From the Industrial Revolution to the 2012 Olympic Games, East London’s seen it all. For decades, this corner of the capital was a byword for squalor, made infamous by the works of Dickens and a real-life cast of nefarious characters. But the area has worked tirelessly to reinvent itself, and after enormous (and ongoing) regeneration, East London now provides a fascinating snapshot of a modern and historic capital. For travellers who haven’t strayed far beyond the centre, the East End is, in many ways, the perfect foil for the West End: gritty, in-your-face London, a collage of cultures and neighbourhoods with a world-beating array of arts venues, bars and restaurants to boot. Within the past decade, hotels in and around the Shoreditch-Bethnal Green-Whitechapel triangle have finally caught up with the times, too, offering a fun, irreverent choice that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Best for urban explorers: Mondrian Shoreditch
A relative newcomer to area’s hotel scene, Londoners will remember the Mondrian’s polished predecessor, The Curtain, before a complete pandemic-era reincarnation of the site in August 2021. Much of the distinctive Shoreditch style has endured in this happening, 120-room hotel — there are Crittall-style windows aplenty, as well as whitewashed brick and jaunty pieces of local art, along with a well-stocked minibar and coffee nook in the rooms. But it’s in the communal spaces where the hotel truly fizzes into life: take a dip in the in the heated rooftop pool or settle in with a wild nettle spritz at Christina’s, the ground-floor bar stocked exclusively with British ingredients. BiBo is the main restaurant, decked out in warming cream-and-clay tones and serving upscale tapas from acclaimed Spanish chef Dani García. Altitude, meanwhile, is the place to be for breakfast — wicker seats and banana palms create a breezy California vibe that’s perfect for watching dawn break over the City’s glassy high-rise.
Rooms: From £299, B&B.
Best for party animals: Mama Shelter
‘Mama loves you’ declares a scrawl on a mirror. Whoever Mama is, she’s always up for a good time at this hotel on the happening Hackney Road. The first UK outing for the French chain is just as fun and frivolous as its cousins across the Channel, with DJ sets, wacky decor and even karaoke rooms for hire. The vibe here is charity shop on acid: all tasselled lampshades, vintage books, giraffe lamps and mismatched ceramic ornaments. The bright rooms are a little more toned-down in comparison, and come in three sizes, each with enormous white beds you’ll never want to leave. Service is excellent. Stay for Beach Night on a Friday and sip tropical cocktails in the Garden Bar to the sound of disco beats.
Rooms: From £105.
Acclaimed interior designer David Carter renovated a derelict Queen Anne townhouse in Bethnal Green into 'micro boutique hotel' 40 Winks.
Photograph by 40 Winks
Best for drama queens: 40 Winks
Welcome to the Bethnal Green home of acclaimed interior designer David Carter, who renovated a derelict 1714 townhouse into a ‘micro boutique hotel’ with Wonderland panache. Somewhere between Versailles and the set for Madama Butterfly, the decor is exquisitely eclectic, with curios, antiques and bold furnishings throughout. There are just two boudoirs here (a single and a double), which share a bathroom decked in golden chinoiserie wallpaper, with a roll-top bath, complete with lion’s-head tap. David himself is the perfect host — this is a man who loves a good natter — and welcomes guests at the door. “The place is alive,” he says, “with the sound of good conversation.”
Rooms: From £115 (single) and £185 (double), B&B.
Best for homebirds: Leman Locke
Need a home away from home? This haven between the Tower of London and Brick Lane is just that — all 22 floors of it. Tear yourself away from the stunning city views to bask in rooms that sit stylishly between hotel suite and apartment, finished with a dash of Scandi minimalism. The vibe is modestly millennial: expect a calming palette of pastel blue and pink, discreet in-room yoga mats and NutriBullets, as well as huge TVs and sleek kitchenettes that come with integrated Smeg appliances. There’s a warm welcome at check-in and, before you head out for the day, don’t forget to grab one of the excellent juices from Shaman, the ground-floor cafe.
Rooms: From £99.
Best for social butterflies: The Buxton
Here’s an old pub on Brick Lane, named in honour of 19th-century brewer and social reformer, Thomas Buxton. It was given a new lease of life in 2019 and now comes with 15 small but perfectly formed rooms upstairs, each with original Victorian features including fireplaces and whitewashed brick walls, spruced up with fresh white decor and locally woven blankets. Creature comforts include Netflix, Nespresso machines and books on the East End, while breakfast is served on the beautiful marble bar downstairs. Swing by for a pre-dinner drink, too, as locals flock here most nights of the week. And don’t forget to visit the rooftop terrace — a funky, guests-only sun trap that offers fantastic views across the City.
