Islington’s independent heart beats loudly.
This is an area guide with a difference – giving you the inside track on the best way to experience this vibrant borough like a local. From independent shops, bars and restaurants to local history and nature. There’s so much on offer here that your time could be happily occupied without visiting a single big-chain business.
Rising rents and business rates mean conditions are tough for many traders – they need your support more than ever and, if our experience is anything to go by, the quality of the local offering here is phenomenal.
Life is so much tastier, more characterful and less magnolia when you choose local!
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Eddie Izzard, Frank Skinner, Russell Brand and Rob Delaney are just some of the names to have tested out new material here. And this is the place to come to see some of the nation’s newest talent. Gigs take place every night at the Camden head and at the Bill Murray on Queen’s Head St. This place is run by comedians dedicated to the local community - they run regular projects with care homes, schools and charities and courses for those interested in giving stand-up a try. Shows are mostly free, with a voluntary contribution.
THE UNION CHAPEL is one of London’s most beautiful, atmospheric venues – from ukulele orchestras and reggae choirs to classical concerts and film nights – this place caters for all tastes. The acoustics are wonderful, and the building is a fantastic example of Victorian Gothic architecture. The Margins Café serves food on gig days and nights and all the money they make helps the Chapel run The Margins Project, helping the homeless.
This 325-seat theatre started life in 1837 as a library, museum, laboratory and lecture theatre for Islington Literary and Scientific Society. It opened as a theatre in 1980. All Harold Pinter’s plays premiered here. This small theatre is a launch pad for some of the UK’s most talented directors and actors and the program is designed to inspire, provoke and entertain.
The woman behind this brilliant local business is full of fun, energy and knowledge. She is revolutionising the wine-tasting industry with fun and science-based classes which demonstrate how factors like music and other flavours can impact our taste buds. Headquarters is in Oakley Road or she can come to your house. Check the website for course dates.
Singing is literally good for your soul – studies show it reduces pain and improves breathing, speech and posture. It has been used since the dawn of time as a way of marking community life and bringing people together. We’ve had some very big, very fun nights in Lucky Voice. The rooms have touch-screen technology, access to over 9,000 songs, a prop box and a ‘Thirsty’ button for food and drink service.
From hip-hop, and flamenco to ballet and contemporary, the world’s most talented dancers and choreographers have been enthralling audiences here since the theatre’s construction in 1998. The venue, which replaced an earlier 17th century theatre of the same name, was built on the site of a well, constructed by Richard Sadler, which was said to offer water with health-giving properties. You can still look down the well today!
This distinctive building with an iconic neon sign is one of the oldest continually-running cinemas in the UK. It opened in Upper Street in 1913. Today, you can enjoy a drink, hot food and snacks from a comfy seat or sofa. Everyman, which runs this cinema, choose a fabulous line-up of films and it hosts special events like National Theatre Live.
FABULOUS OUTSIDE SPACES
Islington might have less green space than any other borough, but what they do have is brimming with wildlife, buzzing with community and full of beauty.
THE NEW RIVER WALK
This river may be man-made but the nature and wildlife that’s sprung up here is stunning. This short, tree-lined river walk from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, has weeping willows, ducks, coots, moorhens and frequently herons. It’s very pretty and peaceful and there are benches dotted about so you can sit and take in the beauty. The New River was originally created to bring drinking water from the River Lea in Hertfordshire to the people of London.
This little garden is simply magical. It’s managed by green-fingered locals and includes a lawn, ponds, rose pergolas, ornamental beds, vegetable beds, seating and a wildlife area. It was rewarded a National Certificate of Distinction by RBS. Come here on a summer’s lunchtime and you might be lucky enough to catch the beautiful sounds of the Culpeper Choir rehearsing.
This 29-acre park is the largest open space in Islington. As well as open parkland and mature trees, there are tennis courts and Highbury Pool (an inside council-run swimming pool). Pack a picnic or head to the park’s central café. There’s a lovely children’s playground
This nature reserve features ponds, woodland and meadows and is teeming with plants, birds and butterflies. It’s accessed off Drayton Park or Gillespie Road. There’s an Ecology Centre and the reserve often has activities like pond-dipping and bat walks. Opening times: 8am till dusk, daily (but not when there are events at The Emirates Stadium).
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Rated by Time Out as among London’s Top 50 Restaurants, Salut! on Essex Road, Islington is one of the most welcoming restaurants we’ve come across, it’s wonderful to be able to watch the chefs at work in their open kitchen, the food is beautifully well presented and delicious and it’s received well-deserved rave reviews. The food is modern European with a Nordic twist and also features several French dishes.
