In a historic city like London, it’s no surprise that the city’s oldest pubs have a tale or two to tell.
A pint in a London pub isn’t just a drink. It’s an experience. Londoners take their sipping seriously, paying homage to their historical city one fizzing glass at a time. You’ll find inns of impressive architecture throughout the city with original period features, from Victorian to Art-Nouveau; pubs so beloved they’re Grade II listed or National Trust owned.
Expect historical tales, former visitors like literary legends and famous artists, and even the odd spooky story. As if that’s not enough, these humble pubs offer superb city views, brilliant British grub, and fantastic locations to help you make the most of your trip to this curious city, where history and modern movements fit together as perfectly as a pint with fish and chips.
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Step back to a time of legends at this 1585-built pub, which was originally a tollgate. Highwayman Dick Turpin was born here, so the story goes, as his father was the early-1700s landlord. Charles Dickens mentions it in his novel The Pickwick Papers, while it’s rumored that poet John Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale here. While away a cozy afternoon in one of the pub’s many nooks and crannies, tucked away between wood paneling, overhead beams, and open fires. Period features still remain in this Grade II listed building, and there’s a top-notch walled beer garden where they’ll sometimes throw barbecues (yes, England does get sunny!).
The Spaniards is heaven for lovers of quintessential British food. Try a Sunday roast featuring pigs-in-blankets and fluffy Yorkshire puddings, followed by a British cheese board. Or, simply order a craft beer and a delicious homemade Scotch egg.
INSIDER TIPWalk off your meal on Hampstead Heath, the famous sprawling park with woodlands, meadows, and fabulous London city views. It’s just next door!
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
WHERE: Fleet Street, City of London
Disappear down an alleyway off London’s legendary Fleet Street–the historic hotspot of British journalism–and you’ll find a vintage-looking sign reading: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, glowing above a stretch of timber windows and a promisingly gloomy doorway. There’s been a pub on this site since 1538, but the original was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666). The current pub was built in 1667. Sip a pint of Sam Smiths beer in the mahogany bar, then head down the stone steps, winding your way through low-ceilinged chambers to the main cellar. Once a monastery, it now houses beer barrels and lantern-lit cozy corners for atmospheric hours of quaffing.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss the sign outside that lists the monarchs who’ve reigned while the pub has served. Famous alleged customers include Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, whose historic house is around the corner.
The Prospect of Whitby
WHERE: Wapping, London
Drink al fresco at The Prospect of Whitby, which claims to be London’s oldest riverside pub, dating back to 1520. Much of the interior has been rebuilt, but the flagstone floor is, remarkably, original. Around the pewter-topped bar and dimly-lit dining tables, you’ll find vintage patterned carpets and framed wall paintings. The outside is even better with a beer garden and balconies overlooking the River Thames, which is perfect in the summer sun or for nursing a pint on wintry afternoons. Fish and chips are always a must here. Because of its location, the pub (named after a collier vessel once moored nearby) has served smugglers, thieves, and pirates over the years. You’ll spot a somewhat sinister noose hanging outside. Samuel Pepys and, yes, Charles Dickens reputedly visited. More recently, the pub appeared in the iconic British comedy, Only Fools and Horses.
Hoop & Grapes
WHERE: Aldgate, London
Impressively, the front of this building has survived many years thanks to restoration. The Great Fire of London destroyed many historic buildings and pubs, but not this one. Amazingly, they say the fire stopped just fifty yards away. Now, it’s one of only a few timber-framed buildings that still stand from this long-lost architectural era. You’ll appreciate this history as you approach the pub’s entrance, which is tantalizingly lopsided. Pair your pint with a pie house special from Lamb Shank Shepherd’s Pie (mash potato-topped) or a Game Pudding Pie (made with venison, pheasant, and partridge in a suet pastry).
WHERE: Limehouse, London
The Grapes has seen a lot in its almost-500-year history. Dickens supposedly wrote about it in the opening of his novel Our Mutual Friend (and it’s rumored he danced on the tables here), Sir Walter Raleigh started his third voyage to the New World from the waters below, and Samuel Pepys penned in his diary about a trip from a neighboring jetty. These days, you’re more likely to spot beloved British actor Ian McKellen, as he’s a co-owner of this pub. Spot the Gandalf statue behind the long Victorian bar and admire the pub’s oil paintings. Monday nights mean a fun pub quiz to win a bar tab.
INSIDER TIPWrap up and hit the deck at sunset to see some of London’s skyscrapers sparkle at night.
