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London advice - December/January visit

I am in the initial planning phase of a visit to London this winter. I will be there for sure from 12/29 thru 1/3 when I will return to the US. I have traveled extensively in Italy and a bit in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden but this will be my first time in London (other than being stuck at Heathrow for an extended time on one occasion!). I have several guide books and am narrowing down "must see" and "see if time" sights. I usually like to have a menu of options that I select from when I'm there depending on weather, energy level, etc, but am wondering if I should book any particular sights ahead in this case given the time of year and shorter days. ( I am used to summer travel with more daylight.) Also, any suggestions for how to spend New Years Day would also be appreciated. I will probably have more questions as I plan, but would welcome any thoughts or guidance from those of you who live in London or have visited over this holiday period. Thanks so much!

Posted by
149 posts

I’ve been during this time and while there isn’t a lot open on New Year’s Day, I used that day to wander around the slightly empty city and take photos. Christmas lights will still be up, so stroll at night as well.

Posted by
10344 posts

We have some London locals on the forum, they're sleeping now but maybe they will see your post tomorrow and will reply with respect to this challenging time for a visit. Can you do it at another time?

Posted by
56 posts

Thank you Ashley and Kent for your replies. I thought New Year's day would probably be mostly wandering around, which I do enjoy. Hopefully, I will be able to find somewhere for meals. And Kent, I am limited to summers and winter break until I retire as I work in a school system. I do expect I will make another visit in the future so this visit is for an overview and orientation to the city. I will likely try to see a show or two. I'm hoping to be able to visit at least a few of the major sights but maybe will end up just walking by. Mostly I need a trip to look forward to since this summer is out for travel. Gotta have a reason to head to work each day!

Posted by
690 posts

I was in London last December (right before Christmas), so I can’t comment on 12/20 to 1/3 other than to recommend going to Kew Christmas if you can get tickets (they go on sale in June). Here is the link: https://www.kew.org/kew-gardens/whats-on/christmas-at-kew. It is magical time in the gardens with spectacular light installations, music, and food.

Here is a link from the Londonist from this past year, can give you some ideas on options between Christmas and New Years: https://londonist.com/london/christmas-in-london/things-to-do-in-london-between-christmas-and-new-year.

I hope some of the experts on London can help you with more ideas.

Sandy

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks for the links, Sandy! I will definitely check out Kew Gardens.

Posted by
11243 posts

I was in London this past year on the days you mention.

It does get dark much earlier so if you want to see anything outdoors keep that in mind. The weather is up in the air as it can be very cold or mild. Pack to dress in layers.

While everything is closed on Christmas Day and much on Boxing Day, New Year's Day is not as bad and you should be able to find plenty of places open for meals. Stores and supermarkets that are open will have limited hours.

Unless you like massive, and I mean massive crowds, stay away from Trafalgar Square and the Riverbank around Westminster on New Year's Eve. Think Times Square but in multiple locations.

London will be busy those days so if you want to see any popular sights it may be best to prebook.

The tube will run a limited service on New Year's Day.

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks Frank II! Good to know some things will be open on the first. I'm not a crowd person so I will plan on dinner then back to hotel to avoid the throng on New Year's eve. I will also plan on prebooking my must sees once I settle on them. I expect the weather will be similar to Seattle so I will definitely plan on layers. Was there anything in particular that you would recommend that might not be in the guide books?

Posted by
1098 posts

it can be very cold or mild.

YES - and if the air is a bit moist it can feel VERY cold indeed. Even though we come from Denmark, which is about 200 km north of London, we had to buy extra clothes.

Posted by
6342 posts

There’s the New Years Day Parade. Quite an extravaganza. https://londonist.com/london/things-to-do/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-london-new-year-s-day-parade

It’s an enjoyable few hours especially if weather is good.

Christmas lights will still be up and the free Winter Wonderland in Hyde is especially gorgeous at night.

Pre book Kew Gardens.

If evensong is on your wish list try attending one at St Brides. This link provides intel ( I plugged in 29/12/19)
https://www.choralevensong.org/uk/service-timetable.php?location=London&startdate=2019-12-29&days=7

Christmas lights will still be up. Oxford Street, Covent Gardens, Regents Street, Harrods, to name a few. Don’t forget viewing Christmas Window displays. Harrods and Selfridges are the most popular. I always pop into Liberty simply because it’s so unique.

Ice skating rinks will still be operational.

