What To See At Open House London 2018 (That You Don’t Need To Book)
22 – 23 September is the annual snooping around London buildings weekend, more commonly referred to as Open House London.
Amazingly, over 800 buildings will be open over the weekend (for free!) but this means there’s a long list of potential attractions and it’s easy to get bogged down in the admin.
Another factor of Open House London is that often most highlights have to be pre booked and sell out almost instantly (this year it was even before the official website launched)…
But never fear!
Here’s my round up of the best buildings to see this year. I’ve specifically chosen ones where you don’t have to pre book and I’ve also only including buildings which aren’t usually open to the public and where Open House London is pretty much the only time of the year you can visit.
Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Westminster
Known for its elaborate and eccentric interiors, this Whitehall gem is also steeped in diplomatic history. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott & Matthew Digby Wyatt in 1861.
It always attracts big crowds but because of the size, the queue moves quickly. It’s open both Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm.
Masonic Temple, Liverpool Street
The former Great Eastern hotel on Bishopsgate was designed by Charles Barry Junior. During refurbishment works in 2000 a blocked wall was removed to reveal a hidden Greek Masonic Temple inside, dating from 1912 and grade I listed!
Close to Liverpool Street Station, you can have a look around the temple in groups of 20 on Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm.
Royal Courts of Justice, Strand
Although this is technically always available to the public for free, it’s actually only open Monday – Friday 9.30am-4pm. An advantage on Open House is also it’s huge size, meaning there’s not usually a long queue and if there is, it moves very quickly.
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The only real down side is that you’re not allowed to take photos inside, but clearly from the pictures on instagram there’s some sneaky camera work going on!
It’s open Saturday, 10am – 4pm with a chance to hear about courtroom procedures and visit the holding cells and prison vans. More info here.
HM Treasury, Westminster
Not quite as lavish as the Foreign Office, HM Treasury still boasts some fabulous architecture (built between 1900-17 by John Brydon and Sir Henry Tanner) it also has a lovely green courtyard inside too.
Open both Saturday and Sunday form 10am – 5pm. Usually the crowd moves pretty quickly as they let in large groups at a time.
Portcullis House, Westminster
How on earth to you complement one of the most iconic sights in London; Houses of Parliament? Portcullis House was built to as MP offices, with floors generally segregated by political parties. Incorporating Westminster Tube Station below, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it take on industrial Gothic, the rows of chimneys putting in mind a ship.
But it’s what’s on the inside that counts…
Open on Saturday, 10am – 5pm, it’s sure to attract large crowds. There will also be talks about the Elizabeth Tower restoration.
City Hall, Southwark
Another favourite of Open House is City Hall, home of the Mayor of London and London Assembly designed by Foster + Partners.
Just like the Royal Courts of Justice and Houses of Parliament, it’s your democratic right to enter City Hall, but Open House lets you into parts of the building you can’t normally go and lets you see views like this;
It’s only open on Saturday this year, from 10am – 4pm.
Marlborough House, St James’s
Thought to be designed by Christopher Wren with the foundation stone laid in 1709, the house is currently home to the Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Foundation. Over the years it’s been a townhouse to royalty with some pretty stunning interiors to explore.
It’s open on Saturday from 10am – 5pm with access to the fine rooms and first floor.
The Lloyd’s Building, City of London
The ‘inside out’ building by Richard Rogers is the kind of building that divides opinion.
However most people agree that even if you don’t like the exterior, the interior is pretty jaw dropping…
A mix of hi-tech glossy office space and London history, Lloyds has some great original features like the Lutine Bell, salvaged from the sunk HMS Lutine in 1857 which hangs today in the atrium of the underwriting room. It used to be rung to announce the news of overdue trading ships; once for bad news (the ship hadn’t made it) and twice for good.
Open Saturday, 10am – 5pm, there will be access to Rogers building entrance and reception as well as The Collcutt building reception hall, library and General Committee room where architect talks will take place every 30 mins.
The Royal Society, St James’s
The oldest surviving scientific academy in the world, set in a superb townhouse designed by John Nash. Highlights include the marble staircase with its ornate ceiling and there will be booklets for your self-guided tour.
It’s open both days 10am – 5pm and there are tours running every 90 minutes.
Open (Almost) All Year Round
This is only a tiny selection of what’s available over the weekend and I’ve chosen to focus on buildings that are never (or hardly ever) open to the public at any other times.
A huge part of the appeal of Open House is that everything is free. So when buildings are open at other times sometimes pre-booking a guided tour comes at a price, but you might prefer that to avoid the queues. (Personally for Open House Weekend, I try to aim for buildings that I wouldn’t be able to visit at any other time!)
