The First Timer’s Guide To Drinking In London
Coming to London for the first time ever is very exciting and a little intimidating. Let us take the pressure off by suggesting where to drink.
Okay, you’re in London. You’ve seen the Thames. You’ve bought something covered in Union Jacks for your nephew. And you’ve followed a middle-aged man around Soho who almost definitely might have been Benedict Cumberbatch. Now what? Now, friends, you take part in every Londoner’s favourite hobby - drinking.
London is a huge city full of countless pubs, bars, and clubs, but these are the places we always take our favourite out-of-towners to show them a good time. From a 19th century hotel lounge that serves the kind of cocktails you deliver a heartfelt eulogy to after you've taken your last sip, and a Paddington rooftop with the kind of views that’ll save you a trip on the London Eye, to a cosy little wine bar near Theatreland, here are all the drinking spots you could possibly need whilst you’re in the city.
Where to Go When You Want Something Special
So, you’ve posted an extremely tasteful picture of a red telephone box just to make sure that everyone you’ve ever dated, met, or flirted with on the internet knows you’re living your best life in London. Perfect. May the likes come rolling in. Next, it’s time for Scarfe’s. This big, British lounge inside the Rosewood Hotel in Holborn has everything from old antiques, Gerald Scarfe’s naughty cartoons on the walls, a 1920s swing band, and the most amusing cocktail menu we’ve ever come across. Although prices can be high - welcome to London - this is one of the best places you can kick off a trip in the city.
Sadly, we don’t have a time machine. If we did we would let you borrow it so you could go back in time to picking your seat for the flight and avoid the world’s most iconic snorer. But, what we lack in time travel potential, we make up for in Bar Americain. This very good looking bar near Leicester Square and Soho feels distinctly like you’ve stepped back into 1920s Paris, and there’s even a cabaret spot across the hallway if you’re looking to keep the night going after a couple of old fashioneds. You’ll find this cocktail lounge inside Brasserie Zedel, a huge, surprisingly affordable French restaurant that you should definitely check out if you’re also looking for somewhere to eat in the area.
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We don’t mean to alarm you, but Fitz’s has a disco ball. And friends, it’s a big one. In Bloomsbury, this hotel cocktail lounge is full of plush pink sofas, long feathers, an open fireplace, and a huge, gold backlit bar. Basically, it’s exactly the kind of space where you can picture a tipsy Greta Garbo whispering to someone handsome in the back corner whilst sipping on their excellent signature cocktail, The Spy Princess. Just keep in mind that the cocktails here are all around the £15 mark, so your bill can stack up quickly.
When you want to show everyone back home - and yourself - that you’re having the time of your life in London and very well may be married into the royal family by the end of the week, you go to George’s Bar. This proper jaw-dropper of a space is inside a grand, gothic 19th century hotel that’s part of St. Pancras train station, so it’s a must if you’re getting the Eurostar, or just really have a thing for high ceilings. You should also know that the cocktails here are exceptional, with their orange blossom packed Lost In Marrakesh being one of our favourite drinks in the whole of the city.
Where to Go When You Want a Proper Drinking Den
Discount Suit Company
If you really don’t want to act like a tourist whilst you’re in London, then you should do these three things. Constantly complain about tube delays. Walk at an average of 10 miles per hour. And head to Discount Suit Company in Shoreditch, a great little basement bar that you’ll completely miss if you don’t know it’s there. Down an unmarked flight of stairs below an old Discount Suit Company sign, you’ll find lots of exposed brick, wooden stools, and some seriously good cocktails. Just be sure to book a table if you’re planning on coming at peak times.
The Arts Theatre Club
You really want to tap into all that London history you’ve seen in films. You know, The Beatles, the Queen, Wimbledon, that flat Bridget Jones managed to live in despite London’s insane rental prices. But when you’re looking for a bar with a whole lot of history, there’s the Arts Theatre Club in Soho, a good-time speakeasy with strong, albeit pricey, cocktails. This place was a popular illegal drinking den for London gangsters, The Kray Twins back in the day, but these days, come late, the space behind the old piano transforms into a DJ booth that plays retro classics. Basically, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time here - just be aware that they charge entrance after 10pm on the weekends.
Fat Joe sang that love’s about us, and it’s about trust babe, and you’re more than likely to hear this in Satan’s Whiskers. This trendy Bethnal Green cocktail bar is an easy choice on Friday and Saturday nights, thanks to the winning combination of a bop-worthy hip hop soundtrack and cocktails under a tenner. Be aware that it’s pretty much perma-busy, more often than not with couples staying until the 12am closing time before asking the inevitable, “yours or mine?“.
