How did famous Londoner’s live? Peek behind closed doors with my guide to historic houses to visit in London. Not all the people are famous, not all the interiors are grand but every one is fascinating.
Historic Houses to visit in London
If you want to know how real life is lived take a look behind closed doors. Once at home, even the grandest of people unwind a little. London has grand stately homes that you can visit like Buckingham Palace and Osterley Park but I am not including these here. What fascinates me is a house that I could imagine myself living in. Over the years I have visited all these houses, the one’s with blog posts devoted to them have blue titles for you to click on and read more.
London historic houses of the rich and famous
Even the famous have to live somewhere. Taking a peek inside the London homes of the famous can be fascinating. Some of them are among the most underrated attractions in London. Come with me and discover some unique, and it has it to be said some are a tiny bit odd, museums London has to offer.
Sir John Soane’s Museum was one for the first museums that I visited in London when I moved here deep into the last century. I have returned many times since and every time I see something new. This is the house where the architect Sir John Soane lived. He designed the building and kept his fabulous eclectic collection here. When he died, he requested that the collection was put on show to the public but left as he had arranged it. You see his incredible selection of seemingly random things, just as he did. Best of all entry is FREE!
- Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
- Open: Wednesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Admission: FREE
- You are not allowed to take your handbag/phone in with you, they are placed in a bag and put in a safe place for you to collect at the end of your visit.
- Getting there: Tube; Holborn or Temple. Buses; 1, 59, 68, 91, 168, 171, 188, 243, 521, X68 stop on Kingsway or 8, 25, 242 stop on High Holborn.
Dr Johnson’s House
Meander through the maze of small streets to your left as you leave the Sir John Soane’s Museum and you will come across Dr Johnson’s House. It was here that lived whilst compiling his famous Dictionary of the English Language. The house is furnished but with items that are similar to those that Samuel Johnson would have owned but that actual ones. Being in the room where Dr Johnson compiled his dictionary is a must for lovers of language.
- Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, EC4A 3DE
- Open: October – April Monday – Saturday 11am – 5pm, May – September Monday – Saturday 11am – 5.30pm
- Admission: Adults £7, concessions available.
- Getting there: Tube; Chancery Lane, Blackfriars, Temple and Farringdon. Many buses pass along Fleet Street, Fetter Lane and Holborn Circus.
Handel and Hendrix House
Two musicians for the price of one here! Georg Frederic Handel moved to Brook Street in 1723 and Jimi Hendrix lived in the top floor flat in the 1960’s. The Handel part of the house has period instruments and original scores on display, there is often the sound of live music wafting through the house as music students practice on the keyboards. Upstairs you change gear and centuries to see how one of the biggest rock stars of the sixties lived, surprisingly cosily is the answer. Brook Street is in Mayfair, very handy if you are shopping in Oxford Street or Bond Street.
- Handel Hendrix House, 25 Brook Street, W1K 4HB (use back entrance in Lancashire Court.
- Closed until Spring 2023 for major refurbishment
Benjamin Franklin the only man to have signed all four documents that created the United States of America lived in Craven Street. This is the only house in that Benjamin Franklin lived in to have survived. Unfortunately his furniture hasn’t survived. No matter, technology and actors marry together to create an engrossing and informative historical tour. If buildings are your thing then there is a special architectural tour on Mondays. Craven Street is a tiny road in the shadow of Charing Cross Station. Visiting the house is a must for American history buffs or even just people interested in the Age of Enlightenment.
- Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, WC2N 5NF
- Open: Historical Tour Wednesday – Sunday 12noon – 4.15pm
- Architectural Tour: Monday 12noon – 4.15pm
- Admission: Historical Tour; Adults £8, Architectural Tour; Adult £6
- Advance booking is essential
- Art Fund members half price
- Getting there: Charing Cross mainline station and tube. Many buses converge on Trafalgar Square.
Charles Dickens is the ultimate Victorian London novelist. In many ways the vision that we have of late 19th century London is from Dickens. The Bloomsbury streets around Doughty Street have not changed much since he lived here and it is easy to imagine him setting off on one of his many walks. Most of all this is the place where he created Oliver Twist, Mr Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby. You can see desk he sat at to write. When you’ve done there is a fine cafe in the basement. At Christmas the house is dressed in full Victorian fashion and lit with candles, it is a magical sight.
- Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX
- Open: January – November, Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- December Daily 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Adults £9.50
- Art fund members go free
- Getting there: Charles Dickens moved in before the tube was invented, just as well as Doughty Street is about as far from a tube station as it is possible to get in central London. Russell Square, Chancery Lane, Holborn or Kings Cross are the nearest. These buses run nearby 7, 17, 19, 38, 45, 46, 55, 243.
Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane moved to Cheyne Walk in 1834 when Chelsea was considered unfashionable. Carlyle was a man of letters, a superstar in his day, although today not as famous as his friends Dickens, Tennyson, both of the Brownings, George Eliot and Chopin … the A list of literary London. The house is preserved exactly as it was when Thomas died. You can see the cosy sound proof writing room he had constructed at the top of the house an compare the comfortable sitting room to a contemporary painting of the same room. The Carlyle’s were famous but not rich, a fact reflected in the fact that they house had no piped water, it all came from a pump in the garden.
- Carlyle’s House, 25 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea,
- Open: Wednesday – Monday 11am – 5pm
- Admission: Adult £8, Child £4
- National Trust and Art Fund members go free
- Getting there: Sloane Square tube, lots of buses will get you closer
Queen Elizabeth I spent the night before her coronation at the Charterhouse. The Duke of Norfolk used it as his townhouse. Before that it was the greatest Carthusian monastery in England and later it became an Almshouse. Well it still is an Almshouse. Visit to see a slice of living history tucked away in central London. Visiting the museum and chapel is free but for the full time slip experience book a tour.
- The Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square EC1M 6AN
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5.20pm
- Admission: Free to museum and chapel
- Tour: Prices start at £15
JMW Turner was THE painter of his day, when he decided that he wanted a country house he chose Twickenham, now deep in the London’s suburbs. He designed his own house with the odd bit of advice from his friend Sir John Soane. Turner’s house is tiny, a perfect weekend retreat. Even now the house has a rural feel to it even though it is now surrounded not by fields but houses. In the mornings you can wander at will around the house and in afternoon there are tours, if you are making a special journey it is best to book first.
- Turner’s House, 40 Sandycombe Road, TW1 2LR
- Open: February – December Wednesday – Sunday 12noon – 4pm
- Admission: Self guided; Adult £7. Tour Adult £8
- Getting there: St Margaret’s mainline station or Richmond tube and then H37 bus
Sir John Soane chose Ealing for his country home, not far his chum Turner. His townhouse is cornucopia of fascinating objects but his country retreat dazzles with architectural wonder. Soane used Pitzhanger Manor to display his talents, he bought prospective clients here to show what kind of thing he could design for them. Pitzhanger also has an exhibition space, currently you can see Anish Kapoor mesmerisingly beautiful reflective sculptures.
- Pitzhanger Manor, Mattock Ln, Ealing, W5 5EQ
- Open: Tuesday – Friday 10am – 4.30pm
Saturday 10am – 3pm
Sunday 10am – 4.30pm
- Admission: Adults £7.70
- Ealing residents go free Sunday morning and Tuesday at all other times they pay £4.95
- Getting there: Ealing Broadway or South Ealing tube
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, fled Austria after the Nazi annexation and came to London. 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead was his home for his final year and remained Anna Freud’s home until the end of her life. The house is crammed with the furniture that the family bought over from Austria, most importantly of all you can see the Freud’s psychoanalytic couch. In addition to all the Freud memorabilia the museum puts on regular shows of contemporary art.
- Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead NW3 5SX
- Open: Wednesday – Sunday 12noon – 5pm
- Admission: Adults £9, child £5
- Art fund members get 50% off during special exhibitions and go free at other times. National Trust members get half price entry.
