Perhaps you have found yourself wandering around the City of London (maybe after an excellent guided walk) in need of a coffee but fancy a change from a chain? You probably cannot choose a more independent venue than one of the growing band of cafes in City churches that provide a source of income for the churches, as well as excellent coffee. Here are the six best cafes in City churches we recommend.
St Nicholas Cole Abbey – Queen Victoria Street, the ‘Wren Coffee’
Let’s start with St Nicholas Cole Abbey, a church dedicated to St Nicholas, the traditional model for Santa Claus! The café, using ethically sourced tea and coffee, takes over the entire church space during the week and is open early for breakfast, as well as sandwiches and cakes throughout the day. This church was destroyed in the firestorm of 29th December 1940, and it took 22 years to reopen. Don’t overlook the richly coloured Modernist-stained glass in the nave windows by Keith New and the shattered tomb stone slabs laid like crazy paving near the loos. The name of this church (Cole Abbey) is possibly a corruption of ‘cold harbour’, which meant a medieval shelter for travellers, perhaps fitting for a relaxed and welcoming spot today. Do take a look at the toilets – each has stone walls from the structure of the church!
St Mary Woolnoth – Lombard Street, ‘The Cosy Coffee Corner’
Located in the porch of St Mary Woolnoth, an unusual looking church and the only one in the City designed by Christopher Wren’s talented pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor, is this women-owned coffee stall, serving not only a wide variety of drinks but also individual chocolates, hard to resist! Mainly offers a takeaway service as there are only 3 seats inside with a few tables outside for when the better weather returns. The counter is just inches from the glass doors to the church itself, where you will be faced with two fascinating information boards relating to the abolition of slavery campaign, as this is the church of anti-slavery rector John Newton.
St Mary le Bow – Cheapside, ‘The Cafe Below’
Rather deserving of its name, the Café Below in St Mary le Bow is reached via a stone staircase that takes you under the church itself. Although upstairs the church is the post war reconstruction of one of Wren’s best-known churches, the Café Below is housed in two vaulted rooms in a 1000-year-old crypt. At lunchtime they serve ‘seasonal and handmade’ meals, and the café is also open for breakfast, or even just a coffee. In the main room you can see the medieval arches or ‘bows’ between the pillars and these may be the origin of the ‘le Bow’ in the church name. It all makes for atmospheric and when full, rather lively spot for lunch.
St Mary Aldermary – Bow Lane, ‘The Host’
Situated within the narrow streets around Bow Lane, the Host café in St Mary Aldermary is a welcoming table filled space within the main body of the church, under a gorgeous fan-vaulted ceiling, selling coffee, sandwiches, soup and cakes. A quiet buzz greets you amongst the noise of the City; some tables are occupied by people in small meetings, some with folk just chatting or with individuals reading. You can offer to pay for a ‘suspended coffee’, which means they add onto your bill the cost of a coffee to be given to a people experiencing homelessness in the City. The café is popular with remote workers as there are sockets at the tables for charging, and if you need to work for longer than 1.5 hours, there is a small charge (which includes 2 free coffees).
All Hallows by the Tower – Byward Street, ‘The Byward’
Taking its name from the Byward tower in the nearby Tower of London this is an airy, light, and spacious café, with a pretty courtyard area for warmer days, attached to All Hallows by the Tower, an extraordinary church. Unlike most of the others, it opens (and closes) a little later (9.30am) but does still offer breakfast from then on. They also have an alcohol licence and offer full meals but seem just as happy to simply serve coffee. After your coffee do have a wander around the church– it has a wealth of history, including a Roman pavement in its crypt and a Saxon arch incorporating Roman red tiles.
St Lawrence Jewry – the limitless jug of coffee
In contrast to the full range cafés in the other churches , St Lawrence Jewry‘s offering is a more modest affair, but still so worth a shout out. Inside the porch of this important City church is a jug of fresh brewed coffee, from which for a small donation, you are welcome to help yourself (and have a refill). You could then sit quietly in the church or just wonder off. A small, but lovely gesture of friendship.
*Update – St Lawrence Jewry is now closed for renovations. Let’s hope this excellent tradition will reappear when these are completed.
Lastly a word about another excellent café in a church which has not reopened since the start of the pandemic – although more strictly a café in a cathedral, being the Crypt Café in the undercroft of St Pauls Cathedral. This could be enjoyed, as well as the quiet spaces in the crypt, without having to visit (or pay for) the main cathedral. Sure to open again at some point and worth watching out for.
Join Courtney on a Slavery and the City, Gardens of Delight or From Puddings to Poultry, Gherkins and Cheese tours.