UK & Ireland

The best fun bars in London: from ping pong to secret speakeasies

Seek out these fun London bars for drinks with something a little extra, whether that means theatrically made cocktails or rows of ping pong tables

London’s bars have seen pretty much everything. They’ve hosted celebrities and politicians through the decades, seen countless celebrations and, in the case of some of the city’s oldest pubs, witnessed history being made and plots being hatched.

The most fun bars in London always give you a few surprises and extra treats with your cocktail or pint of craft ale, whether it’s requiring a password for entry or getting your toes tapping to some swinging jazz. I lived in the capital for over a decade and, whenever I return, these are the new favourites and beloved haunts I head for.

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1. Secret bars: Have fun in hidden places around London

What’s in your fridge? Is it a super-cool speakeasy that mixes superlative cocktails? Unless you own London’s popular The Breakfast Club, the answer is probably no. The delightfully named Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is tucked beneath the small brunch chain’s Spitalfields location, which itself is tucked down a side street close to Liverpool Street station.

To enter, tell staff that you are “here to see the Mayor.” So long as there’s enough room, you’ll be led through a door disguised as an American-style fridge-freezer and down into a dimly-lit drinking den. Fridge aside, this feels like stepping into another, fabulous era.

2. Wine bars: Find unique places with wide label selections

Those who’ve never visited Gordon’s Wine Bar, tucked down a narrow alleyway near Victoria Embankment, should know two things: Never wear light clothing, and never ask for a beer. This cavernous, candlelit spot only serves wine — an overwhelming selection of wines, in fact — and pours the liquid into small wine goblets, filled to the brim. So, as you can imagine when the light is wonderfully dim and the people are suitably merry, spillages can and frequently do happen.

Not that anyone who flocks to this 1890-established wine bar cares. They’re too busy drinking in the convivial atmosphere, and the wine, which can also be soaked up with platters of crusty bread, cheese and charcuterie.

3. Live music bars: Enjoy great performances and have an evening to remember

Few, if any, live music spots in London can claim to hold such legendary status as Ronnie Scott’s, which has held court on the Soho scene since 1959. Stellar names to have performed here include Count Basie and Miles Davis, and the club continues to attract well-known and up-and-coming stars.

Yet you don’t actually need to book and buy a ticket to spend time within these storied walls. The bar, Upstairs, is filled with the strains of musicians playing Afro-Latin jazz, while people watch, listen and sip drinks while seated on chairs backed with purple velvet.

4. Cocktail Bars: Discover places for sipping the best drinks ever

When wandering through London’s Chinatown, you might not notice that there’s a cocktail bar lurking behind a plain, discreetly marked door. Yet, actually, there are three bars here. Collectively, they make up Opium: one of the capital’s best spots for unique libations, always served with a sense of occasion and a theatrical flourish.

Each has its own decorative style and cocktail menu, alongside a selection of delicious dim sum. Probably the most fun and interactive of the three, though, is Academy, where you can sit at the Bartender’s Table and watch as innovative libations like The Green Hornet — a take on a Grasshopper, topped with a roasted marshmallow – are shaken, stirred and strained.

5. Bars with games: Go for a fun night out with your friends

Bounce Farringdon was something of a pioneer when it, erm, bounced onto the scene in 2008. Back then, the idea of playing ping pong in a bar seemed a little unusual. Now it’s one of the best bars in London to let loose and hone your bat and ball skills. Or just miss all of your shots and have a laugh with friends.

Neon signage and vintage furnishings give it the feel of a nightclub crossed with a cocktail lounge, with the soft thwack of the ping pong balls just adding to the atmosphere. There’s now a second location, in Old Street, with the same bouncy vibes.

6. Historic pubs: Revisit the past while going for a pint

The history is palpable as you step through the low, deep-set doorway into The Old Bell Tavern, which was originally only reachable via a narrow alleyway straight off Fleet Street. This was the where Fleet Street’s first ever printing workshop opened, in the early 16th century, with the pub built in 1678 by Sir Christopher Wren as a workshop for his stonemasons, who were busy repairing the area’s St Bride’s Church following the devastating Great Fire.

And there’s more: the old-school pub squats on the same street as one Sweeney Todd — the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — had his shop. So, there’s plenty to think about as you sip on pints of real ale, sequestered in one of the pub’s many nooks and crannies.