This Thai restaurant in Highbury Barn is run by published author and aspiring TV chef Sebby Holmes. “’Farang’ means ‘white foreigner’ – the food here is super fresh, super fragrant and super delicious. Giles Coren, wrote described this place as: “the perfect restaurant for me”. He added: “[it’s] Historic. Fiery, colourful, distinctive, lavishly seasoned, modern, bright, fun, filling, rare and unusual.”
The food served at this stunning restaurant in the heart of Farringdon is rich and packed with flavour. Monsieur Le Duck serves food from Gascony in South West France and, as is true of the region, it’s no-frills – just duck and frites served with salad, French bread, vegetables, puddings and superb wine. Not a balsamic reduction or nasturtium in sight! The Guardian raved about the food here and described the restaurant as: “delightful in a low-key, sweetly romantic way.”
We’ve been eating at this Thai restaurant on Upper Street for the past decade and it never disappoints. Their pretty garden twinkles with fairly lights, the prawn crackers are the proper spicy ones and there staff are fabulous.
It’s hard to believe that this beautiful Georgian pub in Thornhill Road was once surrounded by fields and farmland! In years gone by, regulars would enjoy a walk out of the city and into the countryside to visit this popular pub. This gem of a gastropub serves amazing roast lunches, including a whole roast sucking pig and it has the prettiest walled, wisteria covered garden.
We love this little coffee shop. Its size makes it hard to spot but this bijou cafe is well worth a visit (it's on Upper St opposite the Business Design Centre!). Most of their products are glucose and lactose free and their lunches are homemade and delicious, with a focus on clean, organic and healthy eating. The coffee is really good too.
WILD FOOD CAFE
Local vegans tell us this place, which opened recently on Upper Street, serves some of the best food they’ve ever tasted. The menu is plant-based with plenty of raw and organic ingredients and there’s a strong focus on freshly-foraged wild food, full of nutrients.
Locals love this rustic Italian restaurant on Exmouth Market. It’s super cosy, with banquette style seating and the vibe is laid back. Popular dishes include delicious pastas, veal Milanese and deep-fried calamari.
The team behind Callooh Callay are behind this gorgeous bar. It was hailed Best Bar and Best New Venue in Islington in the Design My Night Awards 2016/17. We love the team who run it – their cocktails are wonderful and their brunches legendary!
Transport yourself to a sun-drenched Pacific island at Laki Kane. This Upper Street Bar was crowned by The Nudge as one of the 10 Best Bars in London. They serve exotic cocktails in ornate glasses - freshly prepared with artisanal rums and hand-made sugar cane syrups. You can even distil your own bottle of rum here!
Whether you’re looking for a place to pop into for a drink or two or a top-notch party venue where everything runs like clockwork, The Chapel Bar has it all. This brilliant bar has been lovingly restored. There’s also a terrace garden and a dance floor.
LOCAL SHOPPING GEMS
Potter through CAMDEN PASSAGE and search through the various antique houses for treasures, collectibles and vintage costumes or head to Cross Street for gorgeous clothes shops and a fabulous deli.
Our favourite spot in N1 to pick up a gift is AFTER NOAH. This charming shop sells a mix of toys, vintage and antique homeware and furniture and more modern decorative items.
For kids’ gifts, we love MOLLY MEG on Essex Road. This stunning shop is packed with incredibly special presents to delight the little people in your life.
Hooray for the over-the-shoulder-bolder-holder! Whether you’re buying for yourself or a loved one, THE PANTRY UNDERWEAR in Camden Passage has undies that will make you feel super special and expert fitters too.
No trip to Islington would be complete without popping into PAUL A YOUNG. This ground-breaking chocolatier has deservedly built a strong reputation as a flavour alchemist; developing daring flavour combinations. Whatever day you visit, you’ll be able to try chocolates hand-made at the shop that day.
LOVE BROWNIES: Keeping with a chocolate theme, these gooey, hand-baked brownies are worth a sample. Varieties include double chocolate, Morello cherry, caramel fudge and raspberry. Vegan and gluten-free options are available.
This little bakery by Camden Passage won a Small Producers Award, came Highly Commended in the Great British Food Awards and won a Great Taste Award 2017.
Tucked away on Charlton Place is a little piece of vinyl heaven. With records making a major come-back it's well worth popping in for a browse and a chance to pick up that classic album from days gone by. They also stock a great selection of classic comics.
This health shop in Camden Passage sells thousands of natural supplements, nasty-free cleaning products, drinks, natural dental products like charcoal toothpaste and bamboo toothbrushes, natural deodorants free from silver or aluminium and aromatic essential oils.
Owner Ivana has a knack for working out which nutrients customers are deficient in and finding the supplement to help.
