I do love London in the winter months and it’s a really great time to travel there. We’ve been lucky enough to not only visit in general but also to spend some time there before Christmas and even be part of the New Years celebrations that I’d always watched on the TV and just wished I could visit!
London is always busy, there’s really no getting away from that, but it’s definitely a lot less busy when you visit in the winter months of December, January and February with December being the most busiest of that time because of Christmas.
What to bear in mind about travelling and visiting London in winter
The weather can make or break a visit to London but there’s no getting away from it and no one time that is likely to be better than others. Rain, cold and snow can be present for all your trip or none of it – you may well be lucky and get some bright and clear days. Just make sure you’re well stocked up with waterproofs and perhaps an umbrella and you’ll be ready for whatever the weather throws at you.
London is also a city that isn’t particularly walkable, unless you stick to certain areas. If the weather isn’t being so kind to you then you might want to make sure you have a budget for public transport, taxis or perhaps even the sightseeing buses. In the summer I’d definitely recommend walking where you can, simply because I prefer it, but it’s a lot harder to rely on doing that in winter.
The winter time also brings with it lots of darkness hours. You’ll find that from about 5pm it’s dark which is fine for that festive feeling walking among the lights, but it’s not so great for sightseeing and although I’ve always felt London is quite safe, if you’re travelling alone it’s something to remember.
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Top attractions – what not to miss
This is by no means a definitive guide to attractions in London – there are just too many to mention! These are a few of my favourites and some that I think are great even when the weather is cold.
Big Ben and the London Eye
You really don’t want to miss seeing the famous London landmarks of Big Ben, the houses of Parliament and also the London Eye. I’ve seen them so many times but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t feel like a trip to London without being there. It does get incredibly busy so I recommend an early morning trip out which has the advantage of that lovely winter light that looks wonderful. If you’re wondering whether or not to book a London Eye ticket then I’d say go for it – it gives a really unique look at the city and even my husband who hates heights loved it.
London is just amazing for museums and the fact that the vast majority are free means that they are perfect to dip in to as and when you need them. If the weather turns or if you’re just fed up of having a cold nose then an hour or two enjoying and learning could be enough to keep you smiling. You can check out some of the best free museums that we like in this post.
Enjoy a trip to the theatre
London has a great theatre vibe and there are so many things to see. As well as the West End shows that are on you have the exciting Christmas themed shows and pantomimes that pop up too. If you’re worried about what to do when it’s dark on an evening a show could be the perfect option.
2020 had a dramatic effect on the shows around but they are back on now and definitely need some support – my daughter has since been to see the Lion King recently and it’s all safe and a great option.
Visit a Market
There’s a few really good market areas in London and my favourite has to be Portobello Road market in the Notting Hill area of London. There’s a great vibe there and loads of stalls to look round and pick up an antique or two – we managed to come home with a stack of old marvel comic books once! Note that it isn’t on on Sundays – the best day to see it in action is Saturday but be prepared for crowds!
Greenwich is like a breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of London city centre. Yes it still has a load of tourists, but it’s a lot less busy and there’s a lot to do here too. There’s the Cutty Sark to visit, the meridian line and also a couple of great museums too. If you have time you can combine a trip here with a boat trip on the river Thames which is a great way to arrive.
Ice skating at Natural History museum
There’s a few different ice rinks that pop up in the winter season – we really liked the one at the Natural History museum when we went and it’s a great way to combine the museum with something else. It’s incredibly pretty if you go on an evening when it’s all lit up.
Hyde Park winter wonderland
If you’re looking to get in to the festive spirit then you need to head along to Hyde Park. The Winter Wonderland is a free event that is put on every winter (2021 dates are 19 November – 3 January) and includes a festive Christmas market, rides, an ice rink and much more. It used to be free to look round but currently has a small entry fee and other rides and activities also have a cost.