- Getting there: Finchley Road or Hampstead tube and Finchley Road and Frognal overground
OK I admit to imagine living in Spencer House is to indulge my wildest delusions of grandeur! Spencer House was built for the first Earl and Countess of Spencer, ancestors of Diana, Princess of Wales. They wanted a house to entertain in and impress their friends and what an impressive party house they built. Spencer House was restored to its eighteenth century glory by Lord Rothschild at the end of the last century. Now it is mainly used for corporate events and weddings, however on Sundays anyone can visit. Tours need to be booked in advance. One of London’s most spectacular interiors.
- Spencer House, 27 St James Place, Sw1A 1NR
- Open: Sunday 10am – 4.30pm
- Admission: £15 adults, concessions £12
- Art fund members 50% off, Tate and V&A members pay the concession rate
- Getting there: Walk from Green Park tube
Sutton House in Hackney was built by Ralph Sadler, principal Secretary of State to Henry VIII. He is better known to us today as Thomas Cromwell’s protege in Wolf Hall. Sutton House retains some of its fine Tudor fixtures but also skilfully tells the tale of the subsequent inhabitants of the house including a church, a trade union and squatters. Outside in the garden is a play area themed around the Breaker’s Yard that it used to be including a rather magnificent three storied caravan
- Sutton House, 2 -4 Homerton High Street, E9 6JQ
- Open: Weekends 12noon – 5pm
- Tours: Wednesday – Friday: 3pm Pre-booking essential.
- Admission: £8 or £10 for a tour.
- National Trust members go free (but must pay £2 for a tour)
- Getting there: Hackney Overground is a short walk, lots of buses head to Hackney, my favourite is the 38
William Morris Gallery
William Morris must have moved around a bit because lots of his houses are open to visit. There are two in London. The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow was his family home when he was growing up. It is the only public gallery devoted to William Morris. Don’t expect a house set up as Morris would remember it, instead expect fascinating displays about his life and work.
- William Morris Gallery Forest Road, Walthamstow E17 4PP
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm
- Admission: FREE
- Getting there: Walthamstow Central on tube and mainline rail
William Morris Society
When he was a grown up William Morris had a large house over looking the River Thames at Hammersmith. Down in the basement and coach house is the headquarters of the William Morris Society. There is a small display devoted to Morris including the actual press used by the Kelmscott Press.
- William Morris Society, 26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith W6 9TA
- Open: Thursday and Saturday 2pm – 5pm
- Admission: FREE (donations welcome!)
- Getting there: Ravenscourt Park or Hammersmith tube
Icons of Design
An architect’s house, two time capsules and one man’s decorative devotion. Houses don’t need to be grand or even the homes of the famous to be interesting, sometimes they just need to be unique homes. These houses offer the chance to glimpse inside London homes and I think that some of them are among the most under rated London attractions.
2 Willow Road
At first glance 2 Willow Road looks like a 1950’s British school. That is a testament to the vision of the Erno Goldfinger the architect who designed and lived in 2 Willow Road. In 1939 it was revolutionary but his ideas were taken up in spate of public building that happened after World War II. 2 Willow Road is furnished as it was when the Goldfinger family lived there.
- 2 Willow Road, Hampstead, NW3 1TH
- Open: Wednesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm
- There are tours on the hour, after 3pm you can wander at will
- Admission: Adult £8, Child £4
- National Members free
- Getting there: Hampstead tube or Hampstead Heath overground
Stepping inside 18 Stafford Terrace is like slipping through a time warp. Outside on the street you were firmly in the 21st century once through the door you are inside a Victorian Arts and Crafts home. The feeling of time slip is further enhanced by the fact that your guide is a Victorian lady. 18 Stafford Terrace was lived in by the Linley-Sambourne family. He was the editor of Punch, they were Lord Snowdon’s great grandparents. The house is a hymn to William Morris and his followers. There are two types of tours those with the Victorian lady or regular ones, or you can choose to wander at will in the afternoons.
- 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington W8 7BH
- Closed for refurbishment reopens 15 October 2022
Emery Walker was a photographer and printer. Best friend to William Morris who lived a few steps away in an altogether grander house. The Emery Walker house is another perfectly preserved Arts and Crafts home. Somewhat smaller than Stafford Terrace but with far better river views. The house is small and can only cope with eight people at any one time but for fans of all things William Morris and Arts and Crafts it is must. Booking is essential.
