Forget tourist traps and faux authenticity and sample the pubs with inimitable London charm.
In a city like London, so inextricably linked to its historic pubs, you’ll find a boozer on every corner making dubious claims of owning the best fish and chips in town, being the oldest pub in the city, or representing Charles Dickens’ historic local, which makes it tough to split the real deals from the phonies. But never fear, having begrudgingly—honestly—visited a healthy majority of the pubs in London, we’ve compiled a list of the ones you should actually visit. From the timeless charm of the bar that sheltered the French resistance during WWII to a pub so cozy it feels like Christmas every day, here are 20 of the best London pubs that offer an authentic experience.
The Cross Keys
While natural light is off the table here, what the pub lacks in sun it more than makes up for with its collection of twinkling red bulbs that light the traditional pub in a warm, festive glow. Contemporary craft beer is not part of the experience—instead, it’s about the unmistakable atmosphere that comes from its disparate collection of drinkers, from West End shoppers to market traders, fashion students to locals (almost) as old as the furniture.
The Jerusalem Tavern
At first glance, the interiors of this Clerkenwell pub appear to have been salvaged from the 18th century, however, the building only became a pub in the 1990s, proving that lack of true vintage is nothing to hold a pub back if it was designed by someone with a penchant for classic boozers. A chocolate box pub that wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian street scene, the beautifully rickety interior is as much of a lure as its claim of being the only London pub serving the excellent St. Peter’s Brewery beers on tap. What it lacks for in ancient history can be found in the area immediately around it, which was once home to the Knights of St. John.
The Lamb (Bloomsbury)
Close enough to the West End that it can form a part of any day trip around the major sites of Central London, The Lamb on Lamb’s Conduit Street is one of Bloomsbury’s finest. Walking through the door here is like entering a time warp that transports you to a simpler time when the cell phone was but a twinkle in the eye of its inventor and the art of conversation ruled. All are welcome here but raised voices might earn you a side-eyed glance to warn that this is a quiet sort of place—there’s a no music policy. On the inside, you can enjoy the traditional horseshoe bar and tartan carpet, on the outside it’s all about the regal green façade.
The French House
Serving up a continental take on the trad London pub, The French House is an institution that, despite being smack dab in the middle of Soho, manages to retain a cool, bohemian edge with diehard regulars. The tiny bar is almost all standing-room-only—besides a few tables at the back left of pub—which is really the best way to enjoy a pub with so many interesting characters passing through it. From its days as a meeting place for the French Resistance during WWII to its artist regulars like Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas, the pub has a storied past, which, without being too corny, you can kind of feel as you sip on Cidre Breton or French table wine.
The Prince George
The very definition of a charming neighborhood pub, The George is one of the few pubs in London that retains a pool table in its back room. Close to Dalston and Broadway Market, there are reasons to find yourself in the vicinity of the pub in Hackney, East London. Hardly old but hugely representative of the type of pub that Londoners hold dear, The Prince George has a range of reasons to tempt you in from the cozy interior complete with a roaring log fire to a jukebox filled with tracks you’d love to see pop up on your Discover Weekly. The food is solid and dependable, and the roasts are some of the best in the area.
The Dog and Duck
Elbow room is scant at this cramped Soho pub with literary tradition, but it’s well worth pushing inside to take a look around to enjoy both the bustle and the beauty of this quintessential venue. As if the beautiful Victorian tiles, plush red leather banquets, imposing double-decker bar, polished chessboard floor, and vintage mirrors weren’t enough, the fact that this was the place George Orwell came to down a celebratory glass of absinthe after learning that Animal Farm was to be featured in the American Book of the Month Club will appeal to literary history hunters looking for the spirit of Orwell’s “down and out in London.”
The Blue Posts
It’s common in London to find pubs with the same name dotted across the city, but the confusing case of the Blue Posts is just plain craziness. Five West End pubs share the name, with three Blue Posts located in Soho alone, which makes assigning this particular pub as a meeting point an easy way to be stood up. To be precise, the pub we’re fond of is the Berwick Street Blue Posts, a pub that does everything it can to resemble your living room. Carpets aren’t necessarily the best material to cover a pub floor, but that’s what you’ll find here in a pub that mocks Soho’s gentrification with its strict policy of no change. “They” say if you’re standing still, you’re going backward, and if that’s the case then the legendary Blue Posts is all the way back in its 19th-century beginnings. Don’t expect to find exciting beers on tap here—you’ll have to make do with lager, salted peanuts, and the indescribable feeling of classic Soho that still lingers.
A traditional West End pub that has changed with the times is The Harp, which supplements its physical charms with a range of about twenty real ales and craft beers on tap. There is an upstairs lounge here, but the cramped bar space below is way more fun. The Harp is located between Covent Garden and Leicester Square and strangely, given the prime position, it still feels like a neighborhood bar.
The Dove (Hammersmith)
London’s oldest riverside pub north of the Thames is one of the city’s finest and should you fancy a whimsical wander along the river path west of central London then this is the place to aim for. With low-beamed ceilings, grand brick fireplaces, and secret rooms, The Dove couldn’t be cozier if it tried. On one side of the pub you’ll find a tiny public bar room so small it only accommodates about five people (it holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s smallest public bar) and on the other side, a bright conservatory offers amazing panoramic views of the water.
The Charles Lamb
Thanks to its location on a quiet Angel backstreet, The Charles Lamb has always attracted a discerning crowd happy to take a short walk off the beaten path to find a beautiful pub. At around 175 years old, the pub has history, not that it relies on ghostly hauntings, famous literary regulars or a particularly weathered interior to vouch for its authenticity. A modern pub in an old shell, The Charles Lamb is first and foremost about the atmosphere generated by the cast of characters that continually keep it full.
