London in winter has an atmosphere all of its own. Festivals, sales and sporting events illuminate the dark evenings, cosy pubs come into their own and ice rinks and carol concerts ring in the Christmas spirit. Many attractions, meanwhile, are far quieter than they are in summer.
And while locals love to grumble about the weather, it's actually 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, Somerset House, Hampton Court Palace and the Natural History Museum, while craft fairs and Christmas markets appear on the South Bank and at 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 Square, which resonates with carols through much of December, 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 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 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 Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell, the Holly Bush in Hampstead or the Carpenter's Arms 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 – 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, 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. In winter 2015–2016, just for starters, there’s Ai Weiwei’s first British retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, a Turbine Hall installation from Abraham Cruzvillegas at Tate Modern and the breathtaking Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards at the Natural History Museum. If you’re in the mood to decorate, head to the London Art Fair (londonartfair.co.uk), 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.
This article was first published in November 2012 and updated by James Smart in November 2015.