To say that Londoners appreciate a proper pint is an imperial-sized understatement. England’s capital is home to over 3,500 pubs, many of them holding the same address since the Industrial Revolution. In the beer world, where trends ebb and flow from one year to the next, London’s sud-sipping traditions have stayed remarkably steadfast for generations.
The mere mention of classic watering holes here conjures universal imagery: Regal facades tucked into quiet alleyways; cask ales, hand-pumped atop a slab of varnished wood; leather armchairs flanking the fireplace. Into this landscape has seeped the infamous pub chain—well-fashioned replicas, lacking the authentic charm of the original. You might not have a terrible drinking experience therein; most have moderately expansive draft lists. But would you go to Rome to eat at an Olive Garden?
As a visitor, you’re afforded only so many opportunities to size up the local scene. Live your best London life by bee-lining to the city’s most inimitable institutions for inebriation. Here’s a thirst-quenching list of where to start.
This idyllic hideaway in the back mews of Knightsbridge began its life as a mess hall for early 18th century infantryman. Today it exists as a landmark of London pub culture. The inside is diminutive—you’ll struggle to find a stool surrounding the wraparound U-shaped bar. Two adjacent rooms offer little help, with no more than a dozen dining tables between them. But what the space lacks in size, it more than makes up for in alluring character. Every nook and cranny is crammed with nostalgia, from framed wartime photos adorning the walls, to the thicket of dollar bills affixed to the ceiling. If it’s particularly crowded, and you haven’t made a reservation for dinner of Scotch eggs and beef Wellington, procure a hand-pumped pint of London Pride and head outside, where you can drink around old whisky barrels repurposed as tables.
Coach & Horses
Although its statelier facade suggests modern accoutrement, beyond the door Coach & Horses is pure Old World drinking parlor. Opened in 1744, it still exudes some of that periods hallmarks in its wide-staved cherry floors and its mahogany archways, which frame the backbar. As one of the more reliable watering holes in the affluent Mayfair district, the pub doesn’t attract the same boisterous crowd as others on this list. But just because it’s subdued doesn’t make it sullen. Quite the opposite, this is a graceful environ inspiring an intimate connection to a distant drinking past. So kick back with your ESB and imagine you were sipping from the same pint a century before. Just don’t kick your feet up on the furniture.
Ye Olde Mitre
Even if you’ve never been, imagine classic London Pub in your mind and you’re probably already looking at Ye Olde Mitre. This cozy den built in the 16th century is very much the embodiment of the city’s longstanding approach to communal consumption. Its humble wooden facade outcrops from a narrow alleyway, beckoning thirsty travelers to venture inside. Ceramic mugs hang from the ceiling and tattered carpeting dampens the acoustics, softening the overall vibe. Behind the compact bar, cheeky servers pour off a collection of English-based brews, including golden specialties from Windsor & Eton, and lush, malt-laden liquids from Sambrook’s Brewery. Menus are hand-written in chalk, supporting the notion that little has changed here over the past hundred years.
Lamb and Flag
A two-story Georgian pub rising out of the posh neighborhood of Covent Gardens, Lamb & Flag purports to be London’s oldest continuously licensed bar. Around here those are fighting words. No surprises, as the location was the site of frequent bare-knuckle boxing matches more than a century ago. Its legacy isn’t all routed in infamy, however. Legendary writers such as Charles Dickens were known to frequent the establishment, helping to cement its lasting lore. Bully your way through the dense masses collecting on the ground floor to arrive at a calmer upstairs bar. Here you’ll find a draft list influenced by American craft brewing—several hop-heavy IPAs and even a wild ale are frequently kept on tap. Take your spoils to a wooden bench by the window, and stare out over Lazenby Court’s enclosed brick-strewn passageway.
The Bloomsbury maintains its classic elegance with ease. A facade lined with 19th century stained glass assists in the ambience; the windows are festooned in a series of colorful coats’ of arms. In operation since 1856, the historic property was once a final resting stop for doomed prisoners on their way to the gallows at nearby Marble Arch. This inauspicious past has led many regulars to claim the space is haunted by a supernatural presence. But in addition to the spirits, you’ll also find great beer here—a half dozen selections on hand-pumped cask, and half a dozen more on nitro tap. Next to the long wooden stick is some of the most comfortable leather wing chairs in all of London.
Owning an atmosphere somewhere between library and libation hall, Bar 190 is a stately parlor with pedigree. Legends of English rock would gather over grog, along the velvet-cushioned benches lining its varnished walls. In the late ‘60s, the Rolling Stones sat here, celebrating the release of Beggars Banquet. Today, a large framed photo of the band commemorates the occasion, mounted between lampshades opposite the lengthy wooden bar. Its connection to music holds true; the main room often crowds with evening concert-goers, loading up before shows at nearby Royal Albert Hall. Meticulously crafted cocktails bear the names of classic singalongs. But even in the prestigious Knightsbridge neighborhood this hotel bar calls home, there’s nothing more rock n’ roll than a couple bottles of Curious Brew—one for each hand, of course.