I have always thought of Islington as one of the most un-London like boroughs, partly because it's nestled between Camden and Hackney. When I lived in Hackney in 2008 (before it was hipstery and gentrified) walking through the Mayville Estate to arrive at Newington Green in Islington felt like transitioning into a different world. They were so close and yet so far. Islington is still a borough I aspire to live in, as do many Londoners (evident by the prices properties fetch in the borough). But enough about me, let us discuss what makes this neighbourhood so special. As Islington is quite big I will divide guide into three somewhat distinct areas.
Highbury & Islington to Angel
It is well worth it to take a walk from the Highbury & Islington station down to Angel station, and explore the side streets and small parks as you go. Islington is dotted with little squares, greens, memorial parks and churches set in leafy grounds. There may be nowhere to run for miles, but for those of us satisfied with a green spot to sit in and enjoy the nature Islington is perfect. The (creatively named )Upper St and Essex Road (turning into Islington Green) are enjoyable streets to walk down, full of little independent restaurants, hipster cafés and chains such as Five Guys and Wahaca. Yotam Ottolenghi’s deli & restaurant is here, as well as the excellent and celebrated Radici (check out Jay Rayner’s review to wet your appetite). Do not be fooled into thinking that Islington is just about shopping and eating. The culture is here as well. Cass Art’s flagship store is tucked away nearby, they have all the art supplies you could ever want. The Almeida Theatre has grown from intellectual beginnings as a literary and scientific society to become one of the powerhouses of the London theatre scene. The theatre produces both new plays and adaptations of classics such as Euripides’ Medea or Chekhov’s Three Sisters, I urge you to go there. The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, near Canonbury Square Gardens is just another example of the cultural life of the borough (admission tickets required).
Clerkenwell and Farringdon
This area is almost part of the city of London, and therefore feels much less relaxed than the northern parts of the borough. Is it full of offices and commuters? Yes! Does trying to get on a train at Farringdon station after 5pm give one an anxiety attack? Yes! Nevertheless, there is fun to be had here (maybe on a weekend, or while everybody else is at work). Being part of central London, the area is so interesting I feel I should just thrown names of places at you. Sadler’s Wells theatre and the Charterhouse (an ex-monastery which still functions as an almshouse) are some of the cultural highlights of the borough. City University has its home here. For those of us constantly pre-occupied with food the Modern Pantry and Exmouth Market are just the starting point of the culinary adventure you can have here. Exmouth Market is particularly pleasant, as it is a pedestrianised streets with small restaurants and stalls, the choice of food on offer is truly astonishing.
Another good side to Clerkenwell and Farringdon is their proximity to other central London attractions, you can easily work to Blackfriars, Holborn, Covent Garden. The Barbican, British Museum and British Library, while not part of the borough, are stupidly close.
While this area is further removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, there are still plenty of things to do here. Benefits include being nestled between Finsbury Park and Hampstead Heath (is anybody counting how many times I managed to mention HH yet?). The trendy Crouch Hill is right on the edge of the borough, and there is plenty to explore on the Holloway Road. Get some vegan and gluten free sweet treats at Cookies&Scream as a starting point. While Archway and Upper Holloway are not as inundated with restaurants as Angel is, they are perfectly pleasant for those of us who appreciate a bit of residential peace and quiet. Holloway is also the home of the London Metropolitan University, which is good news for any fans of modern architecture. You can feast your eyes on such beauties as Daniel Libeskind's Orion Building. Arsenal has its home stadium here as well.
This is in no way a comprehensive guide. Another two classic Islington sights are the Chapel Farmer’s Market which is on every Sunday 10 am – 2pm, and celebrating its 20th birthday this year. The Canal boats on Regent’s Canal encapsulate the atmosphere of the neighbourhood. For even more information and a local perspective check out Islington Faces, which contains interviews with residents, reviews of businesses and aims to celebrate the human side of Islington!