When it comes to London pubs, everyone has one they love. Or two. Or a whole list of places they visit whenever they’re in that part of the city.
For your first trip to London however, you might want to pop into a pub but not be sure which ones are good (or bad). The reality is that the “landscape” of London pubs is always changing, and recent trends have aggregated many pubs into the same corporate ownership. For the most part, this has stripped the pubs of what made each one unique and enjoyable – but there are still gems to be found.
Below you’ll find my list of the best London pubs. I won’t call it the list as everyone who’s spent any time in London has their own list of which London pubs are “must-visit” and which can easily be skipped. However based on much research – aka many pints – I’m confident that you’ll enjoy any (or all) of these during your London visit. From places with fascinating history to my own “local” (the pub I most visited while living in London), these London pubs are well worth a visit on your first trip to London (or any return trip thereafter!).
(Also, before jumping in, don’t miss my list of must-try London drinks – this will give you ideas for what to order!)
The Antelope (Belgravia)
On one of my recent trips to London, my husband and I decided to stay in a different part of town, Belgravia specifically. We found a little Airbnb right down the street from The Antelope, which turned out to be the best part of staying in this area (a close second was being just five minutes’ walk from Sloane Square station!).
The Antelope dates back to the 17th century and for the most part hasn’t changed much since then. It’s now a Fullers pub, so you’ll find all the common Fullers beers on tap, including London Pride. The best way to enjoy a visit to The Antelope is for lunch; arrive and try to get a table in the back before ordering at the bar. This place gets quite busy in the evenings after work so keep that in mind if you’re looking to grab a pint around that time of day.
The Argyll Arms
A Grade II listed gem from the Victorian era, The Argyll Arms boasts one of the finest interiors for London pubs. The pub dates back to 1868 and got its name from the second Duke of Argyll, who had his mansion in what now is the London Palladium. Allegedly, there’s a secret tunnel lying beneath the pub connecting it to the Duke’s mansion as he preferred to travel incognito to enjoy a pint up there.
Architectonically, the pub gives us a pretty good idea of the look and feel of a true Victorian pub. At a glance, not as welcoming as today. The Argyll Arms features “snob screens,” gorgeous dark wood, and frosted glass pivoting panels that would separate upper-class drinkers from simple mortals.
Today it welcomes everyone, so make sure you stop by to enjoy a cold pint of real ale.
The Black Friar
The Black Friar is another Grade II listed masterpiece from the Victorian era. There’s zero chance of you walking past the pub and not noticing it, with its wedge-shaped structure and monk sculpture overlooking passersby from the top.
Built circa 1875, The Black Friar used to be a medieval Dominican monastery* – now the name makes total sense, right? Its past as a monastery has inspired the pub’s style. Designed by architect H. Fuller-Clark and artist Henry Poole, the building is a masterpiece, showcasing beautiful Art Nouveau elements throughout its rooms. It’s hard to conceive that it was nearly torn down in the 1960s. If it weren’t for the campaign poet Sir John Betjeman organized to save the building; we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. Much of the historic building is gone, but you can still appreciate Henry Poole’s original depictions of friars on stained glasses, mosaics, and sculptures.
*Fascinatingly, this area used to be part of the Roman city of Londoninum, but was given to the Dominicans who tore down the city wall in this area and built their own monestary. If you love nerding out about Roman history, check out my guide on the topic.
Dating back to the late 1800s, The Champion is yet another Grade II listed pub in London (sensing a trend here?). But let’s cut right to the chase. Yes, the building is historical and gorgeous, but the pub’s beauty lies purely in the windows. The stained-glass windows show the life-sized image of Victorian champions, who look more like saints than sportsmen. You can spot jockey Fred Archer, boxer Bob Fitzsimmons, and Channel swimmer Matthew Webb.
Contrary to what your sense might interpret, the windows have been part of the pub’s building since 1980 and are the work of British artist Ann Sotheran. The pub also features the “snobs screens” to provide posh guests with much-needed privacy in keeping with the Victoria tradition.
The Churchill Arms
The Churchill Arms is arguably one of the most famous pubs in London, having been part of Notting Hill’s landscape since the late 19th Century. Formerly the “Church-on-the-Hill,” the pub got its current name after WWII. The pub is also famous for its extravagant décor choices, which have earned the venue the title of London’s most colorful pub. A cascade of flower bouquets covers the entrance during spring, while extravagant Christmas adornments replace the flowery embellishments during winter.
The pub’s interior is all Churchill, though, featuring memorabilia of the British statesman and the war. Surprisingly, the pub’s connection to Churchill dates way before WWII. Churchill’s grandparents, the 7th Duke of Marlborough and Lady Frances Anne Emily Vane, were patrons of the pub in the 19th century.
