Food in London has a really poor reputation. Most people regard English food as bland and boring. Even English people tend not to dine at English restaurants themselves, preferring Indian, Italian or Chinese cuisine over their own. Allow me to let you in on a trend particularly popular during the summer months – the street food picnic. Londoners like to visit a street market where there is a wide selection of hawkers selling you a range of hot meals. You make your food selection, walk to a nearby beautiful park to find a nice spot under a tree and enjoy the inexpensive quality food you’ve just bought.
There are so many street markets in London, so I’ll highlight just five where you can buy your food and walk to a park within minutes (less than 500 metres). Most street markets have some kind of sitting area of no more than a few wooden benches, which tend to get filled up really quite quickly.
Note that most street markets wind up by 3 pm or so, but a few do continue into the night time (the sun sets at about 9:30 pm in summer). So, if you’re ready for a gourmet picnic with exotic food from Vietnamese spring rolls to Greek souvlakis to pulled pork burritos, here’s a list of my favourite London street markets within a short walk from some lovely parks.
1. Berwick Street Market + St Anne’s Churchyard
Berwick Street Market is one of the longest surviving street markets in central London. It is a bit of an oddity given that such street markets tend to be associated with more residential areas, but this street market is right in the heart of Soho, a neighbourhood better known for entertainment, theatres, cinemas, bars, restaurants and shopping right in the middle of central London.
The market spills over from Berwick Street southwards into Rupert Street (walk south through Walkers Court to get to the Rupert Street side of the market). St Anne’s Churchyard is a cute little garden in Soho; it is the garden of the local church which is open to the public during daylight hours and is very popular with the locals.
To get there, from the southern end of the Rupert Street part of the market, turn left into Winnett Street and walk to the end of the street. You should be able to see the trees in St Anne’s Churchyard. Cross Wardour Street and the entrance to the churchyard is via the stairs on the right. It is a walk of about 90 metres.
When to go: Mondays to Saturdays. Most street food stalls start about 11 am and wind down by about 3 pm. The market officially closes at 6 pm. It is closed on Sundays.
Other attractions in the area: Soho is walking distance from a large number of famous central London attractions. It is dubbed ‘Theatreland’ because of the sheer number of theatres. It is also a stone’s throw from Chinatown and a short walk from all the funky designer boutiques on Carnaby Street. Covent Garden, the British Museum, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square are all in the vicinity as well.
2. The Cabbages and Frocks Market + Regent’s Park
This is a cute little market held in the cobbled yard of St Marylebone Parish Church, with a mix of gourmet food and alternative fashion available. Visiting this market is a refreshing change from going to a mall or shopping on the high street which are dominated by chain stores and fast food outlets. It is also remarkably close to Regent’s Park. Unlike St Anne’s churchyard, Regent’s Park is absolutely huge – 395 acres in total – and is one of the biggest and oldest parks in London.
The front of St Marylebone Parish Church faces Marylebone Road. From the front of the church, you’ll be able to see the junction between Marylebone Road and York Gate where there is a pedestrian crossing. Use the crossing to cross Marylebone Road and head north along York Gate towards Regent’s Park, which begins just after the junction of York Gate with the Outer Circle Road. From the front steps of the church to setting foot in the park, the total distance is just about 160 metres.
The choice is yours thereafter – you can either venture further into the park to explore the beautiful gardens, or simply have your picnic by the river around York bridge about 40 metres from the entrance to the park.
When to go: This is a Saturday market from 11 am to 5 pm, so please don’t turn up on any other day of the week.
Other attractions in the area: Apart from Regent’s Park which deserves a few hours of your time to do it justice, there is also the famous Madame Tussard’s wax museum and the London Planetarium 200 metres to the west along Marylebone Road. If you are a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, there is the Sherlock Holmes Museum just beyond Baker Street tube station.
3. Southbank Centre Market + Choice of 2 Gardens
This is a relatively new but thriving market around the Southbank Arts Centre. In the 1950s, the whole area was dedicated to become an arts hub with various arts galleries, theatres, TV studios, cinemas and concert halls all built within very close proximity on the Thames waterfront. The area has been an arts hub for well over 60 years, but the food market was only established in the last 10 years or so when a large number of restaurants and food outlets moved into the area. This is a fairly large food street market with a very international flavour.
You have access to two great gardens from the Southbank Centre Market: the first one is the rooftop garden on top of the Hayward Gallery. From the north-eastern end of the market, you will see some rather large stairs leading you up to the roof gardens of the Hayward Gallery. In this area, there is often a mix of art installations, exhibitions as well as a permanent garden (complete with a cafe/bar) on the rooftop – it is just barely 20 to 30 metres’ walk (but up the stairs).
