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London in January: The Time To Go or Madness?

My wife and I want to spend a milestone birthday of hers away from Chicago in January. We are considering London for 8 nights. It would be our first trip to the U.K. but not abroad (2 European trips in the last 5 years) and despite the probable yucky weather that time of year, I figure it has to be better than the brutal Midwest cold. We've survived Paris in February & lived to tell the story! Off-season suits me just fine.

I have to think that winter is not a tourist-friendly time in London, which is what we want--smaller crowds at attractions, transport, restaurants, the whole nine yards. May want to rent a cozy apartment or flat, possibly in the Earl's Court/South Kensington area, near the tube & bus lines. Besides knocking around town, we're thinking of day trips to Stonehenge and/or Calais via the Eurotunnel.

From locals, is January that awful weather-wise (I mean, didn't the Beatles play their rooftop concert in January?), and from visitors that have been there in January, what were your impressions?

Thanks in advance, Jay

Posted by
8889 posts

Dark, dull, grey, damp. Gets dark at around 4:30. Not significantly more rain than in other seasons, it just takes longer to deposit the same amount of rain. Rarely get frost in central London, and even rarer snow, just drizzle. Drizzle is a very English word. You can go a whole week without seeing the sun, just low grey cloud.
Wear waterproof shoes. The ground never dries out, and puddles linger. That was one thing that amazed me when I came to Switzerland, it rained and one hour later the ground was dry. In England in winter the ground stays permanently damp until spring.
Why do you think I left? - It is 32°C here today, it's HOT.

The coldest time of the year, in London and most of Europe, is the last two weeks in January and the first two weeks in February.

Day trips: Bath, York (overnight if possible), Hampton Court (on the edge of London, frequent commuter trains).

If you want a day trip to France, I would recommend Lille over Calais. Calais-Fréthun station is some distance from the town, and very few trains.

Posted by
1952 posts

Hah, Chris. Visited your wonderful train station in Basel back in March between Paris & Lucerne. Thanks for the advice!

Posted by
3243 posts

I'm often a winter traveler. London in winter is nice. Love those 'warm up' stops at pubs. I find we get a lot more individual and friendly attention in the colder months than when the tourist crowds are in town. It sounds like a nice choice, IMO. I've never had much rain in Britain…not sure why…no matter what time of year. Cloudy yes, rain no. Snow once (1/4 inch) and boy do they not know how to use salt…a waste (put it on when they don't need it so it is gone when they do need it, LOL) Have a great birthday trip!

Posted by
11294 posts

It's not the cold that's the problem, it's the darkness and dampness, as Chris said. If you can handle those, you'll be fine. London has LOTS of indoor attractions, so you won't run out of things to do, and as you say, they will be less crowded than in July. But the lack of light can get you down. It's not just that it gets dark early; it's that it never gets very bright, even at "high noon."

Posted by
7175 posts

If your interests lie in exploring London's fantastic museums and galleries, both big and small, then I think it's an excellent idea. You won't have to shovel snow to get out your front door each morning so it can't be too bad. I don't know about windswept Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in January, but Bath and Oxford would be good picks for days out. Windsor Castle, or afternoons to Royal Greenwich and Hampton Court perhaps other good options.

30 January 1969 Beatles Rooftop Concert https://vimeo.com/95681569

Posted by
9787 posts

As well, cultural life is in full swing - you'll have your choice of concerts, operas, etc, if that is your type of thing!

And I can think of worse things than tucking up in a pub with a roaring fire while it's cold and gray and gloomy outside. TimeOut often has lists of places with fireplaces (at least for Paris so I'm presuming they do the same and even more for their hometown).

Posted by
15651 posts

You'll have about an hour less daylight than in Chicago, though most of that is because sunrise is a lot earlier. Be flexible with your daytime plans, so you can take advantage of any nice weather for outdoor sights and walking tours. Don't plan on day trips to anything outdoors. . .

If you want better weather, fly to Madrid and spend a week in fascinating Andalusia. It's the warmest, driest part of Europe and sunset's around 6.30 p.m. in January. Friends of mine escaped Toronto's for a week on a tour of Costa Rica and loved it.

Posted by
661 posts

Assume you meant Paris via the Eurotunnel... you don't want to go to Calais.

Posted by
824 posts

I prescribe to Rick’s “no bad weather; just inappropriate clothing” philosophy. That being said, I’ll comment on your choice of neighborhood.

Last fall, we stayed in the Earl’s Court neighborhood and absolutely loved it. We were halfway between the Earl’s Court and Gloucester Road tube stations and right on West Cromwell so we had wonderful bus service (#7).

Within close walking distance was Harrods and the Natural History, Victoria & Albert, and Science museums. Plenty of pubs and restaurants close by and Kensington High Street is one tube stop or a longish walk away. Also a longish walk or short bus ride is Kensington Palace and Hyde Park. Our next trip to London will probably involve a Holiday Apartment in same neighborhood.