The Clerk & Well
While most lists of the best London pubs won’t include The Clerk & Well, it makes my list because it was my “local” when I lived in London several years ago. My business school friends and I discovered this pub near our school and it became the place we went every Friday afternoon after class let out – we definitely became regulars!
In the years since then, the Clerk & Well has gotten quite posh; it was purchased by a small pub conglomerate (I can’t now find the name on their website, which – in conjunction with recent rennovations – suggests they may have changed ownership again) and updated to more modern standards. While I’ll miss the rough-and-tumble style that gave this pub its charm, the drinks are still good and the atmosphere is still jovial.
The Cross Keys
Right in the heart of Chelsea, The Cross Keys opened in 1708. It’s one of the oldest pubs in London and the oldest one in Chelsea.
Like many other pubs in the city, The Cross Keys almost ceased to exist. In 2012, Andrew Bourne, property developer and owner of the Cross Keys, stated the pub lost money and decided to turn it into a mansion. However, the local’s outcry and campaign led to Parsons Green Land buying the property and later reopening it as a pub.
The historic pub has been a refuge for notable figures, with Agatha Christie, Bob Marley, and the Rolling Stones as once regular visitors. It has also been the setting of far less fortunate events, like Mrs. Frances Buxton’s murder, a Socialist, and a Suffragette whose body appeared in the pub cellar on the cold morning of 17 January 1920.
The Euston Tap(s) are actually two London pubs, and perhaps they aren’t pubs in the traditional sense – but no list of London pubs would be complete without these distinctive watering holes.
No, they aren’t sister pubs sitting on different city corners. This bar splits into two, with a building on each side of the Euston Road.
Compared to other pubs, The Euston Tap lacks a rich history. The two buildings, both Grade II stone lodges, are all that remain from Euston Station’s original façade built around 1870. The lodges have the names of the towns and cities the railway serves carved on the front.
So what’s the difference between the two pubs? Nothing, besides the East lodge, being brand new and shiny and serving different beers.
The George Inn
Located south of the River Thames, The George Inn is the only surviving galleried London coaching inn and was rebuilt in 1677 after a fire ravaged most of medieval Southwark. The authentic 17th-century inn served as a meeting point for stagecoaches and pilgrims making the journey to Canterbury Cathedral.
While the inn used to extend over three sides of a courtyard, two-thirds of the building was demolished to make way for the Great Northern Railway. Today, all that remains is the South front, which houses the pub. Showing the popularity of the George Inn, Charles Dickens was a loyal visitor and even referred to the venue in the Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.
The Grapes is a Grade II listed pub set in Limehouse, with over 500 years of history. Originally “The Bunch of Grapes,” it used to be a working-class tavern the dockers of the Limehouse Basin frequented. The current building dates from the 1720s, although a pub has been on site since 1583.
Visitors will see tons of Charles Dickens’ portraits hanging around the place. It turns out young Dickens visited his godfather in Limehouse in 1820 and went to The Grapes to write his books. In fact, the pub appears in the opening chapter of his novel Our Mutual Friend.
To make the pub even more attractive, Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings film adaption, is one of The Grapes’ co-owners. Who knows, maybe you’re lucky and bump into him!
Located in Belgravia, The Grenadier is a pub from 1720. Initially, it served as the officers’ mess where the British army’s senior infantry regiment met for a bit of wining and dining. The pub opened as a public venue in 1818 under the name The Guardsman until they decided to change it to The Grenadier in honor of the Grenadier Guards’ actions in the Battle of Waterloo. The clientele of most London pubs is constantly changing, especially for centuries-old ones. However, The Grenadier has always been a hotspot for celebrities of all historical periods. In the 19 Century, it received visits from the Duke of Wellington and King George IV. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and you’ll see Madonna and Prince sipping and gossiping at one of the tables.
Known as The Welsh Harp until 1995, The Harp is an old historic pub from at least 1785. Despite its lengthy existence, this cozy pub in the heart of London has not gone down in history. At least in ancient history. However, from the 20th Century onward, it has been the recipient of numerous awards.
For many years, Bridget Walsh, a real ale pioneer, was the pub’s tenant and owner and made The Harp a gem for thirsty ale connoisseurs. In early 2011, The Harp became the first pub in London to receive the ultimate accolade of being “National Pub of the Year 2010” by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Currently, Fuller is the pub’s owner, committed to delivering the same quality and ambiance to everyone who comes to the venue.
Hoop and Grapes
Hoop and Grapes is one of the pubs that miraculously escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666. Talk about luck; the fire’s blaze stopped no less than 50 yards from where the building stands. I imagined everyone must have celebrated with a pint. Back in the day, the pub’s name was to show it served wine and beer.
