Last Updated on October 16, 2020 by Anisa
On a cold and grey day in London, it may be tempting to just stay in bed. Winter time does not mean hibernation in London. Collect your energy, grab a coat, and head out to explore.
There are plenty of things to do in London in the winter. During the Christmas season, the city sparkles with lights. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, there are heaps of indoor attractions.
Take advantage of the season with these suggestions for what to include on the itinerary when you visit London in winter.
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The Weather in the Winter in London
I tend to get cold easily, so the weather in London during the winter leaves much to be desired. It can be cold, gray, windy, and wet. On the bright side, snow is rare, but it does get dark early. Once it starts getting dark it gets colder quickly.
For the most part, the weather shouldn’t stop you from seeing places as long as you dress appropriately. (Check out my winter packing list for some inspiration.) Still, I prefer indoor attractions during the winter unless there is something special going on for the season.
Is Winter a Good Time to Visit London?
You might be having second thoughts about visiting London in the winter, but keep in mind, there is no bad time to visit London. It is one of the most awe-inspiring cities in the world. Winter might not be my first choice of seasons to be in London, but it’s not dreary like you may think. The Christmas decorations brighten everything up and there is always a special energy. You will be so busy having fun that you may not even notice the weather.
15 Things to do in London in the winter
In spite of the weather, there are plenty of things to keep you entertained during the winter in London. This list includes a mix of indoor activities, special ideas for the season, and must-dos when it’s your first visit to London.
#1 Visit the Tower of London
The Tower of London is a must-do no matter what time of year you visit the city. The history dates back almost 1000 years. It has served as a royal residence, prison, armory, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, and a public record office. Today, it is still the home to England’s Crown Jewels and the ravens, who are known as the guardians of the tower.
Take one of the tours led by the Yeoman Warders (aka the Beefeaters) that are included with admission to learn more about the history. If you visit the Tower of London during the winter, you can also go ice skating. Is there a more spectacular backdrop for ice skating than a thousand year old castle?
#2 Enjoy an Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea is one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon indoors. It’s a feast with finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and other treats. In London, there are many different options for afternoon tea including many different themes, venues, and price ranges. You will even find several vegan afternoon tea experiences.
If you want to splurge, try the Savoy or Hotel Cafe Royal, or a more affordable option is afternoon tea at the Wallace Collection. For a unique experience, what about having afternoon tea on a double-decker bus while touring the city? Whatever option you choose, don’t forget to try the clotted cream – it’s one of my favorite British foods.
#3 Go on a Hidden London Tour
It’s always special when you get the chance to go somewhere the general public can’t. That’s what Hidden London tours do. They take guests to explore London Underground stations that have been closed or go behind the scenes at some of London’s busiest stations. There are eight different tour options.
We chose to do the Clapham South Station Hidden London tour which includes seeing one of the deep shelters used during the Blitz in World War II. Walking inside the tunnels where thousands of people slept while their houses may have been destroyed was quite moving. It drives home how tough things were in England during the War.
#4 Revel in the Holiday Festivities (Markets, Decorations, Fireworks)
London goes all out for Christmas! The decorations in Central London are on par with what you can see in NYC during the holidays. My favorites are the Angel lights on Regent Street. Be sure to also see the decorations on Oxford Street and Carnaby Street. I am always curious to see what the theme will be for Carnaby Street each year.
In addition to all the decorations, there are also several Christmas Markets in London. The most popular is Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. It’s bigger than you might expect. While there is some shopping there, it is more about the food, drinks, and carnival rides. There are also some smaller Christmas markets scattered across London including on the South Bank by the London Eye, in Leicester Square, and on the South Bank by Tower Bridge.
For New Year’s Eve, London celebrates with a huge display by the London Eye. I watch it on TV but if you want to watch from the prime viewing spot by the Houses of Parliament, you will need a ticket. If you enjoy fireworks, consider visiting London for Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night. The official day is November 5th, but there will also be plenty of fireworks to celebrate on the closest weekend.
#5 Explore the Incredible Museums
London is a paradise for museum lovers! There are countless options and many are free. It’s a great way to escape the cold too. Some of my favorite museums in London are:
- The British Museum – Check out their huge collection (over 8 million pieces) covering human history, art, and culture. Be sure to snap a photo of the iconic roof over the courtyard.
- The National Gallery – Classic art lovers can enjoy over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900 housed in a classical building in Trafalgar Square in Central London.
- The Tate Modern – Inside the former Bankside Power Station on the south bank of the Thames is a modern art gallery with a permanent collection that includes British art from 1900 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art. Don’t miss the viewing area on the 10th floor with unobstructed views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the rest of London.
- The Natural History Museum – See a fascinating collection that covers Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, and Zoology. It is also a world-renowned research center, specializing in taxonomy, identification, and conservation. This is one of the best museums for kids in London. The dinosaur collection is a particular draw.
Many of the London museums have virtual tours, so you can get an idea of what it would be like to visit before you go.
#6 Tour Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is another indoor attraction that is definitely worth visiting. It’s been a place of worship for over 1,000 years. Since 1066, every English and then British coronation has taken place at the Abbey and it is the final resting place for monarchs, poets, musicians, scientists, and politicians. It has also been the venue for 16 royal weddings.
When you visit, there is an audio tour that will share more about the history. In addition to being able to see graves of some of the who’s who from Britain’s past (and recent times), you can also admire the intricate architecture of the building and visit the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The Galleries have some fascinating historical artifacts including the 13th century Westminster Retable (England’s oldest altarpiece), the marriage license of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Coronation Chair of Mary II, and more.
