What to See at Open House London

Do you love peeking behind closed doors? Then Open House is for you. You just need to decide what to see at Open House London. There is a lot to choose from, more than 800 properties ranging from Waste Management to Number 10 Downing Street. For the past 20 years it has been one of my favourite London weekends of the year. Come with me and discover the best buildings.

What is Open House London?

Open House London is the third weekend in September when buildings across London open their doors to the public for free. It is the biggest architectural festival in the world. Some of those buildings are open ordinarily but either you’ll get in free where you usually have to pay or you’ll parts of the building that are normally out of bounds. 21 – 22 September 2019 is the weekend to set aside.

How does Open House work?

It depends. Entry to every building is free and for most you just turn up, walk in and marvel and what lies behind that usually closed door. Some buildings need to be booked in advance. Book via the Open House London website. Three buildings are so popular that you need to enter a ballot, so if you really really want to see inside Number 10 Downing Street, The Shard or BT Tower go to website, fill out the form and keep your fingers crossed. I have entered the Number 10 ballot every year and still hope! To find out which buildings are open you can order a printed guide, download an app or scroll through listings on the website.

What to see at London Open House that needs booking

Royal Overseas League

Whilst picnicing in Green Park I have often looked up and seen people sitting on a balcony over looking the park having a far more genteel lunch. They are members of the Royal Overseas League, a private members club. You not only get to explore the buildings, on the day I visited we were invited to take tea in the dining room and become of those people on the balcony. I loved the Crinoline Staircase, so called because its bannisters are bowed out to allow the wide skirts of a crinoline to pass by.

Crinoline Staircase Royal Overseas League
Crinoline Staircase, Royal Overseas League

18 Stafford Terrace

18 Stafford Terrace was the home to Edward Linley Sambourne and his family. They decorated their house in the latest ‘House Beautiful’ style in the late nineteenth century. If you fancy seeing what a well to do, fashionable Victorian house looked like inside, this is your chance.

Strawberry Hill House

If you haven’t been to the gothic masterpiece that is Strawberry Hill House, then jump on a train and head out to Twickenham. Horace Walpole spared no expense on his eccentric, beautiful interiors. One of my London favourites.

Turner’s House

When the artist J M W Turner decided that he wanted country house, his gaze turned to Twickenham. He designed this dream house and moved in with his Dad. No longer a rural idyll Turner’s House is a tranquil delight.

Turners House

What to see at London Open House without booking but with long queues

Some buildings whilst you don’t need to book are very popular. One year I turned up with junior CW’s when they were very junior, took one look at the queues and made plans to visit other less high profile but just as interesting buildings.

Benjamin Franklin House

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding father’s of the United States of America lived in a terraced house below Charing Cross station. Benjamin Franklin’s House is sparsely furnished but tells the story of his London years very well.

Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

Hidden beneath a nondescript 1970s office block on Lower Thames Street is and 2nd century Roman Villa and spa complex. It is the only private Roman House that you can visit in London.

Billingsgate Roman Villa remains
Billingsgate Roman Villa

City Hall

Down and round and round and down. Norman Foster’s City Hall looks good on the outside but is spectacular inside. It has a spiral staircase that winds down the whole building. Prepare for a long wait, maybe buy a coffee to sip in the queue but it will be worth it just descend that staircase.

London City Hall spiral staircase looking down
London City Hall

Dr Johnson’s House

Dr Johnson wrote his famous dictionary here. I particularly love the drawing room whose walls must be able to tell tales of fascinating conversations between Johnson and his friends.

Table and chairs Dr Johnson's House London
Dr Johnson’s House

Emery Walker’s House

Emery Walker was William Morris’s best friend. His house was reflects his position at the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement. It remains pretty much as he left it and is a fascinating insight into Victorian artistic life.

Fitzrovia Chapel

The Fitzrovia Chapel is a tiny jewel box of building. It looks like nothing from the outside but inside it glows with with gold mosaics. Visit and gawp.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I visited the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on my first ever Open House way back in the last century. The Durbar Hall is one of the most stunning rooms anywhere. Take a good book and prepare to wait, it will be worth it.

Open House London for which I have never queued

One of the great joys of Open House for me is just to select an area and see all that is in offer. One year we wandered round St James and another Belgravia. Before we started we didn’t know what we would see but left happy to know what was behind those mystery front doors.

Argentine Ambassador’s Residence

Belgrave Square is the grandest of London squares. It’s icing sugar houses were built as the mansions for the aristocracy. Now they are mainly embassies or company HQ. For a glimpse of grand living visit the Argentine Ambassador’s Residence where the public rooms still look fit for a duchess.

British Academy, 10 – 11 Carlton House Terrace

Confession time, this is a special building for Mr CW and I, as it was where we held our wedding reception. Visiting with the teens was something that we very much wanted to do and commend it to you too.

