When considering nightlife in London, you have to take into account the truly silly number of establishments. There are hundreds of clubs and literally thousands of pubs in the metropolitan area, which is both a sign of a long-standing drinking tradition and an overwhelming sense of choice that will befuddle most travelers. We can't promise to clear up everything for you or a give you a lengthy and specific list of which places are the best, but by the time your done reading, you'll have a better understanding of what you'll find in different districts of central London and which areas may be best aligned with your own nightlife preferences.
For those who love pubs and want to enjoy the London pub experience as it has been canonized, the choices are nearly infinitesimal. The more central boroughs (including the West End) will more often than not be more expensive and geared toward hapless tourists who wouldn't know an authentic pub from a small-town dive bar. For some, that doesn't matter. For others, there are the boulevards of Camden, Soho, and beyond.
For clubbing, the good news is that London is among the best in Europe, with an astounding number of establishments in total, although many of the biggest name places are quite exclusive, particularly in Mayfair. Whether you're looking for a pub, wine bar, dance club, or live music venue, the following areas are hot spots.
If you're heading north from the old city, which (believe it or not) is your epitome of quiet, off-the-beaten-path nightlife on the weekend, work your way through the Clerkenwell neighborhood into Shoreditch. Clerkenwell is a nice mixture of modern and traditional pubs, and is also home to underground dance giant, Fabric. Shoreditch, though, is on another level. There are a number of good pubs and lounges, especially along Kingsland Road, while club staples like Cargo and 333 keep the crowds and the energy up.
One of the best areas for nightlife has to be the inner district of Camden. Some of the biggest pub crawls in London occur here, most likely because the assortment of pubs and clubs here are matched by a trendy, Bohemian vibe. Gay-friendly super-clubs like Proud sidle up next to institutions like KOKO and the eclectic lineups of the Electric Ballroom. Pubs like World's End and the Devonshire Arms are also great staples, while the Jazz Cafe is a pleasant alternative to the Top 40 of many London clubs. If you have one area to explore, this may be it.
Speaking of jazz and gay-friendly establishments, you're highest concentration of these establishments is found in Covent Garden and Soho, which is also your best place to catch any of London's bounty of theater performances. There are a handful of jazz clubs, but Ronnie Scott's on Frith St. carries the biggest reputation, while places like Heaven and a bunch of venues on Old Compton Street in Soho are big with the LGBT crowd.
Other, less touristy areas to stop in for a drink or a few shakes of the tail include the St. James neighborhood in Westminster (near the college) or the Islington area, which is home to a lot of popular pubs in the Archway and Finsbury Park neighborhoods. On the other hand (and you can do what you like, being a consenting adult), we'd suggest avoiding the tourist-heavy, cash-gouges centered around Mayfair and Leicester Square. Other more expensive areas include Notting Hill and Greenwich (chain pubs that fake “authenticity”), although there are undoubtedly a few diamonds in the rough.
For more information on what London's nightlife will bring, take a look at our individual listings.