Another Round, Mates? My favorite Bars and Clubs in London
Updated: Jan 26
No matter if you’ve had a long day, or you just want an excuse to down a B-52, you’ve come to the right place. Pull up a seat. While my time in London was short-lived (three and a half months felt like a mere long weekend), I managed to pop into quite a few interesting bars and clubs during my stay.
Whether you want to unlock your inner child, you’re a closet Potterhead with an itch to take the edge off, or you just want to dance and have a good time, I have the places for you. While I didn’t get to go to as many clubs as I’d have liked (I ironically only found myself, a straight cis woman, at the gay clubs), I dipped my toes into the sand of an eclectic selection of hot spots.
So take a look at the menu. The first one’s on me.
One of the first spots I went to was Swinger’s Club, sporting an old-school 1920’s crazy golf (or mini golf) theme. While you sip on your Mojito, you can take a tipsy go at getting a hole-in-one. It’s a little on the pricey end, but it’s a perfect date night location if you want a good ice-breaker, or a nice place to round up the troops and have a group outing.
If you’re still a kid at heart, this is the spot for you. Not only are there colorful adult ball pits, their unique drinks range from bubblegum margaritas to a Skittles candy gin cocktail. Their shots are glittery, and they serve pizza, just to make sure they tug at every last string of Chuck-e-Cheese nostalgia you might have left. Did I mention the bartenders can do flair tricks with marshmallows? Because they can.
3. The Cauldron
For any Harry Potter fanatic, making boozy cocktail potions in the heart of London should be a bucket list item. When you get there, you walk in the door and are handed a wand to share with your comrade. Once seated, you slip into wizard robes and follow the instructions given to fashion different drinks of your choice. The staff all act as potion masters, and they provide guidance as you sip your way into a fantasy chemistry class. (Note: You must book in advance.)
(Riley and I making our potion cocktails; the "wizard tea" we were given upon arriving; our potion-making bottles and ingredients)
If you like the sound of The Cauldron, you’ll love this one. The Blind Phoenix is the sister bar, and it’s harder to gain access inside, as it’s designed to be a wizard speakeasy. I was given a “token” for admission when I showed up early for my experience at The Cauldron. My friend Riley and I went down the street to where it was supposedly located, and we found a man standing alongside the wall of a building, guarding a rotary phone. When we showed him the tokens, which had a phone number engraved on the back, he let us dial it for the password to open the door. We descended down into the underground, where only 1920’s-esque music played. (When I tried to make a song request, the bartender politely told me nothing but old music was allowed. I asked if Jolie Coquine by Caravan Palace worked, and his face lit up. “I love that one!” he said, and immediately put it on.) The room was intimate, and I highly recommend getting the Bubbly Shots of Death. It was a perfect place to pregame The Cauldron. (If you don’t have a token, you need a reservation. I’m pretty sure we were supposed to give our tokens away at the end of the night, but I still have mine to this day, as a souvenir. Whoops.)
Sketch is an experience all its own. Honestly, I didn’t even go for the drinks, I went for the bizarre ambiance I’d seen posted everywhere on social media. If you are balling on a budget like Riley and I were (college students unite), I suggest doing what we did and just getting an appetizer and drink to share. (Yes, I said drink, as in singular. This was pre-COVID-19, so decide if you’re willing to take your chances.) During the day, Sketch serves as an uppity place for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and dessert. At night, it turns into a cocktail bar. Each room is like a portal to a different realm, making you question whether you fell down the same hole as in Alice in Wonderland. Don’t be afraid to be frugal - just dress respectably and be polite. (Also, make a trip to the bathroom, whether you have to go or not. This is a mandatory part of the experience.)
(The singular pink cocktail we shared, a couple of the festive rooms, and the bathrooms - home of the egg-shaped stalls. Yes, those are individual stalls for the customers. I too felt like I was in an odd episode of Black Mirror.)