Tower of London
I don’t know why I keep saying to not miss the Tower of London when you go because I am terrible at taking my own advice! I’ve wanted to go inside for so long but never managed it – I’ll have to promise myself for next time. However, despite my ineptitude at actually visiting the inside, I’ve heard amazing things about it and it’s a great place to learn some of the past of the city. It also looks really stunning when it’s lit up at night (we went when there were poppies for remembrance day outside – so beautiful) so definitely somewhere to wander along to in the early evening.
Harry Potter Studios
Finally if you’re a fan consider visiting Harry Potter Studios – I know it’s a little bit of a trek outside the city centre but either using the public transport or getting a ticket with travel included makes it an easy day out in London. All of it is indoors except a small part in the middle so it’s perfect for visiting in the winter time.
We visited when they had decorated it all for Christmas and had a great time – you can see more about our time there in this post.
There is literally so much to do in London so here’s some more ideas about sightseeing in London from a local’s perspective.
What to miss
When planning to write this post I was sure I’d be able to come up with something to add to this section, but I’m really having trouble!
If pushed I’d say to give the shopping area around Oxford Street a miss – it’s busy and the shops are all generic high street shops that aren’t anything very special. I’m not a big shopper though so perhaps it’s worth it if you do like shops. One I would say to check out if you like shopping and are in the area is Liberty – it’s a big department store that is a little bit different to the others and it’s adorable in the run up to Christmas with the decorations.
Also do your best to miss travelling by tube when it’s rush hour (before 9am and between probably 4.30 and 6pm) as it can be incredibly busy. Not the place to be if you’re claustrophobic even if you do want to do some authentic London travel!
Special events in London in winter
I’m including some things in November here because it kinda feels like winter then and there’s a couple of things that are worth knowing about that go on.
Guy Fawkes Night
Guy Fawkes or Bonfire night as it is sometimes known is a uniquely British affair is held on the 5th of November every year. It is the celebration of time in 1605 when a plot to blow up Parliament and the then King, James I, was discovered and ultimately foiled. We celebrate this by setting off lots of fireworks to simulate how it may have looked if it had succeeded and also by lighting large bonfires with a stuffed ‘Guy’ sat on top. The Guy is supposed to be Guy Fawkes, the leader of the plot and the one who is the most well known.
Ok, history lesson over, what happens in London on this day? There are lots of organised events and bonfires that take place across the city, but you might also experience just lots and lots of fireworks going off at night time and possibly in to the weekend if the 5th falls midweek. Depending on where you’re based in the city, check to see if there are any big organised events going on. Often they’ll need a ticket but it can be a great fun evening, often involving lots of food stalls and even funfair rides. Smaller events are sometimes run by local councils like when we were in the outskirts of London one year – a small display was held in a local primary school which we could see from standing nearby.
Remembrance day is on the 11th November and in many places you’ll find that there is a 2 minute silence held at 11am. This is to commemorate all of the lost lives from all of the wars and all of the lives touched from them. Trafalgar Square is the place to be if you’d like to be part of it and add your weight to the touching event.
The second Sunday in November is Remembrance Sunday and is when there is a parade and ceremony at the Cenotaph at Whitehall. This is attended by the Queen and other political figures and is an incredibly busy event with plenty of security as you can imagine!
If you’re around at this time of year then checking out the Imperial War Museum sites around the city might be worth doing as they often have events on.
The run up to Christmas is a very exciting time in London with Christmas markets everywhere, music playing and everyone being in a great mood! I’d highly recommend a visit to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland that I mention above and also to try and experience a Christmas show if you can.
Seeing the Christmas lights can of course be done on foot but a good alternative is an open top vintage bus tour like this one.
Christmas Eve in the UK is when everything tends to grind to a halt. You’ll find that public transport can be reduced and shops will close early – do bear all of this in mind especially if you are self catering in an apartment. Get your food in! Again it’s a wonderful time to be around the city and almost magical as it slows down to a standstill. A lovely thing to do is to attend a Christmas service at one of the big cathedrals (or even a smaller one near your hotel if you want to have a less busy time) – you can attend both St Pauls and Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve although they do get very busy and the latter requires tickets to be booked in advance (it’s still free though – see here).
