London: Cheapo neighborhood guide to Islington
Tackling London’s top sights and busiest central areas is one thing, but if you really want to get under the skin of this city, you need to eat, drink and shop in the areas where locals actually live.
Islington is one of north London’s jewels in the crown, a lively corner where some of the city’s loveliest squares, most beautiful houses and traditional pubs rub shoulders with ethnic restaurants, fancy cocktail bars, glamorous boutiques and an intricate canal network.
Islington is also London’s smallest borough and home to a host of famous residents. The borough stretches down to Old Street and brushes up against the edge of the City of London, while reaching down eclectic Holloway Road to Archway and Finsbury Park, with Angel and Highbury and Islington stations goal posting the start and end of buzzy Upper Street—a focal point for Islington locals.
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One of my favorite spots for dinner in London, Upper Street has a great vibe about it, especially in the summer when chairs and tables line the street and transport you to a much more Mediterranean destination. The choice is endless, you can pretty much eat your way around the world just on this one street, but the arrival of more chain restaurants in recent years have led to the demise of a few cheapo-friendly favorites.
Angel Tube Station is a bookend of bustling Upper Street. Photo: Alan Stanton
That said, there is still plenty to choose from—the tasty Basque pintxos at Pix (from £1.95 each) or a Turkish mezze at one of the three Gallipoli cafes (Gallipoli Bistro, Gallipoli Again and Gallipoli Bazaar) will leave you full and with change for a “Happy Hour” cocktail at nearby Barrio North on Essex Road. Le Mercury and The Beach Hut are two more Islington faves that you can read about here.
For something a little rougher round the edges but undoubtedly better value, head to Holloway Road, which cuts through the centre of the borough. Here you can really feast on authentic ethnic food from around the world—be it a Georgian banquet at Tbilisi or a tasty curry at the Red Rose Tandoori.
End your evening at the theater and catch something very different (and better value) to the West End musicals you’ll have seen advertised all over Leicester Square—the Almeida Theatre and the venue at the Kings Head Pub have a fantastic range of shows on year-round, while the Camden Head Pub hidden away on pretty Camden Passage runs free comedy nights throughout the week.
Get a breath of fresh air in Highbury Fields. Photo: Yuriy A.
If the sun is shining then grab a picnic and relax in the fabulous Highbury Fields—flanked by some truly beautiful houses, this pretty park is a hive of activity on a warm afternoon. Alternatively, take a walk along the canal and I defy anyone not to start dreaming of upping sticks and moving into a flower-laden houseboat where the pace of life is oh-so-leisurely in this secret waterside city. You can also take in some culture as you stroll—stop off at the Victoria Miro Gallery and the Parasol Unit for a good dose of contemporary art.
But what is there to do beyond eating and drinking yourself silly in this popular residential area? There are plenty of other activities to keep you entertained. If you’re interested in seeing a glimpse of old London and picturing how the streets of Islington once looked then start off by heading to the free Islington Museum on St John Street.
Emirates Stadium is home to Arsenal Football Club and is open for tours. Photo: Alvin Leong
If football is more your thing then no trip to Islington is complete without visiting the home of Arsenal. The spangly 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium stands tall and shiny amidst the rows of traditional houses that surround it. Uprooted from their old home in 2006 (which still lies just a few hundred meters away and now boasts a myriad of luxury flats), Arsenal’s more modern dwelling is a big attraction in the area. Stadium tours run on a daily basis and cost from £18 per adult (or £7.50 to enter the Arsenal Museum), but if your budget doesn’t stretch to that there are still plenty of photo opportunities to be had outside. Match days are also a fun time to visit as locals open burger vans in their front gardens and the pubs bounce to the sound of excited fans.