Every long-term traveler has a different catalyst that starts them on their journey and that keeps them excited out there on the road. Some want to hop from one beautiful beach to the next chasing perpetual summer (an idea that doesn’t sound so bad as I sit here writing this in chilly Toronto!), whereas others set out to climb mountains, dive the planet’s best reefs, visit the world’s best art museums or volunteer with animals. Those are all admirable and perfectly valid reasons to pack your bags and hop on a plane, and we certainly enjoyed doing many of them, but none of those things were the main reason we decided to travel. Our reason was far simpler: Eat All The Things.
We didn’t just want to see the world—we wanted to taste it too.
To that end, we’ve visited some of the top food cities in the world, from Singapore to Penang. Heck, the whole reason we ended up adding Taiwan to our itinerary was because of food! If we learned anything from our gluttony-focused time gallivanting around Asia, it’s that there are few places that bring us as much joy as the local markets do. They’re generally fantastic for people-watching and getting a real flavor of the local life, they tend to be pretty photogenic, and they also allow us to engage in our favorite activity—eating—on the cheap.
One of the many reasons we were so sad to leave Asia was because we assumed we would be trading in markets for museums. Happily, London happens to be home to some pretty amazing markets… but sadly, there were far more markets than we could reasonably visit during our visit amongst all the other activities we tried to fit in during our time in the city. In fact, despite being overwhelmed with markets to visit, we only made it two of them! So while I can’t speak the least bit authoritatively on the best London markets or which markets in London you simply can’t miss (because I guess it would be these two?), I will talk about why I loved the two we did visit, and I hope that if you do make it to London, you’ll spend some time at both of them.
First up is the stalwart old standby, Borough Market. Rumored to date back to the 11th century (!), this covered market is nearly as old as London itself, and no market hop through the city would be complete without a stop here (hence why it tends to place first on most lists and roundups of the markets in the city). Borough’s main trade used to be fruits & veg, but these days it has expanded to include bread, cheese, oils, meat and seafood, and any other cooking staple you might wish to buy. Of course, being such an iconic landmark sitting on a prime piece of real estate (settled as it is between the Millennium and London bridges on the south bank of the Thames), and a popular tourist attraction to boot, any groceries purchased here will cost you a pretty penny. We were more than happy to gaze lovingly on the beautiful British produce (although there were a few surprising Asian fruits on offer, they all looked pretty pitiful and lackluster) and enjoy the many free samples that most of the vendors offer, but refrained from any proper grocery shopping.
We were in good company, it seemed, since in recent years more and more prepared food vendors have popped up around the market; normally we’re warned against food shopping on an empty stomach, but these days most people go to Borough specifically to eat on the spot. Most of the stalls seem to focus on modern British cuisine, although there are a few offering some more adventurous and international fare like paella and Japanese gyoza. Having sampled a thimbleful of one enthusiastic vendor’s Thai green curry, we both agreed that the traditional foods on offer seemed the most promising… After all, when in London!
We ended up splitting a sandwich stuffed with roast pork, crackling and apples from the Roast restaurant stand and it was SO GOOD. As in, we devoured it in less than 5 minutes and then fought over the scraps like wild dogs and with a ferocity that rivaled the infamous KoftaGate incident of 2009. Like the sign promised, this sandwich was “Deliciously British”, two words you might not naturally pair together, but after one bite of this sandwich, you’ll be a believer. The pork was luscious and succulent and paired perfectly with the crisp crackling, sweet creamy apples and soft-yet-chewy bread. We have both eaten a lot of sandwiches in our lifetimes and I daresay this is one of the very best, certainly right up there with Thanksgiving leftovers and Philly Cheesesteaks. For days afterwards, we would turn to each other and say, “Remember the Roast sandwich?” and the other would groan with longing at the memory. Truthfully, we still do that, months later.
If I have any regrets about our time in London, it’s that we split this rather than each getting our own. And that we didn’t come back and eat it every single day. So, I’m just going to put it out there and say: If you come to London, you MUST EAT THIS SANDWICH OR YOUR TRIP WILL BE A WASTE. That’s right, I went there; this sandwich was just that damn good.