The Princess Louise
WHERE: Holborn, London
This 19th-century gem isn’t quite as old as the other pubs on this list, but its architecture earns it a spot (on the list and in our for-beer-beating hearts). The Grade II listed building is as Victorian as a pub gets: think columns, gilded ceilings, colorfully tiled walls, and a central wooden bar topped with an ornate clock and hanging globe lights. Best of all is the maze of drinking booths, all separated by frosted, elaborately etched glass partitions and with their own private access to the bar that serves us Sam Smiths pints. There’s an upstairs with extra space and more historic decor if you can find the staircase.
INSIDER TIPHead to the back on the downstairs’ right and cadge a spot by the fire for cozy evenings.
Cittie of Yorke
WHERE: Holborn, London
Cittie of Yorke’s old-style outdoor plaque reads: “established as the site of a public house in 1430.” Yes, Londoners have been sipping at this spot for nearly 600 years. Although the pub we know and love today is a replica built in the 1920s; it’s a bloody good one. Enter through the lantern-topped wooden doors into a gloomy world of brass lamps, dark wood, and proper Yorkshire pints (thanks again, Sam Smiths). Inside the Grade II listed building, there are three bars: a leather sofa-strewn room with old-style crisscross windows, an atmospherically dark cellar room, and the popular long bar stretching across an ornate room adorned with huge wooden barrels, hanging globe bulbs, high ceilings, and wooden arches along the wall.
INSIDER TIPThe short crust pastry pies, served with chips and gravy, are a must-try.
WHERE: Southwark, London
As London’s last galleried coaching inn, The George is a National Trust property. Records date back to 1542, but the current building was rebuilt in the 1670s following the Great Fire. Relax with a drink around the architecturally impressive galleries typical of old coaching inns, many of which were lost in World War II. The George is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit as he visited back when it was a coffee house. It’s also rumored that Shakespeare visited here. Head to the beer garden where history meets modern icons, and look for London’s tallest skyscraper, The Shard. Grab a table in the evening and watch the iconic structure light up above you.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re a Shakespeare fan, walk the 10 minutes to the riverside theatre, The Globe, for guided tours or live plays, including unforgettable midnight performances at certain times of the year.
The Old Bell
WHERE: City of London
Renowned British architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed many London churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, worked on this Fleet Street staple, which has been a licensed tavern for over three centuries. His masons lived there as they rebuilt St. Bride’s Church (standing behind the tavern and worth a look for its unusually shaped spire and ornate interior). Marvel at the pub’s stained-glass windows and central dark wood bar as you sample their City of London Gin selection at the distillery across the road.
INSIDER TIPVisit St Paul’s Cathedral, which is a short six minutes away, and pay to climb up to the Dome for one of the best views of London.
WHERE: Blackfriars, London
If you think The Blackfriar’s unique wedge-shaped exterior is cool, wait until you see the Art Nouveau decor inside. The Grade II listed 1875 boozer was designed by artist Henry Poole and architect H. Fuller-Clark. Marvel at Poole’s artistic and religious masterpieces peppering the pub, including mosaics and sculptures that give a nod to the place’s history of being built on the site of a Dominican friary. Don’t miss the impressive domed ceiling and stained-glass windows. The pub has another claim to fame: it was saved from the threat of demolition by a campaign from John Betjeman, who became poet laureate.
WHERE: Highgate, London
With aged buildings comes history, and with history sometimes comes a spooky tale or two. The Flask’s stable block is the oldest part of the building, dating back to 1663 and still featuring two 17th-century horseboxes. Other parts transport you back to the 1720s and 1800s with bullseye glass panels and a shutter-window bar. As you sip by candlelight, watch out for the ghost of a Spanish barmaid who died in the pub’s cellar or a Cavalier-uniformed ghost who has been spotted in the main bar room. Here, you’ll be allegedly walking (or should we say drinking?) in the footsteps of former customers like Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and William Hogarth.
INSIDER TIPEnjoy the flower-strewn beer garden on sunny days or fireplace-side seating in winter. The board game selection will keep you occupied for hours.
The Viaduct Tavern
WHERE: City of London, London
Speaking of ghosts, the elaborately Victorian Viaduct Tavern (first established in 1869, like the nearby Holborn Viaduct) has a resident spook credited for lots of strange happenings. The drinking hole is opposite the Old Bailey, the former site of Newgate Prison, and it’s said to be one of London’s last remaining Gin Palaces. It’s no surprise, then, that their gin list is great. Pair yours with tonic and sip amongst beautifully etched glass paneling, ornate ceilings, and listed paintings representing the statues of the Holborn Viaduct. Just keep your eyes peeled for any unusual activity.
INSIDER TIPThe Museum of London is less than 10 minutes away. Learn more about this beloved city’s history, then soak it up in a pub that’s been part of it for over 150 years.