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January 2018 London and surrounds

I know, who goes to England inJanuary? This time works for us and we can handle cold/damp weather. We know there are plenty of indoor sites to see, and the shortened days may keep us from overdoing it. We do not like flying through our experiences, so want plenty of time in the museums. We love all things history; I love churches; my daughter will like an 'activity' like a workshop, something hands on. I checked theater offerings, but many many shows are sold out!

We plan the following for our 9 days on ground:

Victoria and Albert
Tower of London
British Museum or Natural History Museum
Pub crawling on a tour or Walks of London
A day of shopping (19 yr. old with us) and tea
Westminster Abbey
St. Pauls
Hampton court

Outside the city:
Stonehenge/day tour plus ???? Maybe the early access time which is only available one day we are there.
Other outside the city day tours? Bath? Oxford? Leeds Castle/Canterbury/Cliffs of Dover combined?

Recommendation?
(1) Which day trips do you recommend for a first time visitor? We may get back to England someday, but it is not certain. I would like to see other parts of the country, but given the time of year, and our desire to soak in our experiences, rather than run all over I thought keeping to the southern portion of the country might make sense.
(2) Do you favor train travel, or is a car really necessary? I thought we might need a car to experience Cotswold area, but it might not be that appealing in mid January.

(3) Anything you would avoid?

Posted by
3551 posts

London is a wonderful visit anytime of the yr.
9 days is not a lot as the sights deserve max time. They are blockbusters.
I would include Windsor castle as your side trip. Or one of the colleges like Oxford or Cambridge .
U really do not have time for anything more.

Posted by
8889 posts

Canaanski,

Yes, you need one day out of London. Hampton Court is on the edge of suburbia, and easy access by train, but you would want to see a bit of countryside. Suggestions (pick one/two of):

  • Oxford or Cambridge (either/or). Both easy day trips by train.
  • Canterbury and Dover. On same day. Try to get a guided tour for Dover (castle etc.). Canterbury is more "DIY" with a good guide book you can see cathedral and town.
  • Windsor Castle as alternative to Hampton Court. Only just outside London, easy train access.
  • If (and only if) you are never coming back to Europe - day trip by train to Paris. Otherwise give Paris a full week on your next visit. It deserves it.

(2) Do you favor train travel, or is a car really necessary? I thought we might need a car to experience Cotswold area,

The Cotswolds needs a car, it also needs 2+ days, which you haven't got, and no way you want to drive out of or into London. It can also be combined with Oxford and Bath, but you will have to save that for another trip.

NOT Stonehenge. Only worth it if doing a loop of the area (E.g. Bath+Cotswolds).

It will be cold (0-5°C), it will be damp. You may have at least one wet day. But overall it will be grey, expect cloud cover and not seeing the sun for days on end.

Posted by
27366 posts

All my time in England as fallen between late May and mid-September, so I don't know anything about tour availability or opening hours at attractions in January. With that caveat:

  • I think you'll generally get where you're going faster by train, unless you're heading to multiple small towns (as in the Cotswolds).

  • At least in the summer, you can pick up a one-day van tour of the Cotswolds from Bath or from Moreton-in-Marsh. Moreton is a very short train ride from Oxford. I think there must be Cotswold tours from London, but you'll be wasting some of your sightseeing day going back and forth. A trip to the Cotswolds has you outdoors nearly all the time as you walk around the little villages. The cost will be at least $100 per person, probably more. Do you want to commit that kind of money when you may have rather miserable weather? If you happen to have rain and fog, even the views from the van/bus will be iffy.

  • I much preferred Oxford to Bath, though I loved the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, and I'm sure many tourists find the Roman baths very interesting. My issue with Bath was aesthetic. Historic Bath is Georgian, and to my eyes all those Georgian buildings looked alike. One hour to see a crescent or two and I had had enough. I found Oxford more visually interesting, but it is definitely a matter of opinion. Both towns have sufficient interior sights to offer protection from January weather if it is needed. If the weather's OK, the walking tour of Oxford offered by the tourist office is worthwhile.

  • Several of the plays I wanted to see in London were sold out or had only poor seat locations available when I arrived, but I checked the theatres' websites every day, and tickets popped up. They were, of course, full-price tickets. As long as you have a list of several plays that are possibilities for you, I think it's extremely likely that you'll find at least one of them available.