Unsurprisingly, the pub is a Grade II listed public house. The wonky building dates back to the 17th Century and has suffered serious twisting and bending over the years. Luckily, it’s been the subject of extensive restorations that saved the structure.
Hoops and Grapes are currently closed down.
The Holy Tavern
The Holy Tavern has to be one of the most fascinating pubs in London. Okay, not exactly the pub itself, but the building where it sits. With roots in the Crusades, the Georgian building has been in London since the 17th Century and was one of the townhouses built in an open ground that belonged to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem. It’s also one of the first pubs I ever visited on my first trip to London!
The building has had numerous reincarnations throughout the centuries. It became a clockmaker workshop in 1810, a book publishing company, Burke & Co, in 1952, and an architect’s office in the 1980s. In the 1990’s it was turned into The Jerusalem Tavern, until this year (2022) when it changed hands while maintaining the tradition and is now known as The Holy Tavern.
While this pub is younger than most pubs on this list, it got its first name as a pub from an ancient counterpart, the original Jerusalem Tavern. In full, the St John of Jerusalem Tavern, the pub, used to be only a short walk east of Clerkenwell Green. Allegedly, the Crusader knights would gather to drink here. The building’s owner, familiar with the history of the place, suggested the tenant name it after its predecessor.
This year when it became the Holy Tavern named after the original Holy Taverns dating back to the 1100s. In turn, the owners wanted to maintain the same tradition of welcoming anyone in need of a drink.
The Lamb’s historical interest lies in how it got its name, dating to the 1720s. Getting drinking water wasn’t as simple as turning on a faucet during Georgian times. Instead, locals had to get buckets of water from the Thames and carry them across London to their houses. Until William Lamb, a 16th-century Bloomsbury resident decided to build the Holborn Conduit and provide Londoners with water.
During Victorian Era, The Lamb underwent a full renovation. Today is a Grade II listed pub and one of the few Victorian structures featuring “snob screens.” Making another appearance, Charles Dickens also frequented The Lamb. It seems the writer was quite fond of pubs.
The Old Bank of England
I think you won’t find a more architecturally impressive pub in London than The Old Bank of England. The 1886 building boasts a sublime Italianate style Sir Arthur Blomfield designed. Just gaze up at the detailed plaster ceiling and its gorgeous chandeliers. As the name suggests, the venue was linked to the Bank of England, serving as the officer for the bank’s Law Court’s branch from 1888 to 1975. Heaven forbid the bankers neede to step out in London’s rain to go round the corner for a mid-afternoon pint!
In 2021, the pub and restaurant decided to add a fairly unusual piece of décor to the venue’s outdoor space: a vintage double-decker bus. The iconic bus has been turned into a makeshift bar, serving delicious beers and food.
The Old Bell
I wouldn’t say The Old Bell is the most inviting pub from the outside. It retains a quiet, traditional character which seems outdated compared to the neighboring modern buildings. However, its white façade and lead-light windows have something that lures in visitors.
The pub is a Grade II listed building Sir Christopher Wren built to house his masons, dating back to the 17th century. Unlike other venues on the list, The Old Bell has a great heritage as a pub, having been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years. Moreover, the pub has had a long association with printing as Wynkyn de Worde, former assistant to England’s first printer William Caxton, constructed a printing press in the pub and even printed books there!
Princess Louise is a Victorian Grade II listed pub on High Holborn. This central London pub dates back to 1872, and many argue that the venue has possibly the best-preserved Victorian interior. It’s hard to tell by the layman’s eye, but at least it gives you an excuse to visit all the stunning Victorian pubs on the list to see if the statement is true.
Inside, visitors can appreciate all the fine details that once defined Victorian pubs: etched windows, Portland stone columns, enormous engraved and gilt mirrors, gorgeous dark wood paneling, and an island booth. Oh, and while it sounds like a less pleasant sight, don’t forget to visit the men’s toilet, which still preserves its marble urinals also Grade II listed.
The Prospect of Whitby
Located in Wapping, The Prospect of Whitby is a historic pub on the banks of the Thames. Dating from around 1520, The Prospect of Whitby lays claim to being the site of the oldest riverside tavern. It has taken on many identities throughout history. First, it went as The Pelican and later as the Devil’s Tavern, mainly for its suspicious reputation as a den of vices.
Back when London was far less glamorous than today, The Prospect of Whitby had sailors, smugglers, cut-throats, and footpads as regular customers. It’s no surprise given its location on the Thames bank. In fact, Sir Hugh Willoughby sailed from the tavern in 1553 in an attempt to discover the North-East Passage to China.
Like many others in London, the pub was a victim of a fire in the early 19th century. That’s when it was rebuilt and renamed The Prospect of Whitby. The name seems to draw inspiration from a Tyne collier that used to moor next to the pub. The Prospect has been a Grade II listed building since 1950, and even Royals like Princess Margaret and Prince Rainier III of Monaco have visited it.
