London has two great attributes – history and beer. OK it has more, but those are the two we’re concerned with today.
Many years ago, in the most illustrious pubs of London, pirates and body snatchers did business. Bloody, bare-knuckle fistfights took place. And literary greats – including Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys – found their inspiration.
Today, people’s faces flicker less by the light of an oil lantern and more by the screen of an iPad, but they’re still there to enjoy the same things – great ales, warm rooms and happy company. Here’s where to continue the pub-gathering tradition that Londoners have always done so well:
10. Ye Olde Mitre, Holborn, established 1546
Nestled between two lanes, Ye Olde Mitre is a cozy little boozer. There are no noisy TVs or flashing fruit machines. The first pub in this spot was built by Bishop Goodrich.
Instead, decor speaks to the history of England – Tudor beams, coal fires, portraits of Henry VIII and dozens of whisky water jugs hanging from the ceiling. There are tiny rooms to choose from, such as the royal red, loungey Bishop’s Room or Ye Closet – a cubbyhole that intimately seats six people.
The place is stuffed with character, but don’t expect a bunch of raucous vagrants smashing tankers together and spilling beer all over the floor – it’s now a sedate drinking spot frequented by bankers, Fleet Street hacks and tourists eating homemade pork pies.
Where to find it: 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, London, EC1N 6SJ, +44 (0) 20 7405 4751
9. Old Bell Tavern, established 1670
There’s been a tavern in this very spot for more than 300 years; originally it was named “The Swan,” now it is the Old Bell Tavern.
The best seat in the house is by the window, under the kaleidoscopic stained glass. The main bar area is simple and to the point – solid tables crowd around the central bar.
The building was destroyed in 1666 thanks to the Great Fire of London, but architect Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt the inn for his masons, who were working on St. Bride’s Church. It’s also believed the printer Wynkyn de Worde used this pub as a workshop and sold his books here hundreds of years ago. Much later, London gin distillers Nicholson’s bought the building.
Where to find it: 95 Fleet St., London EC4Y 1DH, +44 (0) 207 583 0216
8. Lamb & Flag, Covent Garden, established 1772
In the 1800s, locals called this pub the Bucket of Blood because of the regular, rowdy bare-knuckle fistfights held here.
Today there’s no sign of spilled guts or brawls; instead the Lamb & Flag is a cramped, family-friendly bar that serves tourists a mean gravy-laden roast on a Sunday. The first building in this spot dates to 1638 and the first pub existed under the name The Coopers Arms.
Today, the historic photographs of Charles Dickens (believed to be a regular customer) are worth a peep, as is the diminutive staircase up to the loos – not easy to negotiate after a few cold ones.
Where to find it: 33 Rose Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9EB, +44 (0) 20 7497 9504
7. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the City, established 1667
This Tardis-like, six-tiered building feels more like a museum than a pub. American accents and the sound of Japanese tourists clicking cameras resonate though the tiny hallways. The reason they’re here – it’s unfathomably old.
Renamed the Cheshire Cheese in 1667, the first pub on this site was Horn Tavern, built in 1538. Prior to this it was an inn, during the 13th century, owned by the Carmelite Monastery.
There’s no natural light inside, and each room has a different flavor. The smallest, near the entrance, is Victorian in character. Above the doorway a sign reads, “Gentlemen only served in this bar,” but this rule no longer applies.
Inside are striking original portraits, a roaring coal fire and woodchips scattered around the floor – as there would have been years ago — to soak up the spilled beer, dirt and bile walked in from the streets outside. A converted cellar decorated with beer barrels offers a rustic feel, while the higher floors are elegantly furnished, softer and regal.
Where to find it: 145 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2BU, +44 (0) 20 7353 6170
6. Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, established 1585
On the edge of the Heath, along a dark winding lane with hanging trees, the Spaniards Inn guards the boundary between Hampstead and Highgate. It reeks of clandestine meetings and highwaymen in black cloaks holding up passers-by.
This isolated pub dates to 1585 and was immortalized in Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers.” Legend holds that famous villain Dick Turpin was born here, and learned his criminal ways in the pub. Reportedly, John Keats penned “Ode to a Nightingale” in the garden.
Today, in the smaller rooms, the ceilings remain low, and the antique dark wood furniture give it an authentic feel, while cabinets show off the inn’s heritage with extracts from relevant Dickensian literature and Turpin memorabilia.
