Wondering what to do in London in winter? This evergreen article is the result of 11 years of living in London (between the two of us) and 8 more travelling back and forth! We’ll share 15 awesome things to do in and around London in December, January and February, and a great place to stay right in town!
I’ve always loved London in winter. True, the city is amazing at all times of the year – in spring, when the first daffodils start to bloom, in summer when everyone gets out to enjoy those (rare) warm days, in autumn when London’s parks and gardens turn multicoloured.
But there’s no time like winter. London is one of the most amazing cities on the planet around Christmas – between Christmas lights, markets and displays in the shop windows, Christmas in London has always warmed our hearts, even though we had to spend the festivities away from our families. Winter is also the time for ice skating, winter festivals, cozy pop-up cafes and rooftop bars.
Weather in London in Winter
Yes, but how bad is the weather in London in winter, you may be asking. To be honest, in all the years I spent in the city, I never found London winters to be harsh – on the other hand, I hated summers, since there usually were two weeks of nice weather followed by three months of rain.
Fellow immigrants coming from warmer countries usually wanted to get away – but to be honest, I loved the roaring fires, hot cups of eggnog and comfort food, and generally speaking the atmosphere in the city between December and February.
London isn’t as cold as places like Berlin or Helsinki in winter – temperatures are usually between 5 and 10 degrees during the day, dipping close to freezing at night. Rain is common in London throughout the year, but the months of February and March are usually quite dry – on the other hand, it is often windy, but London is just beautiful on those blue sky winter days, when the wind blows all the clouds away.
Here’s our evergreen guide of what to do in London in winter – 15 fun activities to help you enjoy the city even in the coldest months, making the most of the festive atmosphere.
London in December
1) Ice Skating
You know it’s almost Christmas in London when ice-skating rinks start popping up. Every winter there are new openings all through the city, and spending an afternoon skating at an ice rink is something you simply cannot miss when visiting London in winter.
You can take your pick between rinks located near London’s most famous landmarks, in parks or in the ‘Winter Villages’ like Winterville or Winter Wonderland. Our favourite London ice rinks are the Somerset House, National History Museum and Tower of London ones – prices usually range between £10 and £15, and rinks normally remain open from late November until early January.
If you’re afraid of catching a cold, why not head to the ice rink in Canary Wharf, the only covered rink in the city, open until late February.
2) Christmas Markets in London
The Christmas Market Mania sweeping all over the world didn’t spare London! Every December, a number of Christmas Markets open in London, with an array of wooden cabins selling gifts, hot wine and street food, as well as winter-themed activities for the whole family, including ice skating.
The ‘daddy’ of them all is Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, a mammoth of a Christmas Market with over 200 huts, more than 100 rides and a Santa village. It’s fun, but it gets super crowded – I prefer heading to Wintertime in Southbank or Winterville in Clapham Common, which also have the added benefit of feeling less ‘package’ and have a little more local flair.
Other Christmas markets to visit in London are the Japanese-themed Hyper Japan Christmas market in Wapping and the Christmas Fair at the Chelsea Physic Gardens.
3) The Best Christmas Windows
Another thing I love doing in London at Christmas time is looking at the Christmas displays in the windows of the most famous department stores in town. Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum and Mason’s and Harvey Nichols (which is where Nick and I met, did you know?) usually set up stunning Christmas windows. Definitely worth the detour, even of you’re not buying anything!
4) Winter at Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is another wonderful place to visit at Christmas time. You may be thinking why, since plants don’t usually show their best in winter – but the clever folks at Kew Gardens decided to make up for the lack of flowers with some truly spectacular lighting displays.
Think tunnels with a million twinkling fairy lights, light displays over the greenhouses, and light and sound installations over the trees and lakes, turning the garden into a true winter wonderland. In 2017 there was also a Christmas tree decorated with wooden sledges – I wonder what 2018 will bring?
London in January/February
5) Lumiere Festival
If you’re visiting London around the end of January, you’re in for a treat! The last two years, there’s been a brand-new winter festival – Lumiere London, a series of light installations by contemporary artists all over the city.
This year, the festival took place in six locations – King’s Cross, where there was a stunning water-themed installation by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, nearby Fitzrovia, the West End, Mayfair, Westminster and Waterloo. The displays are visible from about 5.30 pm until late night – don’t miss them, if you happen to be visiting at the right time!