From their opening in 1959 until today, this jazz club is one of the oldest in the world, and the walls are always packed. The downstairs is the main room, so buying tickets in advance is a must. (The upstairs section allows walk-ins if there’s space.) Many artists prefer to play at places like Ronnie Scott’s, due to the intimacy of the venue versus concert halls. There's a dark, sleek ambiance, and everyone dresses with class. Riley and I got ciders and danced alongside the other patrons. While smoking isn’t allowed, this club definitely gives that hazy, grungy and smooth vibe not many places can pull off.
(The outside of Ronnie Scott's, and a look inside the band on the upper level.)
There are a few locations for Simmons, but I frequented the one at Kings Cross the most (coincidentally the original one), just because it was walking distance from my place. The music ranges from “hip-hop, to disco, to funk, to 80’s, to 90’s, to classic party bangers” according to their website. Sporting neon signs and old-school cartoons, this intimate bar is great for Happy Hour prices and their spiked Teapots, which serve up to four people. They also serve bottomless Prosecco and cocktail teapots at request.
This bar draws heavy inspiration from tattoo parlors, skulls, and rum. The Happy Hour specials are great (2 cocktails for 12 pounds) they offer a membership that gives customers access to even more deals. While the cocktails seemed tempting, I tried my luck at their range of unique shots, their names being Crack Baby, Blowjob, and Zombie, to name a few. If you’re feeling adventurous like me, you can opt to do the Magic 8 Ball option: You roll a die and see which shot it lands on, and (while the bartender ultimately decides whether to make that one or not), you try your luck on a random shot. The menu stretches much further on these than if you’d just ordered one at your own leisure. (slippery nipple)
After opening its doors in 1979, the venue made a name for itself just twelve years after the British decriminalization of homosexuality. With performers like New Order taking the stage, Heaven also made an appearance in the Catherine Deneuve/David Bowie vampire film, “The Hunger.” The place was packed when I went with a group of my classmates, and when we entered and received our stamps, we passed by a vendor selling candy before entering the dance hall. Lights flashed everywhere, people were welcoming, and even though I vaguely remember Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call me Maybe” being played twice in the same ten minutes, Heaven was one of the first places in London to show me a good time.
10. G-A-Y Late
This place will always hold a special place in my heart because it was, in fact, the first club I went to after arriving in London. After a long night, most of my new friends wanted to grab some drunk food to-go and get to sleep, not wait in a line for a club. That’s when Riley, my other friend Miranda, and I bucked up and stayed behind, willing to give it a shot. A good call, considering we were doing tequila shots not long after. Mama Mia blasted from the speakers, we got in trouble for dancing on the couches, and I got to tell people I met for the first time that I . . . lived here now. (For the time being.) And that was a pretty cool feeling. I would recommend gay clubs any day, due to the fact that, from my experience, the energy is much higher. The men aren’t afraid to dance and be animated.
Students, this one’s for you. Located in the heart of Piccadilly Circus, (Americans, think Times Square but with red buses instead of yellow taxis) this club was insanely packed for Freshers’ Week. (Orientation for British uni students. All my Brit friends, how am I doing with the lingo?) My friend Bri and I got to know a couple other guys from our dorm who were full-time students in London, and they told us we should check out P.I. for good prices and to be around people our age. It quickly became our usual spot. (Any night without plans, and there was an 80% chance you’d hear someone suggest, “Piccadilly Institute again?”) There are multiple floors and rooms, so if you aren’t feeling Drake after the fourth time they play “God’s Plan,” there are plenty of options. One night they even played House music, and I tried out my newbie shuffling moves. (Thank God there’s no chance of me running into anyone I know from home in London.)
These just scratch the surface of London’s nightlife. As I sit here reminiscing on the evenings I squeezed into my painful pink high heels and prayed it didn’t rain before I got to my destination, I’m itching more than ever to buy a plane ticket to Heathrow and start exploring again. (Post-Coronavirus, of course.)
(Just a little added tip - know how you're getting home before making plans for the night. The Tube doesn't always run late, so buses might be your only option.)