Admittedly I am little bit obsessed with flowers. I buy a bouquet nearly every week of the summer at the Logan Square farmer’s market in Chicago, so it came as no to surprise to my mom when I added a flower market to our London weekend plans.
Even if you’re not a flower lover like me, I can promise that you will have a fun experience at London’s Columbia Road Flower Market. It is a quintessentially British affair that you need to add it to your next UK itinerary!
What is the Columbia Road Flower Market?
Located in the Bethnal Green neighborhood of up and coming East End, the Columbia Road Flower Market is a weekly flower and plant market that happens every Sunday rain or shine (which in London, is frequently the former). It has been going on since the late 19th century, and has regained popularity over the last few decades.
The market vendors will start setting up as early as 5am, but it doesn’t technically open to the public until 8:00am. It’s a popular weekend activity, so you’ll experience crowds, but to avoid the largest herds, get there as early as you can. It is busiest from 10am – 1pm so if you get there around 8 or 9, you’ll have a calmer experience. Plus you might catch a patio seat to sip a coffee and take in the people watching after you’re done shopping.
Plant and flower sellers will line a normally quiet Victorian street that turns into a bustling scene of activity on Sunday mornings. In addition to the market, Columbia Road is home to 60 or so colorfully painted shops and cafes that serve as the backdrop for the market. Of course the flowers are the highlight, but there are plenty of other things to buy at the surrounding shops including pottery, greeting cards, clothing and antiques. It makes for a nice day of meandering and dropping a few GBPs.
What Makes It Unique From Other Markets?
Although the name seems self-explanatory, the market experience is so much more than just flowers. Columbia Road captures an authentic and genuine snapshot of London and the casual life of Londoners.
When I pictured a British flower market, I had this tranquil and polite affair in mind. I envisioned maybe sipping a tea and quietly walking around admiring fresh cut peonies and lilacs.
This couldn’t be further from the reality of the Columbia Road experience.
You will be heckled and shouted out by deep-voiced flower sellers — “10 pounds today, just a tener, give me 10 pounds” and “Come on people, this is a good price” were common refrains — along the whole half mile stretch of stalls. It feels more like a meat market than flower market! You can get a sense for the sights and sounds in the video below that I made using only ambient noise from the market:
The standard queuing norms that characterize the British are all but forgotten at Columbia Road Flower Market, replaced instead by assertive flower connoisseurs. It seemed as though I was seeing a totally different side of Londoners! People will shove and push to get their best and favorite flowers. You will hear them arguing with the vendors about the flower quality. My favorite complaint that I heard was that the hydrangeas were “too open” that day. What does that even mean?
Why Should I Go?
Regardless of what time of the year you visit, you will see a vibrant array of colors and selections of flowers, plants and shrubs. Seasonality will inevitably play a factor in what is available. We saw a lot of peonies, roses and hydrangeas, but also lilies, lilacs and succulents.
The flowers themselves are an iconic part of the market. There were some hybrids and colors of floral species that I have never seen before. I had no idea there was such a thing as miniature pink pineapples, black roses or tri-tone hydrangeas!
The flower variety alone is exciting to explore, but more than that, the Columbia Road Flower Market is peculiar and fascinating experience because I have not seen anything like it in Europe. It feels like a stereotypically English affair, but in the setting of a historic and picturesque corner of London.