London really is a city for all seasons. Despite the short days and, ahem, some rain, the town dresses up for winter and makes the most of the dark evenings and wintry views. Here are some ideas for family days out in London in winter with or without teens. From shopping in Piccadilly to ice skating at Hampton Court, with winter walks and hidden gem historic houses there’s something for everyone. Enjoy a wonderful day, evening or week this winter in London! Updated with new content Nov 2019.
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London in Winter – fun things to do with family
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Go Shopping in Piccadilly
Ok, this may sound extravagant. But Piccadilly, the busy thoroughfare that marches between upmarket Mayfair and St James, is an especially fun place to shop at Christmas time. It is packed with heritage stores and boutiques for extra special gifts. Whilst for teens the retail hot spots of Regent Street and Oxford Street aren’t far away!
At Christmas time Piccadilly is strung with festive lights whilst its traditional shopping arcades are all dressed up to the nines. Plus, a little something from an iconic store could be just the answer for those people on your list who ‘have everything’.
Fortnum and Mason Up-market grocers since the 1700s, Fortnum and Mason invented the Scotch egg and introduced London to Heinz baked beans. Today its eponymous wicker hamper will be a kitchen holdall or picnic standby for years to come. Fortnum’s is a department store of luxurious food, gifts and homeware with places to eat too. 181 Piccadilly
Hatchards bookshop Piccadilly Take care, booklovers can spend hours in Hatchards, Piccadilly booksellers since Georgian times (Jane Austen shopped here). It has no less than three royal warrants suggesting that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles also seek Christmas inspiration amongst its shelves. Ascend the country house style staircase then follow the sign ‘Through to Crime’. Here you’ll find the perfect Agatha Christie sofa with a view of Piccadilly’s Christmas lights. So that’s the rainy afternoon sorted. 187 Piccadilly
Paxton and Whitfield Sniff out cheesy gifts to adorn a friend’s Christmas table or your own at the original Jermyn Street shop.
“A gentleman buys his hats at Locks …. and his cheese at Paxton and Whitfield,” said Winston Churchill, another fan of shopping in Piccadilly. 93 Jermyn Street.
LOOKING FOR PERFECT LONDON GIFTS – THAT YOU CAN ALSO BUY ONLINE? click here for 101 London-themed gifts and souvenirs for all the family
Visit Piccadilly’s glamorous Shopping Arcades
This is the ideal time of year to re-discover London’s first shopping malls, architecturally appealing and packed with luxe. They originally provided a genteel environment for London’s ladies to shop, protected from the mud and pickpockets of Piccadilly. Nowadays shoppers can browse the pretty Regency and Victorian shopfronts for jewellery, cashmere, scents, sunglasses, the finest chocolate or pretty purses.
The Burlington Arcade is the best known of Piccadilly’s historic covered galleries. Uniformed beadles patrol it in a tradition established in Regency times. This didn’t deter the masked thieves in 1964 who zoomed into the arcade in a big Jag, raided a jewellers and made off with a stash worth £35,000. They were never caught. Bollards now stand at the entrances of the arcade to prevent any such repeat.
Across the road is Piccadilly Arcade, an Edwardian addition, along with the Art Deco-styled Princes Arcade. While the ladies were keeping their feet dry within, gentlemen of distinction were procuring their necessities in Jermyn Street. It’s home to the south-side entrances to both arcades and has been famous for centuries for all things refined in the way of menswear.
Finally, the pretty Royal Arcade lies just north of Piccadilly between Bond Street and Albemarle Street. This is a Victorian confection, painted in peach and home amongst others to the be-ribboned chocolate boxes of Charbonnel et Walker.
Enjoy the West End Christmas lights
At dusk you’re in prime position to enjoy London’s magical Christmas lights. Go window-shopping on Regent Street, Piccadilly and nearby Bond Street and Carnaby Street to see some of the best street lights and store displays.
CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS MAKE WONDERFUL SOUVENIRS here are some classic London baubles that you’ll treasure for years. Click the links to buy from UK or US Amazon.
