Whether you fancy dressing up for a classy cocktail in a rooftop bar, want to chill out with a pint by the Thames or dance until dawn in an underground club, planning a good night out in London is never difficult because the city has so much choice. Most visitors head straight to the West End for a night out and it’s not a bad place to start. Despite earning itself a bit of a reputation as ‘the tourist’s quarter of London’, with all that glitz and glamour it’s hard not to have a good night out here.
Today, the West End is the largest theatre district in the world, with many major international stars treading the boards night after night. From musicals to classical theatre and everything in-between, it’s great for those who like their evening entertainment with a splash of culture. When it comes to musical theatre, take your pick from family-friendly, long-running shows, such as the Lion King at Lyceum Theatre and Wicked at the Apollo Victoria; sing-along favourites like Mamma Mia at the Novello or risqué musical comedy The Book of Mormon at The Prince of Wales – you’re seriously spoilt for choice. There are also some spectacular short-run shows, such as the ubiquitous Cirque du Soleil’s annual residence at the Royal Albert Hall each January, which if you’re planning to be in town at the right time are well worth booking in advance.
Some of the city’s top hotels, bars and members’ clubs including The Club at the Ivy and Soho House are also situated in London’s West End so you’ll be guaranteed a night filled with high-end entertainment (if you can get on the guest list that is). While the stretch between Strand and Shaftesbury Avenue is great for theatres and classy cocktail bars, glimpses of real, authentic London nightlife are few and far between here. However, step a few streets north of touristy Leicester Square and you’ll find yourself in Soho, where there is an eclectic mix of hip cellar bars and age-old London institutions. It’s also the centre of London’s LGBT scene. It’s in this part of London that you will find Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz bar.
The club, on Frith Street, has been the home of British jazz since 1959 and is one of the most respected jazz clubs in the world. Some of the greatest names in music have performed on its historic stage including Miles Davis, Buddy Rich and Ella Fitzgerald. You need to book tickets in advance for the club, where the main shows take place but you don’t need to book to sit at the bar – Upstairs @ Ronnie’s – which also has live music, ranging from acoustic jazz to Cuban bands, jazz and funk DJs, jive nights and even poetry slams, every night of the week.
Today, the West End is the largest theatre district in the world, with many major international stars treading the boards night after night. From musicals to classical theatre and everything in-between, it’s great for those who like their evening entertainment with a splash of culture
Speakeasies and Secret Cinema
One trend, which has taken this area of London by storm in recent years, is the speakeasy bar. Secret drinking dens from the days of post-war Britain, the idea behind these ‘hidden’ bars is that no-one is supposed to know they exist. Except they do, and in some cases it’s pretty obvious, but it’s fun to play along so just go with it. You’ll find them in various guises across the city. Some you have to book in advance and when you make the reservation you’ll be given a secret code or password, which you will need to say when you reach the door of the bar in order to gain entry. China Town’s Experimental Cocktail Club is perhaps the closest London has to a genuine hidden drinking den (you’ll most likely walk past its battered door on Gerrard Street without noticing). The bar’s three floors are a tasteful blend of opulence and antique-shop-chic with sensational cocktails thrown into the mix.
A few streets away in Poland Street, sits another speakeasy with a non-descript entrance (apart from the blindfolded pig doorknocker). The Blind Pig takes its name from the US codename used for bars during the Prohibition era, and features a copper-topped bar and a menu of cocktails with drinks based on childhood stories – from Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter. At Cahoots, in Kingly Court just off Carnaby Street, you’ll need to ask to see the ‘Captain’ before you are led down to a former bunker, which has been transformed into an underground station complete with trains and sandbags. Waitresses are dressed in charming 1940s attire and the vintage-inspired cocktails are served in oversized milk bottles and tin cans.
