"If you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city," reckoned Dr Johnson, "you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts".
"Especially the ones with great pubs down them," he might have added.
We have nowhere near as many "little lanes and courts" as Johnson could have surveyed in the 18th century. Pubs, too, are far less numerous. Yet the two still come together remarkably often in central London. Indeed, some of the city's most revered and atmospheric pubs can still be found down alleyways.
Here, then, are 13 of our favourites, in alphabetical order. To qualify, the main entrance to the pub has to be off-street, down an alley or courtyard. It's not enough for them to have a minor side entrance that's in an alley (though see honourable mentions). Cheers — and make mine a ginnel and tonic.
The Devereux (Strand)
20 Devereux Court WC2R 3JJ
A compact pub full of lawyers, the Devereux is a handsome devil on the western fringes of Outer Temple. It reckons to date back to 1677 and counts Isaac Newton among its former patrons (if you happen to spill your cider, just say that you're recreating his apple experiment). It's situated in a wide, well-scrubbed alley from which you can view the venue's venerable vermiculation — a useful tongue-twister to test your sobriety.
The Dove (Hammersmith)
19 Upper Mall W6 9TA
There's much to recommend the Dove. It's properly ancient, has some of the best riverside views in town, and claims that its side-room is the world's smallest bar (verified by Guinness World Records). The pub is accessed by a very narrow alley — part of Upper Mall — in which you're not supposed to drink. Nearby pubs the Rutland Arms, the Blue Anchor and the Old Ship are also worth a look, and could just about be counted as alley pubs, given that they front onto the pedestrianised Thames Path.
Once upon a time, almost every yard and alley peeling off from Borough High Street contained a large inn. Their names are recalled in surviving street names like White Hart Yard and Talbot Yard. Most vanished with the arrival of the railways, which made coaching inns redundant, but the George has survived in its timbered glory, quite against the odds. It's among London's most famous pubs and features in every guide book, so we needn't wax lyrical here. Suffice it to say: ye olde, claims to be haunted, wonky wooden interior, rare outside toilet. Oh... and perhaps more seating space in an alley (really a court) than any other venue.
For a less obvious choice, we should point you to the lesser-known Coach House on the other side of the court. This recently refurbed pub is affiliated with the George and built on part of its ancient footprint, but has a much more modern vibe (they do Sky Sports, for pity's sake). The Coach House has the rare distinction of nestling on three alleys: the yard of The George, the parallel White Hart Yard, and a small, modern communication that connects the two. It might lack the charm of the George proper, but the Coach is alleyed up to its proverbial eyebrows.
Jamaica Wine House (Bank)
St Michael's Alley EC3V 9DS
Lamb and Flag (Covent Garden)
33 Rose Street WC2E 9EB
The most famous alley in Covent Garden? Lazenby Court is extremely narrow, requires a stoop from taller patrons and even comes with olde time weatherboard panelling. It's a right bobby dazzler, as my old gran used to say. Historic, too. The Lamb and Flag's side alley was the spot where poet John Dryden was mugged in 1679, as attested by two different plaques. You're unlikely to come a-cropper here today as the pub is very well known and consequently very busy (my tip, head upstairs where you can often find an empty table).
Pedants might challenge the Lamb and Flag's inclusion as an alley pub. Although it has an entrance on Lazenby Court, its main door is on Rose Street. I'm bending my rules a bit here because Rose Street is cordoned off to vehicles at either end, and is often used as a kind of cobbled beer garden... so I don't think we can really say it's "on a road".
Nell Gwynne Tavern (Covent Garden)
1-2 Bull Inn Court, WC2R 0NP
No arguments about this one being properly on an alley. It stands near the foot of one of Covent Garden's longest and steepest passages (Bull Inn Court, named after an earlier tavern on the site, which might in turn have been punning on the name of another royal favourite — Boleyn). Inside, the Nell is one of those cosy, dark wooden pubs that London still does so well. Bull Inn Court isn't particularly well used, which means people often spill out into the alley. The interior is quite small and liable to fill, especially either side of a show at the Adelphi, which is just through the back wall of the pub.
Old Doctor Butler's Head (Moorgate)
2 Mason's Avenue EC2V 5BT
This is one of those City taverns that dates back to the years immediately after the Great Fire and, as such, is one of the oldest drinking establishments in the Square Mile. The namesake Doctor is a curious figure. From the pub's own description, he seems to have been a reckless charlatan, who made his name selling quack medicine and pushing people into rivers. His useless potions were commonly dispensed from pubs, which would carry a hanging sign of his head. This one alone survives. It has a classic wooden interior, though perhaps not as cosy as some of the other old pubs in this list. The spacious alleyway outside is shared with a neighbouring branch of El Vino, so you can patronise both bars at the same time.
Red Lion (St James's)
23 Crown Passage SW1Y 6PP
There are two Red Lions in St James's, both of them superb. The one on Crown Passage is a timeless beaut, with dark wooden panelling, bar stools and that modern rarity, a carpet. You can drink out in the alley, but most people manage to find space in the small interior (more seating upstairs). Crown Passage is aptly named, as it connects King Street to the St James's Palace end of Pall Mall.
