Visiting London in winter is an unforgettable experience. Dark evenings are illuminated by cosy pub fires, twinkling Christmas stalls in outdoor markets and brilliant firework displays at the turn of the year. On top of that, many attractions, crowded in warmer months, can be enjoyed in comparative tranquillity. And while locals love to grumble about the weather, it's actually fairly mild, with average temperatures between 4 and 9°C, and roughly 20 dry days per month.
Ice skating, Christmas lights, markets and fireworks
Christmas in London is a big deal, with events across town from November to January. Open-air ice rinks pop up at famous landmarks like the Tower of London, Somerset House, Hampton Court Palace and the Natural History Museum, and 2019 sees the return of London’s first-ever (and Europe’s only) rooftop ice rink at Skylight in Tobacco Dock.
Traditional Christmas music can be heard at Trafalgar Square, which resonates with carols through much of December, sung alongside its giant tree, an annual gift from Norway dating back to 1947 to thank the UK for help during the war. 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. Buy a ticket if you want a spot with a good view.
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Craft fairs and Christmas markets appear on the South Bank and at Greenwich, among other places, while festive lights spectacularly illuminate the central shopping zone around Oxford and Regent streets. The lights are truly lovely but that sentiment is shared by many, so expect crowds. Further east, Westfield Stratford City shopping centre by the Olympic Park throws a big party for the turning-on of its lights. Head south and book tickets in advance for the spectacular Christmas at Kew immersive Christmas lights experience.
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Christmas shopping bargains
London is famous globally as a shopping paradise and the best prices are found during the annual sales. From backstreet boutiques to Harrods, stock clears at big discounts, and while things traditionally get going in early January, stores are increasingly starting their sales before Christmas. Winter is also a great time to explore historic covered shopping arcades, such as Leadenhall Market or Burlington Arcade, which offer retail respite from the chilly weather and a glimpse back to the London of old.
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Down the local: where to go for a winter tipple
The cosiness of a typical London pub is a blessing in winter. Top spots to raise a glass include Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (once frequented by Charles Dickens), Gordon’s Wine Bar (arrive early for any chance of a seat) and Ye Old Mitre (you might need to hold your breath to squeeze down the tiny alleyway that leads to it).
Away from the city centre there are some equally excellent options with each neighbourhood inviting exploration, with its own character, characters and lovely local boozers. It’s the best way to meet Londoners and get a feel for what their city is about. Try the Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, the Holly Bush in Hampstead or the Carpenter's Arms in Shoreditch.
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Catch a winter match
Watched by hundreds of millions around the world, British football is iconic. Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are globally renowned, but smaller clubs like Fulham – whose Craven Cottage home ground is the city’s most beautiful – Brentford 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 Leyton Orient or AFC Wimbledon are great grassroots experiences. If the oval ball is more your thing, rugby matches are always great fun, with local teams including the Harlequins and Saracens, and big games taking place at impressive Twickenham Stadium.
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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. Always check local listings for what’s currently showing, but at time of writing some of the most anticipated Christmas performances for December 2019 include Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium, English National Ballet's The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at Bridge Theatre.
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Similarly, London’s plump pick of galleries and museums is fattened further by temporary exhibitions in winter. The annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year display at the Natural History Museum is now in its 55th year, and as breathtaking as ever. Over at the National Portrait Gallery, the Everyday Icons: Collecting Popular Portraits exhibition will be drawing the crowds all the way into March. And at the Science Museum an exhibition on innovation, 'from enlightenment to dark matter', will run until the end of January 2020.
Stroll the streets, slide down the hills
The Underground and buses are handy, but in winter they can get crowded as commuters seek to escape the cooler temperatures. For a fresher perspective, get a map and take to the streets: you’ll see so much more of the city. Distances around the centre are rarely as far as they look; Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London are just an hour's stroll from each other, with many of the city's most famous landmarks in between.
Or if temperatures drop and those wintery white flakes start falling, do like the locals and head to the hills (or at least one of the parks) for some sledging and snowman building – Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill and Greenwich Park are firm favourites.
This article was first published November 2015, last updated September 2019.