  • The British Museum is open until 8:30 PM on Fridays. The V&A is open until 9:45 PM the same day (the shop until 10 PM). That info is from their websites as of today, so I hope it's valid for January. I don't know about the British Museum, but the V&A has only some of its galleries (the ground floor as of September) open after its usual closing time. If you go earlier in the day, ask about what's available during the extended hours so you kow how to attack your visit. And beware the rather inadequate lighting in the V&A in the part of the ground floor with a skylight. Ain't no light coming in that skylight at night; they need to add more artificial lighting in that section so visitors have a better view of the displays during the extended hours.

  • Both of those museums are huge. I think it would take something like 20 hours to see the V&A. Spend some time on the museums' websites to figure out what sections you most want to see so you can focus on what will mean the most to you.

Posted by
2494 posts

I did a day trip to the Cotswolds mid-September 2017. I took Becky's Secret Cottage tour of the Cotswolds which was a delightful experience and gave me lots of photo opportunities of the beautiful countryside and charming remote villages. An easy train ride from Paddington station to Moreton-in-Marsh. Becky's staff meets you at the station at 10 am (I think) and takes you all around in a Mercedes minivan with a capacity of 7 passengers. This is fun because you don't have to do the driving and the guide gives you wonderful background and history of all the places you visit. You get to walk around in each village and experience the atmosphere for yourself. Delightful! Plus, you will be taken to Becky's genuine thatched cottage (about 400 years old) 3 times for mid-morning tea, luncheon and an afternoon cream tea. Her daughter Polly is quite the wizard in the kitchen preparing piles of wonderful foods. You are treated like friends and are seated in their cozy den by a massive fireplace. Then you are delivered back to the train station at 4:30 pm or so for your ride back to Paddington or to another village.

On the other hand, given that you will be there in mid January, perhaps a day trip to Bath would be a better option. There is lots to do and see there and the weather might not interfere in your plans as much as the Cotswolds. Perhaps, save the Cotswolds for another trip during a different season.

Posted by
16894 posts

Many sites that require a car will be closed in winter. Not that actual Costwolds villages will be closed, but several visit-able manor houses and small museums will be.

Trains serve many destinations. The further the ride, the more possibility for cost savings if you buy a roundtrip ticket at least a day ahead in a train station or through www.nationalrail.co.uk.

I don't know if you're interested in Shakespeare, but the RSC has 3 plays in rotation through January 20 at the Barbican Center in London.

A sitting-down rainy-day option could be doing a brass rubbing at St. Martin in the Fields before or after a free lunchtime concert in the church.

Posted by
884 posts

I would add the National Gallery and both Tate Galleries to your plans.

Posted by
27366 posts

The National Gallery is open till 9 PM on Fridays. The Tate Britain doesn't have a day with extended hours; it closes at 6 PM. Most museums want you out of the galleries by about 15 minutes before the official closing time.

Posted by
163 posts

I love London in the winter and especially enjoy spending the evenings taking in a show. Don't give up on the theatre! I plan to be in London the first week of January and am booked in for three evenings of theatre - all still have good seats available: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (have seen their other productions), Witness for the Prosecution (it's being put on at the county hall - so cool!) and just yesterday some tickets opened up for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (1&2). The Mousetrap is tradition and usually has seats available this far out.

Posted by
11294 posts

I'd like to second Emma's suggestion of Liverpool. It's very different from London, it's much cheaper, and there's lots to see and do there, almost all of it indoors so it's not weather-dependent. It's most famous for its Beatles sights, but there are lots of other things too, many related to its maritime history.

Here's my trip report from September 2016, with lots more details; skip down to the Liverpool sections: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/uk-trip-report-glasgow-manchester-liverpool-in-september-2016

Posted by
1329 posts

I'd skip both the Cotswolds and Stonehenge. The days are going to be very short, you're at Canadian latitudes. London Walks are always an excellent choice and since there's no need to book in advance, you can let the weather be your guide. If you do travel outside of London, I'd take the train. A car is a pain in the butt, especially if you're not used to driving on the left. Plus there is parking and all the insurance hassles.

Posted by
6113 posts

In January, there will be little colour in any gardens and daytime will be short - it will be dark by 4/4.30 pm, so avoid the Cotswolds. This area is best served by car over a minimum 2 day period, which you don't really have time for.

