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For centuries, London's pubs have served as meeting places, social spaces, rooms to relax and unwind, places to talk business, to eat and drink, to find comfort for an evening or solace for an hour. These spots have notorious alumni and endless unknown stories, making stepping inside feel like a trip in a time machine. While many of the oldest pubs have been polished into new venues, some still retain their olde charms, giving visitors the chance to experience what a pub may have been like hundreds of years ago. Here are five of our favorites.
The George Inn
In Shakespeare's Local, writer Pete Brown spins a fascinating biographical tale of London through the prism of the 600-year story of the George Inn. The inn was a place to rest, to eat and drink, and its location in Southwark, near the Thames and London Bridge, made it a popular place to stop before embarking on further travels, either into or out of London. Dickens definitely drank here and he mentions the pub in Little Dorrit; Churchill dined here (and was charged corkage by the feisty landlady for bringing in a fancy bottle of port to drink); Pepys popped in for a pint; and with the Globe Theatre nearby we can guess that Shakespeare had the occasional pot of ale, though there's no actual record of this happening.
Today it's a busy pub by the bustling Borough Market and the beauty is the galleried front of the building. Inside, it lacks some of the imagined warmth and comfort of an old inn, but it still has much to admire in its many different spaces, allowing you to chance to daydream about who may have drunk here before you. It's run by Greene King so try their Abbot Ale for a classic pint of English bitter.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
It's impossible not to be instantly impressed and overawed by the Dickensian darkness of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which hides down an alley off Fleet Street. Like many pubs in this part of town it was originally destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then rebuilt, but it has history from before the flames and a pub called The Horn was here from 1538—before that, a monastery on this site dates to the 13th century.
Tread over the worn entry step and it's like a museum set: dark wood, sawdust on the floor boards, myriad staircases taking you to snug and warm drinking rooms over different levels, a wood fire crackling in the winter, and barely a recognition of anything modern. Downstairs you sit inside a cellar bar, with the space thought to have been originally used by the monastery. When you visit your name joins illustrious drinkers who have been here before you: Charles Dickens, Dr. Samuel Johnson (who lived nearby and perhaps penned some of his dictionary in here), Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson. It's now run by Samuel Smith Brewery, so order a pint of their Old Brewery Bitter, which is still drawn from wooden barrels.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU (map)
Cittie of Yorke
In an ever-modernizing city with gleaming glass skyscrapers growing all around, the Cittie of Yorke reminds us of what London might have been in centuries past. A dark, wooden-interiored pub with a bank of cozy booths, it has the feeling of an old church or school hall with high peaked ceiling and the faint glow of light from outside catching in the dusty air. It offers a whispering kind of intimacy that's a jolt from the fast-moving surroundings of the street outside.
Look for the unusual three-faced fireplace in the middle which sends the smoke down instead of up, or see the giant wine vats over the bar which are from when a wine merchant owned the building in the 1920s. Choose between the bunker-like cellar bar, the living room coziness of the front bar, or the handsome antiquity of the main bar. As with other nearby buildings it's been demolished and rebuilt a few times, though a pub was first recorded here in 1430.
Like the Cheshire Cheese, and a considerable number of other impressively antique London pubs (including The Princess Louise which is a short walk from the Cittie of Yorke), this is owned by Samuel Smith Brewery. Their Pure Brewed Lager is a good beer if you don't fancy their Old Brewery Bitter; in the fridges you'll find their silky Oatmeal Stout. Try it with the fish and chips or shepherd's pie.
Cittie of Yorke: 22 High Holborn, WC1V 6BN (map) 0207 242 7670
The Old Bank of England
This pub is located on Fleet Street, which is named after the River Fleet, a subterranean river through the city. In 1702 London's first daily paper, the Daily Courant, was published on this street and the newspaper men stayed for almost 300 years (making it a notorious neighborhood for boozy lunch breaks) before their offices moved. Two pubs existed side by side on this site in the 16th and 17th centuries—The Cock and The Haunch of Venison. In 1888 the pubs were demolished (The Cock relocated over the road—it's now called Ye Olde Cock Tavern) and the Bank of England rebuilt it for their Law Courts. The space became a pub again in 1994 when Fuller's Brewery took it over. There's one more infamous link: the building is allegedly between what was once Sweeney Todd's barber and Mrs. Lovett's pie shop (or so the story goes), with the cellars beneath the pub being the gory location of Todd's butchery.
The bright and warm space has a cathedral-like grandness, with a central island bar beneath fairy tale chandeliers. There are elaborate murals and a spectacular ceiling, which is all best observed from the gallery level above the bar. The pies on the menu today are thankfully more wholesome than they might have been many years ago, and they are especially good with one of Fuller's ales: London Pride is their flagship brew, while Black Cab is a very good London stout.
Ye Olde Watling
Built in 1668 after the previous pub burnt down in the Great Fire, Ye Olde Watling is on what was once the main street through Roman London, with the name 'Aethling Street' (meaning Noble or High Street). Old ship timbers were used in its construction and Sir Christopher Wren is said to have built this as a pub and drawing room while he was working on many of the nearby churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, which is the most prominent sight as you exit the pub.
Today the street outside is quiet and quaint and the pub is part of the Nicholson's pub group. All dark wood, inside and out, with a beamed ceiling, it feels more polished than rugged and old, though don't let that detract from the space: it has history etched into its walls. It's classic pub grub and a good selection of ales, so look out for beers by top British breweries like Thornbridge, Adnams, and St Austell.
Here's a handy map for your pub crawl.