Choose a guided walk of London
For an organised tour of London’s fabulous seasonal decorations, I love the sound of this London Christmas walking tour click here, that reveals the secrets of London Christmases past and present. It takes in the most spectacular of the capital’s Christmas trees and lights. Or perhaps book a London Christmas Lights and Markets tour. This is a guided walk from Covent Garden to the Southbank via Leicester Square. It includes photo and shopping opportunities and a festive drink and mince pie. Here’s a treat if you’re spending Christmas Day in London: a tour of the sights in a vintage red double-decker bus. It’s a once a year opportunity to see the capital without the traffic or the crowds!
For a winter walk without a Christmas theme how about a Harry Potter in London walk including a quiz? And of course it’s the perfect time of year for a classic London romcom so try this Notting Hill guided tour which takes in Portobello Road market, film locations and celebrity haunts.
Visit a London Christmas Market
London gets into the Christmas spirit in mid November when the lights are turned on in Oxford Street and the Christmas markets in various parts of the capital get under way. Since dusk falls around 4pm it is very cheering to come across a brightly lit market as you walk through town. The Winter Market at the Southbank Centre, beside the river Thames on Queen’s Walk, is always a favourite. Lights twinkle and the air is filled with delicious scents from little wooden chalets selling winter-warming favourites like raclette. Until January 5, 2020. Whilst a little further along the river, London Bridge’s pretty Christmas market, London by the River, will have a vintage ski theme this year. From November 26 to January 5, 2020.
Leicester Square hosts gift stalls, snacks, a Santa’s grotto and a selection of shows in a traditional 1920s spiegeltent. Find out more here. It runs until January 5, 2020.
Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland is the big Christmas fun fair, with an ice rink, beer tents, an observation wheel, plenty of rides and roller coasters, circus and ice shows and a comedy club. Click here for more info.
Book a light trail walk in a London park
Illuminated trails are becoming a must-do Christmas outing for Londoners. Read about our visit to Christmas at Kew then snap up remaining tickets here.
Plan a museum visit with ice-skating too
A nice warm museum with child-friendly exhibits is a tempting plan on cold winter weekends. London’s finest become even more attractive in winter because many of them add an ice rink on the side over the Christmas period.
Hampton Court Palace and ice rink
The 16th century home of Henry VIII is a stunning backdrop for a session of skating. And especially so in the evening when it’s bathed in coloured lights here for more details.
Henry himself may not have been surprised by the winter ice rink in his garden since Londoners have enjoyed skating for centuries. In December 1536, he and current queen, Jane Seymour, rode across a frozen River Thames to Greenwich. In those days, despite a lack of thermals and, indeed, the NHS, doughty Londoners strapped animal bones to their shoes and skated for fun. Henry may have spotted his subjects jousting on ice, a dubious sport that involved levelling poles to knock opponents off their feet. An eye witness wrote that skating often resulted in broken bones. But Londoners have continued to enjoy winter skating forays; even more so nowadays when the likelihood of breaking something is much reduced.
For a special day out, explore the Palace before taking to the ice. Families will enjoy the themed events in December that showcase the feasting and pageantry of royal Christmases in the past. Palace entry and skating are booked separately. The ice rink opens from November 22 until January 5, 2020, excluding Christmas Day.
Natural History museum and ice rink
A magnet for locals as well as visitors to Kensington at this time of year, the ice rink at the Natural History Museum is open until January 12, 2020. Spend an hour or two in the free-to-enter NHM then take a turn on the rink. Ice skating needs to be booked separately and isn’t free. But the Christmas tree, merry-go-round and opportunities for hot chocolate or mulled wine make this outing a complete winter in London treat. For tickets, times and essential info: booking details are here.
Not to be outdone, ice skating at the Tower of London is available until January 5, 2020, here for more details. Whilst the famous Somerset House ice rink by Waterloo bridge, here, features a 40ft Christmas tree and a Fortnum and Mason Arcade with bar, dining lodge and seasonal shopping. Check out the link above for delicious food and skate packages – fondue anyone? – whilst late night skaters can enjoy DJ sets. Lessons are available at the weekends whilst Skate Mates can be pre-booked to provide help for groups, especially handy if you’re taking children. The rink is open until January 12, 2020.