Stonehenge wouldn't be in my personal top 100 places to visit in the UK, but it's your holiday, not mine. Does this interest you or do you feel that you should go because others have been or it's in a guidebook as a "must see"? I would prefer to go to Hampton Court or Greenwich as a break from central London, not Stonehenge. It is dark until c 8am, so check early access hours.

Leeds Castle/Canterbury/Dover is too much for a single day trip and you will spend more time in transit than actually visiting, especially if this is by coach from central London. Some tours say they will see the white cliffs of Dover, which means you don't get out of the bus and the cliffs are best seen from the sea anyway! Canterbury is the easiest to cover by public transport.

If you want a longer day trip, consider York by train. Plenty to see indoors if the weather is inclement such as the Rail Museum and the Minster.

Personally, I would avoid the Hoho buses - take regular buses instead using an Oystercard. Take a walking tour early in your holiday.

January is usually a quiet time for theatres as everyone has spent up for Christmas, so tickets should be available for many shows at the Tkts booth in Leicester Square on the day.

Posted by
6744 posts

Personal preference would be to skip St. Paul’s but only because after seeing cathedrals like Notre Dame, Seville, and St. Peter’s, it doesn’t compare. I also think it is expensive for the amount of time one spends in it. Again, that’s a personal preference. Leeds, Canterbury and Dover is great, but you’d have a hard time doing all in a day. To properly see the Cotswolds I feel you need a rental car. You’d be able to see a few in one day. Stratford upon Avon is also a nice town near the Cotswolds. I agree with acraven about Bath. The Roman bathes are interesting as is the area by the cathedral and the river, but you don’t need all day to see it. In London, if the holiday lights are still up, then Oxford and Carnaby streets are nice to walk at night. If It was either Windsor Castle or Hampton Court, I’d choose Windsor. You could also tour Kensington palace if you had time, but you have a lot on your “to see” list already.

Posted by
1843 posts

Two things I haven’t seen mentioned

  1. Bletchley Park, home of the codebreakers for a day trip.
  2. British Library’s treasure room where you may find a Gutenberg bible, Magna Carta, Davinci’s notebooks and other manuscripts, original sheet music from different composers.
Posted by
344 posts

If you enjoy getting out and about consider award-winning London Walks. They have tons of 2 hour walks in London, led by qualified guides (10 GBP per person). If you go to their website, they have a calendar for every month, day by day, so you can see what walking tours are available when. There is no registration, you just show up. They go rain or shine, but if it is a rainy day and you decide you don't wish to be outdoors, no problem, simply don't go. http://www.walks.com/

Posted by
3813 posts

If you are trying to choose between Windsor Castle or Hampton Court, I'd do both. They are very different. Windsor--the town of Windsor--is a nice place to walk around. Visit the shops and try a cafe or restaurant before heading back to London by train.
You can get every place you are considering by train.
You don't need a car for this trip.
Save the Cotswolds for a future visit when you will have warm weather and can walk a bit in the villages.
Definitely visit the British Museum.
Another recommendation for the London Walks Company.
www.walks.com
Take a look at their "Great Escapes", day trips (with a guide) out of London:
http://www.walks.com/other-tours/day-trips-from-london/

Posted by
8823 posts

A few thoughts:
1. Daylight hours will be curtailed, will be dark around 4pm. Adjust your mindset and itinerary accordingly.
2. Include the Museum of London. I always recommend it as it provides a wonderful historical perspective of how the city evolved.
3. Take a look at the half price ticket booth in Leisceter Square for same nights theatre options. Have never gotten a bad seat or seen a bad performance. In fact many years ago saw the quintessential American musical, Guys and Dolls. Seats were in the stalls. Absolutely one of the best performances I've ever seen anywhere! You can now look online to see what plays will be available.
4. Liberty, Harrods and Selfridges. All unique, Liberty in particular for a shopping experience.
5. Another vote for London Walks. www.walks.com. I'm returning in November and as I do each visit I'll be taking one or two of their walks. Fun, informative and easy on the pocket book.

6. Since you have a 19 year old in tow be certain to explore one or more of these parts of London. Brick Lane, Camden Lock or Portobello Road. Lots of eye candy. Although given the weather probably a bit more subdued.
7. So many museums to choose from. The British Museum is huge and can be overwhelming. Pace yourself.