If you’re further west in the city but still want the speakeasy experience, head to the Evans & Peel Detective Agency – a hidden bar behind a bookshelf – at Earls Court. You’ll need to really get into character for this one; the ‘detective’ at the entrance will give you a bit of a grilling before they let you in. The founders have a sister speakeasy in Chiswick disguised as a pharmacy where, when you give the pharmacist a password, the shop windows turn opaque so passersby cannot see you being handed a prescription bag filled with bar snacks and a ‘tonic’ before the back door opens and you are ushered into the bar concealed behind the counter. Across the other side of town, near Liverpool Street, ask to see The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town at an ordinary looking cafe on Artillery Lane and you’ll be led to a fridge. Open the door and step in and you’ll find yourself in a darkened room with a bar selling luscious cocktails, beers and bar snacks.
Secrecy isn’t just limited to the speakeasy when it comes to nights out in London. Secret Cinema events have become increasingly popular in the capital and allow punters to really immerse themselves in the big-screen experience. The idea behind the concept is that, while you know what film you will be going to see, you won’t know where until a couple of hours before or what will happen when you get to that secret location. You might be travelling back to the future with Marty McFly, singing your hearts out along the cobbled streets of Paris or having the time of your life at Kellerman’s Resort.
One trend, which has taken this area of London by storm in recent years, is the speakeasy bar. Secret drinking dens from the days of post-war Britain, the idea behind these ‘hidden’ bars is that no-one is supposed to know they exist
From big screen films to big screen sports and there are a huge range of sports bars and pubs where big matches will be on show should you be in town when a tournament is on. However, these days sports fans are no longer restricted to watching a game on a night out thanks to a range of bars where you can participate and an activity. Competitive types, who like to let off a bit of steam on a night out, should head to Farringdon where, located on the very spot that the game was invented (allegedly), is Bounce – a 12,000 sq ft ping pong social club and restaurant. Or, if hitting the bullseye is your idea of a great night out then head to one of the city’s Flight Clubs (there’s one on Shoreditch and Bloomsbury), where you can order pizza and a beer as you and your friends work your way around the state-of-the-art dart boards.
Alternatively, head to the city, where a former underground Second World War bunker near the Gherkin has been transformed into a crazy golf, street food and bar concept, Swingers. The bar follows a sold out pop-up in Shoreditch in 2015, and incorporates two nine-hole crazy golf courses, four bars and three street food stalls with food offerings. A second Swingers has also opened in the West End, taking crazy golf back to its seaside roots in a venue that reimagines the faded glamour of the 1920s English Riviera. London also has a bar dedicated to table football (the aptly-named Bar Kick in Shoreditch) as well as Liverpool Street’s Mac & Wild, where you can have a go at virtual game shooting, and Baranis, an underground cocktail bar near Temple with its own gravelled indoor pétanque (similar to boules) court.
From evening activities below the surface to London’s sky-high nightlife and this is where London really does excel. Those for a real head for heights should head first to GONG Bar. Situated in the Shangri-La Hotel, on the 52nd floor of The Shard, the bar is the highest hotel bar in Western Europe and offers incredible views across the city. Specifically designed to offer spectacular views of The Shard, the Tower of London, St Paul’s and the Gherkin, Skylounge at the Double Tree Hilton is a classy cocktail retreat with 360-degree views. You’ll get equally impressive views of the capital’s skyline at the newly-opened Jon Bo Law Skybar on the 14th floor of Dorsett City Hotel in Aldgate, which serves Asian-inspired cocktails and dim sum. You’ll require bookings at most of these exclusive bars, however walk-ins are welcome at The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the ‘Walkie Talkie’. This magnificent three-floor space is dedicated to London’s highest landscaped public gardens, two of London’s most exclusive restaurants and a bar – the Sky Pod – with a monster list of cocktails.
From big screen films to big screen sports and there are a huge range of sports bars and pubs where big matches will be on show should you be in town when a tournament is on
The luxurious Radio Rooftop Bar at ME London Hotel, on Strand, boasts 360-degree vistas of some of the city’s most iconic buildings. The dress code is formal and so are the prices. You’ll also need to make a reservation for this one if your name’s not down, you definitely won’t be getting in. Meanwhile Rumpus Room, set on the 12th floor rooftop of Mondrian London at Sea Containers on the South Bank, is inspired by the original party set of 1920s London, the Bright Young Things. The bar has spectacular views of the River Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral and plays host to weekly live ‘Skyline Sessions’ with top DJs also playing until the early hours at the weekends.