6) Chinese New Year
The dates of Chinese New Year celebrations vary between late January and early/mid February, depending on the year. If you find yourself in London around the same time, don’t miss visiting – London’s Chinese New Year celebrations are the largest outside Asia!
The heart of celebrations is Chinatown near Soho, especially Gerrard Street, the main drag. On New Year’s Day there’s usually a huge street parade with drum performances, lion and dragon dances, and lots of street food stalls. If you miss New Year’s Day, fear not – 15 days later the Lantern Festival takes place, and at night the streets are illuminated by hundreds of red lanterns.
Things to do in London all Winter
7) Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition
This is a true winter tradition for us! The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is held every year at the National History Museum, and it’s open from October to May – so theoretically, you don’t have to visit in winter, but we’ve decided to include since we’ve visited this exhibition either in November or December for the last 15 years!
If you’re a photography and nature lover, this exhibition is absolutely unmissable. You can even submit your own shots and hope to be featured, but competition is pretty high, with some of the best nature photographers participating every year.
8) Visit a Pop-Up Winter Bar, Café or Restaurant
Londoners have a real knack for making the most of winter, with pop-up bars and restaurants opening up all over the city, from the riverbank to the rooftops. Every winter there are new places to choose from, so this list will never be an exhaustive one – here are some of our favourite locations from winter 2017/18, who knows, maybe they’ll be around next year as well?
- Coppa – bubble-shaped ‘igloos’ on the riverbank with views over Tower Bridge, perfect for afternoon tea (and for the wow effect, of course)
- Hot Gin Roof at Ham Yard Hotel – hot gin on a Piccadilly rooftop. Need I say more?
- Queen of Hoxton – every winter there’s a new pop up on this Shoreditch rooftop. 2018’s theme was Moroccan Medina!
- The Candlelight Club – this 1920’s speakeasy-themed supper club hosts candlelit events all over London year round… but the idea of a candlelit dinner is just so wintery, isn’t it?
9) Tour London’s Best Pubs
A pub is just a great place to be in London in winter – especially if it’s not just any old Weatherspoon’s, but a real, cozy pub, with comfort food and a roaring fire.
Finding a pub in London is not a problem, finding a good one is a whole different story – the pub panorama of the city is dominated by chains, and most pubs end up having a very ‘fake’ feel. Some of our favourite pubs in the city include the following:
- The Churchill Arms near Notting Hill, famous for its flowery façade and Thai cuisine,
- Historic pubs in the Docklands like the Grapes, opened over 500 years ago,
- The Pride of Spitalfields, famous for its resident cat Lenny (and for the beers, of course)
10) Head to a Cat Cafe for Tea and Cuddles
Who doesn’t love a cat cafe? When it’s freezing outside there’s nothing better than a slice of cake and a warm drink with furry friends to warm up your soul. There are surprisingly few cat cafes in London, but luckily there’s a great one – Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in Shoreditch, named after the cat in Alice in Wonderland!
All the cats at Lady Dinah’s are rescue cats, and some are periodically up for adoption. Bookings are essential – you can opt for the Entry, Cats and a Cuppa formula for £10, or choose to have high tea for £25. You’re allowed to play with the cats for 90 minutes, but please don’t forget to be respectful!
11) Enjoy Afternoon Tea
No, I’m not just talking about a cup of milky English breakfast with sugar – afternoon tea in London is a serious event, with restaurants, hotels and teahouses around the city serving up hot brews accompanied by trays of delicious mini-sandwiches, scones and other sweet and savoury finger food.
A good tea experience can be pricey, with charges for the full works usually starting around £50, but it’s worth doing at least once – and it’s a good idea to do so in winter, since tea o’clock is 5, when it gets dark and chilly. There are literally hundreds of places to choose from to enjoy afternoon tea in London, but here are some great options:
- The Ritz – this is English tradition at its best! You need to dress up, as jeans, trainers and sportswear are not allowed, but the setting in the Palm Court is out of this world
- The Gallery at Sketch – a creative tea menu in a stunning pink tea room, with a vague retro feel
- Sosharu – the best pick in town for a Japanese tea experience
- Sunborn Afternoon Tea – this hotel in a luxury yacht located near Canary Wharf offers afternoon tea in collaboration with Hummingbird Bakery, one of my favourite bakeries in London!