Ain't Nothin But...The Blues Bar
This might come as a surprise, but Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues is in fact, a blues bar. Just off of Oxford Circus, this beloved little spot is always crowded, always loud, and always a damn good time. Every single night they have live music and if you get here early enough you’ll be able to grab one of the best seats in the house, directly in front of the stage. Expect sticky floors, strong rum and cokes, and a whole lot of elbow-to-elbow dancing come late.
Where to Go When You Want a Pint
The Southampton Arms
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been in London for ten minutes or ten years - a wander across Hampstead Heath followed by several pints in the Southampton Arms is essential. Look up old school boozer in the dictionary and you’ll be directed to this creaky pub. Every beer and cider here is brought in from independent breweries the UK and world over, while their snacks - roast pork shoulder baps, scotch eggs, and pork pies - are best enjoyed next to the fireplace with a pint or two.
Ask an out-of-towner to describe a London pub and they’ll probably mention worn out floorboards, brown ale, and a man at the bar follically blessed in his nostrils. For the most part, it’s all true. But throw in some killer black pudding toasties, and then you’ve got the Canton Arms. Arguably south London’s best all-rounder in pub terms, the Canton suits pints, pints, pints with friends just as much as it does with parents. And you can always transfer from the bar to the dining area if you fancy something a little bigger.
If you’re after beer in a space that makes for a blank canvas, then Crate Brewery is the place to go. This warehouse in Hackney Wick chugs out Crate’s beers in a space built for big groups. Best of all is that they make some pretty decent stone-baked pizzas on site as well. What's more, you can very easily pitch up here, especially if the weather’s good, as there’s loads of outside seating along the canal.
photo credit: Jamie Lau
The Drapers Arms
The Drapers Arms is a U-rated pub. Not because it’s full of cuddly toys and low-ABV booze, but because anyone and everyone can (and does) come here to have a nice time. You’ll have to walk ten minutes from the centre of Upper Street to find it, but once you do you’ll find exactly what a pub should be full of: families, friends, good food, and a few fireplaces.
Where to Go When You Want Some Skyline Views
Frank’s Café is a summer-only rooftop spot in Peckham that will give you a minimum of 50 likes on a clear day with a punchy sunset. Content-aside this is undoubtedly one of London’s few legitimately nice rooftop bars. Come London’s two week summer, it can get a little busy, so get here early to avoid the crowds.
Pergola Paddington Central
All Londoners must at some point, go to Paddington’s Pergola for a date, a birthday, or a SPONTANEOUS SUMMER HANG. It’s a rite of passage involving great views, daybeds to lounge on, lots of foliage, and many, many £10 cocktails. Although this huge, sprawling rooftop situation is at its peak during the summer, they provide plenty of blankets and heaters to keep it cosy during the colder months. If you happen to be hungry, there are also plenty of food stalls to get involved in.
It’s pretty much impossible to come to London without spending half your time looking up at all of the amazing architecture, but for the sake of you and your chiropractor go to Decimo and check out the city from up high instead. This upmarket and seriously sexy Mexican restaurant on the 10th floor of a hip hotel in King’s Cross has two big bars, floor-to-ceiling windows, and they make a mean margarita. Go ahead and pop up to the roof after your cocktail if you’re after a cheeky pic of the London nightime skyline.
Queen of Hoxton
Okay, we’ll be honest - if you want the kind of stunning, vertigo-inducing views that make you feel all Mary Poppins mid-move, then Queen Of Hoxton isn’t for you. But, if you want a cool, somewhat kooky, roof garden where you can roast marshmallows over big fire pits in the winter, and drink a strong spritz in the summer, then this place should go straight to the top of your list. In the midst of the city skyscrapers, their rooftop changes theme, but the iconic teepee always remains.
Where to Go When You Just Want Some Wine
London has a lot of wine bars, but Noble Rot has our hearts. This Bloomsbury spot is our highest rated restaurant in London, but it is first and foremost, a wine bar. They have a huge selection here that covers everything from Australian pinot noirs to the Loire Valley, and beyond, but whether you’re after a bottle that costs £30 or £300 the sommeliers will be more than happy to help you. And they'll do it with absolutely zero side eye. If you’re hitting up London as a couple this should definitely be on your agenda, but equally if you happen to be flying solo, their counter is one of our favourite places to have a casual glass of wine alone.
Gordon's Wine Bar
Gordon’s Wine Bar near the Southbank is something of a London institution, with a vaulted cellar lit exclusively by candlelight and the odd person’s phone screen as they try to take a picture of their brie. Basically, it’s Aladdin’s cave if the genie was really into Bordeaux. It's been open since 1890, and you should be warned that all the old school charm means this place is always popular, so aim to get here before five if you want a table for the night. But don’t worry if you don’t, there’s always a cute little corner to lean in or somewhere to perch on their outside terrace in the summer.