Cross Street’s ANGEL DELICATESSEN. Stock up on Italy’s best meats, cheese, olives and bread and enjoy really good coffee while you wait!
Cheese has always had a place in Islington’s history. In the mid-19th-century there were 170 dairy retailers, many of whom bought their milk from Islington’s largest dairy farm Laycock’s. PISTACHIO & PICKLE on Camden Passage is one of our favourite local cheese shops and they make a pretty fab melting cheese toastie too!
EXMOUTH MARKET. This lovely pedestrianised street has plenty of independents, including design shops, boutiques, health shops and fabulous restaurants. Arrive before 2pm on a weekday to pick up goodies from the various stalls and street food vendors.
FREIGHTLINERS CITY FARM. Head to the Highbury end of Liverpool Road for 2.5 acres of pretty gardens and urban farm. Admission here is free, though donations are welcome. Animals here include cows, sheep, goats, poultry and rabbits and there’s a lovely café.
CITY ROAD BASIN – a decade ago this part of the canal was almost derelict. But there’s been huge regeneration here. This is a lovely family spot – feed the waterbirds, enjoy a bike ride along the towpath, watch the boats come and go or try canoeing.
LITTLE HIGHNESS, Highbury Barn. Little children will love this play café, which features a charming soft play area and ball-pit.
(Islington High St c.1934. With permission from Islington Local History Centre)
This distinctive building near Camden Passage was constructed in 1850 as a tram shed for commuter service to the City. By the 1940s it had been converted to an electricity substation, in 1979 it became The Mall Antiques Arcade, which housed over 35 dealers. Before its current occupier (Sofa.com) it was a restaurant, a Jack Wills store and then a Superdry store. English Heritage described this severe windowless brick building as “influenced by and a tribute to Newgate Prison.”
Angel Recording Studios, on the corner of Gaskin Street and Upper Street, was built as Islington Chapel in 1888 and ran as a congregational chapel until 1979 when it was acquired by De Wolfe Music. Since the early 80s this Grade II Listed building has been providing recording space for commercial and classical recordings for artists such as Adele, One Direction, Seal, Liza Minnelli, Florence and the Machine, Kylie and Robbie Williams.
The Business Design Centre. This opened as the Royal Agricultural Hall in 1862 and hosted major agricultural shows, military tournaments and the first ever Crufts dog show. It was commandeered by the Government during the Second World War and, when Mount Pleasant sorting office was destroyed during an air raid it became the interim parcels depot. It opened as an exhibition venue and conference centre in 1986 and is now home to more than 100 businesses, including clothing retailer Barbour, electronics manufacturer Samsung and coffee maker Illy.
The area was devastated by the Second World War. According to Bomb Sight, a World War II mapping website, 685 high explosive bombs were dropped on Islington between October 1940 and June 1941.
Did you know?
Upper Street was once known as ‘The Devil’s Mile’ (on account of crime levels, drunkenness and prostitution).
Originally a hilltop village serving local farmland, Upper Street and Lower Street (as Essex Road was once known) have been in existence since the 12th century. Henry VIII (1491-1547) used to hunt for ducks in the ponds just off Upper Street and writer and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) is said to have owned a pub on Essex Road.
Upper Street and Liverpool Road were well trodden routes by farmers and animals accessing the nearby Royal Agricultural Hall (now the Business Design Centre). That’s why the pavements are high (1m above the road at some points) – to stop pedestrians being splashed by the large numbers of passing animals.
Charles Dickens described the area in 1870 as: “amongst the noisiest and most disagreeable thoroughfares in London."
On June 27, 1944 a V1 (doodlebug) bomb fell on Highbury Corner killing 26 people and injuring 150. It destroyed and damaged houses on Compton Terrace as well as shops, houses, a pub and train station at the northern end of Upper Street.
ISLINGTON FACTS TO BLOW YOUR SOCKS OFF
The escalator at Angel Station is the longest in London – it runs for 60m and has a vertical rise of 27.5m.
Suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, spent time in jail at Holloway prison
Well-known Islington residents have included Tony Blair, Colin Firth, George Orwell, Lily Allen, and Boris Johnson.
The UK’s first same-sex marriage took place in Islington Town Hall (March 2014)
Islington was the first London Borough to receive fresh water via the New River Head reservoir (via a 40-mile canal leading from Hertfordshore to Clerkenwell). It supplied London with fresh water until 1990 when the Metropolitan Water Board replaced it with deep mains.
In 2003 the Royal Mail sold its former North London Mail Centre (off Upper Street) for £30 million to Sager. The 500,000 sq ft Islington Square Development is well underway and will feature 263 homes, shops, restaurants, public walkways and leisure facilities. Prices start at £685,000 for a studio flat, a three-bed penthouse will set you back over £6 million!
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