Also, what better beverage to wash it down with than the cocktail of posh tennis fans, a Pimm’s Cup? Apparently Pimm’s are to Brits what tinto de verano is to Spaniards and margaritas are to North Americans, read: the drink of summer. We’d never tried one before and at £3.50 (~$5.70US) they’re not exactly cheap but, once again, we figured “When in London…” Fortuitously, the stand that was flogging them (alongside sangria) began offering them at 2-for-1 rates, which seemed to be a sign from Bacchus himself that we needed to indulge. For those curious, the most prevalent Pimm’s is gin based and seems like one of those gateway drinks in that it tastes mostly fizzy and fruity and hardly boozey at all. Which is to say that it is a delight and the perfect accompaniment to have in hand while wandering the market.
All in all, I adored Borough Market and, along with our friends James & Kirsty (more friends met on this trip, this time in Indonesia!), we happily browsed the stands for close to two hours. Having featured in films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s little wonder that at times it felt we had wandered onto a sound stage since parts of the market can’t help but look familiar to British film buffs. The area around the market and the beautiful Victorian architecture that encloses it are richly atmospheric and really feel the way I had envisioned a typical London market to feel. Sure, Borough Market has been polished and spiffed up, but that doesn’t detract from its rich history or the good eating it offers either. It’s squarely on the tourist trail, but it didn’t take very long to charm us and I’d wager most people feel the same.
Brixton Village Market
One of the things I love about London is how ultimately it’s a bunch of little cities coming together to form an incredible urban mosaic. You need only travel farther south to the district of Brixton to understand what I mean. Infamous for civil unrest and race riots through the 1980s and 1990s, the energy in Brixton is completely different from that at Borough Market.
The main building at Brixton market is filled with a hodgepodge of restaurants—from Jamaican West Indian joints to burgers to Mexican—and a bunch of vintage and thrift shops. Essentially, it’s like the best flea market you’ve ever been to.
We arrived at the market in time for brunch, so after a quick browse decided on a breakfast place called Burnt Toast, largely because their pancakes were the size of a dinner plate. In case you needed proof that Brixton is on its way up in the city of London, our order of mixed berry pancakes set us back a whopping £10 (~$16US), which is obviously insane, but they were also ridiculously good. We also split a bacon sarnie (£5.50/~$9US), because: BACON. Also, you can’t visit England and not have a bacon sandwich!
Obviously the food at London markets is a shade more expensive than any of the markets we frequented in Asia, but the food was uniformly fantastic; just like at Borough market, we rolled out of Brixton with smug smiles plastered across our faces.
As much as I loved Borough market, Brixton might be even more my kind of place. The shops are a bit rough around the edges, but they are all painted bright, peppy colors and have upbeat Caribbean music pumping from their stereos. Old-school butcher shops and grocer stands sit alongside shops selling braids and beads. Unlike stiff-upper-lip Borough where the clientele would largely be at home in an Agatha Christie novel, the demographic in Brixton is decidedly more heterogeneous and a whole lot more ethnic. Although the area has in recent years been the site of cultural renaissance (that some argue is really gentrification), the streets here still hum with a vibrant energy that feels a little bit rough and tumble, a little edgy. If Borough is the heart of London’s market scene, then Brixton just might be its soul.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, I actually can’t think of two better markets we could have visited while in London. Both Brixton and Borough were delightful in their own rights, but they each also allowed us to tap into a very different side of the city, which I think is just fascinating. To me, London is meant for exploring, since no two nooks or boroughs will be the same, each will have a different story to share. These two markets are proof enough of that: Borough is the London of Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist; Brixton is the London of David Bowie, The Clash and countless African and Caribbean immigrants. I love that in a city as large as London, the two can not only coexist, but flourish and glory in their differences as well.
The next time I find myself in London, I’ll make it a priority to seek out other markets, like the ones in Greenwich, Hackney, and Brick Lane. London may be a world away from sweltering South East Asia, but it seems the things we loved about the markets there —the food, the sense of community, the secret sides to a city—are also alive and well here.
Tell Us: If you’ve been to London, what’s your favorite market? If you haven’t been, which of these two markets—Borough or Brixton—would you most want to visit? And most importantly: Which of these amazing things we ate would you most like to try?