London: A guide to visiting a traditional pub
Princess Louise pub in High Holborn. Photo: Kurt
Headed to London? A stop-off (or several!) in a classic London pub is a must-do for most visitors in the city.
If English people seem uptight on the tube, the pub is where we kick back and relax, catch up with our friends and put the world to rights.
Needless to say, a visit to the pub comes with its traditions and customs we’ve been learning since we’ve been old enough to drink. You can’t go home without experiencing this classic British tradition.
A guide to visiting a classic London pub
Drinks can be expensive, so we compiled some tips on how to enjoy a British boozer on a budget. Cheers!
The legal bit
You need to be 18 to purchase alcohol in the UK. However, people under 18 are allowed into London pubs depending on the licensing agreement of each pub, and 16 and 17-year-olds are allowed to drink wine, beer or cider with a sit-down meal as long as someone over 18 accompanies them. Picture ID might be asked for: a passport or driving license will both do the job.
The cozy exterior of a classic British pub. Photo: Edmund V
Where to go
Now you know if you can go, where should you go? Sadly, London is expensive for drinking, and you’ll find that a pint is cheaper outside the capital. Wealthier areas of the city, such as Knightsbridge, Chelsea and Fulham, are likely to be more expensive too. Try and seek out places a little off-the-beaten-track for better prices: the pub guides on the Londonist website are a great place to start.
There are a couple of chains that always offer lower prices: Wetherspoons and Samuel Smith. Wetherspoons can be a bit hit and miss, and some Londoners are very sniffy about them, but you’re almost guaranteed to meet an interesting cross-section of people drinking in one.
There are over 20 Samuel Smith pubs in London, and they often win praise from locals. As well as their inexpensive, own-brand drinks, the pubs are notable because they always have very traditional appearances. Well worth seeking out is their Princess Louise pub in Holborn. Not only does it have a great location close to the British Museum, but it’s also got a gorgeous mirrored original Victorian interior, as well as the cheap beers. Unsurprisingly, it’s often very busy!
There’s no reason to miss out on a pub visit, even if you’re traveling alone. If you fancy a chat, install yourself at the bar, if you want to sit back and survey the scene, take a seat at a table instead. Female travelers are fine going in by themselves, although they may feel more comfortable at less busy times. Read more about traveling solo in Europe.
Remember, the closing time for pubs is around 11 PM. Photo: straightfromthecask
When to go
Again, opening hours depend on individual pubs: although theoretically, they can be open 24-hours a day, many pubs stick to the traditional closing hour of 11 pm. Often “last orders” will be announced by a member of staff or the ringing of a bell about twenty minutes before the pub will close. Friday and Saturday evenings are usually a pub’s busiest times.
How to get served
If you’ve been spending time in Europe, you’ve probably got used to being served at your table. Not so in a traditional British pub, where you’ll need to go up to the bar to place your order. Calmly waiting and trying to catch the bartender’s eye is the best way to get served.
No matter how busy it is, don’t be tempted to wave your money around. Another key difference is that we don’t tip at the pub. If you want to extend gratitude for some superb service, you could offer to buy the bartender a drink but, other than a simple “thanks” as you pay for your drinks, that’s the most that would be expected.
A selection of beer on tap at a traditional pub. Photo: trombone65
What to drink
Budget drinkers should always stick to what’s on tap, rather than opting for bottled beers. English ales are almost always cheaper than foreign lagers. Be sure to check the price of ordering something such as Peroni first. Don’t be afraid of asking about the different options, because most bartenders will be happy to advise and may even let you sample before you buy.
If you’re not sure what you kind of drink you’ll like, you can always order a half pint, a cheaper way of trying things. Want a longer drink, but not sure if you can handle a full pint? Try a shandy: lager mixed with European-style lemonade. It’s a refreshing drink that’s lower in alcohol content.
Be slightly wary of house wines — they tend to be cheap and undrinkable or highly expensive. Again, your bartender should be able to advise.
It’s also worth checking the price before you order soft drinks. Sometimes they can be almost as expensive as alcoholic drinks. Tap water, however, should always be free. Pub-served coffee, however, is generally not worth your time or money.
When it comes to pub food, go for classics like fish and chips to help wash down that beer. Photo: Bestian
What to eat
A traditional pub is bound to have some snacks on offer, whether bags of peanuts or crisps or typically British fare such as Scotch eggs, sausage rolls or pork scratchings. The majority of pubs now serve more substantial meals too, but they range hugely in quality from microwaved meals up to “gastropubs”, where prices can be higher than in a regular restaurant! Good pub food is probably quite basic and hearty: burgers, pies, fries and the like.
Pubs can also be the perfect place to try out a Sunday roast. We’ve rounded up some of our favorites for under £15.
Related: 10 ways to save on dining in London
Your favorite pub
Where do you like to sip pints in London? Tell us in the comments.