You can spend all day at the Royal Festival Hall, not spend a penny and nobody will move you on. There are nooks to read in, river views and a poetry library.
Walking into this English Baroque building leaves you awestruck. It’s the second biggest cathedral in the country, and that sheer sense of space is enough to make you stop and think: ‘crikey’. My family emigrated from the Netherlands in the late 17th century, so my ancestors would have arrived while it was being built. In the dome’s Whispering Gallery, you can stand on one side, and talk and people on the other side can hear it.
With the rise of coffee shop chains, London’s traditional East End cafés are disappearing. But this tiny family-run one on Bethnal Green Road is as perfectly preserved as it was in the 1950s. It feels very mid-century with inlaid wooden panels, but also features lots of Italian stained glass. It was listed by English Heritage as part of a campaign to save 20th century architecture and is a true example of the ‘Great British caff’.
3. The Design Museum
London is famous for its design and this museum is a must see. It’s housed in a fabulous building that looks like a gigantic concrete tent, originally built as the Commonwealth Institute in 1962. It has been beautifully restored, and there’s a new exhibition space with a stunning parabola-shaped (a particularly beautiful curved) roof. Try out 3D printers, marvel at old advertising posters, and find unexpected gems such as a display on British road signs.
4. Royal Festival Hall
Tourists might walk past the Royal Festival Hall when strolling along the South Bank as the outside is not very prepossessing, but it’s incredible on the inside. Built primarily as a concert hall, what’s most thrilling is the free-flowing foyer space around it. You can spend all day here, not spend a penny and nobody will move you on. There are nooks to read in, river views and a poetry library. It’s open to everyone and has a national living room feel: knitting groups in one corner, breakdancers body-popping in another and plenty of free events.
Try it for yourself…
Brasserie Zédel is open Monday to Saturday from 11:30 to midnight, and Sundays from 11:30 to 23:00. Book ahead for an evening table, when a live band plays from 21:30 every night (21:00 on Sundays). Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus.£66 returnBook flights to London
Go your Soane way
The former home of architect Sir John Soane has been left almost untouched since his death nearly 180 years ago, and is a great way to see how people lived in 19th-century London as well as discovering more about his fascinating life. Nearest Tube: Holborn.Curious London: a weekend guide
5. Brasserie Zédel
Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, the duo behind this brasserie, are very good at taking historic spaces and transforming them into restaurants – most famously The Wolseley. Zedel’s used to be the basement of the Regent Palace Hotel and is a real Art Deco masterpiece. It’s probably the closest you’ll get in London to one of the vast grand brasseries of Paris, with gilded details and a real hubbub. Order the steak and chips (reasonably priced for central London) and pop to their hip cabaret space Crazy Coqs Cabaret for live music afterwards.
One thing that often gets overlooked is a visit to a traditional pie and mash shop. There are not that many of them left and they are a London institution, with some dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The jellied eels aren’t to my taste, but M.Manze on Tower Bridge Road serve their pies with a mound of mash and liquor (a tasty parsley sauce) for just a few quid.
The home of Sir John Soane, one of Britain’s greatest architects in the late 18th and early 19th century, is a treasure. When he died, he left his three Georgian houses filled with curiosities – Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, William Hogarth paintings – to the nation, on the condition it would be preserved in perpetuity. The picture library, full of walls of art which fold down and open up, is magical.
8. The Switch House, Tate Modern
As striking on the outside as the art that you’ll find inside is the new extension to the Tate Modern – a weirdly-shaped, big brick, sort-of pyramid designed by Herzog and de Meuron. It is such an interesting building, curling round and up like a spiral to the pinnacle. You can get amazing views of the city from its top-floor viewing platform.
In the 19th century this was perhaps the most original building in the world, a real precursor of the cast iron and glass skyscrapers we’re completely used to seeing now. Built for the great exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park, it was later dismantled and moved to Crystal Palace. It burnt down in 1936, but you can still see its footprint and the ruins of what would have been the most bonkers building.
Maybe I’m biased as I live here, but the area has everything. It was the centre of Britain’s maritime expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries and The Queen’s House, designed by Inigo Jones, was the first classical building in the country – so the first time people would have seen columns and pediments. It’s in leafy Greenwich Park, plus there’s the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Meridian where east meets west.
Tom Dyckhoff is an architecture writer, broadcaster and historian living in London. Follow him on Twitter @tomdyckhoff