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Cultural Guide to Whitechapel

Image © Matt Brown via Flickr

There is a lot to see in do in Whitechapel, from its 100 year old and yet utterly contemporary art gallery, to its music hall.

Whitechapel is often overlooked when listing the pros of East London (in fact, we can almost still consider it ‘up and coming’). But with a Crossrail station set to put it on the map come 2018, an enviable location with Shoreditch on one side and the City on the other, and an aesthetically pleasing mix of old and new East End architecture, it’s definitely catching people’s notice. Here’s our pick of the best things to do, visit and see.

Heritage

The shiny new Royal London building towers over Whitechapel High Street, although the structure of the 18th original is just about visible underneath it. The Royal London Hospital Museum is tucked round the back in the crypt of a 19th century church and charts the development of modern medicine over the last 300 years. The hospital is probably best known for the treatment of John Merrick ‘The Elephant Man’, and there’s a particular focus on his life (including a replica of his skeleton), as well as examples of surgical instruments, medical equipment, uniforms and documents.

Many people will immediately think of notable serial killer Jack the Ripper in association with Whitechapel, a fascination that still draw hoards of tourists to explore the area. There are numerous specialised tours that run regularly, taking a walk through the notable murder sites and discussing the gory details with costumes and effects. There’s also the option to find the sites yourself, even if simply to marvel at how changed the streets are since the gritty, impoverished days of 1888. Particularly take note of the old school block on Durwood Street and Hanbury Street towards The Ten Bells pub.

A cheerier feature of historic Whitechapel is the Bell Foundry. It holds the Guinness World Record for oldest manufacturing company in Britain, having been continuously in production since 1570. Their biggest claim to fame is the manufacture of several notable bells, including the Liberty Bell, the Great Bell of Montreal and Big Ben. There’s a museum display in the foyer and a shop that gives you a run down of the history, or you can book a 90 minute tour for a thorough look at the daily workings.

East London Mosque is both London’s oldest mosque and one of the largest in Europe, and has grown to include a community centre and school. As well as providing a range of services for local Muslims, it is also open to all other faiths in the local community. This includes open days for non-Muslim visitors, symposiums on religious tolerance and numerous lectures on subjects such as faith, family, health, and literacy. They also run a number of courses, including a recent ‘Islam Awareness Course’ for those who want to learn more about the Islamic faith.

Theatre/Film

Genesis Cinema is home of the East End Film Festival and contains all the best features of a local independent cinema. It screens the latest blockbusters, independent art films and has an incredible range of events each month, including poetry slams, panel discussions, quizzes and even a monthly swing dance. There’s also the option to upgrade your date night with their ‘Studio 5’ cinema, featuring armchairs, sofas, blankets and table service from the in-screen bar. The regular tickets are an absolute bargain as well, with weekday prices starting at just £4.

The aesthetically gorgeous Wilton Music Hall is one of the few remaining music halls from 19th century London, reopening as a venue again in 2004. They produce a variety of plays, musicals, concerts and are even staging their first panto this Christmas. Even if you’re not planning on seeing a show, you should definitely visit one of the atmospheric bars, with the Mahogany Bar serving food and drink and the upstairs Cocktail Bar providing classic cocktails and bespoke concoctions to complement the shows.

Art

Despite being over 100 years old, the Whitechapel Gallery is probably one of the most alternatively cool galleries in London (just look at their minimalist typeface). They display mainly contemporary and modern art, having hosted works from the likes of Picasso, Jackson Pollock and David Hockney in the past. There’s an additional focus on community and up and coming artists, with frequent local exhibitions and events. It’s also worth stopping off at their café overlooking Whitechapel High Street, where they serve a fab variety of breakfasts, lights bites, main meals and great coffee and cake.

Kids

Who says you need to hop on a train to experience the countryside? Stepney City Farm is a working farm built on a derelict World War II bombsite and opened in 1979. It offers a complete rural experience, with chickens, sheep, pigs, goats and donkeys to feed, a Farmer’s Market with local produce every Saturday, gardening and animal care courses and even allotments space for local residents (although don’t get your hopes up too much there, the waiting list is decades long!)

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