Samuel Pepys (Cannon Street)
Stew Lane EC4V 3PT
An often-overlooked Shepherd Neame pub near Cannon Street station. Until recently, it could only be reached by following a dead-end alley (Stew Lane) down from Upper Thames Street. In 2023, the Thames Path was redirected to run past its doors, bringing passing trade for the first time. It deserves the custom, thanks to the superb views from the dining room. And this still counts as an alleyway pub — the Thames Path goes through a passage inside the building in the photo.
The Ship Tavern (Holborn)
12 Gate Street WC2A 3HP
This thoroughly landlocked Ship finds itself at the confluence of three alleys, including Little Turnstile (once an actual turnstile to prevent animals getting into Lincoln's Inn). It reckons to go back to 1549 though it's obviously been rebuilt since then. The pub's website claims all kinds of historical associations, framing the pub as a one-time bolt hole for persecuted Catholics, but also a den of pirates! There's less jeopardy to be found in its gentle wooden interior today.
I have to give a shout out to Bar Polski, also on Little Turnstile, which has fuelled many a merry evening. Not a pub though.
Ship and Shovell (Charing Cross)
2 Craven Passage WC2N 5NF
This pub isn't just down an alleyway, it's twice down an alleyway. For reasons I've never quite fathomed, the Ship and Shovell is cleaved in twain (like one of Admiral Shovell's shipwrecks), with bits of the pub either side of the alley. You'll often hear people say "it's the only pub in two separate halves," but a case could also be made for the Euston Tap, which has been known to trade out of both the lodges in front of that station (though often the eastern one is closed). Anyhow, the S&S is a charming, wood-panelled pub(s), whichever half you plump for. And if you can't decide, then you can perch non-commitally at one of those barrels..
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (Fleet Street)
145 Fleet St EC4A 2BP
Although its murky windows front onto Fleet Street, the only way you're getting into this famous old pub is via Wine Office Court, one of the many dingeworthy alleys in the area. The Cheese is an absolute treasure box inside, with numerous archaic drinking and dining spaces over multiple floors, and a roaring winter fire in the front room (look out for Polly the stuffed parrot). After many, many visits over many, many years, this place never gets old (ironically).
Ye Olde Mitre (Holborn)
1 Ely Court EC1N 6SJ
And finally, the king (or bishop, at least) of them all. Ye Olde Mitre is often described as the hardest pub to find in London, thanks to its location mid-way down a very narrow and easily missed alley. Whole books could be written about its history, and its long-defunct claims to being part of Cambridgeshire. Let's just say this is a gloriously charming place to drink whether you're inside the cramped, cosy bar spaces or enjoying the outdoor area, which makes excellent use of the alley.
A roundup of further alley pubs, and ones that have important ones running alongside.
Dovetail, Clerkenwell: This local stalwart's been serving up Belgian tipples since the 1990s. It's so cosy and welcoming that you won't want to be out in Jerusalem Passage, the alleyway in which it sits.
The Harp, Covent Garden(ish): Award-winning craft ale pub that deserves to be in any list of good pubs, even if it doesn't quite meet the criteria. It has a back entrance (and tiny drinking area) in Brydge's Place (one of London's narrowest alleys). But its main entrance is very much on a proper road, so it doesn't make the main list.
The Holly Bush, Hampstead: Gorgeous old pub that feels like it's up an alley, and the best way to approach it is to climb the steps of the passageway called Holly Mount. Sadly, though, the pub itself stands on a proper street so doesn't count for our list.
The Newman Arms, Fitzrovia: Another famous old pub on a famous old alley (it appeared in the closing credits of Minder!), but misses out on the fully back-passage experience by having its main entrance on Rathbone Street. We made it the subject of our badly-photoshopped top image.
The Old Bell, Fleet Street: The main entrance is on Fleet Street, but there's a door to an alley out back, which sits beneath the looming steeple of St Bride's.
The Old King's Head: Excellent, old-fashioned boozer off Borough High Street and very close to the George Inn.
The Olde Wine Shades, Cannon Street: As one of the City's oldest drinking dens, this one almost made the main list. It loses out because it's more of a wine bar, and the alley its on is a cycle route and not very alley-ish. I think I'd let it in for either of those demeanours alone, but not together.
The Ship, Eastcheap: Another alleyway pub called the Ship, though not quite as historic as the one in Holborn.
The Swan Tavern, Bishopsgate: Very close to The Ship, and confusingly located on Ship Tavern Passage, this small Fuller's pub has upstairs rooms above the alley
The Town of Ramsgate, Wapping: The Wapping pubs deserve some kind of mention, but all of them front onto Wapping High Street. The Ramsgate has perhaps the best claim to alleydom, given that it's flanked by a snicket down to Wapping Old Stairs (and it has a side-entrance from said alley).
Truckles of Pied Bull Yard, Bloomsbury: Perhaps more of a wine bar than a pub, Truckles gets the nod for being (a) spectacularly named; and (b) in an easy-to-miss enclave of shops and bars that feels like a pocket of calm among the sea of unsuspecting tourists flocking to the British Museum.
The Yacht, Greenwich: A more-than-decent Greene King pub that suffers from lying between the better known Trafalgar and Cutty Sark pubs. It's the only one of the three on an alley, though.