The alternative is to head to the Jubilee Gardens which offers a great view of the London Eye. The market faces Belvedere Road. Stand with your back facing the Southbank Centre and turn right onto Belvedere Road. Walk for about 150 metres and you will see the grand Shell Centre building on your left and the Jubilee Gardens on your right.
When to go: Friday, 12 noon – 8 pm, Saturday, 11 am – 8 pm, Sunday, 12 noon – 6 pm, Monday (bank holidays only), 12 noon – 6 pm
Other attractions in the area: Even if you are not interested in any of the artistic offerings in the South bank area, there is the BFI Imax in Waterloo, the London Eye, the London Aquarium and the Florence Nightingale Museum, and we’re just talking about the attractions on this side of the river. There are plenty more on the northern bank of the Thames which are just a short walk across the bridge.
4. Whitecross Street Market + Choice of 4 Parks
I like Whitecross street market because it caters far more for a local clientele rather than for tourists. Hence, they have to maintain a very high quality to keep local customers coming back day after day, unlike those relying on touristy locations.
To get there, try Fortune Street Park if you find yourself near the southern end of Whitecross street market. Head south along Whitecross Street until you get to the junction of Fortune Street and turn right into Fortune Street. The total distance should be around 200 metres only. It is not a big park, but it is pleasant enough for you to find a place to sit down and have a little picnic.
If you’re in the middle of the market, try Quaker Gardens for something different: it is a former graveyard which closed in 1855, but some old gravestones still remain. Today it is a quiet, peaceful little garden with plenty of trees. Find the junction of Whitecross Street and Chequer Street in the middle of the market. Walk for about 80 metres along Chequer Street, then turn left into Quaker Gardens Walkway which will lead you into the garden. The total walking distance is about 100 metres.
If you are intrigued by this, also check out Bunhill fields, a further 400 metres to the West which is a much bigger cemetery. Finally, if you’re at the northern end of the market, walk north to the junction where Whitecross Street meets Old Street. Cross Old Street and continue walking north along Helmet Row for another 100 metres. That will bring you to St Luke’s Garden, the biggest garden in the area. The total walking distance from the northern end of Whitecross market is only about 110 metres.
When to go: Monday to Friday 10 am – 5 pm; Closed on weekends.
Other attractions in the area: There is the London Symphony Orchestra’s home at St Luke’s church, which is worth a visit as the church is charming. The cemeteries in Quaker Gardens and Bunhill fields are definitely different enough to warrant a visit. The Barbican Arts centre is just 100 metres from the southern end of the Whitecross street market – there’s always plenty going on there. The hippy, trendy and alternative neighbourhood of Hoxton, famous for its vibrant nightlife is about a 10-minute walk to the southeast.
5. Camden Lock Market + Castlehaven Park
Camden Lock market is one of the most touristy markets in London. It has a wide array of stores selling everything from fashion to accessories to tourist souvenirs to antiques to handicrafts and of course, food. Although it is open every day of the week, there are a lot more “pop-up stores” that only make an appearance during the weekends and public holidays when there are a lot more visitors. The seating area in the market is very limited and many tourists resort to eating standing up.
For your street food picnic: locate the southern exit of the market by Gilgamesh restaurant. There, you will find a junction where Chalk Farm Road meets Castlehaven Road under the railway bridge. Cross the junction and walk about 40 metres along Castlehaven Road, pass the rental bikes docking station and you will see Castlehaven Park on your left.
Many tourists who are smart enough to find the park venture no further than the fringes of the park where there are loads of tall tree providing shade. However, follow my instructions: walk to the other end of the park (pass under yet another railway bridge) which has benefited from recent works – new trees and shrubs have been planted, there is a children’s playground, a football pitch, a pond and even a wildlife sanctuary. All that, within just 160 metres from the hustle and bustle of Camden Lock market, yet it only seems to be locals who appreciate the nicer half of this park.
When to go: The market is opened seven days a week, even during public holidays. It is far better during weekends and public holidays. It starts getting busy around 11 am and some of the stores stay open until 9 pm during the summer months when it gets dark very late.
Other attractions in the area: Camden Lock market is the key reason why people visit Camden, it is big, it is touristy and it is fun – you should probably give it a few hours to explore at leisure. The area is also well-known for its vibrant nightlife. There is also the Roundhouse theatre which has a very eclectic and interesting programme. The Jewish museum can also be found a short distance from Camden Town station.