Given that Boston is one of the country’s oldest settlements, it’s not surprising that the city boasts some of the oldest bars you’ll ever encounter. The most venerable date to the 17th Century, even if by name only. As the Colonies yearned for independence from Great Britain, it was in these historic taverns that revolution fomented, likely aided by the quaffing of fermented beverages. Some bars have simply carried on for so long to have earned institution status while withstanding the constant thrust of change and developers. Some of these bars might also rank among the best Irish pubs in Boston, or the best dive bars, too. And if all you want is a beer, regardless of history, check out Boston’s best craft beer bars.
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Oldest bars in Boston
According to local lore, the Warren Tavern has been in its current location on Pleasant Street (near the Bunker Hill Monument) since 1780, making it the oldest tavern in Massachusetts. When it was built, so the story goes, it replaced a nearby tavern burned down by the British troops either during the battle of Bunker Hill or another skirmish. The tavern was named for Dr. Joseph Warren, a patriot leader killed at Bunker Hill. This historic community regained its social gathering place, which has since been shuttered only for short periods. It’s safe to say that drinking here means you are, in spirit at least, “keeping company with” the likes of Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, all onetime clients.
The Bell in Hand is charmingly named after its original owner’s trade, a retired Boston town crier named James Wilson, who opened the bar in 1795. However, Wilson’s tavern was in a different spot to its current location at Union and Marshall Streets, which opened in 1844. The claim that Bell in Hand’s overseers retained its original 1795 bar with the move is likely to be correct. Some might wonder if the bar’s claim as the oldest tavern in America could be the result of too many strong ales.
No amount of restoration could match The Green Dragon Tavern, near the Haymarket, to its boast of a 1654 birthdate. There has probably been a bar in Boston of that name since that date; it’s a common enough British name for a pub. But the original Green Dragon on the corner of Union and Hanover streets was torn down in the 1850s. This Green Dragon, on Marshall Street, is part of a small local chain of bars and dates only to 1993. Who can blame them for co-opting the history of the name as part of its own story, when the original tavern is almost certainly the spot where Paul Revere set out for his midnight ride on April 18, 1775, to warn the militias at Lexington and Concord that the British troops were on their way to take their weapons stash. That’s certainly something worthy of a toast.
Whilst many ancient taverns around the city can likely boast Paul Revere having drank there, fewer may say the same about Charles Dickens. The Last Hurrah, located inside the Omni Parker House hotel, which itself dates to 1855, claims the much-traveled Charles Dickens as a reveler and guest. It was here that Dickens first read his magnificent novel, A Christmas Carol, in America. The then-Parker House Hotel had become a gathering place for transcendentalists and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Their Saturday Club salons counted Henry David Thoreau, Henry James and Dickens as guests. Today, The Last Hurrah has the feel of a gentlemen’s club, but its walls tell a more modern story as a place of political movers and shakers. Still, alongside an impressive whiskey menu, there’s the Dickens Punch to enjoy.
Overlooking Copley Square from the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, this bar isn’t as old as many in the city claim, but it has been a place to enjoy a well-made drink for well over a hundred years. Originally called the Copley Café, which opened in 1912 alongside the hotel, the room underwent several transformations over the years. The Copley Café became the Merry- Go-Round Bar in 1934, complete with a merry-go-round; in 1978, it was simply The Plaza Bar and Dining Room; then in 1996 it became The Oak Room and racked up considerable standing among Boston’s Back Bay set. Though seemingly clad in oak paneling, the plaster walls were actually a trompe l’oeil, merely giving the appearance of wood. In 2011, the Oak Room was gutted, leaving a similar feeling amongst its fans, but the stunning transformation into a bright, shimmering bar and lounge befits the hotel’s jazz age birth.
Amrheins claims lineage back to 1890, marking it as a cornerstone of South Boston for over a century. It owners boast that the bar has the oldest hand carved bar in America, and it's where the first draft beer pump in Boston was installed. That may be true, but the daily business of this grand old bar is serving drinks and food to an ever-changing clientele. As West Broadway undergoes massive development, including the building in which Amrheins sits, one can only hope this bastion of old Southie does not disappear in a cloud of gentrification.
Surrounded by cobbled narrow streets near Faneuil Hall, Union Oyster House feels like a step back in Boston’s timeline. It is located in a building that dates to the early 1700s and is listed as a National Historic Landmark; Union Oyster House dates to 1826 when it opened as the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House. As such, it lays bone fide claim as the oldest restaurant in Boston, and among the oldest in the United States. Though not a bar as such, you can stop in for a drink, too. What better footsteps to follow than one of the Union Oyster House’s regular customers, Statesman Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire native who lived nearby, and was said to eat 36 oysters a day, always washed down with brandy and water.
While Boston’s Colonial history leaves it with some truly ancient watering holes, the city has its very own unique mid-20th Century history. That’s when The Tam first opened its doors, sometime during the 1940s, and has thrived as a blue-collar watering hole ever since. After changing ownership in 2018 and a brief closure shuttered its doors, The Tam re-opened, ready to once again furnish no-nonsense inexpensive beverages in an area where such a thing is becoming a rarity.
At fifty years old and still counting, the Cask ‘n Flagon has weathered incredible changes on Lansdowne Street. Clubs and pubs have come and gone, even Fenway Park across the street has been slicked up and expanded, but the Cask remains a stoic, no nonsense grand master on the corner of Lansdowne and Brookline Streets—a sort of gateway to the nightlife and sporting life of Lansdowne Street. Before the Cask opened in 1969, the building was a Ford dealership; the original dealership’s terrazzo flooring remains in the night club area, which is located next to the main bar. Though it’s a year-round, neighborhood drinking and dining spot, on game days during the baseball season it is a veritable madhouse of activity and expectation. In that, the Cask has a secure place in Boston’s history.