I also liked the convenience of a London Travel Card. We used public transport enough that we really got our use out of it. However, next time, we’ll probably get visitor’s Oyster cards because I think they’re more durable than the paper travel cards (which have pretty weak magnetic strips).

Posted by
1952 posts

Thanks, Todd, and others, for your replies.

I've got a pretty good impression of what we'd be in for as far as weather in January. It being our first time to London, I think if we can get past the 'greyness', we would be fine--it worked for us this past February in Paris, where the wind was biting but we were dressed for it. In addition, we are big fans of international cuisine, and besides the local, indigenous fare, London appears to have the culinary melting pot thing down.

If the wife agrees (it's her birthday trip after all), then I can start watching for airfares. Right now non-stops O'Hare to Heathrow are in the $800 R/T apiece range, not too bad, but $600 or less would be better. Also checking out VRBO and AirBnB--so far the Earl's Court/South Kensington area has 1 BR flats (don't want a studio) in the $150-$200/night range, tolerable but again I'd like cheaper.

Keep the comments coming, they're great!

Posted by
27 posts

We visited London in late Nov/early Dec last year and had a great time. Plenty of things were open and we didn't mind the early sunset since we were exhausted from walking around all day. I felt like the crowds weren't too bad except for at the British Museum which was packed to the gills (it was a Saturday as well so that might have been the main issue.) In contrast, we had the National Portrait Gallery almost to ourselves and there are wide swaths of space on either side of us in the photos we took in front of Buckingham Palace (we look like we're the only people there!)

As for the weather, I live in Florida so the difference in weather was striking to say the least and we had to pack layers and buy additional warm clothes for the trip. That should be less of a shock with you coming from Chicago. We actually a had a few sunny days which were gorgeous. When you catch a chill just duck into a pub or shop to warm up. We found most restaurants to be very cosy and warm, and romantic.

Posted by
3813 posts

I think you are going to London at a great time. No huge throngs of tourists. The darker days and lack of bright sunlight are a perfect atmosphere in which to see the Tower of London, for example. The first time I toured the Tower, it was a bright and sunny spring day, and there were lots of tourists. It sort of ruined the atmosphere of the place, for me at least. The second time I toured the Tower, it was late fall, no sunshine, slightly damp and cold, hardly anyone else around and it was perfect! The atmosphere of overcast skies and gloominess suits the Tower and its history.
January is a perfect time to stop in at a pub, sit by the fireplace and have a drink and dinner. It's a perfect time to see all the museums.
As for airfares, check British Airways site, and click on "Special Deals". I found round trip to London from NY for $550 last year off-season. You may never find it that low again, but you can keep checking. One word of advice. If you find a great deal, book it immediately. That minute! Do not back up one page, do not turn off your computer and expect to book your flight the next day. The deal is never still there when you go back!

Posted by
299 posts

Jay,

I can't speak for January weather in London, but living in Northbrook, Illinois, I can say ANYWHERE is better than around us in January! I don't think that the UK has the wind and ice that we "enjoy" here. We are heading over there in December...my understanding is that it is cool and damp, but what a great way to see museums, etc. Hope it's a great trip!

Posted by
661 posts

Speaking of museums... I went to the V&A today and was blown away. The amount of exhibits and the quality of organisation was stunning.

I started at floor 6 today, furniture and ceramics. Thats all i managed... Its truly huge! I'll work my way through the whole museum one floor at a time.

And this from someone who doesn't enjoy museums.

Posted by
80 posts

I think you will have a great experience. I have been in London at that time and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I went to concerts in churches, ducked into pubs to warm up...almost felt like a local. I have to say I preferred that vibe to being one of many crushed into the city during the summer months. Never felt impeded by the weather. I think London is a place that shines in all kinds of weather.

Posted by
2216 posts

I went to London one January for a graduation ceremony. It was a great time of year to use frequent flyer miles. I had a great time, but I do remember needing a strong umbrella and using an old soccer trick of stuffing my damp shoes with newspaper at the end of the day to help them dry. Ian. To sure if you are committed to AirB&B, but you might want to check rates for Premeir Inn County Hall. It's next to the London Eye and across the river from Parliment and Westminster Abbey.

Posted by
10344 posts

It probably won't be as cold as Chicago in January, right?
There's plenty to do inside to warm up.
But the early sunset will significantly limit your outside sight-seeing time.

Posted by
15651 posts

Yeah, if you're comparing being a tourist in Chicago. When you live there, you don't go out much. Having lived through Chicago and Jerusalem winters, I can attest that 30s and even 40s (Fahrenheit) is bitterly cold when it's raining. The humidity factor cannot be understated. That's why I'm in Tel Aviv now :-)

But as Todd said, there are lots of great places in London to warm up.