I first heard about this event last year, but I was unable to go due to other travel. This year I made sure I was around to make the most of what is arguably London’s best free event. The event itself has been taking place since 1992, so I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to find out about it! For one weekend, hundreds of buildings across the city open their doors to the general public, for free. These include some of the highest profile buildings in the capital, including No. 10, and many of the iconic commercial buildings that would otherwise be off limits. There are some buildings that operate a ballot entry system, such as No. 10, and a select lucky group get chosen at random.
This time I was visiting with my girlfriend, and we spent a while going through all of the buildings we’d like to see. We would only be there for one day, so we had to plan locations that weren’t too far apart and easy to get to, to maximise how many we could see in the day. Of course one thing we couldn’t plan for was the queues. I anticipated that some buildings would be very popular, simply on the basis that this is the only chance to actually get inside most of these buildings.
On Saturday the first day of Open House began. Our first stop was the 30 St Mary Axe building, commonly referred to as The Gherkin Building. Despite opening relatively early at 8am, being one of the most iconic buildings in London, big queues were expected. Sure enough, upon arriving at 7:30 there were already well over 100 people in the queue, and this grew and grew rapidly as we waited for the building to open.
Over two hours, yes two hours later….we finally got our turn to see this infamous building. The tours were in groups of around thirty people, every ten minutes. It certainly felt like it was a lot slower than this! There were of course stringent security checks, and getting everyone up and down the lifts all added to the lengthy process.
Unfortunately we weren't able to walk around the full floor, as they were preparing for a wedding reception later that day. Lucky them!
St Botolph Building
Within a two minute walk from The Gherkin building is a relatively new commercial office building that certainly stands out from its neighbours. We were told the reason the building was designed blue was to match the clock face in the neighbouring church (which you can just see in the photo below).
The main lobby/atrium area was very impressive. The design is very modern and efficient, but didn’t feel cold and uninviting as many buildings of this design can do.
The tour here was very relaxed. Our group was guided to the top floor where we were told a bit more about the building, before being allowed to wander and explore on our own.
30 Crown Place
Up next was a 16 story commercial building on the outskirts of the square mile. No queues here, but we had to wait slightly for the hourly tour to begin. After a brief introduction and talk about the building, it was straight up to the top floor.
The outside terrace would certainly be a great place to relax, not in this weather though!
Another building we were both keen to see in the same area was the Alphabeta building, a recently refurbished office block with some very unique architecture and features. Unfortunately by the time we arrived in the early afternoon, all of the tours we fully booked. Luckily you could still see the amazing lobby/atrium area, which seemed like it was something straight out of a Christopher Nolan movie. I’m not sure if you would be allowed in the lobby on any other day, but I’d certainly try your luck if you’re in the area.
Last stop - City Hall
We originally planned to go to the City Hall after the Gherkin Building, as we thought this was another very high profile building lots of people would want to visit, and lots of people walk past this everyday. However the queue was relatively short, probably around 40-50 people, but it moved very quickly - despite more security checks.
After clearing security, we were instructed to head to the main lifts up to the top floor. Here a large open floor space dominates the rear of the building, with access to a balcony that extends all of the way around the top of the building. Many of the buildings we had visited provided stunning views of a city which we are so used to seeing from ground level, this was another chance to soak up more great views from a different perspective.
The views outside might have been spectacular, but for me they were outdone by the stunning interior. This helical staircase is 500m long and descends all the way to The Council Chamber.
The interior of the City Hall is quite simply astonishing. I love a good spiral staircase, but this takes it to another level. As you slowly meander down and down, there are so many new lines and shapes created by the different levels of the staircase. The more I walked down, I couldn’t help think, as impressive as it is, the building seems to serve little other purpose than to occupy this astonishing piece of architecture. I did notice quite a large office space on each floor, so it’s nice to know some people are lucky enough to work here. I would certainly take the stairs over the lift every time!