A Walking Guide Through London’s Columbia Road Flower Market

A Walking Guide Through London’s Columbia Road Flower Market

“Three fifty each or three for a tenner!!! Three fifty or three for ten!” the bombastic cockney accent of a Columbia Road flower market hawker cuts through a cacophony of chatter. “Cut stems, bunches for the holidays! THREE FOR A TENNER!!” He is a pot-bellied man, this hawker, with matted grey hair and ruddy cheeks singed pink as his peonies. Stood atop a plastic pedestal, ensconced in a forest of fragrance he plies colourful wares with a forceful friendliness to the barbarian hordes below.

Columbia Road Hackney Flowers
The flower King watches his subjects closely on a Sunday morning in November

The hawker’s flowery throne spans double the length of two meaty sweatshirt-cloaked wings and he reigns proudly amongst this metal slat kingdom of makeshift shelves and plastic picnic tables. There are a couple hundred plants at his disposal, but I don’t have time to count properly as my estimations are addled by too many ales in the haunts of Dalston the night before. What I do know however is that this man arrived at the crack of dawn and he has done so, in one form or another, every Sunday morning since the middle of the 19th century. There is plenty to see amongst the Sunday Columbia Road Flower Market maze. So I continue.

3 for a fiver -1
Flower Hawkers come in every shape and size. Some shops are family-run while others are one-man shows.
peonies pink flowers columbia road london
Pink peonies are but one of the uncountable varieties of flowers on display at the market.

As I move amongst the sweater-clad crowd I realize that these flower hawkers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the stalls are family-run affairs while others are one-man operations. One of the female vendors stands amongst a collection of ferns and exotically named house plants. I ask her what time she arrived this morning. “Been up since 3 AM love. Down ‘ere every Sunday. Big crowds these days, big crowds. 2 PM we shut and then another couple hours to pack it up.”

ferns house plants columbia road
East Londoners love picking up house plants at the Columbia Road Flower Market. I should know as I was an East Londoner myself once upon a time.
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The flower stalls use space inventively, packing an incomprehensible amount of product into their small allotments.
The flower sellers watch their potential customers like birds of prey. Hence, the ‘hawker’.

Sweet smells are swirling in every direction on the bustling street. Tulips, carnations, fresh hyacinth, peonies, poppies and cacti galore. Successful market-goers grip their crinkly plastic bags, smiling proudly at a haul in hand. Others, like myself, are just here for a bit of atmosphere. There’s succulents, house plants, herbs and chilli peppers. Rows of pungent lavender waft through the brisk autumn morning. The bulk of the vibrance is green, but that only makes each shock of soft lilac and butterscotch yellow stand out all the more vividly.

Red flower bunch
Colors, colors and colors galore. The aesthetic on Columbia Road is unrivaled.
chili peppers red yellow columbia road
There are also some great displays such as this one featuring fresh chilli peppers.
Cash only bonsai plants lemons
Make sure you bring cash as many of the stalls are Cash Only. Recently, however, plenty of card-accepting stalls have bloomed as well.

From end to end the flower market is only about a quarter-mile in length and it’s a packed procession. I look for a release valve to catch my breath outside the narrow corridor. Sneaking through a gap between two vendors I am able to make way to the sidewalk along the storefronts. There is a mesmerizing mix of these shops. A gently curving wave of Dickensian brick with pastel entrances and pithy names stencilled emphatically on their respective banners. Columbia Road is a gentrified street, certainly, but one that retains an integral idiosyncratic tenor sorely lacking from nearby Shoreditch.

Columbia road brick buildings london
Columbia Road is a Victorian-era street. It’s had a market running through it since the 1860s and what started out as a food market soon became the top spot for flowers in the whole city.
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Ode’s to the heritage of the street are slathered across the walls. Columbia Road is one of the best slices of history in a city packed full of it.
Columbia pottery green plants brick walls
The actual storefronts of Columbia road are arguably as compelling as the flower stall themselves.

With the number of shoppers in play, you can see why many of these lovely little stores are shuttered during the week and only need to do business on some mix of weekend days. The shops run the gamut. Many of them offer gardening tools and plant accessories, obviously, but there are all sorts of unique spots to spend. Vintage Heaven is a light pink storefront stuffed to the brim with china plates and kitchen accessories. There’s even a pop-up coffee shop in the back of this store called Cakehole, one of the many stoppings off points to get a caffeine fix while browsing.

in bloom yellow shop columbia road
The multicoloured storefronts of Columbia road make for a dazzling, charismatic aesthetic. Great opportunity for photographic study.

