How To Explore The City Of London At The Weekend

By M@ Last edited 26 months ago
How To Explore The City Of London At The Weekend

The Square Mile is an unusual place. On weekdays, its streets are thronged with hundreds of thousands of workers. At weekends, it's dead. Only 8,000 people live here, and the tourists stick to just a handful of streets.

The weekend, then, is a magical time to explore this ancient area, when you can easily find yourself all alone among the historic buildings and gleaming towers. Here's a guide to what's open, where to eat, where you can swim, worship, or even get a fish pedicure.

What to see: attractions

Although the City is known as London's main financial centre, it also packs in plenty of visitor attractions, all open at the weekend. The following centres should be well known to most Londoners, but we list them for the benefit of newcomers to town.

Barbican Centre: The vast arts complex is to the north of the Square Mile. Visit for theatre, cinema, art and dining. Free entry to complex, with ticketed shows at various prices.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Often overlooked, the gallery contains an unrivalled collection of paintings and other artwork related to the City of London. You can also view the Roman amphitheatre in the basement. Free entry.

Guildhall Art Gallery.

Museum of London: Perched on the south-west corner of the Barbican, the Museum of London tells the story of our city from the Roman era to the current day. Free entry.

St Paul's Cathedral: Christopher Wren's masterpiece still dominates the eastern edge of the City, away from the growing cluster of skyscrapers. Visitors can climb to a viewing gallery above the dome, and see the tombs of Nelson and Wellington in the crypt, among other highlights.

NB: the Tower of London is technically in Tower Hamlets rather than the City of London.

Shoe shine at Leadenhall Market.

What to see: hidden history

Leadenhall Market: Sadly, the shops and cafes here are closed at the weekend, but a walk around this almost cartoonishly Victorian complex is even more memorable when it's deserted. Emerge onto Leadenhall Street to take in the contrasting modern architecture of soaring skyscrapers.

Postman's Park: A small park between the Museum of London and St Paul's, which famously features a wall of plaques commemorating those who died while saving others. The memorial is now fairly well known. Less so the 'handkerchief tree' on the southern side, whose spring flowers resemble tiny handkerchiefs. We think it's the only one in the Square Mile.

Roman walls: The Romans built a substantial wall around their version of London, which was then beefed up in medieval times. Most of the wall has now vanished, but fragments can be seen here and there, notably near the Tower of London and Museum of London. Watch our video to learn more.

Take a tour: The City of London Tour Guides offer insightful tours of the Square Mile, with plenty to choose from. We'd also recommend Dr Matthew Green's coffeehouse tours, which bring to life the City's forgotten Georgian hangouts, with actors and coffee samples. He also does medieval wine tours.

Postman's Park. Photo: Joe Skade.

Where to eat

Most restaurants in the Square Mile close at weekends, but not all. Those around St Paul's, Smithfield and towards the Tower often remain open to cater for the tourist trade. Here are some highlights:

Café Rouge: Sorry, but we're going to start with a chain restaurant. The French food at this Ludgate branch is the same as all the others, but if you're lucky enough to get the window seat, you get one of the most instagrammable views in London. Voici:

The wider St Paul's area contains no shortage of other chain restaurants open at weekends, including Yo Sushi, Strada and Côte.

Coq d'Argent: A stylish (and pricey) restaurant that perches on top of the much-maligned 1 Poultry building (the pink, Po-Mo wedge-shaped thing that looks a bit like Bagpuss). Its roof terrace is quite a find.

Duck and Waffle/Sushi Samba: These two classy restaurants perch on the higher floors of the Heron Tower, the City's tallest building, on Bishopsgate. Their food offerings are partly guessable from their names. Duck and Waffle not only opens at weekends, it's also open 24 hours. Best book ahead. We visited at 5am on a Sunday and only just got a table.

Early morning view from Duck & Waffle.

London Wall Bar & Kitchen: Attached to the Museum of London, this family-friendly restaurant offers wood-fired pizzas, hamburgers and that kind of thing. A portion of the profits goes towards upkeep of the museum.

Madison: One New Change will never feature on a list of attractive buildings. The shopping centre's saving grace is its rooftop views of St Paul's and the wider city. You can venture up to the roof terrace anytime for free, but consider hanging around in Madison, a New York-style restaurant that does a good Sunday brunch.

Paternoster Chop House: There are several eateries in the Paternoster Square area. This steak restaurant is perhaps the pick of the bunch, unless you're veggie.

Polo Bar: This 24-hour venue sits directly opposite Liverpool Street Station, and so you'd expect it to be a little bit grim. But Polo manages to remain sparkly clean while offering decent cafe food to the masses.

Smiths of Smithfield: The meat market area contains plenty of decent restaurants, open all week. Smiths is perhaps the biggest and best, sprawling over four floors (including the rooftop) of a listed building, and making the most of the fresh meat from across the road.

The Black Friar. Photo: Matt Brown.

