Despite the self-conscious gentrification of the past 10 years, this fashionable hub in east London still holds on to its gritty edge.
Shoreditch: London's creative corner
The east London district of Shoreditch is one of the capital's trendiest creative hubs. Although the area has become seriously and some would say self-consciously gentrified in the past 10 years, it still retains a large measure of grittiness thanks to a preponderance of old warehouses, brick-built working-class housing in various stages of renovation and its location on the fringes of the City. This lends it an edge which you don't feel in other parts of London, and the area has proved popular with artist's studios, fashion houses, IT companies and advertising agencies, which in turn have spawned a large number of funky new cafes, restaurants, shops, bars, nightclubs and boutique hotels.
A comfortable bed
The best address is currently Boundary, at 2-4 Boundary Street (www.theboundary.co.uk; 00 44 207 729 3061). Terence Conran's latest venture offers 17 rooms, three restaurants and bars, a bakery and small food store nicely arranged in an old print works. The rooms allow a taste of luxuriously urban loft living from £164.50 (Dh927) per double room per night, including taxes but excluding breakfast.
For those on a tighter budget, just round the corner from Boundary is Shoreditch House (www.shoreditchhouse.com) which offers smart but small (room sizes come in "tiny", "small" and "small plus"). Double rooms cost from £60 (Dh340) per night, including taxes and excluding breakfast.
Find your feet
Starting at Old Street Station, walk to Hoxton Square and visit the White Cube Gallery (www.whitecube.com), which frequently exhibits the work of young British artists (YBAs) such as Tracey Emin, who still lives nearby. Stop at the Electricity Showrooms (www.electricityshowrooms.com) for a cold drink and then cross the road onto Curtain Road, turning left down Rivington Street for excellent people-watching opportunites.
At the end of the road cross Shoreditch High Street and stroll through Boundary Passage to Boundary Street, stopping at Albion cafe at Boundary (www.albioncaff.com) for a late breakfast or pastry. Past the Boundary hotel, turn left into Redchurch Street and cross the road at the bottom to walk down Brick Lane.
If you are in need of an eastern fix, stop at the Hookah Lounge at 133 Brick Lane for a cardamom coffee, hot almond milk or one of its teas from Afghanistan, Kashmir, Morocco or Turkey, served in ornate pots (it also does good kibbeh, grilled halloumi and tabouleh). Turn right on Fournier Street or Fashion Street to admire the 18th-century Hugenot buildings before crossing Commercial Street into Spitalfields Market, which dates from 1887 and houses dozens of individual shops, cafes and restaurants.
Meet the locals
The opportunities are endless, but remember that while Cockneys are usually open and friendly, you'll have to be outgoing to start a conversation with an aloof Shoreditch type. Tracey Emin is a regular at St John Bread & Wine at 94-96 Commercial Street (www.stjohnbreadandwine.com), which does a good line in traditional British foods (smoked sprats and pickled cabbage anyone?). Beigel Bake at 159 Brick Lane is a working-class institution that, thanks to 24-hour opening hours, now serves everyone from Cockney cab drivers enjoying a hot salt beef sandwich to the post-4am clubbing crowd. I love the cream cheese bagels (90p; Dh5) and apple turnovers (50p; Dh3). The coffee shop next door at number 157, Brick Lane Coffee, has cosy sofas and a good atmosphere.
Further down Brick Lane, both 93 Feet East and Café 1001 are laid-back cafes during the day and clubs at night - the former is more organised, with live music and DJs during the evening and short films or video art to lounge in front of during the day.
Lounge Lover at 1 Whitby Street, all crushed velvet curtains, low tables and Regency-style chairs, was the place Madonna chose to have her 48th birthday party, and the Japanese food is good, too. But for meeting east Londoners, the very best place to do so is at one of the Sunday markets, which take place at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, Brick Lane, Cheshire Street and the Flower Market at Columbia Road.
Book a table
Brick Lane is peppered with cheap curry houses, but for great Pakistani Punjabi food, head to Tayyabs at 83-89 Fieldgate Street (www.tayyabs.co.uk; 0044 207 247 6400); avoid Friday and Saturday nights when the queue for a table can be an hour or longer. The house special is the very popular spicy lamb chops (main courses from £5 [Dh28]).
At the other end of the dining scale is Galvin La Chappelle at 35 Spital Square (www.galvinrestaurants.com; 0044 207 299 0400), a new French restaurant with a lovely atmosphere in a stunning setting and brilliant food to match. I liked the fricassée of Parmesan gnocci with wild mushrooms and spring vegetables (£15.50; Dh87), and for dessert, mille feuille of raspberry (a large stack of sweet, juicy raspberries divided by thin buttery caramel biscuit and served with ice cream (£9; Dh50) and the selection of French farmhouse cheeses (£10.50; Dh60).
Shoreditch is also known for its excellent Vietnamese food. My favourite, despite a recent makeover, is Viet Hoa at 70-72 Kingsland Road (0044 207 729 8293), where a tasty bowl of canh chua (Vietnamese hot and sour soup) will set you back just £4.50 (Dh25) and tofu in black bean sauce just £5.30 (Dh30), all best taken with endless cups of the house jasmine tea.
Time Out London currently rates the grungy Redchurch Street as "London's best shopping street", which, although it houses Boundary and its lovely produce store and downstairs cafe, and a number of small art studios and young fashion labels, may be pushing it slightly. Shopper's paradise is to be found in the Sunday markets - just make sure you get up early enough to sample all of them.
Start at Columbia Road Flower Market at 8am to catch the best of the blooms, before heading south to Brick Lane. I like the new indoor markets that have opened up at the Old Truman Brewery site and the food stalls inside the Boiler House, which serve great Caribbean-Asian fusion food and some excellent North African specialities, too (see www.trumanbrewery.com for details on all these markets).
What to avoid
If you don't like loud, boisterous evenings, avoid Brick Lane on a Friday or Saturday night. The "curry touts" outside the restaurants are also particularly annoying at this time.
The Sunday markets. Make sure you also check out the Whitechapel Art Gallery (www.whitechapelgallery.org) for a good and changing international programme of contemporary and 20th-century art.