How To Tour Off-Limit Areas Of Famous London Venues

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 88 months ago
How To Tour Off-Limit Areas Of Famous London Venues

Everyone likes that feeling of knowing about something that nobody else knows. If you want to know more about the hidden and secret parts of London's famous museums, theatres and more, look no further than these behind the scenes tours. And if you already knew about any/all of probably hate us for letting the cat out of the bag. Sorry about that.

All require booking in advance unless otherwise stated. Some venues also offer private group tours — information available on individual websites.

Behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House. © Pete Le May/ROH 2012

BBC Broadcasting House


What?  Step into the BBC building in Central London, see radio and TV studios as they broadcast live, see inside the newsroom and have a go at reading the news or weather. We did a BBC tour once, back in the days of White City, and haven't been able to look at a weather forecast the same way since. Ages 9+

When? Throughout the day, seven days a week.

How much? Adults £13.75/Children £9.25 — but prices go up on 1 April 2015.

HMS Belfast

What? Many London venues offer private tours, including HMS Belfast, where you can go behind the barriers to hear stories of the sailors who lived and worked on board — including a reindeer who once joined the crew.

When? By prior arrangement.

How much? From £300

Horniman Museum

What? Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill specialises in natural history and the natural world. Every month or so, there's an adults-only late night event, focusing in detail on a particular treasure or set of objects within the collection. Quite often, these events often have well-known names leading them, such as author Monica Ali.  Past events have included a chance to meet the conservation team, and tours of the aquarium and gardens.

When? Monthly, most months of the year . Upcoming events include an insight into the Maori way of living (12 March) and an insight into taxidermy in fashion, led by artist Polly Morgan (9 April). Keep an eye on the website for future events.

How much? £5. Bargaintastic.

Imperial War Museum

What? Although not strictly behind-the-scenes, Imperial War Museum's tours around the First World War Galleries (newly reopened last year) benefit from an expert guide giving an insight into the stories behind individual objects in the collection. It's also a chance to learn a bit more about the First World War, what caused it, and why it lasted so long.

When? Every Saturday, 9am-10am

How much? £30

Museum of Childhood

What? The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green runs Breakfast Tours, giving visitors a chance to see the current Small Stories exhibition before the museum opens to the public for the day. After seeing the dolls' house themed exhibition, enjoy breakfast in the Museum Cafe.

When? 5 February/5 March. Keep an eye on the website for possible future tours.

How much? £15

National Theatre

What? Follow a tour guide through the backstage areas of National Theatre on Southbank, getting an insight into the entire process of putting on a play, and learning some of the secrets of the venue. We've also heard a rumour that more National Theatre tours are being introduced soon as part of the NT Future development... watch this space.

When? Daily, at least three tours everyday. TIP: More tickets are released through the Box Office than online, so if the date you want appears sold out, or for more date options, call 020 7452 3000.

How much? £8.50/£7.50

Natural History Museum

Spirit Collection tours at the Natural History Museum

What? Get a glimpse inside the 27 kilometres of shelves and 22 million specimens of Natural History Museum's Spirit Collection in the Darwin Building, where scientific research goes on on a daily basis. Age 8+. Find out what's in those mysterious jars and tanks, and see items added to the collection by Charles Darwin himself.  Note that bags are nor permitted on the tours — presumably to stop specimens going a-wandering. There is a cloakroom onsite, charging £1.50 per item.

When? Weekdays, 1.30pm. Shorter tours run throughout the day.

How much? Free, book at the Hintze Hall information desk on the day.

Royal Albert Hall

Behind the scenes at Royal Albert Hall

What? As well as a tour of the world-famous auditorium, see inside the Royal Retiring Room, used by the Royal family when they visit the venue, and bedecked with antique Royal portraits. Once you've seen enough Gold Leaf, get an insight into the logistics of putting on a performance by visiting the Loading Bay, the space underneath the hall where production companies load and unload their equipment. Finally, see inside some of the Hall's dressing rooms.

If it's the architecture you're interested in, the Inside Out Tours take a look at the Victorian structure and the surrounding area.

When? Most Mondays (future dates here), 9.30am/3.30pm

How much? £15.25 adult/£13.75 concession/£5.25 child

Royal Opera House

What? See back and front of house areas of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as it gets ready for an evening performance — including the biggest door in Europe too. Then hear about the history of the theatre and the redevelopment it has undergone in recent years. Depending on which performances are currently on, you may be able to watch a Royal Ballet class in progress or take a closer look at the technical equipment used to support a performance.

When? Daily, several tours per day

How much? £12 adult/£11 concession/£8.50 under 16

Somerset House

See the historic Lightwells and Deadhouse spaces at Somerset House

What? You've got two choices at Somerset House; The Old Palace Tour takes visitors to parts of the building that were once home to Catholic Queens Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza. See the Old Palace exhibition (usually only accessible to the public during Embankment galleries exhibitions), and visit the Strand Lane Baths which are strictly off-limits to the public.

The Historical Highlights Tour tells the story of the buildings through Tudor and Georgian times. The Miles Stair, a new addition to the tour located in the West Wing was designed by architect Eva Jiricna, and is made from a material called ductal, which is a thousand times stronger than concrete.

Both tours visit the Lightwells and Deadhouse spaces — underground, cavern-esque areas which highlight Somerset House's unusual architecture — usually only open during exhibitions.

When? Old Palace Tour runs at 12.45pm and at 2.15pm each Tuesday. Historical Highlights runs every Thursday at 13.15pm and 14.45pm and every Saturday at 12.15pm, 13.15pm, 14.15pm and 15.15pm.

How much? Free — tickets available on the day of the tour from the Information Desk.

Southbank Centre

What? Go backstage at Royal Festival Hall on Southbank, with access to usually off-limits parts, including artists' dressing rooms, and a private view over the Thames. As the tour visits a working theatre, no two tours are ever the same. Not suitable for those who require step-free access, or who suffer from clasutrophobia or vertigo; contact for other options.

When? Various dates, a couple of times a month. Tend to get booked up 2-3 months in advance. Currently booking for April. Contact if you'd like a tour on a specific date after those currently booking.

How much? £8.50/£7.50

Groups which organise them

If you've taken a keen interest in London tours, why not join a local interest group? London Historians have a knack of (legally) accessing otherwise off-limits places for tours. Upcoming tours include Merchant Taylors' Hall and Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Both have now sold out, and events are often only open to London Historians members and their guests — so it's worth joining if you can. It's also worth keeping an eye on The London Society's website for tours — such as the Savoy Refurbishment Tour — as they also tend to get booked up far in advance.

Know of any other ways to get behind the scenes in London? If you're willing to share your secret, let us know in the comments below. Keep an eye out for our guide to going behind the scenes at London sporting venues, from Wembley to Lord's.

PSSSST! Want more secret and behind-the-scenes London? Take a look at our YouTube channel, which sees us venturing into secret rooms at St Paul's Cathedral, taking a trip on London's Air Ambulance, and even going into a canal. We've shared the secrets of every tube line, and even took a trip on Mail Rail, the Post Office's private tube line.

Last Updated 15 July 2016