Open House London is an annual event dedicated to unlocking the city’s usually bolted doors and throwing them open to the general public. Whether you’re a keen historian, an appreciator of architecture or you’re planning a daring heist, you’ll find something to keep you occupied. Open House London has been running now since 1992. Since then, more than 800 buildings have joined the fun. Here’s a few of our top picks for 2019, from old favourites to brand new entries.
The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret
One of London’s grizzlier exhibitions, this former chapel doubled as an operating theatre and medicinal herb preparation area back in the 1800s. Unassuming from the outside, once you’ve made your way up the narrow staircase, you can’t fail to notice the operating gallery. Laid out in period fashion, there are pews for curious onlookers to watch, as well as a chandelier of sorts for those late night, candlelit operations.
You can also browse the tools, tonics and tinctures of the era. It’s a great place to ponder the miracles of modern medicine, antiseptics, anaesthetics, and of course, electric lighting.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station
Affectionately known as the Cathedral of Sewage, the Abbey Mills Pumping Station harkens back to times when even the most unglamorous of industries might expect elaborate surroundings. Built as a cornerstone of the Victorian sewage system, the station functions to this day—though much supported by a newer, more state-of-the-art station.
The inside is no less impressive than the exterior, with ornate iron and glasswork throughout. Film buffs might even recognize it as a shooting location for the notorious Arkham Asylum in 2005’s Batman Begins.
All Change at Aldgate: The East of the City
This free guided tour will take you to multiple spots across east London. So far, the actual locations are being kept fairly under-wraps, but the schedule promises to explore several normally hidden areas of the city. It’s as much an historical tour as an architectural one—so expect to learn not only about the buildings, but the people who shaped them and lived in them.
The meeting place is the ambulatory of Guildhall West Wing Place, EC2V 5AE. Tours run hourly from 10 am–2 pm on both the Saturday and Sunday. Booking in advance isn’t possible, but there are limited spaces, so it might be worth turning up to nab your ticket a little ahead of schedule. The ticket office opens at 9:30 am.
No secret handshakes, rings or robes are required this September at the Freemasons’ Hall, as doors open for the good folks at Open House London. Built in the 1920s to house one of the world’s biggest fraternal organisations, the building is as decadent as they come. With twisting staircases, irregular room shapes and more flourishes than you could count, it’s certainly a sight to see.
The tour focuses on the building’s art deco chops, but as with all masonic buildings, there’s a ton of religious and mystical symbolism packed into every crevice. Many of the rooms, including the Museum of Freemasonry are open year-round—so don’t feel too left out if you can’t make it.
The grandeur of the hall speaks to a bygone era. By most counts, membership has declined considerably since the heady highs of the early and mid 20th century—it’s an aging population to say the least. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of such an openly sexist and elitist organisation. But it sure is a cool building.
Another iconic local landmark, Brixton’s 200-year-old windmill participates in Open House London with free guided tours. Restored to its former glory back in 2010, it’s London’s last remaining working windmill, and you can see the original wind-powered inner workings as you explore.
Brixton Windmill is actually open to visitors occasionally throughout the year. So if you can’t be there for Open House London, there’s a good chance you can just book onto another tour. Looking for other cheap and free things to do while you’re in Brixton? Be sure to check our full guide!
Keep an eye out at dusk for the cute local pipistrelle bats, a common sight around the grounds.
Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse
Home to London’s only lighthouse, Trinity Buoy Wharf has filled a lot of roles over the years. Once a buoy manufacturing plant (hence the name), the area has since become a well-known architectural hotspot. This was bolstered by the installation of the Container City, a project built from recycled shipping containers. The cost-effective engineering solution has been a boon to local businesses, providing accommodation and office spaces at a (relatively) affordable price.
Interestingly, the wharf’s famous lighthouse was never intended for use as a traditional lighthouse. For a long time, it was used to train lighthouse keepers and test new technologies. Be sure to check out our guide to hidden London for more to see and do while you’re in the area.
Caledonian Park Clock Tower
Situated in Caledonian Park, this recently refurbished clocktower first started ticking back in 1855. It’s not just the clocktower itself you get to admire though—on a clear day the panoramic views of the city from the top are fantastic. The only way up is to climb 200 or so narrow wooden steps, so come prepared for heights, confined spaces and a little exercise.
If you can’t get a spot on the Open House London tour, don’t worry—it’s actually open to visitors most weekends throughout the year. The tour is free, but it tends to sell out, so be sure to book your ticket in advance.
For year-round glimpses into hidden London, check our latest guide, covering hidden bars and secretive cinemas.