Where to find it: Spaniards Road, Hampstead, London, Greater London, NW3 7JJ, +44 (0) 20 8731 8406
5. The Mayflower, Rotherhithe, established 1550
Nice spot for some Scurvy. Rifles, ropes, model ships and pulleys clutter the ceilings and sideboards, evoking images of explorers and drunken sailors.
Dickensian scribbles above the chunky black beams read “poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
This nautical-themed pub sits on the site of the former Shippe pub, built in 1550, making it the oldest pub on the River Thames (give or take a few refurbs here and there). Over the years the building has changed monikers — from Shippe to The Spread Eagle, The Crown and The Mayflower (named after the vessel of the same name, which took to the seas here in 1620 to discover America).
Regardless of the signage, this spot has remained a cozy grotto and looks the part, from the tanker beer mugs to the taxidermy trimmings (mounted dear heads and stuffed rats in cages). When the weather is warm, the place opens its beautiful French doors onto a deck overlooking the Thames and a spectacular view of London Bridge.
Where to find it: 117 Rotherhithe Street, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 4NF, +44 (0) 20 7237 4088
4. The George Inn, Southwark, established 1677
The outside terrace is the best place to marvel at this impressive, wonky building. Now owned by the National Trust, The George Inn has been around since 1543, when it was a medieval coaching inn (roadhouse).
Those in need of liquid refreshment can relax in various sections of the building, including The Old Bar, once a waiting room for passengers; The Middle Room, where Charles Dickens used to drink; and The Gallery, set up on the second floor with exposed beams, tapestries, old maps and portraits of characters such as David Beaton (the Archbishop of St. Andrews from 1539-1546) and Shakespeare – both former guests.
Where to find it: 75-77 Borough High Street, Southwark, Greater London, SE1 1NH, +44 (0) 20 7407 2056
3. Angel, Rotherhithe, established 1850
This historic pub overlooks both the ancient ruins of King Edward III’s Manor House (built in 1353) and rows of council estates – which explains its peculiar mixture of clientele.
Downstairs it’s clearly a locals pub. Every head in the place is likely to turn as you walk in and the barman is likely to curse and moan about the smoking ban. Meanwhile, tourists sit quietly upstairs in the dining area, gazing out of the window at London’s beautifully lit-up bridges.
There’s been an inn here since the 15th century; the monks of Bermondsey Priory built the first one.
Although the front of the building has been completely refurbished, its legends remain – Captain Cook supposedly drank here before he embarked on his perilous journey to Australia, and Samuel Pepys was a local during the 17th century.
Where to find it: 101 Bermondsey Wall East, Rotherhithe, London SE16 4NB, +44 (0) 20 7394 3214
2. The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, established 1520
Formerly known as the Devil’s Tavern, The Prospect of Whitby was a renowned hangout for smugglers, villains and pirates, the latter who traded contraband and sold bodies that had washed up from the river.
There’s been a pub in this spot during the rule of 22 monarchs and visitors over the years and clients have included everyone from pirate Captain Kidd and novelist Charles Dickens to actor Richard Burton and Princess Margaret.
It certainly looks the part – real masts are built into the structure, Union Jacks are pinned to the ceiling, old barrels and ships wheels are dotted around and the bar is topped with pewter. On the balcony, there’s a creepy noose swinging in the wind to commemorate George Jeffreys (“The Hanging Judge”), who would drink here after a day’s work at the Execution Dock.
Where to find it: 57 Wapping Wall, Wapping, London, E1W 3SH, +44 (0) 20 7481 1095
1. The Grapes, Limehouse, established 1583
Only one thing in The Grapes alludes to its celebrity owner – a “Lord of the Rings” Gandalf statue in the corner. This looks remarkably out of place next to the Dickens volumes, busts and Singer sewing machine tables. But it references the pub’s newest landlord, Sir Ian McKellen, who bought it in 2011.
McKellen isn’t the only A-lister to tread its boards. Charles Dickens (he got around), explorer Sir Walter Raleigh and Samuel Pepys all came here.
Mostly though, this was a sketchy boozer for laborers from the nearby Limehouse Basin. Not a place you wanted to be walking home from – horror stories include watermen murdering drunks from this pub by drowning them in the Thames. Beside the legends, the antique detailing, dainty frosted windows, historic portraits and rustic dark wood paneling are worth the visit.
Where to find it: 76 Narrow Street, Limehouse, London, E14 8BP, +44 (0) 20 7987 4396
Jade Bremner is a prolific traveler, extreme sports enthusiast and music fanatic.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2013. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.