Rooms: From £75, B&B.
And while you’re there…
Just down the street is The Buxton’s sister hotel, The Culpeper — a classic East End boozer (with five, soon-to-be-renovated rooms) that’s been done up to the nines. The vibe is decadent shabby chic, with plenty of hanging bare lightbulbs, plants and exposed brickwork. The pub on the ground floor is a vibrant spot for a pint, but the greenhouse-cum-roof terrace is even more fun: tuck into modern British-European plates amid planters of lettuces, rhubarb, grapes and tomatoes, all overlooked, rather aptly, by the Gherkin.
Best for the stylish set: Hart Shoreditch
Opened at the end of 2019, this chic new kid on the block, from Hilton’s Curio Collection, is a polished addition to a trendy part of town. There are nods to the area’s manufacturing heritage with silks, books and artifacts placed throughout, but it’s the understated, softly-lit rooms that impress most: all cream-and-rose-gold tones, with modern touches such as Marshall amp radios. Bathrooms sparkle with pearl-white tiles and gold fittings. Splashing out? Go for a suite and lather up in the roll-top bath with views of Shoreditch bustling below. There’s also a classy gym in the basement, and a Levantine-inspired menu at Barboun on the ground floor — a bright, airy eatery with crimson banquettes and rattan galore.
Rooms: From £105, B&B.
Best for bargain-hunters: Z Hotel Shoreditch
Set just off buzzy Old Street, the affordable hotel chain’s East London outpost has a smart, industrial-chic feel in the lobby, with 111 rooms upstairs. They’re functional rather than beautiful, but are excellent value in a notoriously pricey city, and come with comfy beds, self-contained shower rooms and huge Samsung TVs. But it’s all about the location here, with some of the area’s best bars, galleries and restaurants just minutes away.
Rooms: From £50, B&B.
Best for legal eagles: Courthouse Hotel
All rise at the former Old Street Magistrates’ Court and Police Station, slap bang in the heart of Shoreditch. The Kray twins were once held here, although the place has changed beyond recognition since then. While the lobby of this bold hotel is still grand, with a domed glass ceiling and sweeping staircase, there’s now 128 spacious rooms and studios, with plush furnishings and king-size beds. There’s even a bowling alley, pool and cinema in the basement levels.
Rooms: From £179.
Best for traditionalists: Batty Langley’s
To call this Spitalfields sanctuary a ‘period’ hotel would be to do it a disservice; this is a full-blown waltz into a bygone era. Part of the small-scale Hazlitt’s hotel group, luxurious Batty Langley’s is named for the 18th-century eccentric and writer, and is styled accordingly: ornate mirrors, drapes, four-poster beds and old portraits give it a truly decadent feel. But the 29-room hotel is far from stuffy, with places to unwind in style, including the beautiful Tapestry Room.
Rooms: From £207.
Best for cool kids: New Road Hotel
Metal window frames and exposed brick dominate the slick aesthetic at this former textile factory off Whitechapel Road. Its 80 rooms are compact, but maximise space with dreamy king-size beds that fill one end of the room. Need anything? There’s no dialling ‘0’ for reception, with WhatsApp the channel of choice to speak to the friendly reception team. There are cool communal spaces on each floor — a games room, coworking library, and yoga space on the roof — and the lobby bar pops with green velour sofas and plush yellow armchairs. There’s a fine, steak-heavy menu courtesy of Marco Pierre White at Mr White’s English Chophouse, too.
Rooms: From £89, B&B.
Best for the in-crowd: The Hoxton
It might now count eight hotels in its ever-growing empire, but the Hoxton family’s first member is still the place to hang out. Walk into the effortlessly cool lobby, with its industrial-chic decor, and you’ll quickly see why: Shoreditch creatives tap away busily on MacBooks, a hip, young crowd brunches at the Hoxton Grill, and party animals swing by for cocktails before hitting the town. And while there’s never a dull moment downstairs, calm and smart rooms await upstairs, with crisp white sheets, leather wingback chairs and a smattering of paperbacks to curl up with. In the likely event the ground-floor bar’s busy and you can’t get a seat, head upstairs to the newly launched rooftop bar and enjoy the view with a drink.
Rooms: From £149.
Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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