New York City has its corner hot dog-and-a-pretzel vendors and San Francisco has its food trucks. But, London's street-food scene revolves around outdoor markets, a concept which dates to medieval times.
You will find something delicious for less than what a fast-food lunch would cost.
Basic Dos and Don'ts
Go to the food markets in the morning and carry handy wipes in your shopping tote for nibbles on the run. Expect a feast for the eyes and leave space in that tote for purchases! Look for quality, artisan, organic food and free samples. Vendors will most likely require payment in cash. Do anticipate crowds, and watch your belongings accordingly. It's best not to drive, but do expect a tube station nearby. Plan on the markets closing early if it's raining. Know what day or days of the week the market is open! You won't find many seats, and sorry, do not expect to find a loo (toilet).
By any measure, Borough Market is the grand-daddy of food markets. London's oldest market, the day to visit is Saturday, if you can bear the crowds. Some will recognize vignettes of this Victorian market from the big screen, as it is a popular film set. It's hard to miss the very impressive greengrocer, a booming tenor who emphatically sings about his potatoes and parsley. Equally recommended is Monmouth Coffee for an excellent brew, and crusty croissants that melt with butter and jam served at long wooden tables shared with folks you won't know.
Browse dozens upon dozens of stalls with imported olives and oils, English honey, incredible baked pies, breads and goods, freshly made countryside cheeses (samples at Neal's Yard), grilled cheese, raclette, outstanding sausages of a dozen varieties, curry, kebabs, baklava, samosas and falafel, and that's practically before you clear the entrance. Seating is rare. History buffs, check out Southwark Cathedral, a real gem right next door. Thursdays 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Fridays 12 p.m. - 6 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tube: London Bridge, Borough or Cannon Street.
Sunday UpMarket at Brick LaneHead to East London for Sunday's simmering stands of mostly-eastern cuisine from Sri Lankan to Ethiopian cooked by cottage-industry small business caterers. The indoor/outdoor 11-acre Sunday UpMarket centers around Old Truman Brewery, where you will find homemade Indian, Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese food with some Brazilian and Jamaican for good measure.
Most dishes are £5 and under. Save room for the delicious brownies and time to check out 150 stalls of vintage clothing, new wave edgy design by entrepreneurial fashion students and assorted treasures. Sundays 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tube: Aldgate, Aldgate East or Liverpool Street.
Portobello Road Market
Famous for being famous, but changing, although sadly, not for the better. Portobello has long been a curious mix of antiques to the south and fruit/vegetable stalls to the north. However, the bargains - and much of the road's character - are gone as the chain stores move in. As the gorgeous stucco houses of nearby Notting Hill went from shabby to chic, traders got wise to the gentrification that took off with the 1999 Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts movie.
Still, you should go for the street-food vendors, especially the nice man with a made-to-order falafel sandwich cart across from the Electric Cinema by the corner of Lancaster Road. Also, the German sausage vendor and the greasy fish-and-chip shop takeaway near the Salvation Army building around Elgin Crescent. Banger Bros. Sausages and Falafel King have storefronts and stools. Food vendors are there most days except Sunday. Further north, the adjacent Golborne Road Market features Portuguese specialties. Market day is Saturday when traders unpack their wares at sunrise and close before 4 p.m. Tube: Ladbroke Grove or Notting Hill.
Not all markets are for street-food
Some markets, like Old Spitalfields Market and Covent Garden are about clothing and accessories, flea market-style. Columbia Market is primarily for plants and flowers and Camden Market has more junk than not these days.