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Pubs with History: London's Most Unusual Drinking Dens


Pubs with History: London's Most Unusual Drinking Dens
Hi, I'm Claire!

Claire Bullen is an award-winning food, drinks, and travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London. She is the author of The Beer Lover's Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, and the editor at GoodBeerHunting.com. Her writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Daily Meal, Pellicle Magazine, and beyond.

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Hi, I'm Claire!

Claire Bullen is an award-winning food, drinks, and travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London. She is the author of The Beer Lover's Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, and the editor at GoodBeerHunting.com. Her writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Daily Meal, Pellicle Magazine, and beyond.

see more

London is celebrated for its pub culture, but the city’s drinking dens aren’t just places to socialize, sip pints of cask ale, and tuck into hearty British dishes such as fish 'n' chips or a steak and kidney pie. Many pubs have been around for centuries and come shrouded in their own lore. Here are five of London’s most characterful historic pubs to explore on your next trip to the English capital.

The Cockpit

Exterior of The Cockpit pub in London.
The Cockpit is a quick stroll from St. Paul's Cathedral, which sits at the highest point of the City. | Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor

A proper pub with a past in blood sports.

Located in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Cockpit is hidden down a small warren of centuries-old alleys. True to its name, the pub hosted illicit cockfights until the 18th century, and that rather sordid past is reflected in its rooster-themed decor and raised gallery area, where spectators would have once stood.

But that isn’t the Cockpit’s only historical pedigree. According to Johnny Warland of Liquid History Tours, “the site is more famous as the location of Shakespeare's first house in London.” During your visit, order a pint of real ale and reflect on all the figures—both illustrious and otherwise—who once frequented the area.

Ship Tavern

Interior of The Ship Tavern pub in London.
Nestled amid Holborn's museums, the Ship Tavern has been serving Londoners for half a century. | Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor

Famous for Sunday roast and long-ago secret Mass.

It’s hard to rival the Ship Tavern for history. This cozy pub, located near Holborn, dates back to 1549. That moment in English history is key, as following King Henry VIII’s reign Protestantism was declared the official state religion. That meant that Catholics had to worship in secret—and this pub was one place for them to do so.

“Catholic priests were known to sneak behind the bar and offer a secretive Mass to willing participants,” Warland says. “If the King's men were spotted approaching on these narrow lanes, the priests would hide away while the congregation would pretend to enjoy a jolly good drink.”

The spirits of unlucky priests who were caught are said to haunt the pub today—though you wouldn’t know it if you visit on a Sunday afternoon, when live musicians contribute to its festive atmosphere.

The Blackfriar

Exterior of the Blackfriar pub, London.
The Blackfriar pub is across the river from the Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe. | Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor

An art nouveau beauty on Queen Victoria Street.

True to name, the Blackfriar was constructed on the site of a former Dominican friary. It’s not often that you find drinking establishments with museum-quality artworks inside, but this 19th-century pub is worth visiting for its decor alone.

British sculptor Henry Poole and architect Herbert Fuller-Clark contributed to its lavish, art nouveau design (as Warland notes, “the modern equivalent would be to ask David Hockney to decorate your pub”). Look out for stained-glass windows, marble accents, and brass and mother-of-pearl reliefs. Adding to its cultural allure, the pub was narrowly saved from demolition in the 1960s—by the UK’s poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, no less.

The Princess Louise

Interior of the Princess Louise, London.
The Princess Louise, in all its high Victorian splendor, is a Grade II listed building. | Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor

A restored Victorian pub with plenty of beer options.

If their watering holes are any indication, the Victorians had an eye for style. Charles Dickens himself was a fan—in Sketches by Boz, he wrote of one such bar: “The gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling ...”

To see a real-life Dickensian marvel, venture to the Princess Louise, which is outfitted with etched glass, carved wooden features, and a gilded ceiling. But the pub’s interior isn’t its only allure—“both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are said to have gigged upstairs,” Warland says.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

People chat inside Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, London.
Fleet Street's Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese might just be the capital's most famous pub. | Photo Credit: Annapurna Mellor

Once a haunt of famous English writers.

Speaking of Dickens, the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street was once frequented by the great scribe, as well as luminaries such as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of the oldest pubs in London, it dates to 1667 (it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666), though a pub has stood on site since the 1540s.

“The pub is seven stories in total, and Dickens' favorite seat was to the right of the fire, under the portrait of the head waiter,” says Warland. During your visit, claim his seat and see if inspiration strikes.

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