#7 Explore the Houses of Parliament
Inside Westminster Palace, more commonly referred to as the Houses of Parliament, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet to govern the country. It is also home to the Elizabeth Tower, often referred to by the name of its main bell, Big Ben. To learn more about how the UK government operates, watch debates in the House of Commons and/or take a tour. There is also the option to indulge in an afternoon tea.
#8 Go Shopping
When I say go shopping, buying is optional. Some of the shops in London are attractions in their own right. Harrods is iconic and will be beautifully decorated for the holiday season. Inside, my favorite areas were the foodhall and the London souvenirs. Alternatively, check out Fortnum and Mason’s where the Queen reportedly shops. She drinks Fortnum and Mason’s Earl Grey tea. It’s located on Piccadilly Street and they also offer afternoon tea.
If you need more ideas for things to buy, check out my list of gifts for travel lovers.
Note: Shopping areas (especially Oxford Street) can be extremely crowded during the holiday shopping season. Try to go early in the day if you prefer it quieter.
#9 Conquer Up at The O2
Did you know it is possible to climb over The O2 Arena? Yes, I am referring to The O2 which has exhibit halls, bars, restaurants, a movie theatre, and a bowling alley in addition to the concert space. I never thought I would be able to do it but I did and it’s one of those experiences I will never forget.
The climbs are available all year. They only cancel them in the case of extreme weather like snow. It’s a good workout so that will keep you warm. The views and the feeling of accomplishment when you finish make it all worth it.
#10 Ride the London Eye
The London Eye is another landmark that was built for the millennium. It is not your typical Ferris wheel. You travel around the eye in a large pod. It moves slowly to allow riders to enjoy the view for about 30 minutes. If you want to upgrade the experience, you can add champagne or get a private pod.
It’s best to choose a clear day to go on the London Eye as that’s when you will get the best view. At night, it’s romantic to see the city lights, but it is easier to spot landmarks during the day. Photography is also much easier with daylight.
#11 Discover Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is a large botanical garden located in the Richmond upon Thames neighborhood in southwest London. It occupies an area of more than 100 hectares and includes flower and vegetable gardens, woodlands, ponds, conservatories, natural reserves, and wildlife. The gardens were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
During the winter, Kew Gardens is not in full bloom like the spring and summer, so it might seem like an odd choice for this list. The draw during the Christmas season is the light shows. They have a 2.6 km long light trail and laser projections on the iconic Temperate House. You can also treat yourself to mulled wine or a spiced rum cocktail at the Pavilion Bar and Grill.
Also, keep in mind, not all of Kew Gardens is outdoors. If you visit during the day, there are buildings like the Temperate House, Palm House, Marianne North Gallery, Princess of Wales Conservatory, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, Kew Palace, Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, and more to explore.
#12 Experience a Panto
London has amazing theatre options all year long, but around Christmas time, you have the chance to see a Panto. A Panto (short for Pantomime) is a type of musical slapstick-comedy stage production that is put on family entertainment during the Christmas and New Year season. The show includes gender-crossing actors, a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, and audience participation.
#13 Go Ice Skating
The Tower of London is not the only place to go ice skating in London in the winter. There are a few others that I have seen around the city. The most famous may be the one in front of the Natural History Museum. You can also find a lovely ice skating rink in front of the Somerset House near Covent Garden.
#14 Admire the Skyline
If you haven’t gotten enough of London’s gorgeous skyline, from the London Eye, Tate Modern Viewing Deck, or Up at the O2, there are a few more places that are worth checking out:
- The Shard – It’s the tallest building in London. You can pay to go to the attraction “The View from the Shard” or buy an overpriced drink at the bar of Aqua Shard. The views are priceless!
- Sky Garden – Located at the top of the building nicknamed “the Walkie-Talkie” is a bar/cafe/viewing deck. It has both indoor and outdoor areas and it is free to enter, but you need to book in advance.
- Emirates Air Line – Cross the Thames in style. The Emirates Cable Car travels from North Greenwich to Royal Victoria (and back).
#15 Take a Day Trip
It’s always a good idea to do a day trip from London to see more of the country. During the winter, I recommend choosing a day trip that has indoor attractions or special Christmas festivities.
In general, since Winter is the off-season for tourism in England, attractions will be less crowded than during other months. Christmas markets are the exception to this rule. Expect them to be busy, especially on weekends.
It is easy to do a day trip using public transportation. If you are not used to driving in the UK, it does take some getting used to. Most of these winter day trips from London have day tour options. Those are perfect for people who don’t want to deal with public transportation or driving on their own.
Some of my favorite day excursions from London in the winter are:
- Windsor Castle. It’s all dressed up for Christmas.
- Cambridge. There are plenty of museums, plus you can go punting on the Cam all year around. Just be careful not to fall in the river, it is cold!
- Harry Potter Studios. They have glittering Christmas trees and flaming Christmas puddings in the Great Hall.
- Going to a Christmas Market. There are popular holiday markets in Bath, Birmingham, Manchester, Winchester, and York.
Saving Money in London during the Winter
London can be an expensive place to visit, so it’s always helpful to save money where you can. One of the easiest ways to cut costs in London is to walk. In the winter, you might not feel like walking as much, so make sure to take public transportation rather than taxis. Get an oyster card for the best prices and try to avoid traveling during rush hours when the buses and trains are full. Get more information about the Visitor Oyster Card here.
You can also save some money by taking advantage of some of the free points of interest in London like many museums. For attractions that do charge admission, the cost adds up quickly. Consider getting the London Pass which includes popular attractions like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the View from the Shard, and more. You also get a day pass for the hop-on-hop-off bus. Get more information about the London Pass here.
Have you visited London during the winter?
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