12) Go on a Food Tour
If you’re one of those people that think food in London is bad, I’m sorry, we can’t be friends! The gastronomic scene in London is second to none, and a food tour is a great way to get to know about it, especially if it’s your first time in town!
Last winter we headed on a street food tour around Brick Lane and Shoreditch, including British classics like fish and chips and bacon butties, as well as samples like curry and bagels, reflecting the multicultural history of the area. There are also excellent food tours being held around Soho, Brixton and more, vegan tours, carnivore tours, and even a cupcake and macaron tour – something we have to try very soon!
13) Find the Best Street Art in London
In recent years, London has also become a great street art destination. There are street art tours you can take, or you can simply make your own way to some of the best street art hotspots in town and create your own tour – places like Shoreditch, Hackney and Brick Lane all have great pieces to be found, as does Camden Town, which is a must for all Amy Winehouse fans!
London street art changes frequently, so some of the pics you see here may be gone by the time you visit – this is one of our favourites, and it can be found in Miller Street, Camden Town!
14) Go on a Winter Walk
Winter is a wonderful time to walk around London. The city’s outdoor spaces are overrun with visitors as soon as a little bit of sun and warmth come out – walking around on a chilly, misty winter day may not sound like your idea of fun, but you’ll be pretty much guaranteed there won’t be many people about. The atmosphere of London in winter is always magical, even if the weather is not the greatest!
Hampstead Heath is my favourite destination for a winter walk in London – make sure you walk all the way up the hill to see London from above, and end your winter walk at Kenwood House, a villa turned art gallery, where you can enjoy a hot drink. Other wonderful places for a winter walk in London are Regent’s Canal, heading west from Camden Town all the way to Little Venice, Highgate Cemetery, London’t best and final resting place for Karl Marx and many other, and Alexandra Park close to the famous ‘Ally Pally’, where you can get awesome London views too!
15) Visit a Rooftop Garden
Yes, I can hear you – walking in the cold is not fun. I accept that. So, if you find yourself in London in winter looking for nature minus the freezing temperatures, I have the perfect solution for you – the Sky Garden!
Sky Garden is a rooftop garden located on the top of 20 Fenchurch Street, the city skyscraper also known as the Walkie Talkie. Access to the gardens is free with prior reservation, and you’ll get to enjoy amazing London views as an added bonus!
Try to book at least a week in advance if you want to be sure to visit Sky Garden – if you can’t find an available slot you can always opt for plan B, and book a table at one of Sky Garden’s restaurants and bars!
Where to Stay in London
I’ve always thought that serviced apartments are the way to go in London. Not only do they offer much better value for money than hotels, they’re also a great way to save meals by self catering instead of eating out all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love food in London and there are indeed some great budget restaurants and street food options, but eating out three times a day can be pricey!
My favourite serviced apartment company to use in the UK is SACO Apartments, offering apartment rental in over 260 locations worldwide, from Europe to the US via Asia and Australia. We first stayed with SACO Apartments in Bath back in 2013, when we visited together with my family for my MA graduation from Bath Spa university.
We loved the apartment, much larger and with better mod-cons than similar priced rentals, and so we decided to stay at a SACO property again during our last London visit – and it was a great idea!
SACO The Cannon is located in Cannon Street, in the heart of the city. The Thames, St.Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern, Tower Bridge, Borough Market and dozens of other London attractions are within walking distance – meaning you don’t need to spend your time on the crowded and pricey Tube!
The apartment itself opened up to a quiet backstreet, and it was bright and spacious, with comfortable bed, well-stocked bathroom, a small kitchen and dining area – just what we needed for a short break. We loved that the kitchen was stocked with essentials – delicious tea and coffee, milk, cereal and some delicious sweet and savoury popcorn!
There was also a sofa to lounge onto and great Internet connection, as well as a common room downstairs stocked with books, magazines and some complimentary tea and coffee. To make matters even better, complimentary breakfast is served on Sundays!
Nick and I were guests of SACO The Cannon for the duration of our stay. Thanks again for the kind hospitality!
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