London doesn’t do hangovers. In the aftermath of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, you won’t find a city with bleary after-party vibe, rather a fistful of improved facilities and infrastructure, brand new and smartened-up hotels offering tempting winter deals, and the comforting buzz of Londoners going about their daily business, secure in the knowledge that they live in one of the world’s most captivating cities. You saw it broadcast around the world this summer; this winter is a top time to visit. Worried about the weather? Don’t be – the reality is that the capital’s winter climate is usually comparatively mild, with average temperatures of between 3 and 9°C and 20 dry days per month.
Get into the Christmas spirit
Christmas in London is a big deal, with happenings across town from November to January. Open-air ice rinks pop up at famous landmarks like the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and the Natural History Museum, while craft fairs and Christmas markets appear on the Southbank and Greenwich, among other places. Festive lights spectacularly illuminate the classic central shopping zone around Oxford and Regent Streets, while Westfield Stratford City shopping mall by the Olympic Park throws a big party for the turning-on of its lights. More traditional Christmas music is to be heard at Trafalgar Sq, which resonates with carols, sung alongside its giant spruce. Hyde Park’s family-favourite Winter Wonderland features rides, a circus, ice sculptures, a market and the big man himself, Santa Claus. On New Year’s Eve, the riverbank by the London Eye erupts in a soul-stirring fireworks display.
Everything must go!
London is famous globally as a shopping paradise and the sharpest prices are found during January sales. From backstreet boutiques to Harrods, stock clears at big discounts throughout the month. Large department stores start as early as Boxing Day; shoppers sleep off the turkey outside the doors in order to be first to grab the best bargains. Winter is also a great time to explore the city’s historic covered shopping arcades, such as Leadenhall Market or Burlington Arcade, which offer retail respite from the chilly clime and a glimpse back to the London of old.
Down the local
The cosiness of a typical London pub is a blessing in winter. Heading downtown for a good night out? Not so fast – many of London’s best pubs are a little removed from the centre. Each neighbourhood invites discovering, with its own character, characters and excellent local boozers. It’s the best way to meet Londoners and get a feel for what their city is about. Try the White Horse in Fulham, the Old Queen’s Head in Islington or the Bedroom Bar in Shoreditch, but in a city full of great pubs you’re bound to unearth your own gems.
Catch a match
Watched by hundreds of millions around the world, British football is iconic. The capital’s most successful sides of late, Chelsea and Arsenal, are globally renowned, but smaller clubs like Fulham – whose Craven Cottage home ground is the city’s most beautiful – West Ham United or QPR offer a more authentic atmosphere, plus tickets are cheaper and easier to come by. Drop a couple of divisions and match days at Brentford or AFC Wimbledon are great grassroots experiences. If the oval ball is more your thing, the Six Nations kicks off in February, guaranteeing a great atmosphere during any of England’s matches in pubs or at Twickenham itself.
Putting on a show
From cutting-edge drama to a Christmas pantomime’s nostalgic camp, London’s winter entertainment caters to every taste. The West End always has an incredible variety of musicals and plays showing, but some gems are out in the suburbs too, particularly in the north, around Camden, Highgate and Kilburn. Check local listings for what’s currently showing.
Similarly, London’s marvellous roster of galleries and museums is fattened further by cracking temporary exhibitions. This winter, just for starters, there’s top-class contemporary art: Mariko Mori at the Royal Academy of Arts and the often-controversial Turner Prize at Tate Britain. Fine art’s relationship with photography is explored at the National Gallery, while the Natural History Museum has the breathtaking Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. If you’re in the mood to decorate, head to the London Art Fair, held over five days in January.
Stroll the streets
The Underground and city buses are handy, but in winter they can get crowded as commuters seek to escape the cooler temperatures. For a fresher perspective, buy a pocket map and take to the streets: you’ll see so much more of the city. Distances around the centre aren’t as far as they seem; Camden to Kensington, for example, a good half-hour or more on the Tube, is less than an hour’s stroll across two of the city’s classic parks and via numerous famous landmarks and shops.
Sleep in style
In the calm after the Olympics storm, London’s crop of new hotels have ironed out the creases and are looking their very best. The darkly stylish Bulgari is an expensive designer splash-out with spa in fashionable Knightsbridge, while Citizen M in Southwark near Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern offers modish interiors and simple pod-style rooms with super-comfortable beds at appealing prices. Many hotels offer great off-season deals; check websites for what’s on offer.
This article was published in November 2012 and updated in April 2013.