This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
Holidays to far-flung shores may be on hold for many of us this year, but it’s still possible to conjure the magic of waterside drinks closer to home.
The Thames may not be lined with white-sand beaches or run with turquoise water, but it offers striking panoramas of one of the greatest cities in the world — best enjoyed at a riverside pub.
For centuries the Thames flowed as the capital’s primary transport artery, a working river that functioned as both a thoroughfare and a place for entertainment.
Many of the pubs along the river are some of the oldest in London, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Though drinking alcohol in taverns can be credited to the Romans, “public houses” became increasingly popular as London began to industrialise and its population rapidly grew. The water in the Thames became too polluted to drink — and ale became the beverage of choice.
Today, the beer may be colder, craftier and, on average, more than £5 a pint, though it’s still not hard to imagine Charles Dickens or Samuel Pepys drinking in one of the historic dockside pubs that stand, more or less, in the same position.
Below is our guide to some of the best Thames-side pubs in London to sup a pint al fresco on a warm evening, or, in cooler months, in a cosy spot next to the fire.
The White Swan, Twickenham
Riverside, Twickenham, London TW1
A swan drifted past in the green, weedy shallows as the drizzle slowly fell onto the river. We were in The White Swan’s “pub garden”, better described as a large tarpaulin over a terrace jutting out over the Thames. Across the water, a view of the heavily wooded eastern end of Eel Pie Island, with paddle-boarders floating past, makes it hard to believe that Waterloo station is only a 25-minute train ride away from Twickenham’s. Around us was a non-denominational crowd of all ages: families, pensioners and youngsters alike, set among cheerful flower boxes and braving the light rain.
The pub was built in the 17th century and features in a Samuel Scott print from 1760 that hangs over the fireplace. In summer, it is a fine place to come for a game of cards and a few drinks. Several outdoor heaters pumping out warmth compensate for disappointing weather. In the depths of winter, there are few better places for a mulled cider beside a glowing fire.
Further sustenance comes from the kitchen, which is tiny, like the pub itself. Everything is cooked to order, so the menu is short, seasonal and a bit more interesting than typical pub grub. (On the menu when we visited: crispy fried whitebait, crayfish and dill pâté, sweet potato bruschetta and a Moroccan lamb-meatball dish.)
The beer on tap tends to be local, a mix of cask and keg, and typically changes daily — though there’s always something on offer from Twickenham Fine Ales, such as the hoppy, golden Naked Ladies ale, which was inspired by the large water nymph statues in the nearby York House Gardens. (Website; Directions) JP
The Blue Anchor, Hammersmith
13 Lower Mall, London W6
A late-summer day perched on the picnic tables in front of The Blue Anchor can quickly give way to dark clouds and spits of rain. The pub is so close to the river that you can hear the clatter of oars being dismantled as rowers haul their boats ashore. Joggers rush past, stamping through the puddles. Dominating the vista to the east is the green and gold Hammersmith Bridge — a 19th-century suspension bridge that has just reopened to cyclists and pedestrians. On neighbouring tables, expect to see mostly twentysomethings (who pile in for post-work drinks) and rowers.
This is a pub with history behind the blue ironwork: it celebrates its 300th birthday next year, having been built in 1722. It is said that the composer Gustav Holst, a local resident, was inspired to write his Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo while sipping drinks here in the interwar years.
When we visited, there was a “warm and welcoming” reception promised inside the wood-panelled pub, which, in colder months, features a fire. But we persisted outdoors, with parasols keeping the worst of the thickening rain from our shoulders.
I ordered a couple of pints of Little Creatures pale ale from the rotating selection of craft beers, most of them from London breweries. My friend had the Blue Anchor ale, which I believe he was perfectly happy with. (There is also a wide selection of mezcals and some good Japanese whiskies on offer.)
If you visit on a Sunday, the kitchen produces an excellent roast: chicken, beef, veggie or pork belly with crackling. (Website; Directions) JP
The Dove, Hammersmith
19 Upper Mall, London W6
You access The Dove from a backstreet and emerge in a tiny public bar — it has been listed as the smallest in the country by the Guinness Book of Records. It is another historic waterfront haunt, built in the early 18th century. Charles II and Nell Gwynne are thought to have enjoyed trysts here, though in an early incarnation of the pub. James Thomson, the Scottish poet, is said to have written “Rule Britannia” here.