Staircase detail 11 Carlton House Terrace London
British Academy

The Charterhouse

The Charterhouse is a slice of Tudor London hidden between the Barbican and Smithfield. It has grand rooms, a cloister, a chapel and is still a working alms house.

Romanian Cultural Centre

Just round the corner from the Argentine Embassy is the Romanian Cultural Centre. Climb the grand staircase and discover all about Romanian Culture.

Royal Society, 6 – 9 Carlton House Terrace

The Royal Society is the world’s oldest continuous scientific academy. Not only is the building stunning there are also some interesting objects from the history of science on display.

Royal Society Staircase
Royal Society

Have you explored London Open House? Where did you go? And where will you go this year?

Suitcases and Sandcastles
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19 Comments

  1. Julie Cordiner
    August 21, 2019 / 10:38 pm

    Wow, thank you for this, Catherine – it’s a complete revelation! Too late for this year as we have a holiday around then, but will definitely explore it for next year and book some cheap advance train tickets.

    • Catherine
      Author
      August 21, 2019 / 10:52 pm

      There is a similar thing nationwide called Heritage Open Days which runs September 13-22

  2. September 6, 2019 / 10:54 am

    I’ve never heard of Open House London – what a great idea. I’d also love to get inside Number 10 (to visit, not the job!!). The Foreign and Commonwealth Office would also be very interesting. #culturalwednesdays

  3. September 6, 2019 / 11:13 am

    I fancy City Hall and the Argentinian Ambassador’s Residence. I am pleased to say I have been to most of the others on your list and they are all fantastic! #CULTUREDKIDS

  4. September 6, 2019 / 6:26 pm

    We love the Open House Weekend and thrilled to be around this year! Last year we loved tge Argentine Embassy and Royal Court of Justice playing judges, this year still debating 🙂 such a brilliant weekend for London based & visiting #culturedkids!

  5. September 7, 2019 / 4:18 pm

    I love Open House London. I am a bit nosey! But it’s also a great way to see some real hidden gems of London.

  6. September 9, 2019 / 11:55 am

    Open House is such a brilliant scheme and I’ve visited Tooting Bingo hall as a result! I now really fancy Johnson’s house. As ever, a really informative post #culturedkids

    • Catherine
      Author
      September 9, 2019 / 12:15 pm

      Those 1930s Bingo Halls are amazing

  7. September 10, 2019 / 11:56 am

    I love open days, the chance to see behind the scenes is perfect for someone as nosy as me. Sad I won’t be in London for it because all of those look epic. #culturedkids

    • Catherine
      Author
      September 10, 2019 / 4:48 pm

      I think the Norwich one is a week earlier

  8. September 10, 2019 / 6:27 pm

    I’m also crossing everything for the ballots, although BT Tower is top of my wishlist (I’ll take No 10 if they offer it to me, of course!) The Museum of London is offering hard hat tours around its future site, in West Smithfield. It’s a derelict Victorian market building, and it’s expected to be a popular event (I work there so no busman’s holiday for me!). I think the National Army Museum has a family friendly event for that weekend, build your own museum from planks of wood, and make things to display in it! #CulturedKids

  9. Clare Thomson
    September 12, 2019 / 3:01 pm

    I’ve been meaning to go for ages so this is very timely, apart from for the ballots which have unfortunately all already closed. Do you know when the ballots open? I’d love to see Downing Street and The Shard one day – although preferably not when the current incumbent is still there (!) Thanks for sharing on #farawayfiles

    • Catherine
      Author
      September 12, 2019 / 7:35 pm

      They usually open a month before the Open House weekend and are open for about three weeks

  10. September 12, 2019 / 4:52 pm

    I love a good nosy and there sounds like so much good stuff to see! I’ve always fancied visiting Strawberry Hill House. #farawayfiles

    • Catherine
      Author
      September 12, 2019 / 7:35 pm

      Strawberry Hill Housd is awesome

  11. September 12, 2019 / 8:39 pm

    I love the open house, usually I am volunteering on those days. I had no idea about 10 Downing Street being on the list, I am going to join in the ballot from next year. Thanks Catherine for this lovely list. #culturedkids.

  12. September 13, 2019 / 1:45 pm

    I’m quite ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of ‘Open House London’ it’s a fantastic way to encourage people to discover more of their local area. Thanks very much for sharing this, I’m going to take a look at the places available. #farawayfiles

  13. September 13, 2019 / 11:11 pm

    This is a great guide Catherine. We definitely have it in the diary for next weekend and think we might just choose and area and see where it takes us. #farawayfiles

    • Catherine
      Author
      September 13, 2019 / 11:16 pm

      Give me a shout if you are around St James on Sunday

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