Explore London’s small historic houses
London is home to many large and famous historic houses, think Buckingham Palace for a start. But it’s worth seeking out the smaller ones that offer a bite-sized helping of culture that’s ideal for a family outing. Winter is a great time to visit when you may not want to be spending a lot of time outdoors, check the websites for themed events. Here are two of my West London favourites.
Strawberry Hill House
With its whitewashed turrets and towers Strawberry Hill in Twickenham looks just like a castle from a childhood fable. And that’s exactly what its owner intended. Horace Walpole, prime minister’s son and man of letters, bought a small house by the Thames in 1747. Inspired by his passion for architecture and history he spent years improving and developing it. His home was later to star in his bestselling novel, The Castle of Otranto the first of the whole genre of Gothic fiction. Experts now celebrate the house as a Gothic Revival masterpiece.
Horace was a lifelong collector and he designed the house to set off his treasures to their best advantage. Now, 176 years after a sale dispersed the collections, some of the rarities have come home for a visit. A new exhibition showcases a fine selection of the paintings, antiquities and curiosities that caught Walpole’s eye.
This winter is a great opportunity to see them returned to Strawberry Hill and to hear the fascinating stories about Walpole’s life and magpie tendencies. Click here for the Strawberry Hill House website for info about tickets and tours. Allow time for cake and coffee or a meal in the excellent cafe too!
Just along the river from Strawberry Hill is another gem of a house with an artistic pedigree. Britain’s greatest landscape painter, JMW Turner, of The Fighting Temeraire fame was also attracted to the Thames side location and bought a plot of land there in 1807. He designed a small villa for himself and his father a retired wigmaker. After many years of neglect Sandycombe Lodge was rescued and has been restored as near as possible to the home that Turner built.
It’s a fascinating glimpse of Georgian life and the restoration includes some clever tricks to capture the visitor’s imagination. The shadow of Old William, Turner’s father, sits beside the stove in the kitchen and you can hear some of his stories there.
NB Turners House is holding a Christmas card printmaking session on December 7. The house closes on December 8, 2019 and re-opens on January 10, 2020. Click here for opening hours and booking info.
Visit a local theatre in London
Not all of London’s theatres are in the West End. The outskirts of London offer lots of smaller venues that often showcase world-class productions at very affordable prices. You might even see a play before it transfers the West End. We spent a cosy evening recently in the plush splendour of the little Victorian theatre in Richmond. A classic 1930s whodunnit unfolded on stage. The thriller had all the traditional trappings: country house setting, square-jawed detectives and the occasional crystal-shattering scream to keep the audience on their toes. We noticed familiar faces amongst the cast from TV series like Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey.
Richmond Theatre’s snug bar served cocktails and cups of tea at the interval while we racked our brains to guess the murderer. There’s a lot to be said for an old-style murder mystery. It’s pleasingly intriguing, happily free from gore and won’t embarrass grandma or the teens.
We didn’t need to re-mortgage the house or book six months ahead to get tickets for The Case of the Frightened Lady. In fact it was a quick 20 mins by train from London’s Waterloo to Richmond, Surrey. At curtain down we stepped out of the theatre and walked to a friend’s car parked by the green (you can’t do that in Shaftesbury Avenue). A suitably spooky mist wafted around the park railings. London’s local theatres make for a great winter evening’s outing and I’m planning another trip already.
Our theatre tips for London in winter
Go to central London to catch the big name pantomimes, ballets and Christmas shows. These are special occasion treats to remember and worth booking months in advance. Find listings here.
But also check out the smaller theatres on the outskirts of London where tickets are cheaper. You might also find a production on a pre-West End run. In the south west, for instance, several venues can be reached by train from Waterloo in under 30 minutes. We’ve seen Dame Edna Everage (sadly now retired) in pantomime at the New Wimbledon Theatre and wonderful Shakespeare at Kingston on Thames’ Rose theatre.
