Winter Activities in London
By Rick Steves and Lauren Mills
London dazzles year-round so consider visiting in winter, when airfares and hotel rates are generally cheaper and there are fewer tourists. Despite drearier weather and shorter days, London's museums, theaters, concert halls, and pubs offer a warm and cozy welcome.
London at Christmas is especially appealing, with its buildings dressed in their holiday best. Many holiday traditions have their roots in 19th-century Victorian Britain. Beginning in the 1840s, Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert popularized the decorating of Christmas trees and the sending of Christmas cards. And what could be more traditional than seeing the setting of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol come to life? God bless us, every one.
November to January
Stroll around and enjoy the elaborate light displays and store windows on major shopping streets, especially on Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street, and Brompton Road. Post-holiday sales start December 26 for many stores, with the famous Harrods winter sale beginning a day or two later.
Pantomimes or "pantos" are a British holiday tradition. While they have nothing to do with silent mimes — and they don't mention Christmas — these campy fairy-tale plays entertain with outrageous costumes, sets, and dance numbers. Verbal participation is definitely encouraged and it doesn't take long to learn the lines. Adults will laugh at the more risqué jokes, while kids will giggle at the slapstick.
Get some exercise at the outdoor ice rinks (verify locations, but usually at the London Eye, Somerset House, Tower of London, Natural History Museum, and Hampton Court Palace, among others).
The Hyde Park Winter Wonderland offers kitschy carnival fun with a Ferris wheel, carousel, and other rides, as well as an ice rink and vendors selling silly hats and plenty of food and drink.
The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is given to London every year from the people of Oslo, Norway, in appreciation for British help during World War II (lighting ceremony first Thu in Dec, stays up until Jan 6). Free carol concerts are also held beneath the tree in December.
The Geffrye Museum's 12 historic rooms are decorated for Christmas every year, highlighting holiday customs from the 17th century to today.
Take in a seasonal concert at the grand, red-velvet-draped Royal Albert Hall; ask about "carols by candlelight" events.
Nibble your way through Borough Market, where you'll find lots of seasonal and gourmet treats; be sure and sample traditional favorites such as mulled wine, mince pie, Christmas cake, and Christmas pudding. Another popular holiday food event is the German-flavored Cologne Market, on the South Bank between the London Eye and the Royal Festival Hall.
Don't forget to pick up some Christmas crackers to give your holiday meals some extra bang. Not to be confused with something you eat, these are fun party favors containing a paper crown, a teeny gift, and a corny joke. Buy them at grocery or department stores, find a friend, and pull hard.
Spending December 25 in London? While almost everything is closed, and there is no public transport, there are still a few options for getting out. Popular church services are held both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, St. Paul's, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, among others. Warning: These draw large crowds so ask in advance about when to arrive. (For example, you may need to wait in line several hours for the Abbey's 16:00 service on Christmas Eve.)
The Peter Pan Cup swim race, held in Hyde Park every Christmas morning since 1864, is named in honor of Peter Pan playwright J. M. Barrie, who presented the first cup. You must be a member of the local swimming club to compete, but spectators are welcome (9:00, south side of The Serpentine — a lake in the center of the park). Break the ice by asking a local where to find the nearby Peter Pan statue.
Watch the Queen's annual Christmas message on the BBC at 15:00 (if you miss it, you can watch it later online).
If your visit extends through the New Year, here are two events to be aware of: New Year's Eve fireworks from the London Eye attract at least 400,000 revelers to Trafalgar Square and the nearby riverbank, with good viewing spots staked out hours in advance. Public transport is generally free after the festivities. The next day, a parade featuring 10,000 performers snakes from Big Ben to Piccadilly Circus.
Christmas Travel Strategies
- If arriving on Christmas Day, plan your transport from the airport well in advance. Your best bet is to take the Heathrow Express to Paddington, or the Gatwick Express to Victoria.
- Pick a central location if staying over December 25. There is no public transit (Tube, train, or buses) at all on Christmas Day; and reduced services on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day (Dec 26). Taxis are scarce, so be prepared for a long wait; better yet, bundle up warmly and walk.
- To save money and avoid transportation difficulties, stay someplace with a kitchen (such as an apartment, hostel, or hotel room with kitchenette) so you can prepare some of your own meals. Don't forget to buy groceries before stores close on Christmas Eve.
- If you plan to eat out December 24-26 without reservations, go ethnic: Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants are usually open in Soho, Chinatown, along Edgware Road, or near the East End's Brick Lane.