The Punch Tavern
The Punch Tavern on Fleet Street is now a pub, but back in the 19th Century, it used to be a Gin Palace. Its architecture is a testament to that. Originally, its name was Crown and Sugar Loaf, but it changed to The Punch Tavern in the 1840s, as Punch magazine had its office nearby and the journalists there were frequent customers at the pub.
This is also one of the first London pubs I ever visited – possibly the first, even before the Juresalem Tavern/Holy Tavern. I honestly have no idea how it ended up on my must-visit list but I took happy respite for weary feet here back in my earliest days as a London explorer!
Luckily for 21st-Century customers, little has changed inside this 19th Century masterpiece. The first thing that meets the eye is the gorgeous wooden door flanked by Victorian tiles and mosaics beautiful enough to lure customers day and night. That’s just the beginning. Further inside, there are stunning wooden details, leather booths, and ornamental ceilings.
The Red Lion (Pall Mall)
The Red Lion in London’s St. James’s is one of London’s best-preserved Victorian pubs. In many ways, the venue is a typical late Victorian gin palace. It dates back to 1861 and then had a refurbishment in the 1890s, which was the golden age of the London pub and when owners tried to make them more attractive for the upper class.
The pub is quite small and has many tiny spaces, which Victorians loved and preferred to carry out less decorous affairs without being seen. It is full of lavish Victorian fittings that artisans specially designed to decorate the pub. Walk down the corridor into the back bar, and you will see outstanding glasswork with French embossing. There’s also fantastic woodwork wherever you look and ornamental ceilings.
The Ship & Shovell
In the middle of Charing Cross, The Ship and Shovell (sic) is another London pub in two halves. The venue, dating back to 1731–33, consists of two separate buildings, one on each side of Craven Passage, with a tunnel underneath. Why it has that name has two possible answers. One is that it received its name after the coal laborers who visited the nearby Coal Hole. The other is that they named it after Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell.
This pub’s buildings are completely different. The pub on the right is a rich example of a Victorian pub. However, the building on the left is much more quaint and characterful. Fun fact, since 1998, there’s been a tunnel under Craven Passage that connects both buildings.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
On Fleet Street, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is yet another Grade II pub. Historical archives show a pub at this site since 1538, but it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. The pub It is famous for its literary associations and has been host to many famous writers, including Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the 13th Century, the building used to be a Carmelite monastery, which explains the labyrinth-like vaulted cellars which now serve as underground seating.
It also has possibly the best name of any on this list, so that reason alone is worth a stop and a smile.
Ye Olde Cock Tavern
Ye Olde Cock Tavern is also on Fleet Street. So you can grab a pint in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese first and then another one in its neighbor. It doesn’t sound like the healthiest nor most sensible thing to do, but you don’t get to enjoy a pint in Grade II listed pubs every day. Also, Ye Olde Cock Tavern is one of the skinniest pubs you’ll ever visit, so that’s an extra reason!
The Ye Olde Cock Tavern’s original building was on the Northside of the street and dated back to before the 17th century. However, they had to rebuild it on the other side of the road in 1887 so a new branch of the Bank of England could stand there.
Ye Olde Cock Tavern had quite famous residents sipping beer there, like Samuel Pepys, Alfred Tennyson, and – surprise, surprise – Charles Dickens. (What can I say? Drinking and writing go hand in hand – based on a bit of personal experence!)
Ye Olde Mitre Tavern
Located down a little alley just around the corner from St Etheldreda’s Church, Ye Olde Mitre Tavern is not a pub you accidentally see on the street. Dating back to 1546, the history behind this pub is quite amusing. But first, let me explain the name. A “mitre” is a Bishop’s hat, and, back in the 14th century, there was a palace that became the town residence of the Bishop of Ely. The grounds would have been the servant’s quarters for the palace.
Queen Elizabeth I decided to confiscate a portion of the land from the Bishop’s palace to give to her lover Sir Christopher Hatton. Naturally, the Bishop refused, but that didn’t stop Queen Elizabeth I.
Today, the pub is famous for the Cherry Tree inside – literally inside the pub as it’s a supporting beam – that marked the boundary between the Bishop’s of Ely’s grounds and the part leased to Sir Christopher Hatton. If you fancy historic bites that don’t make it to history textbooks, you may enjoy learning that Queen Elizabeth danced the maypole around the tree with Sir Christopher Hatton.
Okay, that was a lot. I certainly do not advise visiting all of these pubs in a short span of time while visiting London – if you visit them all during several trips I’d be impressed! Which of these London pubs do you most want to visit? Let me know in the comments – or let me know any other questions you have!