An unusual weekend at Open House London and my tips for planning your visit

Open House London is a once a year chance to explore some of London’s extensive architecture, and in particular some special and unique buildings that are not normally open to the public. Included in this are: private homes, government buildings, historic sites, educational establishments, and many others.

As part of my series of posts covering unusual experiences (see ‘Fulfill your travel bug with: something unusual‘ for more), I wanted to share with you my experience from last years Open House London event, plus a few tips on how to make the most of this years event in September.

Open House was started in 1992 by a small, not for profit organisation to promote public awareness and appreciation of the capital’s building design and architecture.  In recent years it has become an event all over the world in cities including New York and Prague, check out the full list here:

The aim of the Open House weekend is to make London’s architecture accessible to all, so every building taking part is free, including the places that often open for a fee, but perhaps have additional areas that are not normally open to the public.

Most buildings are open on a first come first served basis which means queuing patiently. Although this means that you can decide last minute, and subject to weather, there are a number of places that are only accessible by advance booking or via a ballot.

Last year we managed to cover off quite a few of the buildings on our initial list, but we kept to the centre of the city. This year I hope we will be venturing further afield.

From those we visited, I would certainly recommend the following:

1. St Mary’s Axe – if the weather is fine and the sky is likely to be clear. It’s worth noting that this building is notorious for long queues and you may be disappointed if you reach the top after a long wait and it’s raining, as we did.

Views would be great on a clear day

2. The Bank of England – I found this slightly disappointing, particularly after waiting nearly 2 hours. There was no sight of the vaults, other than briefly through a doorway, and the area included on the tour was pretty ‘dull’, at least in comparison to the very interesting talk on bank notes which was held in the museum. The museum itself is open throughout the year and definitely worth a stop if you’re passing through.

Prepare for long queues

3. City Hall – great views, on a clear day, of Tower Bridge and more from the top of Norman Foster’s striking riverside glass building. It’s worth queuing just to walk the spiral staircase down to the purple-carpeted chamber on the ground floor, both an impressive spend of tax payers money.

Impressive spiral staircase at City Hall

4. Horse Guards – our guide was very informative and we were treated to sight of both the cellars with the cockpit, and the Duke of Wellington’s former office, complete with original knee-hole desk.

5. Foreign and Commonwealth Office – We were very impressed with the display put on here, and relieved that there was no queue. Apparently, the elaborate offices were planned for demolition in 1963, but were given a last-minute reprieve, and now enjoy Grade I status.

Beautiful ceiling in the FCO building

6. Admiralty House – the security in here was extremely over-kill in my opinion, and the guide we had struggled with being understood, but seeing the room where Nelson’s coffin laid in state put it up there in the list of highlights.

Recommendations and tip

After last years experience there are definitely a few things to learn for the current year, and a few tips I would share. Namely:

1. Prepare a list of what you want to see in advance and read up on it if you have time, as it will make the experience more enlightening.

2. Apply for buildings that need advance booking, or ballot applications in plenty of time (usually available from around August).

3. Purchase a programme – available on the website (when it’s back up and running), and there is also an app which can come in handy when navigating around the city. It’s worth having a few extra buildings on your short list in case the queues are long.

4. Check the tfl website for how to get there and whether there are any engineering works to avoid etc.

5. Bring ID with you, as some of the official buildings require this before allowing you in, and it’s best to have this than reach the front of the queue and be turned away.

6. Get an early start and you will not be disappointed, as it gets busy with everyone descending on London later in the morning.

7. Travel light and don’t carry too much in your bag as it will inevitably be subject to searches. However, bring an umbrella but refrain from bringing your penknife or other items that may pose a risk of being rejected, along with yourself, by security.

8. Bring lunch with you as there will be plenty of time, whilst waiting, to eat it.

9. Use toilet facilities at every opportunity as some buildings do not have them available, or they will be busy.

10. Maybe avoid the new additions, unless they are likely to be a one off, or you are ok with queuing for hours. Last year the Leadenhall Building (the ‘Cheesegrater’) was exceptionally busy in it’s first year of being included, although the Gherkin seems to continually be popular.

Put the 19th and 20th of September in your diary now and don’t forget to check back at the Open House website in August for the ballot and advance bookings.

Have you got any other recommendations for those planning to visit London during Open House weekend?

Are you in need of some inspiration for doing something else a little bit different and unusual? Then check out my other posts in this series, linked here. Or check back soon, follow me on Facebook or Twitter as there is more coming soon.