Christmas Day can be both wonderful and frustrating for a traveller in London. There is no public transport running at all so you may be reliant on taxis (and at a more expensive rate) and shops and tourist sites will not be open.
You may find a few special tours running and of course restaurants will be serving Christmas dinners too. Do make sure you books something in advance if you want to be sure of a table.
Boxing Day on the 26th still sees some closures and the city is still not back to normal. My advice is to check where you plan to visit to see if it’s open.
New Years Eve
If you ever watch the news and watch as the new year is brought in around the world then you’ll likely have seen London on there – it’s a big one and each year the celebrations get bigger.
The celebrations take place along the river Thames from the houses of Parliament down to Tower bridge and early on New Years Eve you’ll find lots of travel disruptions around the area and it being cordoned off in preparation for the ticketed evening. Do check if you’re around and not heading to the official evening celebrations as you might find you can’t get to where you want to go.
Tickets – The official celebrations are a ticketed event but I was definitely surprised when we applied for tickets a couple of years ago about how reasonable the cost was – I think £10 a ticket at the time. If you want to get a ticket then head to the London Mayor website, to check if they are on sale yet (September / October time is when they are released) and if not, get on the mailing list and they’ll let you know when tickets go on sale. If you miss out, keep an eye on the website as sometimes more gets added.
2021 – I don’t think the celebrations are going ahead this year again due to Covid.
We had a really great time when we went, however it was very cold so do be aware of that, especially if you’re bringing kids. It felt like a long, long, wait until midnight with the temperatures dropping although it was pretty spectacular when the time arrived for the new year and we could be part of the amazing firework display. We managed to find a good spot that wasn’t surrounded by other people, you don’t have to be right in the centre of the crowd to have a good time.
One thing to note if you’re worried about getting back to your hotel after the fireworks have ended is that there is free public transport from 23.45 on New Years Eve until 4.30am on New Years Day. It is pretty busy though – we walked a fair bit before getting the DLR back to our hotel in Greenwich because I couldn’t face a loaded tube station!
New Years Day
After the late late night of New Years Eve you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole city will sleep on New Years Day but that’s not the case at all.
Every year a New Years Day Parade takes place at 12 noon and starts at Piccadilly – you don’t need a ticket, just turn up and enjoy! For full information on the route of the parade check their website here.
What to take to London in Winter
Waterproofs and layers will be your friend in London in the winter months and will ensure you’re good to go no matter what the weather forecast. It’s all about keeping warm and comfortable!
As I mentioned in my Edinburgh in winter guide, a reusable coffee cup is a must every time I go away now. I really love it for city breaks – and even more so when it’s cold. Get it filled up in your hotel before you head out or use it in coffee shops as your day goes on – more and more are catching on to the idea of less waste, especially in big cities like London. I like insulated ones that can keep your drink warm as long as possible.
In order to be ready for any wet weather that strikes I recommend a small umbrella and also a reusable poncho. Both of these items can be stored in your bag as you’re enjoying the city and removes the temptation to buy those awful single use plastic ponchos that you see. Not great for the environment or your travel budget.
Rain jackets are a given and I’d also suggest a thermal base layer, especially if you’re looking to enjoy a late night wandering around!
Where to stay
There is an absolute myriad of different options of where to stay in London and your budget and time of year you visit will likely dictate what is available to you. Christmas and New Year is more expensive and the closer you are to the centre of London the more expensive it will also be. Book as early as you can if you’re planning to visit for the New Year celebrations.
Visiting in London means it can be cold, wet and unpredictable weather so I do recommend to stay as central as possible if you can which means you can decamp to your hotel for a warm up if you feel like you need to! Check what you want to do in your time in London and plan your stay in those areas.
