Winter days don’t need to mean hibernation. Wrap up warm and enjoy this most wonderful time of year in London. In many respects, London during winter is at its most special. Think twinkling lights, festive markets and cosy pubs for starters.
Here, we list 15 of our favourite winter activities in London – from fancy dinners to free festive fun things to do.
1. Top of our ‘free things to do indoors’ list has to be the many London museums and art galleries. Take time to absorb the amazing collections at the British Museum, Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Also, Dippy the dinosaur is back at the Natural History Museum until early January. You’ll warm up and feed your mind at the same time.
2. We may be biassed, but winter walks in London are something special. It’s another free thing to do too. Enjoy the vast green spaces at Greenwich, Hampstead or even central London parks like Regents Park, Hyde Park or Victoria Park. Extra special, Kew Gardens looks incredible in the festive season.
3. Pantomime is a peculiarly British tradition. Way before RuPaul’s Drag Race, men dressed as dames and girls played principal boys. It’s silly, family fun. Pantos happen around the country, giving celebrities fruitful employment in winter months. The one at the London Palladium is particularly naughty with Julian Clary and Dawn French providing the smut!
4. The ice skating rink at Somerset House is wonderfully picturesque. The ice rink makes the place look even more like St Petersburg. Go ice skating at this must-visit winter wonderland and you can’t fail to feel festive.
5. Enjoy the view from up high. On a crisp, clear winter morning, London can look spectacular. Head up The Shard, take the London Eye, climb Tower Bridge or enjoy the viewpoints from natural high spots like Primrose Hill or Greenwich.
6. Christmas markets provide the opportunity to pick up presents from independent makers rather than mainstream shops. They’re super festive and usually resplendent with warm mulled wine, hand-crafted decorations and mince pies. Some favourites include Covent Garden, Portobello Road and the Southbank.
7. London’s Christmas lights get going very early. They transform the city on a grey winter’s night. Coupled with the impressive window displays in major stores like Selfridges and Liberty, the Christmas lights signal that the festivities have commenced.
8. Kenwood House in Hampstead really pushes the boat out for Christmas time. They create a fairy lit processional way through the grounds which is quite spectacular.
9. Have dinner in an actual igloo on the South Bank. They’re really more like snow globes with twinkling lights than igloos, but you get the gist. Cosy up with loved ones to enjoy cheesy fondue and mulled wine overlooking the River Thames. Jimmy’s Lodge is a pop-up for the festive season.
10. The Christmas Day dip in the Serpentine is legendary. It dates back to 1864. Hordes of brave (or daft) swimmers take the plunge in the freezing waters in Hyde Park. It’s quite the sight.
11. Given that Christmas is actually about the birth of Christ (rather than Santa, sleighs and overindulgence), experiencing a service with a choir in St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey is pretty memorable.
12. The Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square is a gift from Norway. It’s been presented to the UK since 1947 as a mark of gratitude for Britain’s efforts in World War II. The tree lighting ceremony takes place on the first Thursday in December and it’s rather charming. From there, take a walk around nearby Leicester Square, Soho and Oxford Street to absorb the festive decor and Christmas lights.
13. London’s not LA or Luxor. It gets nippy here. That’s why London (and England generally) does cosy so well. That means warm fires (smokeless fuel of course), holly and tremendously tasty, filling meals. Choose an inviting restaurant, cafe or pub and settle in for the duration. You could push the boat out at London’s oldest restaurant, Rules (go for the game, it’s to die for). There are great local pubs in which to enjoy amazing roasts. Try The Horseshoe in Hampstead or Maggie Jones’ in Kensington. If afternoon tea’s your thing, The Wolseley is amazing or Tea and Tattle cafe near the British Museum.
14. A ride on the upper deck of the number 15 bus from Trafalgar Square in the West End to Tower Hill is a London must-do experience. It’s a heritage bus ride on the classic red Routemaster, complete with bus conductor. It’s perfect for sightseeing, people-watching and absorbing the wintertime hustle and bustle from a relatively comfy seat. You’ll take in sights like St Paul’s Cathedral, Covent Garden and the Tower of London.
15. Welcome in 2023 with the New Year’s parade on 1st January. It’s loud, colourful and it takes over Piccadilly, Regents Street, Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall and Whitehall. Think American marching bands and cheerleaders, Chinese dragon displays and participants in remarkable fancy dress. Not advised if you’re suffering from the excesses of New Year’s Eve.
Of course, the best way to explore festive London is with one of our Christmas walking tours. It’s a must-do activity if you’re visiting London. Get the inside scoop on everything from Buckingham Palace to Borough Market, London Bridge to Leicester Square.