Freemason’s Hall, Holborn
Another Masonic temple to make this list, the Freemason’s Hall just off Long Acre is a huge Art Deco monument, designed by Henry Victor Ashley and F. Winton Newman as a memorial to the 3,225 freemason’s who died in WWI.
Set on an irregular ground plan this is the third United Grand Lodge on this site, the first one completed in 1775.
It’s open on Saturday, 10am-5pm.
Wilton’s Music Hall, Shadwell
A little off the beaten track, Wilton’s Music Hall is a short walk from Tower Hill but is well worth seeking out. It’s the oldest surviving grand music hall in the world and still hosts theatre, music and dance events today.
Dating from the 1860s, the crumbling interior is spectacular, and full of colourful tales from music hall performers through the ages.
It’s only open for a few hours on Saturday; 10am-1pm, but if you can squeeze it into your schedule, I highly recommend it. I have to say I’m a bit biased though, I celebrated my wedding there this year!
30 St Mary Axe, City of London
A glaring omission from this year’s line up, the Gherkin previously boasted the longest queues of any building. But because Searcy’s has now opened up for bookings from non-members, you can skip the wait for that gorgeous view!
Royal Albert Hall, Kensington
Home of the proms, the Royal Albert Hall opened in 1871 as the largest building of its kind in the world. For Open House it’s open on Saturday, 9.30am – 3.30pm in which you follow a set route through most of the buildings. If you fancy going around with a smaller group, they run a variety of group tours all year round. Their grand tour costs £13 and can be booked here.
For Open House, it’s open Saturday, 9am-1.30pm
A cavernous Grade I listed church in Islington, the Union Chapel regularly hosts free music nights. For Open House it’s open 10am- 4pm Saturday and 11am-4pm Sunday with a historian-led tour every hour. However it hosts ‘open wednesdays’ each week with coffee and activities. Plus there are also free guided tours every first Sunday of the month at 12.15pm (find out more book your space here).
For Open House it’s only open Sunday, 1.30pm-4pm.
Dennis Severs House, Spitalfields
One of the most bizarre buildings on the list, this restored Spitalfields 1724 townhouse is part museum and part art installation, trapped in time with rooms decorated from various centuries as though the occupants have just left them. For Open House you have to pre book a slot by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, however the house is open to visit all year round (tickets from £10 on Sunday and Monday lunchtime). Have a look inside from when I joined a tour here.
Photo from Dennis Severs Museum. Credit: Roelof Bakker
For Open House they’ve not done pre-booked slots this year so queues might be long. It’s open on Saturday, 12-4pm.
Billingsgate Roman House and Bath
Some of the most comprehensive and impressive Roman remains in London, the Billingsgate site is a real treat to visit. It’s open both days for Open House, 11am-4pm but if you can’t make it then Museum of London runs regular guided tours throughout the year at £8 (concessions apply). Find out more here.
It’s open both days, 10am-4pm.
Methodist Central Hall, Westminster
It’s got tough competition from nearby Parliament Square, but this huge hall – Designed by Edwin Alfred Rickards and completed in 1911 – has a secret weapon; it’s incredible panoramic views. It will only be open on Saturday, 1.30pm- 5pm for Open House, but if you’d like a tour of the building (and you’re not a large group) you just have to ask at the reception desk during your visit (and that includes the roof too!) They’re open daily 9am – 5.30pm but call ahead to check there’s no events on.
Senate House Library
The tallest secular building when it opened as University of London HQ, Charles Holden’s huge Art Deco monument hides a gorgeous secret library. The building is open from 10am – 5pm on Saturday with separate library guided tours every 60 mins (11am – 4pm) but you can visit the library as a regular punter Monday – Friday 9am – 5.45pm and Saturday 9.45am – 5.15pm. Find out more here.
Two Temple Place
When a building is made for the richest man in the world, you can expect it to be lavish. This Victorian Place by Temple Station is certainly OTT and highlights include the entrance hall and staircase, colourful stained glass windows and its unusual cherub lampposts. It’s only open Sunday 10am – 5pm for Open House but you can have a look around from January to April daily when they have their free exhibitions. For more information and photos have a read of my blog post here.
Hopefully that’s given you lots of ideas and inspiration for the 22nd and 23rd September. If you want even more options, you can browse through all the listings of Open House London on their official website here.
Any other gems I’ve missed? What are you planning on queuing for/visiting this year?
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