The beauty of P. Franco is that whether you came to this tiny Clapton wine shop to buy a bottle, or to spend a couple of hours drinking and eating, the outcome is always the same: you, standing with a glass of something special, feeling very, very, content. From Thursday through Sundays you’ll want to get here earlier as that’s when their guest chef is cooking and it gets rammo. But regardless, there’s always a bit of room (and time) to squeeze a glass in.
Lady Of The Grapes
This place might sound like the greatest Marvel superhero that ever lived, but it’s actually a cosy little wine bar in Covent Garden. Focused on supporting female winemakers, Lady Of The Grapes has a relaxed South of France feel, plenty of candlelight, and is close to all of the big West End theatres. If you’re just looking for somewhere for a quick sit down in the midst of shopping or before dinner, this place also has plenty of by the glass and carafe options.
Where to Go When You Want Cocktails
To get to this bar in Soho you have to go through a bookcase hidden at the back of a quaint whisky shop called Milroy’s. So yeah, you could say it’s pretty much a C.S. Lewis novel, except if you see any lions it’ll be because you’ve had one too many of their coconut butter old fashioneds. This spot is a proper little charmer with plenty of classic, and creative, cocktails to try, and lots of dark wooden seating and cosy corners to chat in.
Tayer and Elementary
We’re not sure anyone’s ever woken up and thought, ‘I fancy drinking cocktails and listening to French trap tonight’, but if you have, then boy have we got a place for you. Tayer and Elementary is a few minutes away from Old Street station, and it’s one of the best places to get a very serious drink. There’s a slightly confusing two-part bar setup going on here, with a completely different drinks menu featured in the back bar. But don’t worry. This is a drinking place, not a thinking place.
Arguably the most appropriately named bar we’ve come across - okay, excluding Cheers - Happiness Forgets is a little basement spot in Shoreditch that’s a favourite amongst locals for creating high-class cocktails with none of that Mr. Big energy. Heads up, you can also book a table here if you’re worried about finding a seat during peak times.
69 Colebrooke Row
69 Colebrooke Row, or The Bar With No Name as nobody (ironically) calls it, is a tiny cocktail bar near Angel making entirely original and excellent cocktails. Booking is essential for a 90-minute drinking slot and though that may seem a little tight, believe us when we say 90 minutes (or around 3 drinks) is exactly the right amount of time before you end up forgetting what your own name is.
Where to Go When You Want to Go Out Out
You’re in Dalston. It’s 1am. Pubs have stopped serving, and all you want is another drink without £10 entry or a euphoric trance soundtrack. Enter, Mascara Bar. Open until 3am on the weekend, Mascara Bar is a haven. It’s a rough around the edges bar in Stamford Hill full of excellent characters and staff you never want to get on the wrong side of. The landlady takes a Marmite approach to people, and having experienced both, we can say it’s better to be loved than hated. Late licence aside, it also has a fondness for random live performances. Because there’s nothing like a 1am pint of Fosters alongside someone plucking the double bass, right?
Notting Hill Arts Club is west London’s answer to CBGB. It can be pretty hard to find somewhere to party in this part of town, but this live music venue, bar, nightclub, and gallery, is always set for a good time and a strong drink. Their club nights range from funk, to house, to alternative, to hip hop, so there’s pretty much something for everyone.
Heaven in Charing Cross is basically the Buckingham Palace of gay clubs. Honestly, if you don’t have one of the best nights of your life in this legendary LGBTQ super-club then unfortunately we’re going to need you to leave. Sorry. That being said, this isn’t the place to turn up with your hen party or a big group of lads, but it does throw entirely OTT nights involving confetti and an abundance of Beyoncé hits, plus there are also regular appearances from the world’s best drag acts.
There are nights you go out for a couple of drinks, and then there are the nights where you go to The Lexington. This popular drinking spot near King’s Cross and Islington is technically an old Victorian pub, but come late it feels distinctly more indie nightclub - just with plenty of space for a sit-down after your Pete Doherty impression starts to wear you out. They’re open until 4am at the weekend, but you should also check out their list of upcoming gigs as it’s a great little intimate venue to watch someone live.
The Shacklewell Arms is an extremely dangerous pub near Hackney Downs. Not dangerous in that you should fear for your life. But dangerous in that you can very easily come here late afternoon for a few pints with friends, and find yourself knocking back shots almost 12 hours later in the same place. The Shacklewell’s late weekend opening hours isn’t the only reason to come here though. It’s an excellent and regular gig venue as well, plus the enormous smoking area is basically another venue in itself.