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!
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Fun things to do in London in Winter
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Go Shopping in Piccadilly
Ok, this sounds extravagant. But Piccadilly, the busy thoroughfare sandwiched between upmarket Mayfair and St James, is an especially fun place to shop at Christmas time. It is packed with independent shops and boutiques whilst for teens 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. Also check out the truffles in the glam Deco-esque drums or consider the stocking-filler packets of Ruby Hot Chocolate (yes, it’s pink). Fortnum’s is a department store of luxurious food, gifts and homeware with places to eat too. 181 Piccadilly
Hatchards bookshop Piccadilly
Take care, you could 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.
Traditional Shopping Arcades in Piccadilly
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.
Royal Academy of Arts
Pop into the RA for an exhibition then hunt for gifts in their shop or check out the new Poster Bar, 6 Burlington Gardens.
Christmas lights near Piccadilly London
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.
Visit one of London’s small historic houses
London is home to many large and famous historic houses, think Buckingham Palace for a start. But my favourites are the smaller ones that reveal a slice of their original owner’s life. They 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.
Strawberry Hill House near Twickenham
With its whitewashed turrets and towers Strawberry Hill 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 closes for six weeks over Christmas and January but re-opens on February 1, 2019. Click here for booking info.
Small theatres in London
We spent a cosy evening recently in the plush splendour of a little Victorian theatre. 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.
The Case of the Frightened Lady wasn’t showing in a West End theatre and we didn’t need to re-mortgage the house or book six months ahead to get tickets. In fact it was a quick 20 mins by train from London’s Waterloo to Richmond, Surrey.
Richmond Theatre’s snug bar served cocktails and cups of tea at the interval while we racked our brains to guess the murderer. The plot included clues for the audience – but had we spotted them? 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.
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. I’m booking our next visit already.
The Classic Thriller Theatre Company tours Great Britain and will be back at Richmond Theatre in March 2019 with The Lady Vanishes.
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 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.
Or 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
Don hats, scarves and gloves then set off to explore the riverside 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.
Book a light trail walk in a London park
Illuminated trails are becoming a must-do Christmas outing for Londoners. Read about our visit last year to Christmas at Kew then snap up remaining tickets here. Or try out the stylish sounding After Dark at Chiswick House Gardens or the Alice in Winterland Lantern Festival at Southwark Park.
Or go on a guided walk of London
I like the sound of this Notting Hill guided tour which takes in Portobello Road market, film locations and celebrity haunts. Or how about a Harry Potter in London walk including a quiz? Book quickly before Christmas for 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 opps and a festive drink and mince pie.
Enjoy a museum visit with a side of ice-skating
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 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 is open until January 6, 2019.
Natural History museum ice rink
A magnet for locals as well as visitors to Kensington at this time of year, the museum ice rink is open until January 20, 2019. Spend an hour or two in the free to enter museum then take a turn or two on the rink. Ice skating needs to be booked separately and isn’t free. But the Christmas tree, merry-go-round and opps for hot chocolate or mulled wine for afters makes a complete winter 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 6, 2019, here for more details. Whilst the famous Somerset House ice rink by Waterloo bridge, here , is open until January 13, 2019. Good Grief Charlie Brown! an exhibition about the Charles M Schulz Peanuts cartoons is showing in the nearby Embankment Galleries. Snoopy will be making some special appearances on ice too. Details here.
Please note, opening times and days vary, please check all ice rink details on the relevant websites.
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What’s your favourite winter experience in London? Join in the conversation in the Comments below.
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