Where to drink

As with restaurants, the City's pubs tend to close at weekends, except in areas with the most footfall. Here are some favourites from those that are open.

The Blackfriar: A rare art nouveau pub, bedecked with monkish sculpture, golden tesserae and other gaudy baubles. It's all a bit much for some (notably architecture critic Ian Nairn, who reckoned that "the theme of bibulous friars is flogged to death"), though most people love the place. A good range of ale and a large outdoor area should appeal to anyone.

City of London Distillery: One of the few decent bars (as opposed to pubs) to open at weekends hides in a basement near St Bride's church. The City of London Distillery makes its own gin, and offers a fine list of cocktails. A classy, yet laid-back option.

The Cockpit: Built on the site of Shakespeare's house (or thereabouts), the Cockpit is a good old-fashioned pub a short walk from St Paul's (though hidden enough to deter most tourists).

Crosse Keys: A gorgeous old banking hall, turned into a vast branch of the Wetherspoon empire. Superb for inexpensive, excellent ales. Find it on Gracechurch Street.

Draft House Seething: One of a growing number of Draft Houses, which specialise in quality keg beers and American diner-style food. This one's just round the corner from the Tower (on Seething Lane, hence the name), but well hidden from most tourists.

Hack and Hop: A great little find on Whitefriars Street, and one of the few craft ale choices in the Fleet Street area (which is nevertheless bountiful for old-fashioned boozers). Note, this one's only open on Sunday afternoons.

Hoop and Grapes: Two pubs with this name can be found in the Square Mile. The one on Farringdon Street is nothing special, but offers a tiny beer garden. The Hoop and Grapes in Aldgate is more historic, and a rare survival from before the Great Fire (though sadly the interior is remodelled to blandness).

City of London Distillery.

Old Red Cow: Another smashing little craft ale pub, this time in Smithfield. It gets very crowded on week nights, but a Saturday or Sunday afternoon is the perfect time to explore its charms (and beers).

Searcy's: An impressive champagne bar, housed incongruously in the pixellated turd that is One New Change.

Vertigo42: Once the highest public bar in London, this champagne den at the top of Tower 42 has been superseded by bars in the Heron Tower and The Shard. It remains a classy option for anyone looking to impress their date. Open on Saturday but not Sunday.

Williams Ale and Cider House: The area around Liverpool Street is pretty good for weekend opening, as an area of high footfall. Most of the pubs are passably good (Dirty Dicks has some charm, while Hamilton Hall offers unusual beers), but the pick of the bunch is Williams, a cosy venue with an excellent craft beer range. Hidden down a side street, it's peaceful at a weekend (open Saturday but not Sunday).

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: The famous Fleet Street pub, part of the Sam Smith's chain, looks unchanged from the Georgian era. It sprawls over several floors, all packed with history. Don't expect to find your friends, or a phone signal.

Golden Lane swimming pool.

Where to get a new look

Hairdressers, beauticians and nail bars that open on weekends are a rarity in the Square Mile. Your best bet is to head to One New Change, where Hershesons offers 'stealth styling' and a new look in just 30 minutes. Rush Hair is another salon on site. Nearby, Malika offers various beauty treatments from eyebrow threading to fish pedicures.

Where to get a new book

The growing chain of Daunt Books has a small outlet on Cheapside, which is open at weekends. Alternatively, track down the branches of WH Smith in Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street stations.

Where to go for a swim

Diving into the Barbican's lake will probably lead to a soggy expulsion from the complex, but there are other options in the City. The only turn-up-and-swim pool we're aware of is in the Golden Lane estate, a forerunner of the Barbican just within the City's boundaries. A dip in the pool will cost you a fiver. The Square Mile contains perhaps more private gyms than any other part of the country, and some have pools. If you've ever walked beneath the arches of Cannon Street station, you've probably smelt the chlorine from the City Fitness & Wellbeing Gym. It has a sister site at Moorgate. Other pools include Virgin Active Broadgate, Bank and Moorgate; and Bannatyne's at Tower 42. All require pricey memberships.

Where to worship

St Bride's.

Unusually, most of the City of London's churches are closed on Sundays, as there aren't enough local residents to support a congregation. However, some of the more significant churches do open their doors for worship, or just to snoop about. All Hallows by the Tower is a fine example, with a rare Anglo-Saxon arch and a peculiar crypt museum. Likewise, St Bride's opens at weekends and also houses a crypt full of exhibits, including the remains of a Roman road. St Magnus the Martyr opens on Sundays, and contains a remarkable model of London Bridge. Dan Brown fans can (and do) visit Temple Church, just off Fleet Street. Then, of course, there's St Paul's Cathedral, which offers four services on a Saturday and five on a Sunday. Unlike other visitors to the cathedral, you'll be let in for free. Those of the Jewish faith can observe Shabbat at Bevis Marks Synagogue, near Aldgate.

Last Updated 21 March 2017