Contemporary art gallery Nelly Duff delights with cutting edge graphic arts and screen prints for sale. Further down the street, I stop off at A Portuguese Love AffairEvery shelf proudly displays carefully curated treasures from Portugal, the homeland of co-owners Olga and Dina. I’d been to there deli and cafe up the street on Hackney Road the day prior for an irresistible mid-day pastel de nata and the craft shop on Columbia Road is just as good as yesterday’s sugar high.

the garden shop-1
The crowds mingle and move through the street. It’s a crowded market, but one full of warmth and energy even on a cold autumn day.

Artisans and Adventurers is my favourite stopping off point of the day. It’s a tightly packed houseware and interior design shop with beautifully bizarre items for sale. Ethically sourced artistry lines the walls with a decidedly global theme. Not half bad prices either, all things considered. I don’t have an extra 60 pounds on me, but if I did I would half think I’d be getting a deal for a paper maché tiger mask sourced from India. It is London after all.

A tiger mask sits in sunlight
A paper maché tiger mask from India is one of many treasures found at Artisans & Adventurers, one of the best shops on the whole strip.

About halfway down the market, there is an outlet down to the left-hand side opening up into a makeshift courtyard. With street performers entertaining the excess crowd flow. Irish step dancers and musicians delight the masses with a festive performance more endearing than your ordinary London buskers.

Irish dancers musicians performance street
Columbia Road is more than just Columbia Road. Make sure you explore the outlets and alleyways as well as the street of flowers itself.
Stone busts and statues red hair
the cleverly named Stoned & Plastered is one of the coolest shops in the area. An antiquarian oasis!

In the corner of this makeshift square, there is a fantastic Italian restaurant with a haphazard, rustic aesthetic and plenty of natural light. Campania is the name, and I almost miss it at first glance because “S. JONES” is written on large letters on the storefront. This is an ode to the properties prior to life as an old dairy, and the wonderfully mismatched interior belies that fascinating heritage. Most importantly Campania has absolutely delicious food. It’s an atmospheric restaurant with washed-out wooden tables and terrific Italian fare. One would do well to come back later in the day to try some of their scintillating pasta recipes from the south of the boot.

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Italian Egg Breakfast at Campania. The restaurant is very crowded, but they move quickly! worth the wait.
veg roll brownie tongs
Lily Vanilli is a great choice as well. Lovely pastries, vegan options and a friendly staff. A great smelling shop!
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Stingray Globe Cafe is also a nice Italian restaurant at the end of Columbia Road. Cheaper and more laid back than Campania.

My final stop of the day is for a pint of ale at The Royal OakThis timeless pub has been the heart of Columbia Road for a century and maintains an old school vibe despite a healthy dose of improvements over the past decade and a half of new ownership It’s one of the rare East London pubs that walks the modernization tightrope well. I sit amongst the golden light spilling in sipping on a pint of Doom Bar from Cornwall and watch the parade of people and flowers continue outside glazed windows.

Brick building old pub 1923 Royal Oak
Old school pub with a new school style. A great blend between modernity and history and a welcome stopping off point for a pint.
birdcage old pub east london
The Birdcage is another drinking haunt at the beginning of Columbia Road. The name is an ode to the songbirds they used to sell nearby.

The Columbia Road Flower market is no hidden gem, but it is a gem nonetheless. Sure a plant may be a difficult souvenir to leave London with,  but the best thing on offer at Columbia Road is authenticity and inspiration. You can’t put a price on that in this day in age. It’s just one of those rare streets that you’ll tell other people you’ve been down and how lucky are you for that.

Once you’re done strolling the flora and fauna filled Columbia Road Flower Market, be sure to check out some of the awesome street art in Brick Lane. Or if you fancy staying outdoors, check out the wonderful Spitalfields City Farm nearby. Oh and don’t forget to download the Like Locals app to find more fantastic spots nearby. Available to download on both iOS and Android devices.

This author of this article was our local insider, Willie Gevertz. If you’re a storyteller with a passion for travel, we’d love to hear from you.

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