As an Anglophile and regular visitor to London, I seldom skip a travel article about the city.
Recently, writers have been dissing Borough Market and telling tourists to go elsewhere. “Elsewhere” varies, but the options are always smaller, new, or more local markets.
For the uninitiated, Borough Market is what I call a farmers market on steroids. It’s near the London Bridge Tube stop on the south side of the Thames. It is near Southwark Cathedral, the new Tate museum, the Shard, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There has been a market of some sort for centuries, but in the last two decades Borough has turned into a serious foodie destination.
So popular is the market that TripAdvisor lists it as the #14 attraction in London, ahead of even Westminster Abbey. Of course, as a travel agent, I take TripAdvisor with a big grain of salt.
Borough Market isn’t a casual little market by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the vendors have permanent stalls indoors; others have regular outdoor spaces. Most of them take credit cards. It reminds me more, say, of the Ferry Building market in San Francisco, or Faneuil Hall in Boston, than a typical market. But, it’s still one of my favorite places in London.
Yes, Borough Market is crowded. It’s quite near the London Bridge Tube stop, and visitors can see the signs and crowds of people heading in the market’s direction as soon as they exit the Tube stop. Great smells start wafting down the streets as one begins to walk towards the market. It is an adventure.
Most of the market is open only Wednesday through Saturday. Weekdays are more relaxed. Saturday is, to put it mildly, bustling. (If you are crowd adverse, go Wednesday or Thursday afternoon.)
Part of the criticism comes from hard-core foodies — I once read a columnist sniffing that the market had been taken over by the “tomato chutney” crowd, whatever that means.
There are plenty of tourists along with the locals. But that’s true of much of London. To me, that is part of the charm — people-watching is fun. Plus, the lines aren’t generally too bad, especially if one avoids lunch hour. Okay, once I did wait 15 minutes for my favorite grilled cheese.
Even on busy days, there are quick take-away food options, including some very decadent baked goods and sweets. This being England, and not the United States, shoppers can even buy glasses of wine and cider to drink while they walk around.
As a visitor to London, I’m not cooking in my hotel room, so the beautiful seafood is mostly just to ogle, as is a lot of the produce. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to look. Plenty of merchants sell items that tourists can bring home. My favorite stalls include a tiny crowded spice market, a granola maker, and a stand that sells nothing but truffles — truffle salt, honey and oil — at pretty reasonable prices.
Plus at some point on every visit, I have to stop at New Forest Cider, where dry, medium and sweet hard ciders are dispensed from large wooden casks, along with a guest cider or two. Bottled cider and brandy is available for purchase to take home. One delightful evening when I was there near closing time, 6 p.m., workers sold the “late” crowd a last pint of cider before shutting down. Six of us, three Americans and three Brits who had just met, ended up having a great time teaching each other equivalent slang terms from our respective countries.
Now, for those who always want to try something new, or want to be in on the next hot thing, I don’t mean to imply that it’s not worth checking out off-the-beaten-track London markets. Personally, I have Brixton on my list, since a few friends have recommended it.
Of course, it’s always fun to find a wonderful place tourists haven’t heard of. And, maybe Borough Market was a little more special when it was a secret shared by Londoners. But, if you’re only going to be in London once or twice, visiting a place that many people love doesn’t strike me as anything to be ashamed about. If you’re a repeat visitor, and have your own favorite merchants, good for you. Maybe I’ll see you at New Forest Cider.