Pretty much everything about Bethnal Green’s Columbia Road makes it a design-lover’s heaven. The narrow cobbled street, the vibrant colors and shapes of the iconic Sunday flower market, the tiny brick buildings, the rickety storefronts with their windows decked out in creative displays… And that’s to say nothing of the stylish East Londoners themselves.
More: You’ve added the flower market to your agenda already, right? Check out our recommendations for London’s best outdoor markets, right this way.
In a city currently obsessed with sleek Scandinavian design, Columbia Road’s shops are a refreshing change, leaning heavily on British vintage finds, imports from the Mediterranean, and work by local designers and artists. Since vintage art prints and handmade ceramics travel better than the market’s colorful flowers, be sure to pop into a few stores to find a memorable piece or two to help you take home a bit of Columbia Road.
Here are five shops design aficionados shouldn’t miss:
Artists, writers, and anyone who loves a well-organized desk: Make a beeline for this stationery store, which stocks the world’s best pens, pencils, and papers, as well as the most aesthetically pleasing collection of miscellaneous desk and office paraphernalia you’ve ever seen. Choosing Keeping has a way of making you need things—like, say, a cobalt-hued hand-blown hourglass, or every imaginable color of washi tape—you didn’t even know existed five minutes ago. Those seeking stationery, cards, or writing utensils for specific purposes will especially appreciate the staff’s knowledgeable recommendations, from Craft Design Technology pencils to Rivoli writing paper.
The owners of this shop full of Portuguese imports spend a good chunk of the year in Portugal, building relationships with artisans and finding products that embody Portuguese tradition, design, and quality. In the cozy shop, peruse hand-painted ceramics, stock up on azulejo tiles, smell fragrant soaps and bath products, find hand-drawn cards and notebooks. Even the packaging on the tinned seafood (known as conserveiras in Portuguese) is a work of art.
If you’ve ever daydreamed of living in the English countryside, or perhaps in a French farmhouse, Mason & Painter is the stuff of those dreams. A thoughtfully curated collection of vintage finds (botanical prints, faded biscuit tins, wooden farm tables, and metal café chairs whose paint is flaking off in just the right way) and new pieces (handmade ceramics from Morocco, brightly patterned pillows, books on gardening and East London), the shop makes the most of its location in the midst of a flower market to inspire elaborate design fantasies.
Whether you have a weakness for chintzy teapots, an obsession with mid-century glassware, or are just looking to add to your mismatched cutlery collection, this vintage dishware store lives up to its name. The friendly owner is passionate about her products and can help a determined seeker find the right pieces amidst the jam-packed (but still carefully arranged) shelves. Best of all: At the back of the shop, a popular little café called the Cake Hole serves up tea and cakes on some of the tea sets.
One of several galleries in the neighborhood, this one is actually tucked away in a hidden courtyard off Ezra Street (you can just walk out the back door of Mason & Painter), and carries jewelry, ceramics, prints, and cards in addition to paintings and photographs. Originally intended to showcase artists from Cornwall, the gallery now shows work by artists from across the U.K., including many who live and work in East London. In keeping with Columbia Road’s communal atmosphere, one wall of the gallery is open to the courtyard, sharing the space with the Lily Vanilli Bakery and the vintage furniture vendors who come for the Sunday market.
Of course, these spots aren’t the only ones worth visiting on and around Columbia Road. Between the flower market, one of the best pub lunches in London at the Marksman, the street musicians, and the many other shops in the area, you could easily spend your whole Sunday exploring the neighborhood.
To read more of our guide to London, head here.