Many musical tours of London focus on recent pop music, with a wide variety of tours on offer for those who want to learn more about Rock ‘n Roll and the Swinging Sixties. For those who prefer music to be more orchestral, operatic or choral, there are no such tours available.
Here, we outline a two-day itinerary of the classical music sites in London for visitors who want to learn more about the history of classical music in the capital city.
London has a wealth of places to attend classical concerts and events, from the highbrow Opera House to free lunchtime concerts in some stunning churches. We have put together an intinerary for those who want to see these venues where the music is performed, or which focus on musical heritage, specifically ones which are in historic buildings, and which can be visited whether there is a performance on or not, as some of London’s music venues are only open for those with tickets to a specific event.
We have not specified timings on this itinerary, as you may want to stay to catch a free concert, or take a guided tour of one venue but not another, so use this more as a guide as to what is on offer, and then work out your own timings based on what tours or performances you may plan to see. I hope you will find this a useful aide in getting the most out of London’s musical heritage.
Directions are given between the venues using what3words.
DAY ONE – THE WEST END
The tour starts at the Royal College of Music (w3w: stops.pushed.sober); the nearest tube station is South Kensington.
Royal College of Music, South Kensington
Photograph © Dillif
Directly opposite the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College was established in 1882 as a conservatoire teaching Western music at higher educational level.
The current building was opened in 1894 and it includes one of the most significant museums of music-related objects in Europe. With over 15,000 objects in its collections, highlights include a clavicytherium from 1480 which is the world’s oldest surviving keyboard instrument, Gustav Holst’s trombone, a Broadwood grand piano from 1799, music scores, portraits and a lot more.
The museum is currently undergoing renovation but will open again soon. If it is still closed, just skip this one out of the itinerary and start at the Royal Albert Hall.
Directly opposite the Royal College is the next stop, the Royal Albert Hall (w3w: spark.shell.delay), only a two minute walk away.
Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington
L: The outside of the Royal Albert Hall Photograph © Dillif
R: The unusual ceiling Photograph © Colin
Opened by Queen Victoria in 1871, the Royal Albert Hall is distinctive and inconic building which hosts hundreds of music concerts every year, from classical to rock music and everything inbetween. It is best known for hosting the annual Proms; eight weeks of classical music over the summer in what has been referred to as “the world’s largest and most democratic musical festival”.
The main auditorium has a unique interior, set in the round with archways around the walls. Mushroom shaped discs hang from the ceiling, put there because when the first concert was performed in 1871, the dome roof created a noticeable echo. A huge canvas awning was hung from the roof until 1969, when the acoustic discs were installed to solve the problem.
The Royal Albert Hall is open for casual visitors who can visit the exhibitions for free, eat at the restaurant listening to classical music, or take one of the daily tours which include: behind the scenes, architectural tours, film and TV tours or other specialist subject areas.
You can either catch a tube next, from Gloucester Road to Regents Park on the Circle Line, which is about 25 minutes, or walk through Hyde Park and Marylebone, which takes about 45 minutes. The Royal Academy of Music (w3w: split.burns.ballots) is on the Marylebone Road.
Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone
Photograph © Phil Frenzy
The Royal Academy of Music is the oldest conservatoire in the UK, having been founded in 1822.
Students come from all around the world to study at the Academy, most of whom are classical performers, but there are also departments for jazz and musical theatre.
There is a free museum on site, which has three permanent galleries as well as regular temporary exhibitions. Highlights include the ‘Viotti ex-Bruce’ 1709 violin by Antonio Stradivari once played to Queen Marie Antoinette, Gilbert and Sullivan’s original score for ‘The Mikado’, original manuscripts by Purcell, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Brahms, as well as many other manuscripts, instruments and art.
There are regular guided tours, events, free musical events and lectures, and trails for kids.
The museum is open Monday – Friday from 11:30 – 5:30 and Saturday 12pm – 4pm. The museum is closed on Sundays, public holidays and for all of December.
If you have the time and inclination, you can also pay a visit to Regents Park, which is just a five minute walk away and listen to music performed by students at the Royal Academy of Music on the free app, Music for Trees. Based on your location, music is played relating to the tree you are standing near.
If you are visiting in the summer months, Regents Park hosts an open air music festival which provides plenty of free musical entertainment.