8. As mentioned don't miss the Treasure Room at the British Library.
9. I'd opt for an overnight in Salisbury combined with a visit to Stonehenge. Doesn't get more historical than that and I love the reality that debate still continues on how and why? The Cathderal in Salisbury will be something you'll all in enjoy. Travel by train. Bus to Stonehenge.
10. Lots to see and do in London. Research what's really important for your family to see and have a back up plan.
11. Mind the Gap

Posted by
4011 posts

I know, who goes to England inJanuary?

Those who don't goose-step to the one-track mindset of only summer travel to Europe with mobs and mobs of North Americans. I think January is a wonderful idea. The weather is warmer than the northeast of the US.

The museums & churches/cathedrals in London will be at your beck and call as will be Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, Hampton Court and college towns like Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum is arguably one of the best regional museums in the world given its extraordinary collection. I've never been to Liverpool but after reading Harold's trip report, I would be eager to go and January sounds like a good time. Consider going to Evensong whether in London or on a day trip. In London, go to theatre.

Day trips: Windsor, Oxford, Cambridge, York (that's a long day trip--2 hours each way by train--but worth it). Overnight in York would be more fun for you.

Posted by
56 posts

Am trying to ascertain value of London Pass with Travel Card. Essentially I have to guess which attractions I plan to see and then simply figure out breakeven. With 9 days in London, but perhaps 2-3 of those venturing outside the city, can I make sense of it? All of the recommendations made by respondents is great!

Posted by
27366 posts

It is very difficult to value those city cards on a first trip, because to predict how many of the covered places you will visit, you must estimate how long you will spend at each one. And London is trickier than most because a lot of its major museums are free, with just a donation requested. The card won't help you at all at the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial War Museum, Tate Gallery, National Gallery, etc.

London's sprawling geography is another complication, especially in conjunction with the availability of free sights. Efficient use of a pass means concentrating the high-cost sights during the period of the card's validity if the card doesn't cover all your time in the city. That can have you zipping hither and yon to rake in the savings. In London that could mean walking or tubing right past a "free" sight that you want to see in order to get to a pay-to-enter sight while the card is valid. So your sightseeing may not be as time-efficient as it would be if you focused only on the location of the stops on your list and hit them in a logical order.

In addition, there are 2-for-1 offers for some of the pricey sights. I'm a solo traveler so am not up on the details, but I know those offers are linked to rail tickets. Googling will turn up some information, I'm sure. And the 2-for-1 deals are discussed on this forum frequently.

Edited to add: You can easily get an Oyster Card (£5 deposit, refundable at the end of your trip, or £3 for a Visitor Oyster with no refund) and put money on it. That way, you pay just a bit over half the usual cost for riding the tube or the buses. There's also a daily cap that will save money if you are a heavy user of transit services. I doubt that the transportation part of the pass confers much in the way of extra benefits, but I confess that I have not researched it.

Posted by
1329 posts

There are plenty of discussions on this forum and Trip Adviser about the London Pass. My take is that it only makes sense for a solo traveller on a longer trip and bought with a discount. Of course, that assumes that the attractions covered are ones you wish to see. The London pass has a lot of second and third tier attractions, many of which are spread very far apart. The main drawback of the pass is that, in an attempt to at least break even, you may find yourself cutting time visiting at an attraction you like or else forcing yourself to go someplace when you'd rather just rest up and have a slow day. Some of the major attractions, such as the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey are just massive with so much to see. Even if you're a fast paced sightseer, keep in mind that you might get stuck behind school groups that could slow you down.

Posted by
88 posts

If you like to take your time and "soak in your experiences" (my preferred method as well), I would skip the London pass.

I saw a mention of Harrods. Personally, I would skip Harrods and got to Camden Market as suggested by someone else. Especially with a teen in tow. We saw both on our trip. Harrods is very pricey and easy to get lost in. It's a glorified shopping mall but the "mall" is one huge store, and I didn't see any maps in the place when we went. You might consider it though if the weather is bad and you just really have an itch to do some window shopping.

Probably a trip to Dover Castle or York would be your best option since you are a history buff.

Don't fuss with a car. The rail system should get you to most places suitable for winder travel.

Posted by
15651 posts

I agree with everyone's recommendations (except Liverpool, haven't been, so no opinion). I'd add the Museum of London, more "fun" things to see and do than the art and history museums - though I would not drop the British Museum or the V&A.