The East End is neither an official administrative division of London nor even a specific district of the city. The term usually applies to the part of inner London east of the medieval walls of the City and north of the Thames. The southern and eastern reaches are less obvious (river Lea is sometimes considered to border the East End in the east) and in many ways the whole of the north-east of London, but particularly the areas due east of the City and all the way into the depths of Essex have some affinity with the East End, for the East End is, most of all, an idea used to express the various feelings and opinions about the area and its inhabitants.
East End used to be an industrial and port area: from the early industries like tanning (downwind from the City and the seats of power and privilege at Westminster) to the harbour quarter of the greatest world city, the East End indicated poverty and deprivation. But it is also a place of an immense variety and vitality, where cultures and identities mixed, fortunes got made and social experiments were tested.
The Cockney East Enders have been for the last two hundred years at least supplemented by different groups of immigrants who settled in the East End before moving on when their fortunes improved. It all started with the ship crews dismissed at the ends of voyages of which some inevitably settled – thus the East End Chinese communities that moved to Soho only after the WW2 and a Black community in the Canning Town area. The Jewish immigration and settlement in the East End peaked in the late 19th century where there were over 150 synagogues in the East End (only 4 remain). The rag trade that Jews were engaged in has been taken over by the more recent immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, and large areas of the East End are now inhabited by the ethnic Bangladeshi communities.
Despite the post-war slum clearances, many attempts at urban regeneration, the disappearance of the docks with the associated crime and sleaze, and the emergence of pockets of funky, inner-city, arty, edgy activity and housing, the East End is still mostly poor. Large council estates, some of them as bad by our modern standards as the 19th century slums were in the Victorian eyes, blight the area. The sleaze and crime associated with docks might be gone but so are the jobs that the port of London brought. Apart from some cool areas (mostly closer to the City), the East End is still not a particularly lovely place to live.
However, it has quite a lot to offer to a visitor and anybody staying in London for more then a few days should make some effort to explore the East End.
The attractions, although not as grand as those that can be found in the City or Westminster, are worth the effort and if you are after the cool, edgy and street-smart, you are certainly on the right track.
One location to visit, maybe even a bit too touristy, is the district around Old Spitalfields Market (overrated but still with some crafty and new-agey bargains) and Brick Lane (officially the London's curry capital, but also the location of the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery, a 24-hour salt beef sandwich shop that harks back to the times of Jewish East End and a popular Sunday market). Nearby is one of the Hawksmoor churches, Christ Church, Spitalfields (St Anne's Limehouse is also very much worth seeing as is St George in the East).
There are many well-known galleries and some museums in the East End, from the Whitechapel gallery to the White Cube at Hoxton.
Petticoat Lane Market is as much a local institution as is a tourist attraction (though it's hard to find anything good in piles and piles of tat), while Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood displays a good collection of childhood and children-related objects.
Hackney Empire reminds of the tradition of the East End music hall, showing now everything from the panto to opera, pop concerts to stand up.
I have to say I am not overtly fond of the East End. We lived on the edge of it, between the Barbican and the Old Street and it's probably as far east as I would like to go in London. For occasional visitors, however, it's a great place to go.