Sunday is the best day for this walk, when the markets are in full swing. Start early at (1) Columbia Road flower market, a blur of scents and colors. The street is lined with funky shops like fragrance emporium (2) Angela Flanders (# 96) and (3) Treacle (# 110-112), where cute cupcakes are served on vintage crockery.
Turn left at Virginia Road and left again into Swanfield Street until you reach (4) Brick Lane on your left, center of the 16th-century brick trade. These days, it's more famous for its Indian restaurants and after-hours parties. "The bustlings of Brick Lane are a quintessential London experience," says Mark Sladen, director of exhibitions, Institute of Contemporary Arts. "After dark, crowds spill out of bars in the (5) Truman Brewery and hit the 24-hour bagel shops." This area was once known as little Jerusalem. Check out (6) Tatty Devine (#236) for humorous plastic jewelry and (7) Bernstock Speirs next door for hand-made hats.
Turn left into Cheshire Street, another great source of offbeat boutiques like (8) Labour & Wait (#18), which stocks traditional home-ware, and (9) EllaDoran (# 46) whose cushions and coasters are printed with close-up photos. Continue back down Brick Lane and make a right on Hanbury Street—once Jack the Ripper territory—now home to (10) Sunday UpMarket, brimming with second-hand clothes and hand-crafted accessories.
From Hanbury, turn left into Wilkes Street, which intersects (11) Fournier Street, an 18th-century throwback with painted wooden shutters and perfectly preserved facades. "In the shadows of Hawksmoor's masterful (12) Christ Church, these exquisite Georgian terraces hold the many stories and voices which make up Spitalfield's living palimpsest," says Jack Lohman, director Museum of London. Number 12 is home to artistic double act Gilbert and George.
Turn right and cross over Commercial Street to (13) Spitalfields Market. "More than the grand and feted institutions, here is London as it speaks through Londoners. You'll discover cutting-edge fashion in an area Huguenot weavers made famous for the finest textiles," says Lohman. Beneath Bishop's Square, behind the market, is "an extraordinary (14) charnel house, preserved as a moving testament to medieval devotion." Over 10,000 human remains were unearthed in 1999—the largest excavation in British history, visible through a glass pavement.
Bishop's Square is bordered by Brushfield Street. Pop into (15) S & M Café at # 48—not for kinky contraptions, but for old-fashioned sausage and mash in surroundings straight out of the 1950s. "Come sad, leave happy" the star-shaped sign promises. A couple of doors down at # 42 is (16) A. Gold. "This old-fashioned grocer stocks indigenous treats like fine teas and fruit cakes made by small, artisan producers all over Britain," says Henrietta Green.
From Brushfield, turn right onto Commercial Street until you hit (17) Whitechapel High Street. On your left (# 80-82) is Whitechapel Art Gallery, "the first place in London to show now legendary artists like Picasso, Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. Exhibitions are well thought out and often surprising," says Hannah Duguid, an arts writer at The Independent. The gallery is undergoing expansion, with a second building due to open in 2008; meanwhile, you can catch poetry, talks and films, as well as contemporary art.
Travel Photos From Your Shot
Browse Stunning Images of These Natural Marvels
Shop National Geographic
Special Ad Section
Watch as Nat Geo photographers reveal what drives them to create iconic images.