In every world-class city across the globe you can find great places to have a drink. What makes going out in London special is the particular style of drinking. You can lift a glass in a room of bedecked in period lavender cornicing or in a historic music hall that references several eras of its history all at once. For Americans, these drinking hotspots showcase the grand buildings, the hidden societies, the plummy style and the London’s buzz that captivates us Yanks about the city’s particular history and glamour.
Here, the places I recommend every American (as well as other visitors) should go for a drink in London. Don’t think of it as mere “drinking”. Think of it as cultural and historical research.
Best for: Dress-up cocktails
Sultry, sophisticated and, yes, blue, this bar designed by the David Collins (who also designed The Wolseley) oozes savoir faire of the British variety. Drinks both classic and complicated are poured by attentive bartenders, served with ice chipped from a crystal clear block at the end of the bar. It’s chic enough to bring your tech friends who work in Mountain View, California, and cosy enough that other patrons won’t overhear you pitching an idea that Google will acquire for billions in 2 years’ time.
Best for: Run-down glamour
You’ll get a real taste of East End heritage at Wilton’s, which bills itself as the world’s oldest music hall. The buildings that make it up began life in the 1690s as individual houses and over the years the property has been an ale house serving Scandinavian sea captains, a saloon theatre and a music hall, before falling into disrepair for three decades. Thanks to a restoration campaign begun in 1997, it’s home again to theatre, music, and events. Go for drinks in the delightfully scruffy bar and stay for a show in the historic hall.
Best for: After-work Champagne
Socialising in this interior courtyard of The Royal Exchange reminds me when I used to have cocktails in Grand Central Terminal in New York City: Here it’s all dazzling space and buzz. The imposing columns outside were inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and Queen Victoria officially opened the building in 1844. If you try to take a picture, one of the nice security guards will tell you it’s not allowed, so sit at the circular bar or one of the tables and simply enjoy the hubbub from City drinkers, the grand soaring space, and the lure of the luxury shopping boutiques.
Best for: Rooftop views
You can’t help but feel a little bit more chic when you visit this East London destination, which features 3 restaurants, a hotel and one of the best rooftop bars around. In summer the open-air garden space beckons, while an enclosed heated orangery populated with citrus trees keeps things warm in cooler months. There are sofas, blankets, an open fire and views across the trendiest quarter of London.
Best for: A traditional pint in a cobbled courtyard
London is full of great, picturesque pubs, but this one has some quite special hisstory behind it. Owned by the National Trust, it’s the last remaining galleried coaching inn in London, built in 1677 and mentioned in Dickens’ Little Dorritt. On fine days, sit at one of the outside tables in the courtyard, overlooked by the galleries, or enjoy a pint in one of the snug interconnecting rooms with oak beams and latticed windows. It’s just a few minutes from London Bridge station and if you visit on one of the days the full market is running at Borough Market, you can combine it with a wander through the mouthwatering food stalls.
Best for: Jazz Age-inspired hijinks
Everyone knows about (and recommends) the American Bar at this iconic London hotel. With a name like that, it seems made for Americans, and it is nice. But the Beaufort Bar, just off the hotel’s Thames Foyer, is a stunning, low-lit Art Deco venue for sophisticated drinking. (Some of cocktails feature rare and vintage spirits that run to three figures.) Come and listen to nightly entertainment, catch the regular cabaret and burlesque performances, or order a gimlet and canoodle at one of the tables that gleam like ebony piano keys.
Best for: Artful drinking
Bartenders at other hip spots in London will tell you where they like to drink: The Nightjar. It regularly makes every list of best bars, but don’t go here to get a dry white. Drinks are described as Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-War and Signature, and ingredients range from truffled potato puree to bee pollen to pumpkin bitters. You might be drinking something nestled in a cloud of dry ice smoke or out of container akin to a bong. There is live music every night (a cover charge can apply). Make reservations early — they book up — or check out their sister bar, The Oriole.
Best for: Sky-high views
Bars at this iconic skyscraper are situated on levels 31, 33, and 52 and they’ve got a system for people who want to visit them. We’ve rocked up on a last-minute whim, waited 20 minutes, then been escorted into Gong on the 52nd floor at a small table in the middle of the room. Thirty minutes later, a woman approached us: “Would you like a window seat?” We were duly moved to seats up against the glass, overlooking the Thames and London Bridge. Aqua Shard (31st floor) has double-height windows. It’s dramatic, pricey, and fun. Leave your trainers and shorts at home; the dress code — as one would expect — is smart casual. Gone one further: Match the view by dressing with pizzazz.
When you’re in this part of town, near the chain wine bars and crowded restaurants of Leicester Square and West End theatres, a decent drink can seem like a tall order. The Experimental Cocktail Club is in the heart of Chinatown’s Gerrard Street, amid the noodle shops and golden ducks hanging in restaurant windows. Look for the anonymous door at No 13a and dress smart to gain entry via the doorman (or better yet, book ahead via their website). Up the stairs in this townhouse, you’ll find brick walls, cut glass tumblers and masterful mixology. The vibe is Parisian louche (the French owners also run bars across La Manche) but without a whiff of pretension. Night owls take note: They’re open til 3am.
You have to finagle an invitation from a member to get inside one of these clubs, but it is oh so worth it. Long-established places like the Reform Club (with architecture by Sir Charles Barry, best known for the Houses of Parliament) and the Royal Automobile Club have stately architecture and guidelines for comportment. Relative newcomers like The Groucho or Shoreditch House promote bohemian buzz. Whether you’re in an 18th-century, Grade II listed building or amid media screening rooms and art galleries, visiting one of these private enclaves is an exclusive — and coveted — experience. See a list of some of the best clubs in this article and start cultivating friends who can get you in.