The Lamb and Flag
Tucked away in a hidden courtyard in the heart of Covent Garden, locating The Lamb and Flag can be tough if you’re a newcomer to the city. However, once you find it, you’re let in on the delights of a beautiful old pub oozing with historical details. Established in 1772 and once nicknamed “The Bucket of Blood” on account of the bare-knuckle fights it hosted in its upstairs room, the pub is a listed monument, which means the interior still resembles a scene from Dickensian London. While the downstairs bar is often busy to the point of bursting, the upstairs lounge has plenty of seating.
The Carpenter’s Arms
The perfect place to drop in having spent some time perusing Brick Lane and its mix of markets and vintage stores, The Carpenter’s Arms has the kind of laidback atmosphere that turns a quick drink into a whole afternoon—and what could be a more authentically London pub experience than that? Forget the awkward rear room that can feel a little shut-off—the action in this handsome wood-paneled pub happens in the tightly-packed front bar. The establishment is best enjoyed when the weather turns moody and chill, as it’s cozy levels are ramped up and you can savor a rich, heavy Belgian ale from the excellent selection available.
INSIDER TIPSunday roasts here offer an alternative to the area’s street food scene.
The George Inn
The only pub in London owned by the National Trust, The George Inn is a fully functioning historic relic, dating back to somewhere around 1543—not that you need dates to tell you that it’s old—that can be deduced from the warped beams that lend to the pub’s wonky aesthetic. Not only is it one of the oldest pubs in London, but the George Inn is also the only original galleried coach house left in the city, still resembling the pub it was when it hosted theater in the 17th century. Literary buffs will be interested to know that Shakespeare drunk here, as did Charles Dickens, who mentioned the pub in his novel, Little Dorrit. The danger with historic symbols like this is that life has been drawn from them, leaving them to resemble a grand prop. That’s not the case here, where a lively crowd takes over the evenings.
INSIDER TIPVisit during the day if you want to both drink and explore the fascinating nooks and crannies in peace. Oh, and watch your head on those low beamed ceilings!
George Tavern (Whitechapel)
It may be way off the tourist trail in a residential area of Whitechapel, but George Tavern’s roster of live theater, music, and art shows make it worth trekking across London to visit. Sure, you can’t really “stop in,” but you can certainly make a night of it at this one-of-a-kind institution that manages to simultaneously be a charming 400-year-old pub and a hip artistic community hub. Visit and mention that you’re from out of town and you’ll certainly score some kudos—maybe someone will even buy you a drink…
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Rebuilt after the 1666 Great Fire of London, the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is so old that it actually deserves its “Ye Olde” moniker. And with age comes beauty in this pub that attracted a literary crowd centuries before it became a home away from home to Fleet Street’s journalists. A den of passages, glowering portraits, and wooden beams with the gorgeous patina of age on every surface, this place is a true gem. You’ll even find sawdust on the floor for a bonus touch of tradition.
Nowhere does a mews pub like Knightsbridge and few are better-looking than the handsome Grenadier. In this super well-heeled neighborhood, you can be surrounded by the pandemonium of Harrods one moment and be in the silent cobbled mews of Wilton Row the next, met by the patriotic red, white, and blue façade of The Grenadier. The quaint, urban village setting makes this one of the prettiest pubs in London; its squashed, dimly-lit interior matches the charm of its façade. Oh, and did we mention that The Grenadier is one of London’s most haunted pubs?
Besides the pub’s loyal crowd of local office workers, you won’t find too many Londoners who tend to pay a regular visit to The Blackfriar, although rest assured, this is a matter of geography rather than quality. Those who travel for one-off drinks at the pub close to the redeveloped Blackfriars Station are rewarded with a quirky wedge of a pub filled with religious iconography, art nouveau flourishes, and a roaring fire. A touch Bavarian in theme, it dates back to 1875 and sits on the site of a former friary, hence the name.
The Spaniards Inn
Hampstead Heath has a smattering of pubs surrounding its boundaries, but none carry the history of The Spaniards Inn, a pub that poets Keats and Byron once called a local. There are also stories that one of England’s most famous highwayman was born at the pub in the early 1700s, which lends it a touch of infamy. The Spaniards Inn dates back to 1585 and, while there have been updates to its interior, it retains a classic Victorian look. It’s a cozy bolthole of a pub and the roasts make it an excellent stopping point once you’ve wandered the hills of Hampstead Heath.
The Royal Oak
The Royal Oak on Columbia Road is proof that the hip East London crowd appreciate an authentic pub as much as the rest of us. Situated on a quaint cobbled street of Victorian shopfronts—these days filled with artisan cheesemongers and modern art galleries—the pub represents the pretty street’s prime meeting spot. Inside, its all-weathered wooden paneling, big windows, polished glass-paneled ceilings, and parquet floor certainly impress. While the bar staff is known for their slow service, we can handle a little surliness given the impressive interior. The Royal Oak serves a contemporary gastro food menu and a solid Bloody Mary on weekends.
INSIDER TIPHead here on a Sunday and you’ll get a double dose of authentic London with a trip to the pub coinciding with the famous weekly Columbia Road Flower Market. Expect big crowds in the pub and the market.
The Island Queen
The Island Queen is a quirky yet classic pub in Islington with the sort of optimistic, overtly friendly atmosphere that feels like a weight has been lifted whenever you step through the door. Maybe it’s the calming green presence of palms and plants dotted around or the huge windows that flood the space with natural light, but either way, this is a pub whose interior space is a tonic to life.