Over 700 London buildings open their doors to the general public this weekend as part of the annual Open House festival. Some of the best architectural cherries required pre-booking, and a few returns may still be available. However, the majority of venues can be visited on a whim, and for free. If you’re staying central, be prepared to queue, especially in Westminster and the City. Go a little off the beaten trail, however, and it’s perfectly possible to find impressive buildings with little or no queueing. Here are 10 of the best we’ve tried in recent years, including some central ones where queues go down quickly. (Apologies to West Londoners – we’ve rarely strayed over to your patch for Open House, something we’ll be correcting this year. Please feel free to make suggestions in the comments.)
BLOOMSBURY: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (Sat 10am-5pm)
This hulking art-deco building lurking in the shadow of Senate House is a school of many secrets. A frieze of golden sculptures depicting mosquitoes, snakes and parasites runs around the upper storey. Inside, you get a tour of several different architectural spaces, including a modern (and impressive extension), and the library (look out for the hidden Swastikas).
HERNE HILL: Carnegie Library (Sat 9am-4.30pm)
One of London’s most beautiful civic buildings, Herne Hill’s library was built in the early 20th Century but includes architectural features from a number of eras. Head there between 11am and 1pm to catch a string quartet, playing as part of the Herne Hill Festival.
DOCKLANDS: Trinity Buoy Wharf & Container City (Sat/Sun, 11am-5pm)
It might be a bit of a trek for some, but you get three treats for the effort: London’s only proper lighthouse, a ‘city’ of studio units housed in shipping containers and the 1000-year arts project Longplayer.
CITY: Masonic Temple (Andaz London) (Sat, 10am-2pm)
A stalwart of the Open House programme, but is definitely worth a visit. It’s a richly decorated masonic temple lurking in a back corridor of an ultra-modern hotel. We visited last year.
CITY: Ex-Daily Express Building (Sat/Sun, 9am-4.30pm)
Another regular of the Open House programme, the former newspaper HQ at 120 Fleet Street contains a foyer with the most dazzling, exuberant art deco stylings you’ll ever see. You won’t get to see much more of the building, but this alone is worth the trip.
PECKHAM: 15 and a Half Consort Road (Sun, 10am-5pm)
If you enjoy poking around unusual houses, this one’s for you. The Peckham property was designed and built by its occupants on an ‘unusable’ brownfield site and features a retracting roof over the living room and a pull-out bath beneath the main bed.
WHITECHAPEL: Queen Mary College, Cell and Molecular Science Blizard Building (Sun, 10am-4pm)
A riot of glass, coloured plastic and epic laboratory space, the Blizard Building off Whitechapel Road is a true one-off. As well as the most outrageous laboratory since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the building also contains weird hanging podules, one of which houses the Centre of the Cell.
HACKNEY: St Augustine’s Tower (Sat/Sun, 11am-5pm)
Hackney’s 13th Century church tower is a local landmark. The roof offers spectacular views of the borough, with numerous r00ms containing historical insights on the way up. It’s a pity the Open House website appears to have mixed up the photo with the much younger St Augustine’s Kilburn.
CITY: Broadgate Tower (Sat/Sun, 10am-4pm, but closed 12.30-1.30pm)
Your only chance to go up a proper skyscraper without pre-booking. The Broadgate isn’t the most exciting tower from the outside, but there’s no questioning the spectacular views, even if they do only take you up to the 17th floor. The tour also includes a look around the foyer of the neighbouring 201 Bishopsgate.
HITHER GREEN: Manor House Gardens Ice House (Sat/Sun, 12am-5pm)
For a spot of subterranean exploration, head to Lewisham’s Manor House Gardens to poke around in an 18th century underground ice house.
We can also recommend downloading the iPhone app, which gives a no-nonsense guide and map to all venues.