Budget options can be hard to come by but I always recommend Travelodge – it was the one hotel that allowed us to travel cheaply even having 2 kids along side us and they have really improved over the years. London has a load of options from this brand and the most central is in Covent Garden. A good, clean budget option if you just want a place to rest your head. You can see more about this hotel here.
Mid range options are plentiful – one hotel I’ve heard great things about is the Holiday Inn in Mayfair. It’s standard fare from this chain but the location is perfect.
For a more upmarket option the Corinthia Hotel which is right in the heart of the city and just a stone’s throw from Westminster is a great choice.
As always I recommend Booking.com for searching hotels as you can book risk free and often without needing a deposit. If you want a good overview of London hotels check here.
Renting an apartment is also a great idea – The link above for London hotels also often has some apartments but I also love AirBnB for this and we’ve successfully used it in many places.
Getting to and from London
London is an international hub and as such you can get here from all around the world. The main airport is London Heathrow and the best thing about this airport is that it is on the tube network. It’s really easy to hop on the tube and get to wherever you need to go or you could also do the Heathrow Express
Other airports that serve the city are Gatwick, located in the south, Luton and Stansted in the North and also City airport in the centre. These tend to have more local and budget airlines serving them.
There’s many bus transfer options available if you need that – check these out for the areas you might need:
If time is of the essence then a private transfer is probably your best bet.
Trains also come from all around the UK and depending on where you’re coming from you’ll arrive at different stations. There are a lot of train stations in London, don’t be fooled in to thinking you will be directly in the centre – check out where your train station is! Trainline is the site I always check for the best prices and times to get in and out of the city.
International trains leave from St Pancras which is right next to Kings Cross – we’ve done the Eurostar a couple of times now and it’s really easy and straightforward in both directions.
Coaches arrive at Victoria coach station which is fairly central. If you want a cheap way to get to London from other parts of the UK or even from mainland Europe then consider coach travel – it’s much cheaper than the trains, although I definitely prefer train travel! Check out Megabus, National Express and also Eurolines.
London is definitely not a city that I would recommend driving in so if possible, leave your car at home and take public transport in. If you must take your car then check out the Park and Ride options around the city.
Getting around London
There are many options for getting around the city – my go to website for checking the best routes is always the official London Transport site. I recommend getting an Oyster card if you can – they are available from all the stations and also some shops. If you’re coming from outside the UK then a good option is to buy in advance from here.
Tube – there’s a great tube network that runs throughout the city and it’s a must to at least go on it once. As I mentioned above do try and stay away in peak times as it’s just awful and really busy. Think sardines in a can!
Taxi – Taxis are plentiful and a really nice way to get around, if a little more pricier than other options. If you’re in a group it can work out quite reasonable though.
Bus – buses are cheaper than the tube if you don’t have a day ticket so if you’re on a budget I’d recommend using these. It can be complicated knowing where to go and where to get off (although most buses do tell you the next stop nowadays) so be sure to know your bearing before getting on one.
Bike – I confess I know nothing about biking around the city but for some it’s a great option. There are many available for hire with the Santander cycle scheme which you can see more about here.
Boat – the Thames is ever present and it’s a great way to get around, slow down and see the city from a different view. As well as the more tourist centred river tours that you can go on, there’s also the river bus which can be accessed using an oyster card or buying tickets from the pier. There are many different routes and buses – again the TFL site has all you need to know.
Walking – My preferred mode of transport is always slowing down and just walking. It’s a difficult city to do everything this way as it’s so spread out, but if you concentrate your activities on a certain area then you can see so much more by walking round. I often find that by the time I’ve navigated the tube stations, waited around and exited again it’s often about the same time as walking!
Sightseeing bus – some people love them and some people hate them. I think they are great for huge cities like London as it can really help take the pressure off getting to and from the sights. The city is spread out over such a large area it can really take its toll on your feet! There are loads of options in London from your basic sightseeing tour to a vintage open top bus.
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