A resolutely working-class city, Sheffield has retained a real sense of community, a feeling no more pronounced than on a trip around its many fantastic pubs. Many of these are uninterested in the latest fads, instead focusing on preserving traditions and the spirit of socialising. Sheffield is comparatively good value too and nearly all its pubs, whether good or bad, will offer at least one Sheffield-brewed beer cask-conditioned and delivered via hand-pump. This would previously go without saying but cultural trends have moved this to the depressing position where that is actually notable.
One of the great cities in the UK for brewing and pub-going, Sheffield sweats CAMRA Awards, as you may well imagine.
The options in and around Sheffield city centre are manifest, but I have designed a route that will take you through the heart of the city and its pub scene, before dropping you off neatly at a major transport interchange for good measure.
We start at the West end of the city centre, which is the campus area of the University of Sheffield, connected via a tramlink and several buses if you can’t be bothered walking from the station. 1. The University Arms is a rite of passage for any Sheffield student, but not restricted to students – it’s a decent spot for anyone in need of a well-kept, good value pint. This place never feels like anyone of any age would be made unwelcome. This is ever more frequently not the case and therefore Uni Arms genuinely deserves a mention.
You’ll find inside comfortable upholstered seats inside an unspectacular open-plan lounge area and outside a popular beer garden. It’s a versatile venue that works well in different ways at different times of day.
You’ll note the exterior of the building, with its gabled entrance is rather grand for a humble pub, because the venue was formerly a private club for university staff. This makes sense as to inspect the bar area you’ll notice it has that familiar club-layout over what you’d expect a pub to be like.
Some people overlook that there’s a seating area upstairs with pub games, a format that’s dying out elsewhere. If it’s lunchtime, you could do worse than the safety-first food options on offer.
Once fed and watered, it’s time to move on, so head down the hill, past the tram shop and old Henderson’s Relish factory to 2. The Bath Hotel, another permanent fixture on Sheffield’s pub scene. It has a striking exterior with a distinctive wedge-shape, dating from the high Victorian era. Take a look at the dappled glass panes of the pub front and British-green paint, both of which give a hint of the history, which continues inside.
It always seems small and cosy in the Bath Hotel, but perhaps that’s due to it being near permanently busy. The fact darts are played in such a small space and so close to the entrance seems laughable but there you go. Watch for flying projectiles as you walk in on your left.
The furniture and fittings spread a mix of varnished wood, glass panes and tiles. The bar area is bespoke and old fashioned – restored to the look of a 1930s refit – and looks out onto the main room, snug and corridor, allowing you to order a drink from multiple angles and on repeat visits slowly choose your favourite corner to recess in.
The beers are dominated by Thornbridge brewery, who aggressively expanded across the region during the economic recession. Their beers have never been particularly cheap, and by Sheffield standards neither are the offerings at the Bath Hotel. However, they offer guest ales and host frequent beer-related events such as tap takeovers to keep things interesting. Judging by the venue’s popularity they have a good grasp on how to keep things fresh and drum up repeat business.
If you’re lucky enough to get seated the Bath is a great place to experience a bustling mid-afternoon working class pub, or if you prefer to visit in the evening, you can experience that matchless atmosphere of a throng of people gathered around the bar. Read more here if you wish or visit their official website if you wish to stay on-message.
Sup up, and move on now, down West Street, past several other drinking holes (most of which are to be ignored) and turn left, and left again to tiddly little Pitt Street where there is situated… you guessed it – a pub, of all things! Surrounded by large university buildings, apartment blocks and modern bars it seems a miracle 3. The Red Deer with its relatively squat appearance and throwback frontage has survived in amongst it all But here we have, just as is described in WhatPub, “a genuine traditional local in the heart of the city”.
Originally The Red Deer was a very small venue with partitioned snug rooms to the left of the entrance and a main lounge bar to the right. As you walk in you might well wonder how such a small operation could have kept going, but you will notice walls have since been knocked through and the place extended, to feature a gallery seating area at the back, now very much integrated into the sense of the pub as a whole. There is a pleasant enough beer garden out the back, however it can turn into a smoke-trap at certain times of the evening.
The Red Deer offers everything you’d expect from a community pub – roaring fire, folk music nights, board games, home cooking and cosy seats. It really is the kind of pub you wished still existed on every street corner. It’s the people that make it – popular with students and close to several university buildings, you may find the pace and business explodes from 6pm onwards. Several university clubs hold their meetings in the upstairs function room, which also serves as overflow seating when not in formal use.
The shape of the pub seating means you are always facing inwards, so it is one of those places where you can lose all sense of the time of day. Be careful though – we aren’t halfway through yet!
You may be disappointed to haul yourself away from here, but it gets better still, as the next stop is the locally famous 4. Fagans, a pickled-in-aspic throwback to pubs of the 1960s. The preserved officers-mess look of the central bar area with dark varnished wood, deep green upholstered seats and paintings of military aircraft is very characterful, and hails to the original owner Joe Fagan who ran the place for nearly 40 years. Little has changed since.
A sleepy refuge in the afternoon, the pace gradually picks up from dinner time onwards. Predictably, Fagans has an excellent ‘snug’, accessible via a door to your right in the main entrance. It can be a fun, clandestine hideyhole for more intimate social gatherings.
A family operation for decades, Tom & Barbara will always provide a warm welcome (to anyone civil and respectful), while the sizeable portions of food (spy Tom hunched over the kitchen stove from across the bar) will set you up for the week, let alone the day. This kind of place can’t be created from scratch and wouldn’t last even if it was, which makes it all the more special and vital the place receives your support and careful preservation.
