The Oldest Pubs in London: A Comprehensive Overview

Picture the quintessential London pub: wooden beams, slightly slanted floor, gleaming ale pumps, painted sign swinging outside, inviting you into its warm and lively interior. But the first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of a London pub? Age-old charm.

The corner of a pub displaying wooden table and chairs and a beautiful stained glass window.
For generations, the pub has served as the pulse of community life in London, and beyond.

For ages, the pub has been the heart of community life, essentially an extension of one’s own cramped and cozy home. Yet, times are evolving, with people today embracing more active, health-conscious lives. This shift has led to the closure of many pubs. In 2022, around 32 pubs per month were anticipated to shut down across England and Wales.

Still, there’s an inherent British sense of comfort when stepping into a pub. And that’s why London’s oldest pubs remain cherished destinations that beckon us back time and again.

A brief history of Taverns, Inn, and Pubs in London

Taverns: We’ve had something akin to the modern pub since the invasion in 43 AD, where locals and legionnaires could carouse in drinking and eating houses called tabernae, or “taverns” as they later became known.

Inns: Medieval pubs were wildly popular, prompting King Edgar’s futile one-per-settlement rule. These inns were thriving hubs for pilgrims and traders, and were also linked to monasteries which hosted travelers and served monks’ brewed beers.

In 1357, a law mandated inn signs, giving rise to pub names like The George & Dragon, The Swan, The Crown, The Red Lion which were depicted via images due to widespread illiteracy. Then, in 1534, Henry VIII’s split with Rome dissolved monasteries, erasing monk rivalry and shifting pubs’ focus to food and drink (delve more into this juicy history during the captivating Tower of London with Early Access Tour!)

The Crown & Anchor pub in London, with flowers hanging near the sign
Back in the day, lots of places in London were created with straightforward names that were represented with pictures for people who couldn’t read. Photo credit: Vincent Creton

Pubs: Next up was the “new kid on the block”: the public house. These offered no lodging, just food and drinks. Almost 46,000 emerged rapidly, providing a path to riches for publicans. Yet, this surge also brought vulgarity and misconduct, leading to various laws, including one binding 90% of English pubs to breweries.

Today, there are free houses (with unrestricted offerings), which are some of London and England’s top-notch pubs. However, many are still linked to properties owned by major brewers.

That being said, don’t miss these top historic spots on your next visit to London.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a Grade II listed building with origins dating back to the 1500s, though due to the Great Fire of London which ravaged the old city in September of 1666, it did have to be rebuilt (which means it’s still older than a lot of European countries—fascinating!).

Rustic, ramshackle and operated by the Samuel Smith Brewery which is not only reasonably priced but does a fantastic drop of Dark Mild, such London luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens enjoyed a pint or two within its hallowed walls.

The sign hanging outside Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of the most iconic historical pubs in London, and a must-visit.

The Spaniard’s Inn, Hampstead

Lying right on the edge of London’s oldest and wildest ancient parkland, Dickens mentions The Spaniard’s Inn in The Pickwick Papers, and Bram Stoker in Dracula which gives you an idea of its legacy as a fine 16th-century vintage. 

And if that’s not enough history for you, it’s rumored that England’s most infamous highwayman Dick Turpin used to frequent here, keeping a keen eye on the road for any wealthy but unlucky travelers who might be passing by.

Not only worth visiting for a pint or three on a sunny day, a winter’s day or any other sort of day, it also does one of the best Sunday roasts in all of London.

Two pints of beer sitting on a beer

The Prospect of Whitby, Wapping

We can pretty much guarantee from historical records that the Prospect of Whitby is London’s oldest riverside pub, first finding its feet on the banks of the Thames in around 1520. And as this was a city founded because of its river, that makes it pretty important.

In an earlier incarnation, this boozer was known as the Devil’s Tavern, a disreputable place that thieves and pirates could use as a base to rob the boats that passed bringing in goods from all over the country, and later the world. 

If you make your way to the terrace, you’ll spot a haunting noose that remains to this day where Judge Jeffreys would hang criminals.

Today, the Prospect is no longer a refuge for crooks but instead a relaxing space for riverside vistas, Greene King brews and proper pub grub. We rate it a 10/10 on the oldest pubs in London rundown!

Two small pints of beer and a cup of small snacks sitting on a table
Salty snacks and brews? Count us in.

The George Inn, London Bridge

From the oldest riverside pub to the oldest surviving galleried coaching inn, The George Inn was the ultimate hostelry to grab a meal, an ale and some sleep on the long journey from Southern England, in the perfect location just over the bridge from the City of London proper.  

In the age before trains, stagecoach routes were important to trade and travel, only they were slower than the modes of transport that would come later. This meant that coaching inns were key to providing rest breaks for weary passengers, horses and drivers. This was one such place and it is absolutely stunning.

Some say William Shakespeare frequented this pub due to its closeness to his Southwark theaters like The Globe Theatre and the Rose. This makes it another of London’s oldest pubs that Charles Dickens mentions, this time in the novel Little Dorrit.

View of street in London with small British flags blowing in the wind
Visting a London? A pub crawl is a must.

The Mayflower, Rotherhithe

Cute, quaint and surrounded by cobbled streets, The Mayflower has romance written all over it. 

Just over the river from the Prospect of Whitby, the area of Rotherhithe is where a group of pilgrims set sail in July 1620 to build new lives in the new world. In this ancient pub, you can sign the Mayflower Descendants book they keep behind the bar, provided you can verify your connection.

Daily rotating cask ales are the perfect pairing to what is actually a very decent food menu with items like chorizo scotch egg, roasted lamb rump, and fish and chips.

A bunch of glasses filled with different craft beers
If you’re a beer lover, make your way down to the local pub. Photo credit: Merritt Thomas

Thirsty to learn more? Our Taste, Tales & Traditional Ales tour is all about perfect pints in old pubs with stories of the London legends who have drunk within them in years gone by, and you’ll even get to visit one of the classic London boozers featured here.

If masterful mixology is more your thing, uncover the best speakeasy bars in london for an evening of adventure.

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About the author

Born in Britain and made in the Med, Shabby is a true ‘Enfant de Bohême’, splitting her time between her native London and her adopted home on the island of Malta. As a tour guide, writer, wanderer, and culinary history obsessive, she adores challenging assumptions about the food in her birth city. Spoiler alert: it’s fantastic food. Follow along on her adventures via Instagram at @shabbyontour

More by Shabby Flanders

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