Try a comedy dining experience
Here’s an off the wall suggestion for a family celebration. Do you love the legendary BBC comedy Fawlty Towers? Then imagine being a guest in one of the dining room scenes. That’s the set up for Interactive Theatre International’s Faulty Towers The Dining Experience. Note the different spelling – this is billed as a tribute show.
Guests gather in a hotel suite for a set meal, though don’t expect to spend much time savouring it. The food is secondary to the theatre that’s happening all around. It’s slapstick fun with Basil, Sybil and Manuel greeting and seating guests, clearing plates and interacting with the audience. It’s part scripted, part improvised so you literally don’t know what will happen next. We joined a table of 10 who had booked in pairs although other tables included birthday and office outings. It’s good clean fun with a helping of 1970s innuendo and more than a dash of nostalgia for classic British comedy.
Faulty Towers The Dining Experience is an international show with a pool of performers. It occasionally tours the UK and has a residency in London at the Radisson Blu Edwardian, Bloomsbury Street WC1. More details here.
I attended the show with a complimentary ticket, all opinions are my own.
Wrap up for a winter walk in London
Finally, it’s hard to beat a riverside walk on a crisp winter day. Don hats, scarves and gloves then set off to explore the Thames walks near Tower Bridge. You could pop into the Bridge itself for its fascinating exhibition and lovely views of London.
Afterwards head to a cosy and historic pub for fish and chips or sausage and mash. I’m keen to visit The George Inn, Southwark. It’s owned by the National Trust and is the only galleried coaching inn left in London. Shakespeare may have been a regular and Dickens mentions it in Little Dorrit. 75 -77 Borough High Street, SE1
Alternatively stroll along the footpath north of the river from Hammersmith to Chiswick between river views and handsome listed houses. The Dove, Hammersmith is a great place to start or finish a riverside ramble. Charles II and Nell Gwynne ate there and you can too.
Please note that all visitor information here is for guidance only. Please check the relevant websites for the most up to date information on tickets, entrance requirements, opening times etc.
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What’s your favourite winter experience in London? Join in the conversation in the Comments below.
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Scarlett Roitman says
What a fantastic post, Nancy. So many things to enjoy – The Case of the Frightened Lady looks brilliant! And of course, we love our London House Museums. Have a very merry Christmas! #CULTUREDKIDS
Map & Family says
That’s very kind of you Scarlett! And yes, a house museum is a great thing to do on a chilly day!
Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays says
Excellent ideas! I did a spot of Piccadilly Christmas shopping this week … shhh don’t tell Mr CW #CulturedKids
Map & Family says
Not a word 🙂 . It’s a lovely place to shop all year round!
Such a great collection! I love Burlington arcade, it’s our usual treat before or after RAA! And Fortnum and Masons hampers are another Xmas ritual – bite and drink at their restaurant included 😉
And agreed skating at HCP is stunning – pity they wrap up up in January, I’d be happily going until March! And thanks for putting the Dove on our list and linking on to #CulturedKids! Have a lovely Xmas break!
Map & Family says
Thanks so much! I totally agree about the skating – I’m sure it would be popular all winter!
Erin Gifford says
I love Europe during the holidays. So magical. I’ve taken my kids to the Christmas Markets in Prague and Vienna. Would love to have them experience the ones in London too. I’m sure they are beautiful. 🙂
Map & Family says
Thanks Erin, the markets are fun and I love London’s Christmas lights!
These ideas all sound like great fun! I’d love to visit London again – anytime of year but this makes me realize it would be fabulous year round!
Map & Family says
It’s a city for all seasons! Hope you get the chance to visit again.
We love visiting London – thanks for the excellent suggestions!
Map & Family says
Thanks so much!
The Palm House is spectacular! I also like the decorations at the stores. So festive and beautiful! Somehow I would think lots of visitors missed the Men at Work in the Tower Bridge Exhibition.
Map & Family says
Yes they are a surprise! And I agree, the shop windows and lights are really special at Christmas.