London at night

Millennium bridge with St Paul's Cathedral. Credit: Getty Images
Millennium bridge with St Paul's Cathedral. Credit: Getty Images

With several tube lines now running 24 hours a day on Friday and Saturday, we celebrate the many nocturnal delights of the English capital

WORDS Steve Pill

In her 1927 essay Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf claimed the “greatest pleasure of town life in winter” was rambling the streets of London. Doing so in the evening, noted the Bloomsbury Group author, “gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow”.

Almost a century on and, while the gas lamps have been replaced by sodium street lights, many of the sights that so inspired Woolf continue to beguile visitors and locals today. And with the launch of the long-awaited 24-hour Night Tube service providing yet another means for navigating the city, there has never been a better time to explore the English capital after hours.

Early London

Like many major international cities, London began life as a settlement along a bend in a river and, as a result, many of the most breathtaking views and grand architectural statements can be found along the banks of the Thames. In the late evening, one of the nicest routes – a 1.5-mile walk that takes in many of the capital’s most iconic landmarks – begins at Westminster underground station.

Big Ben

As you ascend the steps from the tube, most eyes will be on the iconic clock face of the Elizabeth Tower – or ‘Big Ben’ as the tower’s bell is known to its friends – but keep a look out at the top for the Ayrton Light. It was installed for Queen Victoria in 1885, so she could tell from her window at nearby Buckingham Palace whether parliament was in session – if the light was on in the evening, either the House of Commons or Lords was sitting.

Houses of Parliament

From here, head across Westminster Bridge, stepping down briefly into the park on the south side of the road for a striking view of the Houses of Parliament looking back low across the water, before following the Queen’s Walk north along past the London Eye ferris wheel and on towards Waterloo Bridge. As The Kinks singer Ray Davies famously put it in 1967, “As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise,” later revealing that the song was inspired by childhood visits to the nearby St Thomas’s Hospital and the Southbank Centre during the famed Festival of Britain in 1951. Following along the Queen’s Walk takes you to the pier in front of the Bernie Spain Gardens, which offers a lovely perch to take in spectacular skylines back down the river.

Tate Modern

Continue your walk past Tate Modern (open until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays) and end with one of London’s most spectacular night sights – the view along the 330-metre Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque masterpiece is still home to royal weddings and prime ministerial funerals during the day, but by night the illuminated south facade serves simply as an eye-catching monument to the brilliance of British engineering, ambition and design.

Emirates Air Line cable car

Further down the river, the Emirates Air Line cable car spans the water between North Greenwich and the Royal Victoria Dock, and runs until 11pm every night in summer. A journey that can take as little as five minutes during rush hour slows to around 12 minutes after 7pm, offering a sedate twilight view across the historic docklands and the twinkling lights of the financial district at Canary Wharf.

Primrose Hill

Over in north London, the Primrose Hill area was once the home of the writers Sylvia Plath and WB Yeats, while today it is one of the most desirable residential addresses in the city. The hill itself was bought from Eton College in 1841 and landscaped so that the capital’s poorest residents had an extra green space in which to enjoy some outdoor activities. Scale the 63-metre summit for one of the most complete and breathtaking views of the London skyline, sprawling out over Regent’s Park and ZSL London Zoo across to the heart of London beyond.

While the gates to Primrose Hill are shut by 9pm, three other Royal Parks remain open until midnight. Hyde Park and Green Park are ideal for a long, late-evening stroll, while the Blue Bridge in St James’s Park has one of the most romantic views in the entire city, looking out across either the lake to Buckingham Palace in the west or Big Ben and the London Eye in the east. 

Jack the Ripper Tour

If you prefer to associate the night less with romance and more with macabre stories, London has a rich seam of crime history to explore and a number of guided evening tours to help navigate the East End’s many atmospheric Victorian alleyways. Meeting at Aldgate East underground station at 7pm every evening, the original Jack the Ripper Tour has been running for almost 25 years and takes in the many pubs, houses and alleyways that were once the alleged haunts of the Whitechapel Murderer.

Dennis Severs’ House

While in the East End, be sure to visit Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields for a vivid and rather eccentric slice of British history. The late Californian Anglophile moved to London in 1967, running horse-drawn carriage tours around Hyde Park before settling in this beautiful Georgian terrace in 1979.

Severs developed the house into a living museum and the eccentric concept is that visitors have stumbled into the lives of a family of Huguenot silk weavers. Each of the 10 candlelit rooms are styled on very particular stages in the Georgian, Regency or Victorian periods, while creaking floorboards and half-eaten food add to the sense of family life occurring just out of sight. Tours run until 9pm on select week nights and visitors are asked to explore in silence, adding to the contemplative and almost spiritual nature of the house – artist
David Hockney likened the immersive experience to enjoying one of the world’s greatest operas.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s most atmospheric attractions at any time of the day, but on the first Tuesday evening of every month the venue is lit entirely by candlelight and remains open until 9pm. Far from causing eyestrain, it adds authentic 19th-century character to the experience of the famed Neoclassical architect’s former townhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Inside, you can explore the Bank of England architect’s own personal collection of artworks, technical drawings and historic artefacts, including pictures by British Romantic painter JMW Turner and the alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I.

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum in Kensington, meanwhile, allows you to follow in the footsteps of Ben Stiller in the popular movie franchise and spend a ‘night at the museum’. The bi-monthly Dino Snores for Grown-Ups event allows adults to camp overnight
in the galleries alongside the dinosaur bones and exotic taxidermy. Tickets include a welcome drink, three-course dinner and breakfast, while entertainment ranges from live music and stand-up comedy to edible insect tasting and monster movie screenings.

Bar Italia at 22 Frith Street

To keep your eyes open long enough to truly enjoy London after hours, grab yourself a coffee from the famous Bar Italia at 22 Frith Street. This Soho institution was opened in 1949 by Lou and Caterina Polledri, whose grandchildren run the business today and keep the doors open until 5am.

While the distinctive neon signage and vintage framed photos add to the ambience that regularly attracts A-list musicians and Hollywood film stars to perch on one of the red leather stools, it is the quality of the coffee that keeps locals coming back – it’s made with filtered water off-the-boil and a secret blend of beans. Keep an eye out for the blue plaque above the window that commemorates the site of Scottish inventor John Logie Baird’s laboratory – it was here that the world’s first television demonstration was made on 26 January 1926.

Polo Bar on Bishopsgate

For more substantial sustenance, head to Polo Bar on Bishopsgate opposite the bustling Liverpool Street station. This 24-hour café has been serving on this site for more than 50 years, specialising in traditional British fare such as all-day breakfasts and fish and chips. All of London rubs shoulders here, from bankers and builders to hipsters and tourists, making it the ideal spot to get a true taste of this restless and endlessly captivating city.