Another rooftop bar with a spectacular view of St Paul’s Cathedral is Madison, atop One New Change. In fact you’re so close to the iconic monument here, it feels like you could reach out and touch the dome. There are some rooftop bars that you can only catch in summer however, such as the uber-cool Dalston Roof Park, nestled amongst Hackney’s Victorian buildings. From film nights to live gigs, this place is hip and happening and all profits go towards charitable aims. Despite its rather inauspicious location on top of a multi-storey car park in Peckham, Frank’s is also worth hunting out if you’re in town during the summer. Watch the sun set over south east London, surrounded by amazing sculptures thanks to summertime non-profit commissioning art project, Bold Tendencies.
Back to central London and you can while away evenings at Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden, an inner-city woodland and meadow, on the South Bank. Climb the yellow staircase by Queen Elizabeth Hall and discover the amazing Eden Project-designed space complete with a wooden bar area run by the Company of Cooks, which serves strawberry bellinis and passion fruit mojitos by the jug. You cannot get quite as central, however, as Vista, a secret roof garden bar at the top of The Trafalgar, just off – you guessed it – Trafalgar Square. Offering panoramic views from Horse Guards Parade to the Royal Opera House, the bar offers fine Champagnes, premium spirits and bespoke cocktails from all four corners of the globe.
London’s rooftop bars aren’t just about drinks, nibbles and views, however. Many now host open-air cinema evenings showing the latest Hollywood blockbusters, as well as classics that you’ll rarely get to see again on the big screen. Some even install inflatable hot tubs, from which you can watch the movie surrounded by bubbles. If London’s rooftop bars are looking a little chock-a-block (as they often do when the sun shines) there is plenty of room to enjoy the outside down by the river. The Thames is dotted with many respected drinking establishments, but one of the most legendary is The Grapes at Limehouse, which just so happens to be owned by Gandalf…well, not exactly, but Sir Ian McKellen is one of the proprietors of this traditional boozer, which dates back to 1583. Whether you fancy a pie and a pint in the bar or a more formal experience in the dining room upstairs, get a seat by the window so you can watch the lights of Canary Wharf glitter on the water outside.
Despite the often unpredictable weather, many of the city’s rooftops are also dotted with outdoor terrace bars. With flamingos, vine-covered walkways and ponds full of fish, The Roof Gardens in Kensington, is by far the most extraordinary rooftop in town
Authentic pubs and hand-pulled ales
Also on this side of the river, you’ll find what has been dubbed one of the most picturesque drinking holes in London, Gordon Ramsay’s The Narrow. Expect top-notch food and drink from both the bar and restaurant (the bar serves small plates for those who just want a snack) at this Grade II-listed building and a terrace offering panoramic views over the Thames. Offering a coveted vantage point for spectators of the annual Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race that is held in March each year, The Dove in Hammersmith has all the charm and atmosphere you’d want from a traditional English pub, plus great views of the river, day or night. With its magnificent location right on the South Bank, Anchor Bankside is another popular venue for riverside drinks. Nestled between Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and The Golden Hinde, this place attracts tourists and locals alike so if you want to get a prime seat on the waterside terrace, it’s best to get their early.
Claiming to be the oldest pub on the Thames, The Mayflower in Rotherhithe may seem a little way out but is definitely one to visit on an evening if you’re a history buff, thanks to the area’s past as a bustling port and site of the world’s first subterranean river tunnel. While you’re in Rotherhithe, cross back over the river and raise a tankard of ale at the Prospect of Whitby – another pub which claims to be the oldest on the river – where famous patrons in years gone by include Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys and William Turner. When the weather turns cold, a proper cosy pub with a crackling fire and comfy seats are a must for warming up in the evening. For the archetypal old London pub, well-heeled south west London is a surprisingly good bet and has a number of very pleasant old inns. The Leather Bottle, in Earlsfield, is a legendary West London pub that really pulls out all the stops in winter time by transforming its massive beer garden from a summer haven to a winter wonderland with cosy winter chalets (converted from garden shacks) and shepherd huts, each with their own TV screen.
