The Best Intimate Music Venues in London

Union Chapel

This is one of the favourite music venues in London. An old chapel located on the busy and trendy Upper Street, in the heart of Islington. It was built in the late 19th century, and it is actually a working church and a drop-in centre for homeless people.

Union Chapel
Union Chapel (source: unionchapel.org.uk)

It has become very popular as an entertainment space, and tickets for some gigs get sold out in a couple of hours, so better to check their listings regularly. Its main room is called the auditorium and can accommodate 800 people. There is no standing area and the seats are unreserved. I would recommend getting there early and try to find a seat downstairs, although the first floor has its own charming as well.

There is a fully licensed bar on the first floor, which also serves homemade food, and the profits are for charity. The interior of the church is beautiful, with an octagonally shaped ground floor, high ceilings, stone arches, stained glass windows and a modest but cosy stage. A really enjoyable atmosphere.

It has won a few awards as a live music venue, including “London’s Favourite Music Venue in the ‘London Music Awards’ 2014”. And it has hosted great artists such as Tom Jones, Elton John, Beck and Björk.

Union Chapel Seating Plan
Union Chapel Seating Plan (source: unionchapel.org.uk)

There are more spaces available to hire at the Chapel: Sunday School Hall (for long term rehearsals), Upper Hall (where the bar is during the concerts), Lower Hall, Committee Room, and Production Offices.

It also has many volunteering options that you con check on their website. So if you are open to help, you can collaborate by serving food to homeless people, or by raising money at gigs.

If you would rather go to a different place for a pre-gig drink, and one with an open-air/garden area, check our London Islington’s best beer gardens post.

Royal Hospital Chelsea

This is actually a hospital and not a music venue, as the name indicates. It is a retirement and nursing home for some 300 veterans of the British Army. It is a 66-acre site that includes green areas and various buildings and it is located on Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea.

However; sometimes there are gigs. And they are normally great. Unconventional, relaxed and intimate. The venue is available for hiring (weddings, corporate, outdoor sports) so it is not a big surprise.

There is normally a large area for food and drinks, with tents offering beer, pimps on draft, wine, pizza, burgers, and more (see picture below). The grass is always perfect for a picnic, and there is a seating area as well. So getting ther early and enjoy these premises is an excellent idea.

Royal Hospital Chelsea
Royal Hospital Chelsea. Food/Drink area.

The scenario is in the main building’s back yard. It’s surrounded by rooms and you may find curious pensioners looking through their windows.

The picture below was taken during Belle and Sebastian concert, as part of the Live At Chelsea, an open air gig series. It was shot from the back of the standing area. Behind that spot, there are also seats. That 7’6″ statue is of Charles II dressed like Cesar, and it is inconveniently located in the centre of the yard.

Royal Hospital Chelsea
Royal Hospital Chelsea. Stage

St John at Hackney

As the official website highlights, “St John at Hackney is the iconic parish church of Hackney. Out vision is to bring hope to the heart of East London”. This iconic +200 years old building combines a classic architecture, very high ceilings and a good sound system to provide an original and intimate live space.

I need to mention two downsides: it can get very hot when packed, and tickets are normally quite difficult to get. Other than that, it is probably the coolest music venue at the moment in London. Just metres away from the Hackney Town Hall, it is surrounded by trendy pubs and restaurants.

It has also hosted some high profile artists in the last couple of years, including Coldplay in 2015 and Robbie Williams in 2016. Other great artists that have performed here are Florence + The Machine, Bloc Party and Ed Sheeran.

Coldplay at St John at Hackney
Coldplay at St John at Hackney (source: space-for-events.co.uk)

It can accommodate a maximum of 1400 people. The arrangement can vary, but normally there is a standing area on the ground floor and a seating area on the first floor. The church has parking facilities as well, plus some more public spaces on the front door. Additionally, the building is surrounded by extensive grounds.

They also offer a range of spaces available to hire for everything from headline music shows, lectures, conferences, weddings, fashion shoots and shows.

What’s on? Check here.

Wilton’s

“Walking down Graces Alley towards Wilton’s Music Hall is a bit like stepping into another world – or rather back in time to the mid-19th century, when John Wilton opened his concert hall behind the Mahogany Bar pub.” [Timeout]

From the moment you see its entrance (picture below), which looks slightly unattended, you start imagining how it is going to be inside. And it will not disappoint you. They have made a great effort to retain as many of its original features as possible, in a nostalgic attempt to bring those days back to the 21st century. And they have done a good job.