Otherwise, walk straight down Wimpole Street, which is opposite the Royal Academy, and down New Bond Street, turning right into Brook Street, where you will find the next destination (w3w: star.insist.easy).
Handel & Hendrix in London, Mayfair
Photograph © David Holt
These two incongrous musicians share a museum thanks to their residences when they were living in the capital, 200 years apart. Handel House at 25 Brook Street, in the heart of London’s West End, has been open to the public as a museum since 2001.
The next door top flat of 23 Brook Street, Hendrix’s flat from 1968-69, was used as an admin office until 2016 when it was re-created as it was when Hendrix lived there, and opened to the public in 2014.
Handel moved into Brook Street in 1723, the first occupant of the newly built house, living there until his death in 1759. He composed there, conducted business, used it as a rehearsal space and played his harpsichord and house organ there. The museum has regular exhibitions as well as a focus on live music, with a weekly Baroque concert series in his rehearsal room, new musician showcases and a harpsicord series.
The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm although there are also late night openings at times. Tickets cost £10 for an adult and £5 for a child and can be booked online >>
You can either take a tube from Oxford Circus to Charing Cross (direct on the Bakerloo line which takes about 5 minutes) or walk for 23 minutes. (w3w: mull.sock.axed)
St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster
Photograph © John Salmon
At the corner of Trafalgar Square, St. Martin-in-the-Fields is a stunning neo-classical Anglican church famous for its musical output, hosting regular lunchtime and evening concerts.
The church is home to its own chamber music orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a choral ensemble, St. Martin’s Voices, as well as St. Martin’s Chorus, which performs at many of its events.
Audiences can enjoy a series of evening classical concerts, free lunchtime concerts, educational concerts, family concerts and late-night music events. For 30 minutes every Thursday lunchtime they host Great Sacred Music events, with religious classical music, for free. Jazz nights take place in the Cafe in the crypt underneath the church, where you can eat, drink and enjoy a variety of music.
The church has a lovely classic interior of a white moulded ceiling, ornate pillars, a simple flagstone floor and dark wood pews which makes it a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. It is well worth trying to time your visit with one of their concerts to enjoy some classical music in this incredible setting which is said to have excellent acoustics.
Their website has full details of all concerts as well as livestreams of some of their events.
A three minute walk up St. Martin’s Lane leads to the London Coliseum (w3w: means.eagle.worker).
London Coliseum, Westminster
Photograph © Colin
Home of the English National Opera (ENO), the London Coliseum is the largest theatre in London’s West End.
A lavish, frothy interior of Edwardian neo-Baroque of cream, gold and marble with a huge domed ceiling and red velvet seats, the main auditorium is an incredible sight of opulence and luxury.
Built in 1904 as a variety theatre, the building also spent some time as a cinema before becoming the home of the ENO and English National Ballet in the 1960s, both of whom are still based there today.
This is the perfect place to end your day of musical sightseeing, and if you can, book a performance for the evening or a meal in the restaurant. The Coliseum is also open to casual visitors, although you won’t be able to see the magnificent auditorium unless you take one of their guided tours or book to see one of their shows. There is also a restaurant and bars on site. More details are available on their website >>
DAY 2 – CITY OF LONDON
Start at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (w3w: lift.pepepr.gears). The nearest tube station is Covent Garden.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
There has been an opera house on this site in Covent Garden since 1732. The current incarnation is the third building, after fires destroyed most of the previous ones.
Rebuilt in the 1990s, the facade, main auditorium and foyer are all that remain from the 1858 version.
The auditorium is Grade I listed, a vast space which seats over 2,000 people in four golden tiers of plush red velvet seating under an ornate golden ceiling. It is now home to The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and its own orchestra, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
Visitors can take a variety of tours, from a Velvet, Gilt and Glamour Tour, a Covent Garden Legends and Landmarks Tour or a Royal Opera House tour as well as have a choice of dining at six different restaurants, not all of which require pre-booking.
There are regular events from free lunchtime performances to recitals, workshops, childrens events and much more. The full programme is available on their website, which is a must visit location for anyone interested in classical music and opera.
It is a 20 minute walk to the next destination of St. Sepulchres (w3w: paper.alien.became). Just head down The Strand and Fleet Street and turn left into the Old Bailey.
St. Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn
Photograph © Diliff
Known as ‘The Musicians’ Church’, St.Sepulchres is an Anglican church which is the ‘bells of Old Bailey’ from the nursery rhyme.
The bells were tolled to announce executions and as the condemned were led to Tyburn to be hanged. There was also a handbell, which is now on display in the church, which was rung outside the prison cell of the condemned the night before execution, reminding them to repent.
The church has a chapel which was dedicated ‘The Musicians’ Chapel’ in 1955, with windows comemorating musicians, a musicians’ Book of Rememberance, as well as regular concerts and memorial events held to honour musicians.
For many years the church was used by choirs and orchestras as a rehearsal space, although in 2017 there was a furore when the present vicar closed the church to external musicians. Despite protests and media involvement, mediation failed, and the church can no longer claim to be ‘The Musicians Church’.
They do however have their own choir who have even released an album, and who are active in all services. There are free lunchtime recitals on the second Wednesday of every month, monthly Saturday evening concerts and an annual Christian Music Festival. Details can be found on their website.
The church is well worth a visit to see the Musicians Chapel and Book of Rememberance, as well as its colourful history, huge organ from 1670 which dominated the north aisle, and notable burials which include Sir Henry Wood, the conductor who conducted the Proms for nearly fifty years.
A 14 minute walk will take you to the next destination. Walk up Giltspur Street, turn right into Smithfield and continue on to Beech Street. The Barbican Centre is further up on your right. (w3w: chairs.shaped.line)
London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican
The Barbican is the largest performing arts centre in Europe, home to the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra as well as acting as a venue for concerts, plays, art exhibitions and films. Housed in a brutalist modern concrete building which sharply divides opinion, the building is open to visitors with something on nearly every day, including a wide array of free events and performances, free art exhibitions and free lunchtime concerts. The London Symphony Orchestra perform most of their concerts here and visitors can even watch their open rehearsals for only £6 a ticket, which does need to be booked in advance.
The Barbican building has a whole floor dedicated to free exhibitions and events for visitors, as well as a library, but you can also take guided tours of the conservatory, architectural tours and self-guided family trails.
It is a 14 minute walk down Moorgate to St. Stephen Walbrook, the next venue (w3w: chins.sheets.lost).
St. Stephens Church, Walbrook
The lovely St. Stephens is a Wren church, built after the Great Fire of London, with a stunning baroque interior, topped by a dome, a forerunner of the dome he created for St. Pauls Cathedral.
The church has much of note, but for those interested in music, they put on regular free lunchtime music recitals, with Tuesday music recitals and Friday organ recitals. There is also a series of musical events and concerts, details of which can be found on their website.
The church is worth a visit in its own right as it is such a pretty building and includes a Henry Moore altar, so do go even if you can’t time your arrival to coincide with a lunchtime recital.
You can either walk for 25 minutes to the next venue, or take a tube from Bank to Tower Hill or Shadwell and walk the rest of the way.
Wilton’s Music Hall, Whitechapel
Photograph © Wilton’s Music Hall
Wilton’s is the oldest Grand Music Hall in the world, and a visit here is described as a step back in time. Built in 1690 as houses, the buildings have undergone many alterations over the centuries, until 1839 when a concert hall was built behind an ale house which was in one of the buildings.
The ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ replaced the concert room in 1859 by John Wilton, who decorated it with chandeliers, mirrors and decorative paintwork. It ran as a music hall for thirty years, but then became a Methodist Mission until the mid 20th century, then a rag sorting warehouse, until it was scheduled for demolition in the 1960s. A campaign saw the building spared and it was used again as a heritage venue, receiving lottery funding in the past few years which means that it is now a thriving arts venue.
There are regular performances of a wide range of musical performances which include opera, jazz and modern music, as well as plays and comedy shows. The building still retains its shabby chic charm and has been sensitively restored, keeping its exposed brickwork, gently peeling paint, crumbling gilt and a carved balcony.
It has been described as one of Londons most beautiful theatres and should definitely be on anyones must-visit list. You can take a history tour of the site on most Mondays. Or you could finish off your two-day itinerary with a meal or a drink in one of the bars; on Monday nights there is free musical entertainment in the Mahogany Bar.