LONDON -- Sunday morning along Brick Lane is a kaleidoscopic mix of colors and cultures.
The neighborhood once was the center of medieval brick and tile manufacturing. The Huguenots settled here, and Jack the Ripper once roamed the surrounding streets. In the mid-1900s, it became home to Bangladeshi immigrants and curry houses. Monica Ali's 2003 novel , "Brick Lane ," is set in what is now dubbed "Banglatown."
Today, the neighborhood is a hot area for offbeat boutiques, art galleries, and design stores. Last August, I found myself in the East End roaming the Sunday markets, stopping to peruse the offerings at Indian confectioneries and food stalls that sold Bengali staples such as jack fruit , betel nut , and paan leaves .
An outdoor market with a focus on food stood near the intersection with Bethnal Green Road, while the cavernous old brewery at 91 Brick Lane hosted lassi juice bars and a range of vendors selling frilly summer dresses and handmade leather Seneca belts with customized buckles.
I also visited fun and funky shops like Rokit, a vintage warehouse chain popular with London's hipsters. The huge, well-stocked Brick Lane branch spins hosts of trends, acting as a tastemaker with its carefully chosen customized and vintage finds. I watched shoppers rummage through a rainbow-colored selection of plastic bangles and beads ($5.50 to $9.50 apiece), knit bikini tops ($5.50), and strapless terrycloth dresses ($28). Pairs of cowboy boots for sale lined the checkout counter, and a rack of Adidas warm-up jackets ($85) was displayed front and center.
Next door is the Laden Showroom, where young brother-and-sister designers Barry and Adele Laden have outfitted the likes of Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice. Their jam-packed shop and showroom also spotlights work by other young and rising UK designers, such as Soo Lee and Chan Chan; garments by more than 43 independent designers were displayed neatly in little nooks separated by label. In the front of the store were impressive rows of hand-stitched leather shoes, tiger-patterned bags, and slouchy newsboy caps (from $22.50).
Across the road, I found the beautiful , light-filled jewelry studio, At Work Gallery, opened by artists Adele Tipler and Joanna Butler. The glass and steel display cases feature cutting-edge collections by recently graduated designers, as well as more established artists. The fresh, unique pieces are definitely an attraction -- the small store space was crowded with shoppers who browsed silver-and-concrete cufflinks and rings by Kelvin Birk and crochet-style metalwork pendants by Teri Howes.
Other spots that have gained attention outside the neighborhood are Mar Mar Co., an eclectic housewares store strong in Scandinavian ceramics and enamel china boxes and curated by Mark Bedford, the bassist from the ska band Madness. The inventory is constantly changing; for summer, the store stocked carafe and Duralex glass sets ($28) and vinyl poppy and jungle stickers that provide a fun alternative to wallpaper. Melamine measuring bowls in turquoise and cypress green ($32) also brightened the shelves.
After all of this retail era-hopping, I wanted to know more of the story behind the streets I walked through, so I stopped for a jazz-filled interlude at the Eastside Bookshop. A large front shelf is dedicated to local history, featuring books on the East End and the social history of its neighborhoods, as well as novels and fiction on the life of the area's immigrants, which included Huguenot, Irish, and Jewish settlers.
History is palpable here in many ways. After a day of shopping, I settled into the Great Eastern Hotel, a sexy, modern place adjacent to Liverpool Street station, several blocks away from Brick Lane's shopping district. Its luxurious past as a great Victorian railway station hotel is updated in its present-day incarnation by designer Terence Conran and Wyndham Hotels. Stylish new details like ergonomic Eames chairs and a soaring multi level atrium play off the traditional 19th-century wrought iron balustrades and stunning stained glass.
Because of its convenient location, the hotel caters primarily to business travelers during the week, but on weekends it's a whole different scene as a hip, young international crowd checks in to explore nearby markets and shops. Each of the 267 rooms is different: Lower floors have retained high ceilings and period features, while rooms on the top floors have loft-like interiors.
My double room featured brick-red painted walls, large locker-style closets, a wide working desk, and mod upholstered chairs in subdued plaid fabric. Outfitted with CD and DVD players (a library of music and movies is available through guest services) and an enormous marshmallow of a bed, it also had fifth-floor views across Central London.
Down at the hotel's Terminus bar and brasserie, which connects through to the busy railway station, I sat to enjoy an espresso and to people-watch through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was the ideal spot to observe the colorful humanity of this stylish, multicultural city hub.
Contact Bonnie Tsui, a freelance writer in California, at firstname.lastname@example.org .