On arrival, we were led through to a backroom, which, with its glass roof and trailing vines, felt like a conservatory. Through the glass doors was a small terrace overlooking houseboats on the Thames.
In the spirit of waterfront dining, the menu features plenty from the sea: Devonshire crab cake, tiger prawns and whatever is the catch of the day. For vegetarians there are some good Italianate options, such as pea ravioli and broccoli gnocchi.
Wine drinkers won’t be stuck sipping astringent Sauvignon Blanc — the list is extensive. But in this last gasp of summer, we went for a pint of Frontier lager and a tropical-tasting Meantime Anytime IPA, both London-brewed and costing around £6. (Website; Directions) JP
White Cross, Richmond
Riverside (off Water Lane), Richmond, LONDON TW9
It was a warm evening and large crowds of people were congregating along the faux-Georgian riverfront in Richmond. When we arrived at the White Cross 20 minutes late, the staff — not unreasonably — had given away the much-coveted table that we had booked in the garden. Instead, we joined a lengthy but fast-moving queue for takeaways and got in a round of Amstel lagers, which we carried along the towpath to a quiet spot.
An hour later, the White Cross’s garden was almost entirely in the shade, while the riverside was still basking in sunshine. There was a languid atmosphere amid the parched grass, with a crescent moon rising above the rowing boats standing idle in the shallows. As for the pub itself, the interior of this Victorian building is unremarkable: it’s all about the location.
The menu leans heavily towards meat, with dishes such as double “hot & loaded” beef burger with pulled ox cheek, cheese, sriracha sauce and chips. They also do a lunchtime sandwich selection until 4pm on a weekday and, of course, a Sunday roast.
There’s not a huge selection of wines — but a decent Syrah mops up the sausage sharing platter. On cask you’ll find the Cornish-brewed Proper Job IPA and Young’s London Special. (Website; Directions) JP
Albert Embankment, London SE1
It’s not exactly a pub, but if it’s atmosphere you’re after then look no further than this moored boat on Vauxhall’s Albert Embankment. On a recent summer evening, Tamesis Dock had an incredible serenity. Downstairs in the hold, there were a dozen tables sitting empty, but that was not entirely surprising. You want to be up on deck, where from the vessel’s stern you can sit gazing out across the river towards Parliament, with its purple, pink and blue lights reflected in the water. In the other direction are the bright lights of the towers behind Vauxhall Bridge.
Yes, £5.50 for a can of beer and £1.80 for a packet of crisps may be somewhat squint-inducing. You could create a similar experience on a nearby bench for a couple of quid. But the novelty of the venue, high up above the wash of the mighty river, justifies the price. (Website; Directions) JP
Prospect of Whitby, Wapping
57 WAPPING WALL, LONDON, E1
Originally built in 1520 and claiming to be London’s oldest riverside inn, Prospect of Whitby is the pick of the historic pubs that dot the north side of the Thames to the east of Tower Bridge.
This area was for centuries the heart of London’s maritime trade, and while the old tobacco and spice wharves have been converted into unremarkable apartment blocks, the pub itself teems with history, from the nautical memorabilia that line its walls to the upstairs room dedicated to the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys. A sign reads: “Cockfighting is also known to have taken place in this room.”
The hangman’s noose that juts out over the river is another reminder of Wapping’s links to the pirates and cut-throats who would meet their fate at nearby Execution Dock.
In winter, find a booth in the pub’s spacious interior and settle in for the evening. On warmer days, head to the pleasing riverside garden, where the sound of the Thames sloshing on the beach below reaches your ears. Better still, reserve a table at the upstairs terrace for stunning views across the water.
The beers on tap aren’t inspired, but there’s a good selection of London and UK classics: Brew Dog, Camden Hells and Meantime London Pale Ale. The menu is mostly pub classics: sausage and mash, pies or burgers. (For a quick bite, there are toasties to order too.)
If you have time on your hands, the cobbled streets in the surrounding area are worth getting lost in; the nearby Captain Kidd and Town of Ramsgate pubs also merit a visit, as does The Grapes further east in Limehouse. (Website; Directions) RO
Founder’s Arms, South Bank
52 Hopton Street, London SE1
Aficionados might throw up their hands in horror at the inclusion of the Founder’s Arms on this list of London’s best riverside pubs.
