebrates the history of the River Thames and the growth of the Docklands. In addition to the physical exhibits, video presentations by TV historian (and Blackadder star!) Tony Robinson are screened for visitors. Whether you’re interested in the first Thames port built under the Roman Empire or the recent regeneration of the area as a residential and entertainment hub, there’s plenty to see and reflect on here.
Situated right next to Aldgate East station, the Whitechapel Gallery prides itself on a contemporary/forward looking approach and has premiered exhibitions by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo throughout its long history. It even offers courses as well as exhibitions. ‘The Independent’ once described it as “the place to promote a new belief in the good of art”.
V&A Museum of Childhood
First opened in the 1800s as the Bethnal Green Museum, it’s fair to say the current range of exhibits includes toys that – whilst museum pieces to us – would have blown the minds of the first children to ever walk through its gates. It’s not just a look back at the playthings of generations gone by, however. The changing face of upbringing over the generations is there for all to learn about through paintings, short films and clothing exhibitions.
A completely unexpected slice of the English countryside in the shadow of the Gherkin and other well-known landmarks. Spitalfields City Farm offers free entry to see rare breeds of farmyard animals and a selection of comfortable green spaces to relax in. Dogs are (understandably!) not allowed but children of all ages are welcome as long as they are properly supervised.
Even closer to UEL premises is Newham City Farm, which though aimed at young children also has a popular adult volunteering programme. In addition to the customary farmyard animals, visitors can expect to see alpacas and birds of prey.
Finally, Mudchute Park and Farm (close to Canary Wharf) is the largest urban farm in Europe, covering 32 acres. It also hosts a volunteering programme so if you’re feeling green-fingered and want to unwind from city life, any one of these three is a great place to spend your spare time.
Legendary throughout the country as the home of Sunday league football, an astonishing 88 full size football pitches are marked out in Hackney Marshes and a long list of England greats – Bobby Moore, Ian Wright and David Beckham to name a few – learned their childhood skills on these grounds. For what is essentially a huge open area, the sense of history is palpable. Bring your friends down for a kickabout in their free time.
Wilton’s Music Hall
A Grade 2 Star listed building which claims to be the oldest grand music hall in the world, Wilton hosts live entertain in the form of gigs and theatre productions all year around. Hot food in the form of stone-baked pizza and pasta are often available with drinks in the bar as well. A fabulous alternative to the West End.
Ragged School Museum
A tribute to the huge 1800s school (run by Dr Barnados) that once provided basic education to 1,000 East End children in the building on weekdays (and 2,400 children on Sundays). School lessons are now re-enacted by teachers in full Victorian costume on the first Sunday of every month from 2-5pm. The building was briefly used as a factory after the school closed in 1908 but is now a brilliantly reconstructed time capsule of its finest contribution to society.
Emirates Air Line
Another part of London’s Olympic legacy, the scenic cable car route across the River Thames (roughly from the ExCel Centre to the O2 Arena) offers the same feel-good vibe as the London Eye but for a fraction of the price (under £5) and a far brisker journey time (10 minutes). It even has a practical benefit that the Eye doesn’t, namely that it actually goes somewhere. There’s not many better views of the capital anywhere so make the most of it whilst you’re here.
Once notorious as a tourist attraction (the Millenium Dome) few wanted to see taxpayer money spent on, the O2 arena emerged phoenix-like as one of the biggest entertainment venues in the country. It’s hosted everything from huge pop concerts to crowd-pleasing live exhibitions and is dotted with bars, cafes, restaurants and a Cineworld multiplex cinema. Known around the world as “the huge tent James Bond fell on in ‘The World Is Not Enough’,” it’s hard for a newcomer to London not to smile when they set eyes on it for the first time. And if you fancy a spot of urban mountaineering, you’re even allowed to climb it too.
Sutton House (National Trust)
Built in 1535 by a prominent courtier of Henry VIII and now the oldest house in Hackney, Sutton House has a history as exotic as any building from Tudor times. Merchants, silk-weavers, schoolmistresses and clergy have all lived there since and it even became a home for squatters in the 1980s, who used it as a music venue and social centre. The remarkable history of all of its inhabitants is now celebrated in guided tours of the property.
Columbia Road Flower Market
Walking distance from both Bethnal Green tube station on the Central line and Cambridge Heath national rail station, Columbia Road was originally built to lead sheep towards a slaughterhouse but is now home to one of the most celebrated florist markets in the country. Plenty come here simply to soak up the atmosphere, whether they’re looking to buy flowers or not. Maybe you should too?
Cutty Sark/Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Frequently listed as amongst the fastest boats in the world in the 1800s, the Cutty Sark spent her career transporting tea from China and wool from Australia back to Britain. As steamships began to take over the maritime cargo industry she was first moved to foreign owners, then returned to Britain as a training boat for naval cadets, before finally being retired as a museum piece in the 1950s. A terrible fire in 2007 destroyed large parts of the ship but she was restored and reopened five years later.
Whilst you’re there, make sure you take time to climb up to the Royal Observatory that overlooks the area. Resist the urge to look down behind you until you reach the top. The view of east London’s skyline when you get there is jaw-dropping.
Connecting Shoreditch to Whitechapel is a remarkable road with an even more remarkable Sunday market, home to second-hand bric-a-brac and enthusiastic street entertainers of all cultures and musical styles. Brick Lane is also a hub of graffiti and other street art, and there are plenty of small formal galleries and offbeat clothes shops nestled in amongst the road-based amusements. All of this is a short stroll from Aldgate East tube station, Liverpool Street tube/National Rail station and Shoreditch High Street’s Overground station.
Mile End Park
A 32 hectare linear park that stretches from Victoria Park to Limehouse Basin. It’s home to an ecology park (with a lake and wind turbine), an arts pavilion, sports facilities for all ages (including skating) and an electric Go Kart track. If Hyde Park is too cliché for you, come and enjoy this one instead.
We hope you enjoy the places/sights we’ve recommended. Seen anything else that you think your classmates will like? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!