London’s East End transformation over the last decade has been a fascinating thing to watch, as the City of London’s skyline gradually creeps out to consume the land around Brick Lane. But the area’s history is still palpable, from the old gangster haunts of the Kray twins around Whitechapel, the profusions of street art, vintage shopping and South Asian culture to be found along Brick Lane, to the hedonistic nightlife of Shoreditch.
The area’s history and diversity of interests, cultures and arts means there are plenty of tours ranging from broad introductions of the East End to niche explorations of a certain theme. Gangster, social history and especially street art, these are the main themes for some for the best tours in East London. While there are plenty of different options currently available, the five options on this list stand out for a variety of factors, including their itineraries, value for money, uniqueness of experience and, in one case, the fact that the guide is a well-known actor.
FROM: £18/per person
East London’s street art is ubiquitous; you’ll see it wherever you walk. It’s also among some of the best work in the city, but knowing exactly where to find the best murals can be tricky because a lot of it is tucked down unassuming alleyways. On this two-hour walking tour, you’ll discover roughly 40 of the urban art highlights around the hotspots of Shoreditch and Brick Lane. You’ll also learn about how street art continues to evolve and the local history that led to it becoming so prolific in this area of London’s East End in the first place.
From £22/ per person
This remarkable tour offers a very unique and important take on East London history. It touches on much of what the other tours cover, but comes from a fresh perspective, putting the oft-overlooked women’s history in the spotlight. For example, it is the only guided tour that focusses on who Jack the Ripper’s victims were and how they lived, rather than buying into the whimsy and folklore that has risen up around the unknown murderer. It also examines the essential role of many influential women in shaping the area’s history, including that of notable suffragettes. Tours vary in duration and are available in both the morning and afternoon.
From £14/ per person
Stalking the streets, alleys, slums and always striking with precision, the Grim Reaper has been exceedingly busy in East London over the centuries. This popular tour takes guests back to the time of Medieval London on the trail of the city’s notorious murderers. You’ll glide through time to Victorian London, a tumultuous period where the East End was racked with plague, unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions and the spectre of crime and death lurking on every corner. Fortunately, East London is very different today and the two-hour tour is highly likely to feature the Grim Reaper only as a character rather than making a personal appearance.
From £45/ per person
For anybody who is passionate about street art to the point that they’d like to give it a go themselves, this excellent interactive tour offers a two-hour walking tour followed by a practical session. See some of the best street murals around Old Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, where the likes of Shepherd Fairy and Banksy have left their mark. You’ll then get a chance to head to a workshop where you’ll be able to create your own stencil and learn to free-hand spray paint. This is restricted to the studio of course as no wanton destruction of public property is permitted; street art permits are usually acquired legitimately by artists, but this could well be your starting point.
From £20/ per person
Snatch, Revolver and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, basically any British move made in the late 90s and early noughties that didn’t involve period costumes, was a gangster movie. More often than not it was set in East London because the area has a long, storied history linked to the criminal underworld. Who better to expose this slice of vice than the man who played Rory Breaker in Lock, Stock, Vas Blackwood? See locations associated with the Krays and other notorious gangsters, as Blackwood recounts tales of their crimes along the way. Certainly, this is one of London’s most unique tours available.