Everything new and great in London seems to be going on east these days. But just when I think I have to trek over to Hackney or London Fields to get my fix, I find other areas of the city that are equally buzzing. Like Camden.
Just north of central London, Camden is known for being the epicenter of all things alternative. Want a tattoo? Camden. Interested in piercing a part of your body that nobody thought you could pierce? Camden. Going goth? Definitely Camden.
But for those of us that haven’t yet made the decision to embrace an alternative lifestyle (and probably never will), there’s still a lot to do in Camden to make a day (or night) of it.
The neighborhood is best known for its nightlife, particularly its live music scene. From the Roundhouse to the Blues Kitchen, Koko to the Jazz Cafe, there’s no shortage of gigs and genres to be seen.
But my preferred time of day to explore Camden is the afternoon. The neighborhood comes alive with markets, the canal is lined with people eating and drinking, and every pub terrace is overflowing with Londoners eager to soak up what little summer sun we might get this year.
Which is why I’ve come for the day to explore the neighborhood with friends that live here. Being experts on all things Camden, they’ve generously agreed to be my London tour guides. And their advice for any afternoon in Camden is starting at the pub.
No, it’s not because they’re British. It’s because they’re locals, and they know how overwhelming Camden can be. The neighborhood is always packed with people, and the only way to survive a foray into the throng is to fortify oneself with a pint beforehand.
Our pint happens to be at the Edinboro Castle, a pub tucked away off the main streets near Regent’s Park. It has one of the best beer gardens in London, and is the perfect place for a drink on a sunny afternoon. We get a round of Camden Hells lager—which is brewed just up the street near Chalk Farm—in a hyperlocal start to our afternoon.
Pints finished, we start down Parkway, one of Camden’s main streets. On our way, we pass by another of the neighborhood’s famous pubs, the Dublin Castle. Apparently it was built at the same time as the Edinboro Castle to stop the fighting between the Irish and Scottish railway workers when the nearby tracks were being laid.
But today the Dublin Castle pub is more famous for its live music scene. In particular, it was a favorite haunt of former Camden resident Amy Winehouse (and there is still a signed photo of her behind the bar).
Across the street is a coffee shop called The Coffee Jar, a sweet little place with a mouth-watering pastry display and friendly staff. We pick up an iced coffee before making our way towards the high street.
When we get there, we join the crowds emerging from the Camden Town tube station and head into the markets.
The Camden markets are perhaps the most diverse of all of London’s markets. Every afternoon, the neighborhood swells with vendors and visitors as a wave of stalls takes over. All imaginable spaces along the roads and canals are home to different kinds of markets, from foodie to goth. The sheer variety of goods for sale can be overwhelming.
And that’s to say nothing of the high street, which opens its shopfronts to the world with an array of alternative goods and gear. Above the doors, larger-than-life shoes and other brightly colored accessories adorn the facades in what has become an iconic scene.
While Camden is famous for the open-air Camden Market, which sells alternative and goth clothing as well as souvenir T-shirts, my main interest lies with the others. The Horse Tunnel Markets, for example. Set under a labyrinthine maze of above-ground tunnels, they sell all kinds of jewelry and accessories.
Or the Stables Market, which has home goods galore. All of the neighborhood’s markets are contiguous, so it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and another begins, but getting lost in their narrow alleys is half the fun.
Perhaps my favorite market in Camden is the food market in the West Yard of the Camden Lock Market. Set in a courtyard surrounded on all sides by two stories of pub and restaurant terraces, it’s the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon grazing.
To top it off, the market is right next to the canal, which offers a great place to sit and watch the never-ending parade of colorful boats and people go by.
Even better, it’s surrounded by little shops like the Black Gull Bookshop and Bindery and a tiny store selling all kinds of board games.
Above it are tea shops like Yumchaa and around the corner is the famous Chin Chin Labs ice cream shop.
Nearby, a tiki bar sits on a raised walkway above the market tunnels, and has such a hipster vibe that I feel like I could be in Shoreditch. Through an unassuming door just down the way, we enter Proud Camden, an art gallery by day and a bar by night, all set in former horse stables.
Back out on the street, we start to hit our sensory overload limit for the day. We defect to Regent’s Park for a late afternoon picnic with fresh produce from the newly opened Parkway Greens, happy to have an idyllic haven of peace so close to the bustling markets.
And perhaps that’s the best thing about Camden. There’s something for everyone here, and there’s a place for every mood. It may not be east, but it’s still got enough going for it that it makes a nice alternative.