Head north towards Camden and The Southampton Arms, in Kentish Town, offers a truly authentic old-fashioned pub experience with 18 hand-pulled ales, a wood-burning fire and cash-only policy. However, if you want really old then you’ll need to head over to Fleet Street, where the 16th-century Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which has survived the reign of 15 monarchs, offers old-fashioned beer at old-fashioned prices. Tucked away down its own little alley off Borough High Street, near London Bridge, The George Inn is not only the last remaining galleried inn in the city but it’s also the only pub owned by the National Trust. The galleries that front the 17th-century building were once common but many were lost during the Second World War. If you cannot get a seat inside this unsurprisingly popular pub, then perch yourself in the large courtyard area outside, which has plenty of heaters and old-fashioned lamps to huddle under. Still don’t feel like you’ve got your fill of the traditional London boozer? Then head down to The Horseshoe Inn, also near London Bridge on Melior Street, where you can experience a right old Cockney knees-up with authentic Cockney grub, songs and even rhyming slang.
If wine is your tipple then you might prefer to head to Gordon’s Wine Bar on Villier Street – thought to be the oldest wine bar in London. Take the rickety wood-panelled staircase down from just outside Victoria Embankment Garden and you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time – centuries-old newspaper cuttings and dusty wine bottles line the walls, and none of the furniture matches. Be prepared for a bit of an elbow fight to get to the bar but once you have ordered from the award-winning wine list, (they only serve wine and port) lean back and, if you can find a seat among the low-ceilinged arches, soak up the simply wondrous atmosphere. If you find inside a little stuffy then there is plenty of room outside, where a long terrace of outdoor seating with brollies and heaters provides the perfect spot to while away an evening.
Claiming to be the oldest pub on the Thames, The Mayflower in Rotherhithe may seem a little way out but is definitely one to visit on an evening if you’re a history buff, thanks to the area’s past as a bustling port and site of the world’s first subterranean river tunnel
Wine and Champagne
When it comes to wine, London has an abundance of wine and Champagne bars to suit all tastes. Searcys has a reputation for some of the best gourmet food and drink establishments in the city and its Champagne bar at St Pancras International Station is no exception. Whether you’ve just arrived in London or are catching the Eurostar to Paris, make time for a glass of fizz at this gorgeous bar which, at 98 metres, has earned itself the title of the longest Champagne bar in Europe. It’s also got one of the most extensive Champagne lists in Europe and champions the Parisian technique of decanting, which is said to improve the aromas. If, however you’re looking for a more intimate location to share some bubbly than a busy station the Voltaire is the perfect place. Built on the foundations of Bridewell Palace, the venue’s interior is inspired by its regal history and the inherited architecture. The Grade II-listed building features old stone vaults, which used to keep prisoners under lock and key and then later housed the treasures of a bank. Fast-forward to the present day and the vaults – each named after the different personalities of those who might have been imprisoned in them – are located on the outdoor terrace and have been transformed into heated private VIP zones with a personal waiter and iPod docks. Oh, and the bar also boasts London’s largest selection of Pommery Champagne.
Everyone knows that red wine and cheese make a good match but Champagne and cheese? “Why not?” says chic French shop and bistro, Champagne + Fromage, near Covent Garden. This tiny little deli-style brasserie is famous for its rustic fair and fizz and specialises in grower champagne, which is nicknamed farmer fizz and is made by artisan producers in their own vineyards. While beer, wine and champers will always have their place on London’s drinks menu, gin is having a huge resurgence in the city. This spicy tipple has ditched the mother’s ruin reputation and gained some serious street cred of late and, as a result, there are new gin bars cropping up across the city, while older establishments are spicing up their cocktail menu with craft gin-infused concoctions.
