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 city’s most illustrious pubs, 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.
Ye Olde Mitre, Holborn, established 1546
Quaint on the outside, cozy and serene inside.
Bishop Goodrich built the first pub in this spot.
Nestled between two lanes, it remains a cozy little boozer today. There are no noisy TVs or flashing fruit machines.
Instead, décor includes 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.
Beer of choice: Dark Star American Pale Ale.“Dark Star American Pale Ale is made from an American yeast strain, giving it that light color, strong hoppy, dry taste,” says the barwoman. A very clean, drinkable pint, golden yellow in color with hoppy citrus notes. £3.50 (US$5.50) per pint.
Verdict: Superb pub hits all the marks, from old world charm to carefully chosen beers.
30 Ely Court, London EC1N 6TD; +44 207 405 4751; www.yeoldemitreholburn.co.uk
Ye Olde Bell Tavern, the City, established 1670
Not even a Great Fire can keep a London pub down.
There’s been a tavern in this very spot for more than 300 years; originally it was named “The Swan.”
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.
Beer of choice: Betty Stogs. This golden biscuit-colored, malty copper Cornish ale is one of the finest cask ales on the pumps here. Concocted by Skinner’s Brewery, this beer has a light hoppy aroma and goes down smoothly, with hints of citrus and wheat along the way. £3.40 (US$5.40) per pint.
Verdict: Decent beer selection but lacking atmosphere.
95 Fleet St., London EC4Y 1DH; +44 207 583 0216; www.nicholsonspubs.co.uk
Lamb & Flag, Covent Garden, established 1772
The original fight club.
In the 1800s, locals called this pub the Bucket of Blood, due to the regular, rowdy bare-knuckle fistfights held here.
Today there’s no sign of spilled guts or brawls; instead it’s a cramped, family-friendly bar that serves tourists a mean gravy-laden roast on 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.
Beer of choise: Black Cab Stout. Guinness drinkers will love this Fuller’s cask beer. The rich, dark brew has got a sharp but full flavor that comes from the mixture of malts, hoppy, dark chocolate and red berry notes. Delicious. £4.05 ($6.50) per pint.
Verdict: Brilliant bitter selections, but the bar area can get uncomfortably crowded.
33 Rose St., London WC2E 9EB, +44 207 497 9504; www.lambandflagcoventgarden.co.uk
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the City, established 1667
Even darker and dingier on the inside.
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.
Beer of choice: Old Brewery Bitter. Sam Smith brews dominate the pumps and fridges here. Three pumps pour this oak cask-aged bitter. It flows a mellow clear amber color and settles with a thick cream-colored frothy head. It’s malty, bitter and citrusy, with a caramel kick and a dreamy kiss of oak from the cask. £2.90 (US$4.50) per pint.
Verdict: Excellent novelty value and tasty beers, but lacking ale varieties.
145 Fleet St., London EC4A 2BU, +44 207 353 6170
Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, established 1585
The seat where Dick Turpin once sat?
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.
Beer of choice: Revolutions Atomic Blonde. This Yorkshire bitter pours as a glass of golden amber, with a tight clean head. It’s a medium-bodied beer and goes down smoothly, leaving a soft fruity hop linger. £4 (US$6.35) per pint.
Verdict: The incredible legacy and moody setting makes up for a shortage in beer choice.
Spaniards Road, London NW3 7JJ, +44 208 731 8406; www.thespaniardshampstead.co.uk
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.
Beer of choice: Scurvy. “Have you ever had Scurvy?” the barman chuckles. “I would recommend it, it’s our home brew.” Sold. This beautifully bitter specialist ale is created by Hardys & Hansons brewery. It pours medium brown with half an inch of puffy head and offers mellow bitter, slightly fruity, hoppy notes. £3.60 (US$5.75) per pint.
Verdict: Top points for ambiance and guest ale selection.
117 Rotherhithe St., London SE16 4NF, +44 207 237 4088; www.themayflowerrotherhithe.com
The George Inn, Southwark, established 1677
Is there a pub in London that Charles Dickens didn’t visit?
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.
Beer of choice: The George Ale. They serve prestigious Cask Marque ale here and the house’s own George Ale “is very popular pour,” says the barwoman. “Greene King brewery makes this special brew for us.” Dark amber and clear in complexion this pint gets tastier as it warms up, and has a pleasant aftertaste. £3.55 (US$5.60) per pint.
Verdict: Steeped in mystery and tales from bygone eras, you can almost hear the carts rolling in, while daydreaming over a pint.
75-77 Borough High St., London SE1 1NH, +44 207 407 2056; www.gkpubs.co.uk
Angel, Rotherhithe, established 1850
Drink where the locals drink. Even if they stare.
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.
Sadly, nowadays, the atmosphere is cold and doesn’t live up to its fables — the interiors are sparse and spacious, with obligatory nautical artworks and some dog-eared shipping books.
Beer of choice: Extra Stout. The Angel serves only keg Samuel Smiths’ beers. This dark pour is the best of the bunch. It’s a decent full-flavored malt with a perfectly creamy head and bitter, dry finish. However, there’s too much fizz; this brew is far superior from a hand pump. £2.90 (US$4.60) per pint.
Verdict: Disappointing. History but no soul (or ale).
101 Bermondsey Wall, London SE16 4NB, +44 207 394 3214
The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping, established 1520
Hangout for smugglers, pirates and now you.
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.
Beer of choice: Doom Bar. This Sharp’s brewery bitter pours a copper-rust color and has a malty aroma with herbal hints, plus caramel and bread notes. Very drinkable, if a little sweet. £3.35 (US$5.25) per pint.
Verdict: Ticks all the boxes, but the main open-plan layout doesn’t offer the cute olde feel of other historic pubs.
57 Wapping Wall, London E1W 3SH; +44 203 582 4875; www.taylor-walker.co.uk
The Grapes, Limehouse, established 1583
Where Dickens, Pepys and Gandalf come together.
Only one thing in this pub 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.
Beer of choice: Marston’s Pedigree Pale Ale. Hand pumped, it pours dark amber, and tastes malty and dry, with added sweet and spicy notes. £3.60 (US$5.75) per pint.
Verdict: Atmospheric décor, but locals keep their distance from the annoying one-timers.
76 Narrow St., London E14 8BP, +44 207 987 4396; www.thegrapes.co.uk