This weekend, hundreds of London’s buildings freely open their doors for the public to snoop around. For those of us addicted to exploring the urban environment, Open House weekend is, frankly, better than Christmas.
With so much choice, it’s difficult to know where to go. The event gets more popular each year, and it’s all too easy to end up in a lengthy queue. To help, we’ve put together a guide to some of our favourite venues.
Our selection focuses mostly on places that (a) are not normally open to the public; (b) are less likely to have lengthy queues; (c) don’t need pre-booking; (d) that we’ve actually been to and can definitely recommend. But we’re hardly scratching the surface, so please do recommend your own favourite in the comments below.
Open House is the one weekend when the Square Mile gets really busy. Expect lengthy queues for the headline venues, such as the Lloyds of London and The Gherkin. The Bank of England also requires some waiting in line, but you do get an exceptionally good tour out of it. For an epic view with a shorter wait than the Gherkin, try Tower 42 — once London’s tallest building, and not usually part of Open House. Other worthy places to visit with smaller queues include the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths, Guildhall (if you’ve never seen it), Middle Temple Hall, and the Pipers City of London model (close to Guildhall). 88 Wood Street offers something approaching the Lloyds Building (same architect, Richard Rogers), but with fewer people queueing.
Open Housers in Westminster can expect even snakier queues for popular buildings. Horseguards is always a write-off for the queue-shy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office can be busy, but queues usually move quickly and lead to much splendour. Portcullis House, the imposing black building next to the Houses of Parliament, turns out to be worth a visit, with its impressive atrium and unusual political portraiture. Channel Four on Horseferry Road is another chance to look round a Rogers building. We walked straight in with no queues on a visit a few years ago. A good tip is to head to Burlington House on Piccadilly, where several impressive venues are open: you can then tick off the Linnean Society, Geological Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and Royal Astronomical Society. Nearby Marlborough House is also worth a look, with minimal queues on our two visits.
In Bloomsbury, we can recommend the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with its surprising blend of art deco and modern extensions. Nearby, probably with queues, you can climb up the clock tower of King’s Cross station. Finish your day in the Swiss Church on Endell Street, which is so welcoming and peaceful…and queue-less.
Those interested in the architecture of housing need to visit Stoneleigh Terrace in Archway and Alexandra Road near Kilburn, both similar to, but more impressive than, the more familiar Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden is one of London’s truly great recent buildings, a staggering sight when you first encounter it. Alternatively, check out the newly opened Brent Civic Centre nearby.
Brixton Windmill is an unexpected delight, and Open House offers the chance to clamber around inside. The windmills at Wimbledon, Shirley and (out east) Upminster are also open, should you want to carry on the theme. Moving into modern energy provision, we can also recommend a tour of the SELCHP Energy Recovery Facility (the thing with the big chimney, passed by trains out of London Bridge). For views, try the Seager Distillery Tower in Deptford.
Right by the river, there’s a first chance to visit NEO Bankside, the arty-farty apartments just completed behind Tate Modern. Denmark Hill’s William Booth College (which shares similarities with Tate Modern and is by the same architect) offers spectacular views from its brick tower. And to finish, make it a third Gilbert Scott building by visiting Battersea Power Station — the last chance to see the old beaut before she’s redeveloped into something quite different.
Effectively an extension of the City, 30 Crown Place in South Shoreditch is a surefire bet for getting a good view (16 storeys) without having to queue. St Augustine’s Tower in Hackney also offers views, but from a 16th century church tower. Hoxton Hall is like a smaller, lesser-known version of Wilton’s Music Hall. If you don’t want to travel far from the centre, One Bishops Square in Spitalfields is a fairly average office block, but offers interesting views of the near East-End. A bit further out, and Queen Mary College’s remarkable cell and molecular science building is one of the true stars of Open House. Its cell-shaped meeting rooms, suspended from the atrium ceiling, have to be seen to be believed.
Hackney and Stoke Newington Town Halls are both worth a visit. If you’re visiting the latter, be sure to swing round to the Castle Climbing Centre, a spectacular old pumping station built in the style of a medieval castle. If you have a taste for sanitation (yum), and want to raise eyebrows when people ask what you did with your weekend, you could try the Lee Tunnel & Beckton Sludge Power Generator out in Beckton.
The western boroughs of London are littered with impressive old houses, such as Hogarth’s House, Osterley Park House, Boston Manor House, Turner’s House and Strawberry Hill House. Chiswick Town Hall is also worth a visit for its impressive stained glass and interiors. Closer in, Brompton Cemetery is one of London’s most spectacular. It’s regularly open to the public, but Open House provides a tour, including entry to the chapel. Last year, we enjoyed talking to the folks at the College of Psychic Studies (South Ken) who have a somewhat unusual take on life — and afterlife. Nearby, the Ismaili Centre offers a sanctuary of calm and an unexpected roof garden in the shadow of the great Kensington museums.
If you have kids in tow, the Open House Junior programme provides a few family activities. Not on the programme, but running on the same weekend, you can also visit many of London’s police stations to learn about the means and methods of the Met police.
With over 800 buildings in the list, we can only recommend a handful here. But please do add your own tips in the comments below…especially for the outer boroughs, where our experience is lacking.
See also: Diamond Geezer offers some strategic tips on planning your Open House weekend.