London is a city that never stops. Even when it's pouring down rain in the dead of winter, Londoners can always find something to do around town. That's also true of London's nightlife, which offers a vast array of activities and events worth exploring when visiting the city. From a lively theater scene to high-energy night clubs, things always keep going when the sun goes down over the British capital.
While some of London's nightlife, like live music and night clubs, are best suited to adults, there are also plenty to do for families with kids, especially if you look to the West End theaters or to the endless selection of pubs, most of which welcome kids in the dining rooms. It's not necessarily all about drinking, either (although Londoners love to put down a few pints any possible occasion). Visitors can enjoy everything from live comedy to cabaret shows to special events and festivals, which take place throughout the year.
Bars and Pubs
You can barely turn a corner in London without running into a pub. The city is filled with corner locals, as they're called, and most are open all day. It's hard to go wrong if you're looking for a pint, so pick whichever pub looks the most inviting. Those seeking a historic spot should seek out Ye Olde Mitre, The Prospect of Whitby, or Covent Garden's Lamb & Flag. Most pubs also serve food, often in a separate dining room, and it's worth indulging in some traditional pub fare while in town. Note that many pubs stop serving food by 10 p.m.
London is also well-known for its many cocktail bars, which are known as award winners every year at the World's 50 Best Bars and Tales of the Cocktail. These range from historic hotel cocktail bars to neighborhood joints, and the style of bar can vary depending on the area of the city. For high-end service and classic cocktails, try The Savoy's The American Bar, The Connaught Bar, or The Artesian, which is found in The Langham Hotel. For something more casual and fun, head to Satan's Whiskers, Kwant, or Coupette, a French-inspired spot in Bethnal Green.
While many of London's bars and clubs close at midnight, there are a few notorious late-night bars. Looks for places like Black Rock, The Gibson, and Ruby's Bar & Lounge to keep things going until late.
London's night clubs range from boisterous dance clubs to upscale cabaret clubs. Some of the most popular places to dance include XOYO, Fabric, Printworks London, Heaven, Ministry of Sound, and Cargo, most of which have rotating special nights throughout the week. Check online ahead of time to make sure you'll like the music (and to prepare your outfit accordingly).
For something more intimate, head to The Phoenix Arts Club for its cabaret and burlesque shows, or pay a visit to The Box Soho, a cabaret nightclub known for its eclectic "theatre of varieties." The latter requires a reservation online, and most shows start around 1 a.m., which makes it perfect for night owls. The London Cabaret Club, in Bloomsbury, is another good pick, featuring a variety show and DJs until 3 a.m.
East Londoners can be found at Village Underground in the Shoreditch neighborhood, which hosts everything from live music to late night parties to art events. Check the venue's online calendar to see upcoming events and book tickets. Many of the events go on until the early hours of the morning, but the warehouse club hosts daytime events as well.
London boasts a huge array of live music and concerts, from small blues clubs to major pop concerts. While many of the bigger shows at Wembley Stadium, The O2 Arena, or the Eventim Apollo require careful booking in advance, London has several venues you can pop into any time. Look for Camden's Jazz Cafe, Hackney's the Moth Club, and Shoreditch's Nightjar to catch a few live sets. Many pubs and bars also offer weekly live music.
Besides regular concert gigs, London is also home to numerous music festivals, many of which take place outdoors in the summer months. British Summer Time, in Hyde Park, is a concert series that takes place every July and features artists like Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars. (Pro tip: if you head to the park, you may be able to hear the set from outside the venue without a ticket.) Other major festivals include All Points East in May, Wireless Festival in July and the London International Ska Festival in April. Alexandra Palace is a great venue in north London that often hosts special events and concerts, as well.
Those looking for live jazz should head to Ronnie Scott’s. Its main club, Upstairs at Ronnie’s, is a speakeasy style bar and club that keeps things going until 3 a.m., Monday through Saturday.
Late Night Restaurants
There's nothing like grabbing some fish and chips at 2 a.m. on your way home, and while London's bars don't all stay open super late there are several restaurants that do. Bob Bob Ricard, a glamorous spot in Soho that features a "Press For Champagne" button at every table, keeps things going until 1 a.m., while Duck & Waffle, which boasts amazing views from the top of Heron Tower, serves food and drinks 24 hours a day.