Wilton's Front Door
Wilton’s Front Door (source: wiltons.org.uk)

“Wilton’s is a unique building comprising a mid-19th Century grand music hall attached to an 18th-century terrace of three houses and a pub” [Wikipedia]. It was first opened in 1859 and has had a few restoration works over time. Its last reopening was in October 2015.

It is an award-winning music venue, as you can imagine by now. The World Monuments Fund added the building to its list of the world’s “100 most endangered sites” in June 2007. And in February 2016 it was shortlisted in the ‘Building Conservation’ category of the RICS Awards 2016 in London.

The Mahogany Bar
The Mahogany Bar (source: wiltons.org.uk)

Once you step inside, you will find ‘The Mahogany Bar’ (pictured above), the entrance hall and a side-room known as ‘The Study’. There is also an additional bar called ‘The Cocktail Bar’. Both of them are open Monday to Saturday, 5pm to 11pm and open early for matinee performances where applicable. And they serve food Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm to 9pm, with a modest menu dominated by pizza.

The main music hall (‘The Theatre’), comprises a single gallery, on three sides and supported by ‘barley sugar’ cast iron pillars, above a large rectangular hall and a high stage with a proscenium arch (pictured below).

Wilton's Auditorium
Wilton’s Auditorium (source: wiltons.org.uk)

And it is not only about music. Wilton’s is a multi-arts performance space presenting a diverse program including opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance, and magic. The artistic idea behind is to “reinterpret the early music hall tradition for the audience of today”.

It is one of the world’s oldest surviving music halls and an architectural gem.

What’s on? Check here.

St Pancras Old Church

Another church in our venue list. And one of the oldest sites of worship in Britain. Surrounded by gardens and a cemetery, it is considered by some to have existed since AD 314.

It is located minutes away from one of the biggest and best-connected stations in London, King’s Cross St Pancras. Both the church and the station got his name from the Roman martyr St Pancras.

St Pancras Old Church
St Pancras Old Church (source: http://posp.co.uk/st-pancras-old-church/)

The churchyard is one of the largest green spaces in the locality and was restored in the first few years of the 21st century. The graveyard served a burial place for the parishioners and for Roman Catholics from all around London.

The artists who perform here are normally low profile. With a capacity of just 120, they manage to provide a packed gig calendar, offering an intimate space in a beautiful and historical building.

The interior is white and gold, with a very modest altar. There is normally a small seating area, with around 8-10 rows of unreserved seats, plus a standing area at the back (see picture below). There is also a very small stand at the entrance offering coffee, beer, snacks and other refreshments.

Jilk + Haiku at St Pancras Old Church
Jilk + Haiku at St Pancras Old Church (source: chickensaredinosaurs.com)

Lastly, a historical fact: On Sunday 28 July 1968, The Beatles themselves were there, but only for a photography session. Some of the best-known photographs of the Mad Day Out were taken [BeatlesBible], as the one below.

The Beatles in front of the entrance
Mad Day Out – Beatles Book by Stephen Goldblatt – The Images – St. Pancras Church

What’s on? Check here and here.

Roughtrade East

Our last intimate space is a music store. It is only a few metres away from the busy, trendy, hip and now very touristic Brick Lane, and opposite another iconic place in East London, Cafe 1001. It is located in the former Old Truman Brewery and comprises 5,000-square-foot (460 m2).

The shop sells some chart titles, music from bands without distribution deals, books, headphones (I strongly recommend to try/buy Bowers and Wilkins’), turntables and other music-related hardware.  It worth mentioning that a quarter of the merchandise is vinyl and that the prices tend to be high. The shop also has a Café and a ‘snug’ area with iMacs, sofas and desks.

Roughtrade East
Roughtrade East (source: hg2.com)

Gigs happen early in the evening (usually around 7 pm) and are almost free. You normally need to pre-collect a wristband or buy the new album by whoever’s playing. It allows an audience of only 200, all standing, so better to be on time to find a good spot.

If you visit the store I would recommend getting one of the leaflets containing the albums of the month, where you can discover great new bands. You will also be able to listen to some of them and find the listings and pre-releases online. Additionally, every vinyl and CD has a written description to encourage browsing and discovery. There is also a “selfie vintage” photo booth, so you can take a good memory with you for only £0.50.

Some artists that have performed there are Blur, Liam Gallagher (Beady Eye) and Vampire Weekend.

Blur's secret gig at Roughtrade East
Blur’s secret gig at Roughtrade East (source: 853blog.com)

There are actually 3 stores in the UK, 2 in London (East and West) and 1 in Nottingham, and 1 store in the US (New York City). So even if you are not going to Roughtrade for a gig, you should visit one of them to catch up with the music industry.

What’s on? Check here.

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