London has many street markets that visitors can visit. Smithfield Meat Market and Billingsgate Fish Market are probably the most famous wholesale markets in the capital, but both are facing great challenges. Despite operating for centuries, they face an uncertain future, with supermarkets preferring to deal directly with their suppliers these days.
The Museum of London is due to re-open at Smithfield in 2026 with an increased capacity of 27,000 square metres – up from 17,000 in the Barbican. Likewise, Billingsgate has moved from near the Tower to Canary Wharf but now faces a further move to Dagenham in Essex, where it will be consolidated as a large wholesale market with a relocated Smithfield.
The famous Covent Garden fruit and flower market moved to its new site at Nine Elms in Vauxhall in 1975. In its previous life, it was where George Bernard Shaw’s famous play Pygmalion was set. It is probably better known as My Fair Lady, the musical based on Shaw’s play, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, which features the same characters.
You can still visit these markets, but most visitors prefer the retail markets such as Spitalfields and Borough Market. The latter, in particular, often attracts visitors to the capital who have heard of it and are keen to experience the crowded, busy and somehow genuinely London atmosphere of this market which has reinvented itself as a popular centre of artisanal goods.
Entrance to Borough Market in London. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
Borough Market in London
Borough Market was founded in the twelfth century, but only in the last fifteen years has it changed from being primarily a wholesale market to a retail one, where traders and stallholders sell their goods directly to the public. Every day – except Monday, when it is closed – it is packed with people, both locals and visitors, keen to gain a taste of original foods.
The market is in the Southwark area on the south side of London Bridge, near the railway station of that name. The bridge is famous in London’s history, and for many years it was the only way to cross the Thames, apart from using a boat to take you over. A bridge was built at Westminster in 1750 and after that, other bridges across the Thames followed.
It is still believed by many that the man who bought London Bridge and shipped it to Lake Havasu in Arizona thought that he was actually buying Tower Bridge. This, however, is an urban myth. Robert McCulloch, who bought the old bridge, knew that he would have no chance of buying the iconic Tower Bridge, which opens up to allow ships to sail through.
Oyster Bar in Borough Market in London. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
Borough Market was in an ideal position to prosper as a wholesale market, but by the 1990s, it was in decline, and the trustees thought that it would work better as a retail centre. A Food Lovers Fair was held in 1998, and since then, tenants such as Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Monmouth Coffee Company have been encouraged to attract individual customers.
Today, the market is packed with people who hope to buy artisan cheeses, sourdough bread, meats and wines or liqueurs not found in most shops. The market also has plenty of restaurants and pubs nearby, all of which do a lively business. In fact, visitors who want to sit down for lunch often have to wait for an hour or more before they are given a table.
One of the most popular treats at Borough Market in London is chocolate-covered strawberries, which can be bought at Turnips stall for £8:50 a cup. People travel from all over the world just to sample this treat, which combines fresh strawberries with Belgian chocolate sauce from a tap. Like many treats, it is simple, original, and delicious. Be prepared to wait in a long queue, however.
Strawberries covered with Chocolate in Borough Market in London. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
After visiting the market, you can walk through Southwark, where the spirit of William Shakespeare resides. You can see a statue of him and a window dedicated to the characters he created at the nearby Southwark Cathedral, where his brother Edmund, an actor in the Globe Theatre nearby, is buried. A mural of the playwright stands near the Anchor Tavern.
More recently, the area has been seen in films featuring Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones. These include the original film Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which Helen Fielding’s fictional heroine grapples with life, love, and relationships. The area around the market has also been used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
A word of warning, however. Being popular, Borough Market is often very crowded, particularly at lunchtime. This makes visitors vulnerable to pickpockets who operate in the crowded areas of all big cities. Be careful and protect your valuables with caution. And do not try to go on Monday when the stalls are closed for cleaning.
Lee Brothers Potato Merchants in Borough Market in London. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.