For something more casual, London is known for its late night bagels and kebabs. On Brick Lane, the iconic Beigel Bake is open 24/7, with bagels and salt beef at the ready when you depart from an East London bar. For pizza, head to Voodoo Ray's in Dalston, which stays open until 3 a.m. on weekends.
When in doubt, there's always Deliveroo, London's answer to Postmates. The food delivery app is free to download and will tell you everything that's available to order at any hour.
London has a thriving theater scene, particularly in its West End, where many big-name musicals and plays take over the historic theaters for matinee and evening shows most days of the week. No visit to London is complete without a trip to the theater, whether it's to see "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" or the latest play at the Old Vic. While some productions, like "Hamilton," require tickets booked far in advance, many of the theaters offer day-of rush tickets. TKTS, which has a booth in Leicester Square, is another good option for discounted or last minute seats.
Not all of London's theater takes place in the West End, however. There are smaller theaters all over town, many of which feature up-and-coming playwrights and actors. Look for The Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, the Southwark Playhouse, and The Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.
The comedy scene in London is strong, with clubs featuring both British comics and touring comedians from the U.S. and abroad. Most of the bigger clubs can be found in the West End, including The Comedy Store, 99 Club Leicester Square, Old Rope and The Piccadilly Comedy Club, but there are laughs to be discovered in most neighborhoods. Downstairs at the King's Head in Crouch End, is a long-running comedy club that's best visited on a Saturday night. Lesser known is The Bill Murray in Angel, where big acts sometimes test out new material on the unsuspecting crowd.
While humor is funny in any country, Americans visiting London should be mindful of the differences between British and American comedy. Be open-minded when checking out a club or watching new comics, and consider skipping the established touring acts for something more local.
Festivals and Events
If it seems like there's always something going on in London, you're right. The city hosts numerous big festivals throughout the year, from a massive Chinese New Year celebration every winter to foodie event the Taste of London in July.
Notting Hill Carnival is one of the city's biggest parties, taking over the neighborhood of Notting Hill for a weekend every year in August. The revelries, which involve a parade and street festival, go from day to night with lots of drinking, dancing, and colorful costumes. While children are allowed at the carnival, it's not recommended to bring them there at night as the crowds can be extremely rowdy and there can be crime incidents like pick-pocketing or fights.
Pride in London is another great party, typically taking place every year in June or July. The LGBTQIA festival includes a massive parade through the center of London and numerous events around the city, with many bars and restaurants getting in on the fun. More than 1.5 million people attended Pride in London in 2019, making it the country's biggest pride event.
Many daytime events, like the London Marathon and the World Naked Bike Ride, also feature nighttime activities and afterparties. The BFI London Film Festival, held every October for 10 days, includes film screenings late into the night and the general public can even book into special premieres and preview screenings.
Tips for Going Out in London
- While London is a cosmopolitan city with lots of late night activity, not all of the public transportation is available 24 hours. Most buses run a night route throughout the week, but the London Underground and Overground trains only operate 24 hours on Friday and Saturday nights on select lines (this is known as the "Night Tube"). Be sure to check the schedule for each specific tube station so you know when the last train heads out. Apps like CityMapper can be very useful for finding the best route home after hours. When in doubt, London's black cabs are always available and easy to hail in most areas.
- London's many pubs shut surprisingly early. Last call is typically around 11 or 11:30 p.m. and the majority of pubs and bars close at midnight. While there are late night bars around the city, many Londoners start drinking early, often right after work at 5 p.m. to take advantage of the opening hours.
- Tipping is not a standard practice in England, though tips of 10 to 15 percent are welcome in bars and pubs. Most restaurants and bars include a 12.5 percent service charge on the bill, so visitors don't have to consider tipping. At a pub, add an extra pound or two to the total, depending on what you've ordered, and at a higher end cocktail bar 15 percent is a good tip for good service.
- The drinking age in England is 18 years old. Children are allowed to drink in pubs and restaurants when eating and accompanied by their parents.
- When visiting London, you may notice many people drinking outside in the streets or in the area surrounding pubs. It's legal to drink in public if you are over 18, so don't worry about carrying your pint outside into the sun. Note that open alcohol containers and public drinking are not allowed on London's public transport.
- Most of London doesn't operate by a specific dress code, especially since so many tourists from around the world are constantly visiting the city, but be sure to consider where you're going when picking an outfit. Classier cocktail bars, including those in upscale hotels, will warrant nicer clothes and it's respectful to dress well when attending the theater. Use your best judgement and try to avoid gym wear and sneakers in the evenings.