If there’s a better town to drink in than London, I haven’t seen it. The city’s pub scene is epic—thousands of historic corner taverns and locals, each with their own distinct flavor and regular crowd, all beckoning with promises of profound conversation, human connection and hijinks, and, of course, perfectly pulled pints. John Warland is an expert on such matters, as the author of the recently released Liquid History: An Illustrated Guide to London’s Greatest Pubs, a delightful volume that profiles more than 50 different historic watering holes throughout the city. Here, Warland shares with WWG what makes London’s pub scene a standout, and the five spots every first-time London visitor absolutely must hit for a tipple or two.
What makes London so incredible as a drinking destination?
London’s pub scene is unique in its vast scale and variety. With around 3,500 pubs still pouring in the capital, there is a pub for every taste. Even architecturally, you can dip back into the humble 16th-century wooden alehouses or enjoy the grandeur of the late Victorian gin palaces. Almost every street corner is framed by a pub, and whether you’re in search of a shady backstreet boozer for illicit shenanigans or a Michelin-starred lunch, London really does have it all. Also ‘going to the pub’ or ‘popping for a pint’ is culturally ingrained within London life, and often plays a key informal role in both personal and professional life, rarely seen on the continent or further afield.
How is the London pub experience different from other big cities?
Pandemic apart, drinking in London pubs can be a brusque and busy affair. So there’s a lot of vertical drinking, as people are on the move and often spilling with wild abandon across streets. There’s a unique buzz of a London boozer running at full tilt with the mix of businessmen, tourists, and creatives all rubbing up cheek by jowl over a few jars. Bizarrely, the anonymity that comes with living in a city with 10 million others is easily forgotten within the confines of a pub. The pub is the great leveller. The other unique thing about London is unfortunately the prices. In return you get to enjoy some museum quality architecture, layers of history dating back to the Romans, and generally good times in one of the greatest cities on the planet.
What pubs would you recommend to a first-time visitor to London?
1. Lamb & Flag. As a visitor to the city you’re likely to end up in the heart of the West End. So pop to the ‘bucket of blood,’ drink a pint of London Pride on the cobbled streets and enjoy the hubbub all around.
2. The George Inn. Only yards from the world famous Borough Market lies ‘Shakespeare’s Local.’ Visit London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn and picture the boozy bard performing in the courtyard here before moving along the river to the famous Globe Theatre
3. Pride of Spitalfields. Enjoy a Sunday stroll through the East End markets, and bowl down Brick Lane to this lovely local legend. Here you get a sense of a classic family-run boozer. Carpeted floor, house cat, piano in the corner and a traditional warm welcome. No glitz or glamour. Just wonderful old school charm.
4. The Black Friar. London’s take on the famous Flat Iron building, its bejewelled arts & crafts interior is quite the draw. Marbles, mother of pearl and stained glass all collide to create a unique homage to the daily lives of the 13th-century Dominican friars who resided here. The dining room is exquisite and is all completed with museum quality craftsmanship of the highest order.
5. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Dating back to the mid-1500s, The Cheese was rebuilt with immediate effect after The Great Fire in 1666. It’s a time capsule of tipply treasures, featuring in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and frequented by the great and the good over the centuries. Functioning as the social network for journalists from all over the world, don’t forget to visit Polly the Parrot before descending to the subterranean vault bar. Historic times are guaranteed.
Describe your ultimate pub crawl.
The ultimate pub crawl is possibly best taken on a Sunday. This might include stretching your legs across Hampstead Heath before popping for a pint at the haunted Spaniard’s Inn, or settling in with a Sunday lunch and some toe-tapping jazz at The Ship Tavern in Holborn. Fireside pints in the winter or riverside terrace come summer, there is a pub for all seasons.
What other cities do you love to drink in?
Other cities well worth boozing in would include Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and Liverpool, and the historic brown cafés of Amsterdam are a total treasure. To be fair, any city with an open bar (Prague, Lisbon, Seville…the list goes on) and friendly locals on tap will offer you an insight to a city and its soul far faster than any guidebook. The informal cut and thrust within a pub allows for casual conversation rarely attempted in the world outside. Having drunk in a shabeen in Soweto townships through to a boozing with the Beefeaters in The Tower of London, the simple conviviality of sharing a beer and conversation has timeless appeal. Cheers!