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. 19 – 20 September 2020 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you explored London Open House? Where did you go? And where will you go this year?