The squat, brick-built premises are undeniably ugly, and the queue at the bar is always long — but beauty is skin deep and if there is a better located pub in the city, I am yet to find it. And in perhaps 20 years of drinking here, rain or shine, I am not sure I have ever sat inside.
The Founder’s occupies a prime Thames-side spot, a stone’s throw from Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and across the Millennium Bridge from St Paul’s Cathedral.
Grab your drink (sadly, the beer and wine selections are again nothing special) and head outside, where you might be able to grab an empty table.
If not, find a space on the railings to watch the flows of people promenading along the South Bank, count the boats that ply the busy waterway or gaze over the water to the City of London — this is one of the finest views to be found anywhere in the capital. The cityscape is even better after dark, making it an ideal spot for a date.
The nearby Anchor is equally popular, although you will again have to wade through the tourists to get to the bar. The Swan at the Globe theatre bar is another good option. (Website; Directions) RO
Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich
Park Row, London SE10
As the historic location of the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich in south-east London has strong connections to seafaring, so it is no surprise that some of the city’s best riverside pubs can be found here.
The pick is the Trafalgar Tavern, an elegantly whitewashed three-storey building constructed as Queen Victoria came to the throne and named in honour of Admiral Nelson’s 1805 triumph over the French and Spanish navies that cost him his life.
The pub itself is airy and spacious, with ample space for a group of friends to gather around one of the large wooden tables that line the windows, and which offer a fine view over the river. As with many Thames-side inns, the pub is packed with nautical memorabilia as well as paintings and etchings celebrating Britain’s naval heritage.
With nearly two dozen taps (and a decent bottle list), the Trafalgar Tavern offers a good mix of cask and keg, featuring local London breweries such as Brixton and Beavertown. Pub fare — pies, steaks, sausages and mash — make up the food menu, alongside retro hits such as chicken Kiev and pineapple upside-down cake.
Book ahead for one of the tables outside by the river, next to the stunning former Naval College, which as part of Maritime Greenwich holds Unesco World Heritage Site status. An additional rooftop terrace is set to open next summer.
Also on this stretch of the river, The Yacht next door and The Cutty Sark a short walk away are good alternatives. (Website; Directions) RO
The Mayflower, Rotherhithe
117 Rotherhithe Street, London SE16
Located on a pretty cobbled street in Rotherhithe, this restored 16th- century tavern has a long history and a memorabilia-crammed interior that immediately takes you back to another era. It is named in honour of the ship of the same name that began its voyage to the “new world” in 1620 here in Rotherhithe.
A plaque outside commemorates the journey that established a European settlement in “New England”, along with the Stars and Stripes that flutters over the water.
On the day we visited, the inside seating booths were mostly empty, although it was easy to imagine taking refuge in one following a wintry walk along the river.
The pub is crammed with antiques: old paintings of 18th-century figures, nautical engravings, silver candlesticks, a stag’s head above a fireplace bearing the slogan “a warm hearth & fine wine soothes the soul & passes time”.
There is also an upstairs dining room, although we headed outside to the busy terrace that offers sweeping views over the converted dockland warehouses along the Thames.
We ordered a platter of Italian cured meats, cheese and accompaniments to soak up our third beer of the evening, in my case a pint of Camden Hells. When it comes time to leave, I realise this is the pub that I most look forward to revisiting. (Website; Directions) RO
The Gun, Docklands
27 Coldharbour, London E14
There are no shortage of places to grab a drink in Docklands, where many of the world’s big banks have their London headquarters.
But if you are after something with a bit more character, and to fulfil the brief of choosing pubs by the Thames, head to The Gun on the east side of the Isle of Dogs peninsula.
Tucked into the corner of a residential street, the pub dates back more than 250 years, when the area was home to the iron foundries that made guns for the Royal Navy.
Today, the sizeable pub garden and covered terrace offer expansive views over the river towards the O2 centre.
Inside, there is an option to settle into one of the deep armchairs to admire the impressive selection of historic rifles that line the walls, or head to the dining room, which our waitress insists serves the best Sunday roast for miles around.
I find a seat outside and order a pint of Fuller’s Frontier lager, turning my back on the vertiginous new residential towers to watch as the working boats ply their way upstream, as they have done for centuries. (Website; Directions) RO
Additional reporting by Camilla Bell-Davies
Photography by Marco Kesseler
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