If you are fortunate enough to visit during the folk evenings (which take place in the parlour area) you will experience the sort of down-to-earth community event that has been drained and virtually expunged from British city centres.
As with most of these pubs, it’s a shame to leave, but when the next stop is so good, we shouldn’t feel any regret about that. A short walk downhill on the periphery of the city centre and through a rather shapeless tangle of high-rise apartment blocks and car showrooms, for a while it seems more likely you’ll bump into a prostitute than a pub, but we move gradually towards Kelham Island, the original hotbed of the Sheffield pub scene.
5. Shakespeare’s feels intransigent, as though it has always been what it is now, but sadly that hasn’t been the case. A victim of the incompetent whims of the pubco, it was actually closed down by the notorious Punch Taverns in 2010, and only the intervention of an entrepreneur with a passion for live music and quality beer and cider saw the place refurbished and re-opened 18 months later. It is a prime example of the tenuous nature of the existence of many of these places, and their reliance on ownership passing to trustworthy hands.
With an unassuming parlour-type feel to the place, largely tiled floors and chunky furniture, Shakespeare’s leans heavily on the variety and quality of beer and cider to draw in customers. A fairly-priced pub, you’ll not fail to find something suitable for your wallet and palette.
The bar is open and 3-sided, mainly accessible from the front, where there is a clutch of seats, but also via a smaller hatch at the back. Upstairs is a popular room for live music, while you can find live folk music downstairs. There’s a bit of everything to the place, but it’s mainly enjoyable to be part of a pub that’s back to its best, and understands it doesn’t need industrial-chic, lampshades made of watering cans or a big screen displaying Untappd to sell good beer.
Time to be on our way, as the night is approaching and there are pubs yet to conquer. Carry on downhill and cross the dual carriageway which really marks the boundary between the city centre and Kelham Island. You’ll notice Kelham Island Tavern as you approach, and while that is a fine place for a drink, I recommend heading around the corner to 6. The Fat Cat.
You are probably sensing the format by now. Great value, homely, community-focused and hugely popular, this place even featured as one of the best pubs and bars in the world in the New York Times, most likely on account of a fortuitous one-off trip by the writer to Sheffield at some point.
The Fat Cat is a well-preserved high Victorian pub that has been refit to increase the level of comfort, with upholstered cushioned seats and carpeted floors in the lounge areas. There are multiple rooms, which is useful as the place is nearly always busy.
The atmosphere during the day feels like a hiker’s pub, with an eclectic mix of people and a busy lunch service plonking plates of cheap food you can see the steam pouring off. During the evening it is a vibrant neighbourhood pub which glows with a sense of welcome that is hugely enjoyable during colder, wetter periods (of which Sheffield has plenty).
Although the format is staunchly traditional, and the drink selection tilted towards traditional cask ales, you will find a few unusual European options poking out as well, reflecting the varied custom the pub receives. Rather like The Red Deer and Fagans, there is a sense of comfort and refuge about the place that inspires a sense of allegiance. This is not the world’s most difficult puzzle, yet so many new pubs and bars spring up without even the vaguest sense that this is what they should be trying to do. Baffling. I wouldn’t even need to write this site if half of them had a fucking clue.
If you manage to move on from here – and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t – the most obvious next port of call is 7. The Harlequin, a community pub focused more heavily on cider and live music events, but a more than serviceable pub even if neither of those appeal.
It’s a short walk along the River Don and over the bridge. Upon arrival you’ll find an open plan bar area with a rather unattractive choice of carpet. Run by Exit33 brewery, you can expect their beers to feature heavily along with an impressive range of others.
It’s really one of those pubs where you’d have to try hard to not find something you fancy drinking. As per the previous pubs – quiz nights, tastings, festivals, games, books, live music all add up to a genuine community venue. Take a look on their blog.
Now, there’s one more pub to visit, if you can stomach any more? Of course you can. And I promised I’d drop you at the train station didn’t I? Well, 8. Sheffield Tap is in the train station, an excellent venture that has refurbished the splendour of the former Edwardian-era first class waiting lounge and repurposed it for use as a bar, installed a mini-brewery and a series of quite expensive feeling bench seats with studded red leather upholstery. Along with their own brews, the company Pivni has a connection with a Czech brewery, meaning there are 3 fresh Bernard lagers for sale, along with their bottled range. This is just the start, as they determinedly offer a large selection of handpump ales, craft keg and world bottled ales. It’s actually more difficult rather than easier to decide what to drink.
As Sheffield Tap is ostensibly a train station bar, the transient custom means that unlike the previous venues, this is not a community venue, nor will it ever be. However, everything in its power to control it has done an impressive job of. Many a time I have dropped in for one more before boarding a train home. Given the appalling state of some train station pubs, Sheffield are extremely lucky to boast this venue.
Look around this, now doesn’t this complete our tour in style? Now all you have to worry about is getting home and planning when to come back and do it all over again…
The Dog & Partridge – Traditional old-world boozer.
The Three Tuns – Stylish and distinctive layout, another quality backstreet pub.
The Devonshire Cat – Drinks-focused pub that’s not so strong on décor or good value.
Kelham Island Tavern – Kelham Island’s permanently popular central pub.
The Wellington – A refurbished old-fashioned classic in Kelham Island.
The Rutland Arms – A cosy corner pub. Traditional with a few modern twists.
The Brown Bear – Sheffield city centre’s Sam Smiths pub.