- Emery Walker House, 7 Hammersmith Terrace W6 9T
- Open: Thursday and Saturday tours at 11am, 1pm and 3pm
- Admission: £12.50
- Art Fund members 25% off
- Getting there: Stamford Brook tube station or one of the buses that run down King Street, Hammersmith
Fulham Palace was the country home to the Bishops of London. Not strictly household names now but BIG figures in British history. Fulham Palace is a proper Tudor Palace. As you approach it is easy to imagine you are Queen Elizabeth I riding up with your retinue for dinner. At the back Tudor Palace is a very genteel Georgian addition over looking the rolling lawns. Best of all entry to house and garden is free. There is even a very pleasant tea room over looking the gardens.
- Fulham Palace, Bishop’s Avenue, SW6 6EA
- Open: Daily 9.30am – 5pm
- Admission: FREE
- Getting there: Putney Bridge tube and then walk, if you see a sign for bridge underpass take it as it will save crossing the road.
575 Wandsworth Road doesn’t belong to any school of design. It is the vision of one man, whittling away every evening for decades. Khadambi Asalache started off wanting to cover up an unsightly damp patch in his basement with some floorboards he found in a skip. He liked the effect so much that he ended up covering his whole house with fine fretwork. You can visit what is one of London’s quirkiest houses in small groups. Booking is essential.
- 575 Wandsworth Road, Wandsworth SW8 3JD
- Open: Friday and Saturday. Tours at 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm
- Admission: Adult £16.50 concessions available. Unusually National Trust members have to pay £3.50
- Getting there: Wandsworth Road Overground station or bus routes 87, 77 and 452
Beautiful London Homes
Sometimes a person in possession of a great fortune decides to splurge on a stunning home. Not necessarily a large home. Just an eye poppingly beautiful home. Here are what I consider to be the truly great houses of London and ones that I like to think that if money were no object I might create something as original and creative.
William Waldorf Astor was the world’s richest man. He wanted a London house that could double up as an office. Two Temple Place is what he created. It is a symphony of stained glass and linen fold paneling complete with homages to William Shakespeare and Alexandre Dumas. Most of the year the building earns its living as a beautiful wedding venue but for three months at the beginning of each year an exhibition is put on and entry is free. If you are in London at the right time do take time to visit on on London’s most opulent interiors.
- Two Temple Place WC2R 3BD
- Open: February – April Wednesday – Sunday 10am – 4.30pm
- Admission: FREE
- Getting there: Temple tube
Horace Walpole was a man with impeccable taste and a large fortune. He created the Gothic novel and designed his house in full Gothic revival style. Strawberry Hill House is an icing sugar confection of a house and a joy to visit. Well worth making the excursion to West London.
- Strawberry Hill House, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, TW1 4ST
- Open: April – December Monday to Wednesday: 11am – 3pm
Sundays & Bank Holidays: 11am – 4pm
- Admission: Adults £12.50
- Art Fund and National Trust members 50% off
- Getting there: Strawberry Hill mainline station
The Wallace Collection is my favourite museum anywhere in the world. It is the creation of successive Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace (widely assumed to be the illegitimate son of the final Marquess). Hertford House was their town house. Richard Wallace added the galleries at the back to house his impressive collection of painting and armour. The Wallace Collection really does feel like a house, a grand house but still a home. I used to live round the corner and pop in regularly to just sit and a read a book, whilst pretending that it really was my home.
- Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, W1U 3BN
- Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
- Admission: FREE
- Getting there: Marble Arch, Bond Street or Baker Street tube
Leighton House was the creation of the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton. He was a highly successful artist with no family to support. He built Leighton House to entertain in and to paint. His studio is all huge north facing windows, the rest of the house is his Moorish fantasy. An indoor fountain tinkles in an elaborately tiled room, fine wooden carved panels adorn rooms that sing with shades of peacock. Tucked away at the back is a single monk like bedroom where he slept, expecting all his guests to go home at the end of the evening. I could happily spend hours in the ornate wooden balcony that overlooks the tiled fountain room.
- Leighton House, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ
- Closed for refurbishment reopens 15 October 2022