Ask anyone what London’s must-see market is and chances are they’ll tell you it’s Borough. That’s unsurprising: with its long history, how could it not hold a special place in Londoners’ hearts? Borough Market is the UK’s best-known food market and one of the most famous in the world, enjoying the illustrious title of our capital’s “oldest market”. It celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2014 and continues to trade on its original site. With over a hundred stalls selling local and international produce, there’s something for everyone. So, Borough Market — steeped in history, salivating with food choices — is rightly venerated. If you’re passing through London, sure, you should definitely swing through. But for me, a London life-r, is it the best there is?
I did go to Borough Market a couple times. I did enjoy the food, appreciate the history, and understand the general hype. But there were definitely a few elements of my ideal market experience that I felt were lacking. Enter: Broadway Market.
In my first year of living in London I visited lots of different markets around the city, determined to find my regular. Food, atmosphere, location – these things are important to me, and I approached the task with a tenacity as though it were in the name of scientific research. I tried Druid St Market in Bermondsey, Brockley Market in Lewisham, Camden market, Spitalfields, Maltby St, Brick Lane… And you know what? They’re all great. There’s delicious food at each; perhaps one day I’ll make a list of my favourite food vendors around the city to pay homage to that. But there’s still something unbeatable about East London’s Broadway Market.
Whoever said size didn’t matter clearly hadn’t visited Broadway Market. Broadway Market is no where near as big as Borough, which is overwhelming by comparison, but it isn’t as small and insular as some of the others (i.e. Maltby St, Brockley, Lower Marsh). In Goldilocks units, it’s just right. Part of the reason why Broadway Market occupies space so well and carries the right dynamic — cosy but not boring, lively but not unbearably so — is because it’s actually a shopping street in the heart of Hackney. The market traders themselves only operate on Saturdays, setting up shop down the middle of a street strung with rows of restaurants and cafes (open daily) on either side. This means you can wander around the market then decide to sit down for lunch somewhere, preferably on one of the many outdoor seats offered by the restaurants, to enjoy the energetic market atmosphere and people-watch. Even if you choose to stick with the market only, the activity generated by the unique combination of stalls alongside restaurants is exciting and a more varied use of space that makes everything feel bigger and busier.
This open-air market is pure bliss when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue. Here you’ll find not only an epic selection of food but clothes and various other trinkets like music records, books, old photographs, cards, toys, flowers and jewellery. I’ve bought funny birthday cards here, old Sci-fi stories, and a couple of original black-and-white photographs that remind me of things I love.
There are also regular musicians dotted around the place, strumming on guitars, crooning away, playing the saxophone or even letting rip on a cool harmonica solo. Vibrant street art decorates the walls. Various sizzles and crackles of food cooking and the hum of people talking fill the air. The market ends where London Fields, a park in Hackney, begins, so you’ll see people eating their food from the market on the park benches. It’s especially gorgeous in spring/summer, which welcome the return of happy picnickers, carefree kids on bikes and people playing sports on the grass. The park’s close proximity helps feed the welcoming, neighbourly atmosphere, and the greenery adds to the marketplace’s colourful beauty. It’s an environment unlike that of any other market I’ve come across in London.
The food, though, is enough to keep you coming back all year round.
There’s the food you eat on the spot, and then there are the food items you take back home: artisanal cheeses, hams, meats, olives, breads, and more…galore! Since Broadway Market is ‘off the beaten track’ (aka: not somewhere tourists come), there’s a friendly ‘local’ feel and sense of a more personal relationship between the vendors and the customers, who are often regulars. I’m into my cheeses, for example, and this is where I get my staples from each week. I always like to wander around the market with an ear tuned to the background babble of vendors talking about their products (you’ll never hear a more passionate retelling of the history and origin of a particular cheese!)
I also always return to the Crosstown doughnut stall (in 2015, Buzzfeed listed them as no.1 on their list of “18 British Desserts You Must Try Before You Die”) and the chicken katsu wrap stand, which is helmed by a particularly remarkable woman / unavoidable force of nature who hustles harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. (If you’re within a ten metre radius of the chicken katsu stand you can’t ignore her calls of “chicken katsu wrap for you darling? Chicken katsu wrap for you darling?” She forces tasters into your hands. They’re so good you definitely end up buying. I guarantee.)
As with most of London’s food markets, there’s lots on offer. You’ll find every cuisine for every craving, dietary restriction and lifestyle choice. There’s vegetarian Indian food, German bratwurst, Japanese gyoza, British staples (scotch egg anyone?), burgers, bagels, sushi, vegan choices, fresh handmade Italian pasta, grilled cheese, desserts…
For me, Broadway market is the best there is. Others come close, but they never really match up to the winning combination of aesthetic beauty, local/non-touristy feel, size, variety, and atmosphere. Then again, we’re all looking for something different. While there are still markets I have yet to visit, Broadway remains my trusty reliable go-to. If you ever find yourself a few stops away from Bethnal Green or Cambridge Heath station on a Saturday – come take a look!
– Reminder to use cash only at markets. There are signs for ATMs inside certain grocery stores on Broadway market (just ask a local for directions / keep your eyes peeled) but they charge you for cash withdrawals. It’s better to grab cash before you leave the house or from an ATM you’re familiar with that doesn’t want to rob you of an extra pound fifty.