Located a convenient five minutes’ walk from Fulham Broadway, towards Parsons Green, 510 Below is a subterranean bar with at least 40 different types of gin behind the bar. However, that’s nothing compared to The London Gin Club, in Soho, which sells nearly 200 varieties of gin served in great goblets. For the hard-core, there are tasting menus, which include four or eight gins served on trays so you can compare and contrast. Back on Fleet Street, the City of London Distillery, which brought gin distilling back to the city in 2012 after an absence of nearly 200 years, doubles as a bar, so not only can you partake in distillery tours, tasting sessions, gin flight taster tours and a gin ‘lab’ experience, where you can distil your own gin, you can continue long into the evening among a few of the distillery’s copper stills. If you’ve really got a taste for the stuff, then there’s a shop so you can purchase a bottle to take home, while those with rather particular tastes should head to The Distillery – the UK’s first gin hotel – on Portobello Road, where you can blend your own gin in The Ginstitute.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to break the bank to have a good night out in London. If you’re looking to sample a cocktail in one of London’s many cocktail or wine bars but don’t fancy paying full whack, seek out one of the city’s many ‘happy hour’ bars. Perfect for those on a budget, these happy hour sessions often last more than an hour so there’s no need to ‘neck it’ in order to get your fill of the bargains. London is also home to the pop-up bar and there are a variety which ‘pop up’ across the city for just weeks or months at a time throughout the year – from igloos on the River Thames to inner-city ‘beach bars’ and cocktails served in a prison, anything goes! But nights out in London aren’t just about eating and drinking.
When it comes to wine, London has an abundance of wine and Champagne bars to suit all tastes. Searcys has a reputation for some of the best gourmet food and drink establishments in the city and its Champagne bar at St Pancras International Station is no exception
Live music, cabaret and dancing till dawn
Across the length and breadth of the capital, the city’s pubs and bars, live music venues and chic clubs all push the envelope for musical innovation and serious late-night fun. For those serious about their music, Camden Town is the place to head to for more intimate live gigs; it has a splattering of good venues interspersed between its quirky pubs and bars and in summer, the bohemian vibe spills into the beer gardens and out onto the streets. Those who like to take things a little less seriously should head to Club de Fromage – London’s self-proclaimed biggest pop and fancy dress night every Saturday at O2 Academy in Brixton. Make sure you don your dancing shoes as Slow Alfie and the Club de Fromage performers entertain you through the decades with oodles of Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson, Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and Elton John, to name but a few. There’s usually a different silly theme each week and if you come in fancy dress, you also get to jump the queue.
For those who like their music and entertainment from a bygone era, Proud Cabaret, which has venues in Camden and the Square Mile, is modelled on a 1920s speakeasy and offers high-end dining and burlesque-style entertainment from Thursday to Saturday. Customers sit in booths while they eat their dinner before the evening of illicit glamour commences. There’s plenty of audience participation and by the end of the night the tables are moved aside to form a dance floor. If participation is your thing, then there’s nothing better than a good old karaoke night. There’s a variety of pubs and bars across the city offering regular open mic nights but if you want to guarantee a good old sing song (and perhaps don’t want too much of an audience) then book in at Karaoke Box or Lucky Voice, where you can sing to your heart’s content in a private booth with just you and your friends. You also don’t need to worry about missing out on your favourite track when you go to the bar to get a round in as each room has a call button allowing you to ring for a bartender to bring you drinks and snacks from the menu.
Still got energy to burn? London has plenty of late night clubs where you can dance the night away. Occupying former theatres, railway arches and warehouses across town, major clubs cover all tastes from indie, rock, pop and world music to all-night raves. Giants, such as the Ministry of Sound at Elephant & Castle, are crammed with youthful clubbers at the weekends so be prepared for it to get a little sweaty. You’ll need to check the club’s own websites for news of which DJs are playing when – expect to pay up to £35 for entry – but that will enable you to watch some of the world’s top headline DJs (beware, however, they don’t usually come on until 3am) and party until dawn.
There are cheaper options than the big-brand names, of course. Cargo, situated in a converted rail yard on Rivington Street in Shoreditch, has a great programme of music, party nights and after parties and is open until 3am on Fridays and Saturdays, with tickets costing between £10 and £15 – on week nights it is often free to enter. With loads of great venues (both indoor and out), a world class theatre and arts scene and plenty of pubs, bars and clubs to choose from, whatever you think makes a good night out, there is more than enough to please all manner of tastes once the sun goes down.
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