Keep researching what’s scheduled at the Southbank Centre, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Academy Of Art and Barbican Centre during your time frame. Also see if there are any London Walks which might interest you.
www.walks.com Same with theatre.

Posted by
395 posts

If you are travelling solo, I always think that London Walks is a good way to go. www.walks.com Their two hour walks cover a lot and they have some that are a good intro to eg, the British Museum, National Gallery, V&A. +Quite a variety of other options. No need to book these, so if the weather is awful you don't need to go.

Posted by
492 posts

Having lived in warm climates for a number of years (Las Vegas and Florida), I've loved traveling to Europe around the holidays. Sure, it can be chilly. But there's often festive decor to enjoy, winter and Christmas festivals and markets, the real sense you're in the season so to speak, fewer crowds and less fellow tourists to compete with, and - I'll just admit it - I like sweaters and jackets and feel I look best under a layer or two of warm clothing ;)

Couple little suggestions...

  • Definitely check out the Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park. It should run several days in to January and is kinda neat and fun and will definitely put you in that holiday mood. Sure, it could be chilly - but what better chance to get some mulled wine or hot cocoa and enjoy yourself? Winter Wonderland is quite popular but there are other winter/Christmas market options around town if you don't want to risk crowds.
  • I've managed to luck out when it comes to weather for my winter trips to London, and mostly enjoyed clear, blue skies (though still chilly) on days spent sightseeing or going on walks. Having said that, I kept certain plans a bit flexible just in case. It's only a few GBPs more to buy London Eye tickets day of than in advance, for instance, so if you're willing to pay that little bit extra you may want to wait until [the clear-skied, pleasant-weathered] day of to buy tickets and go, as opposed to buying advance tickets for a set day that ends up being overcast or rainy.
  • Sun definitely starts to set early, but at places like Winter Wonderland or even around shopping areas like Knightsbridge the Christmas lights make it worth being out as it's getting dark. A lot of the big stores also have some great displays around Christmas (F&M, Harrods, and such). Kew Gardens is great for the lights as well.
  • Many museums have late openings and nights, so are a good option to get out of the chilly air. If there are particular ones that interest you, just check out their hours and events for when you'll be there and you can plan ahead.
Posted by
5140 posts

bj84 I feel your challenge with limited times for trips. As I near retirement age, I don't really have a clear idea of what that will look like yet. However, I know that I will go on a trip the first September no matter what! I've followed the school calendar for 40 years.......

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks, everyone for all the ideas. They will keep me busy researching and planning!

l.p.enersen - I know what you mean about the damp cold. I will be prepared for the chill factor for sure.

Claudia - Thanks for the ideas and great Evensong website. I was thinking of attending and I appreciate having your recommendation of where to attend. I will look into the parade as well.

Katy - I will be traveling solo so it is good to know London Walks are a good option. I will look at what they offer. I like the idea of having options depending on the weather.

1885BD - Great tips, thank you! You have me excited to stroll around looking at lights. I will also research museum hours to see if any have later hours when I am there.

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks, Carol. I also plan to be traveling that first September of retirement, whenever it finally arrives!. Congratulations on 40 years - that's a long stretch of service. I bet you have stories to tell :)

Posted by
101 posts

We were in London for about 10 days before Christmas last year. It is a useful strategy to have a menu of choices to pick according to the day and how you feel. We took a Thames cruise to Greenwich on what turned out to be a sunny and un-windy day - the only one of the trip! - and it was lovely. We used a coupon from the free map we got at the hotel and it saved us nearly as much as pre-booking. We were glad we hadn't locked it in earlier or scheduled something else that would have precluded our taking advantage of the weather.

One thing that surprised us was the need to reserve for meals in many of the pubs we tried. Many holiday parties booked entire restaurants making dining impossible. Week-ends, especially in the rain, often had hour or more waits for lunch, if you could get a table at all without a reservation. Not sure how it will be the week after Christmas, but keep in mind you might need to phone ahead for a table.

It's a lovely time in the city with the wonderful lights making up for the early sunsets. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks pollyhrae for the info. I do usually use the menu method of travel and will probably do so in London. I'm thinking of booking must sees - maybe one per day - then filling the rest of my time from my menu depending on weather, etc. It seems like London Walks would fit well with this plan. And thanks for the heads up about restaurants. I will definitely be prepared, though I hope things might be a little less crowded than you experienced.