This post is part of my London Neighbourhood Guides series. Fancy visiting another area of London? Check out my other guides here, which all include information regarding the sights, history, charm, food and drinks of the area you’re curious about.
The district, and old village, of Islington, is a lovely area, still within inner London but having its own vibe and character. It’s trendy, creative, and known for its theatres, street markets, boutique stores, and of course restaurants and bars.
Starting at Angel Underground Station, and walking up, you’ll see that Islington splits into two main roads at Islington Green: Upper Street and Essex Road. Before splitting off onto a street, you’ll see the lovely Islington Green. For me, this is the heart of the neighbourhood. The hustle and bustle of the two main streets, along with the little park, is just the centre of it all. The green itself has a couple of shops, like the bookstore Waterstones.
For a French brasserie, try Bellanger. The team behind Bellanger is from the Corbin & King restaurant group. Their restaurant list includes other impressive outfits, like The Delauney and The Wolseley. My partner and his family (and I) went to Bellanger for New Years’ Eve dinner one year and the food was divine — wow. Three of us had fish dishes, and they were perfectly prepared and seasoned. It certainly was the perfect way to ring in the new year.
Up Left: Upper Street
The truly “main street” through Islington is Upper Street, and it has been this way since the days of the old village. There are tons, and I mean tons, of restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. Everything you could possibly want to buy is somewhere along this street. But besides the typical chains, there are several gems.
For example, the King’s Head Theatre and Pub is the second oldest operating pub theatre in the UK, opening in 1970. The theatre offers several types of theatre including comedies, musicals, and other pieces. It is also a Victorian pub, and so offers the usual pub fare and drink.
A great place for lunch is Yotam Ottolenghi’s first restaurant. As both a deli and a restaurant, Ottolenghi offers delicious daily salads. The idea is to select two or three salads and combine them on a plate for a tour of fantastic flavours. I can’t quite remember what I got last time, but I do remember some scrumptious roasted fennel.
The Squares of Islington
If you turn off Upper Street, you’ll be able to explore the quieter, residential side of the neighbourhood.
Islington does not actually have much green space. When you look at a map of London, you can see large areas of green in almost every neighbourhood, but Islington is most definitely sparse. However, the neighbourhood compensates by offering garden squares. A particular characteristic of Islington, terraced Victoria townhouses are arranged around these garden squares. Sometimes these are private, but others are open to the public.
Some squares worth venturing to include:
- Canonbury Square
- Gibson Square
- Milner Square
- Lonsdale Square
- Barnsbury Square
Canonbury Square is the oldest of the Islington Squares, created in 1800. And another fun fact — apparently George Orwell once lived on this square!
Right around Gibson Square Gardens is where you’ll have the best Sunday Roast in all of London: The Pig and Butcher. This farm-to-table local gastropub is a dream, sourcing locally and responsibly. Read my more in-depth review here.
Beyond the lovely squares, there is another worthwhile walk along part of Regent’s Canal. The Canal runs from the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal to the Limehouse Basin and the River Thames in east London. It runs through many neighbourhoods and areas in London, like Regent’s Park, Camden, King’s Cross and then Islington. While the canal walk in Islington is limited (due to a massive boat-only tunnel), Islington is the perfect spot to start your walk either west or east. You can either start near Caledonian Road and walk westwards or start near Duncan Terrace Gardens to walk eastwards.
If you’re feeling a bit hungry on your walk, you can hope off the towpath and go try Georgian cuisine for the first time (perhaps?) at Little Georgia. The team is also behind a more relaxed cafe in Hackney, with their more upscale restaurant being in Islington. Georgian food is incredible, and you have to try the country’s staple dish: khachapuri, a moreish cheese-filled bread.
Up Right: Essex Road
Instead of heading up Upper Street at Islington Green, you can veer right and go up Essex Road. This street is starkly different to Upper Street. Perhaps a bit more run-down and “practical” but there are some interesting stops along the way, like Flashback Records. The Islington branch opened in 1997. The ground floor has a wide selection of new vinyl, CDs and DVDs, whilst the basement is a treasure trove of second-hand and collectors vinyl.
Venturing off Essex Road, you’ll find one of the best bakeries in all of London: Pophams. I’m lucky enough to have a friend live right around the corner so we always make an excuse to grab a pastry from here.
Camden Passage is an incredibly picturesque cobbled street with antique stalls, shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes. It’s pedestrian-only and is as charming as it gets. The Passage really shows how chic Islington is.
Even before you hit Camden Passage, the street extends a bit further with more lovely shops and stops. I love Katsute 100, a Japanese tea room offering a plethora of tea options. It’s a unique place where you feel like you’re being whisked away to another world (truly!).
One of my favourite stops along the Passage is the Pistachio & Pickle Dairy. I mean, what’s more wonderful than a cheese shop? They sell both British artisan cheeses and cheeses from everywhere else in the world. They also sometimes do cheese toasties, which I can highly recommend. The Breakfast Club is uber-popular (you’ll see a huge line all weekend long), but I much prefer Kipferl, an Austrian coffeehouse. And you can’t have a charming street without an equally charming pub. The Camden Head is another Victoria pub, full of life when you want it to be and also the perfect place for a midday pint.
The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
Islington also has my favourite small museum in London. The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is what it sounds like, and is in fact the only museum in London dedicated to modern Italian Art. The core of the collection is its Futurist works.
Futurism, or Futurismo in Italian, was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. It emphasised speed, technology, youth, violence, and industrial objects.
The Museum consists of a permanent collection, but they also do temporary exhibitions. One of my favourites was the Giacomo Balla: Designing the Future exhibition. Giacomo Balla was one of the most important artistic figures in the Futurism movement. His works are incredibly striking and appealing, making him an easy artist to appreciate.
Looking for more cultural entertainment? Screen on the Green is a single screen cinema along Upper Street. The current cinema as it stands opened in 1913, making it one of the oldest continuously running cinemas in the United Kingdom. It’s such an iconic building with its neon lighting and always brings a smile to my face when I pass by.
There are a few wonderful music venues that host some really great bands. I’ve been to a couple, and it just always reminds me that I live in an incredible city that attracts so much musical attention. At Islington Assembly Hall, I saw La Dispute, an American post-hardcore band from Grand Rapids, Michigan and Mouse on the Keys, a Japanese post-rock band from Tokyo. This venue tends to cater more so to rock band fans, but they have all sorts of offerings.
Another venue is Union Chapel. I love the atmosphere of this place, and it really is a beautiful venue to enjoy the acoustics. It actually is an active church, but in the evenings they host all sorts of performances. I saw The Antlers, an American indie rock band based in Brooklyn, New York.
And there you have it: everything you need to know to enjoy a day out exploring Islington. Honestly, it’s the neighbourhood that keeps on giving as every turn unveils another gem.
Not a bad place to explore, huh? If you like the looks of Islington, then you may also love Bloomsbury. Check out my neighbourhood guide here.