London this Winter 2016
- The UK is famous for many things, but its weather isn’t one. As the country braces itself for “unusually" cold weather this winter, you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s not a lot to go out for.
- You’d be wrong. In fact, this winter is currently one of the busiest we’ve had, and looks set to continue that way. So why are all these people flocking to the capital? Aside from the usual fare on offer throughout the year, like the many free museums, the world-leading theatre and arts, the incredible history and the many great sights that tourists have made pilgrimages to see for time immemorial, the winter in London is a truly special time.
- Here are ten things to make you feel like you’re on the set of Love Actually; things that make London the only place you’ll want to spend your winter.
Metaphorically speaking, of course the lights have gone up, the mercury has plummeted and the vendors are out selling roast chestnuts. With a loved one, or just bumping into someone special, a winter walk through Covent Garden wrapped up in your coat, scarf and mittens is the best way to just soak up the Christmas spirit, and while large numbers of people can sometimes make a casual stroll that little bit stressful, London’s full of little nooks and crannies to escape into. Why not take a leisurely stroll through the Dickensian Clerkenwell, or past the grand townhouses of Lambeth North or Chelsea? Or if you’re into a more risqué form of festivities, a ramble around Soho during the holiday season is a dizzy experience of lights, street vendors and Christmas cheer.
People who write bucket lists often put down pretty extravagant and exhilarating things to do before they pop their clogs, but any well-thought-out “must do" list cannot omit a winter walk along the Southbank, from London Bridge to Waterloo. There is, literally, something for everyone. Pick yourself up a mulled wine at the historic Borough Market before wandering past sights such as Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate Modern and on to the German Christmas market set up in wooden chalets along the riverfront. Spoil yourself with the incredible culinary treats on offer or buy a bespoke Christmas gift from the arts and crafts stands. Grab a drink in the bustling and arty National Theatre foyer while hobnobbing with London’s theatre elite, or just take your time getting from one end to the other, taking in the sounds, smells and sights along the way!
Every year, Hyde Park Corner becomes, as the name suggests, a winter wonderland, full of everything festive. As by far the most expansive Christmas market you’re likely to find, and with stalls selling arts and crafts, jewellery, clothing as well as amazing culinary delights, you’re bound to find something to tickle your fancy. But as well as that, there’s a huge ice-rink, two circuses, a huge Ferris wheel, rides, a chance to meet Father Christmas, an enormous “ice kingdom" crafted from more than 200 tons of ice and with a medieval winter forest and ice slides and the “Arctic Circle", complete with a mountain roller-coaster, a Nordic Bar, and a snow jet. There is almost too much to do in one day, and this staple of a London winter is not to be missed.
There are two things that you need to make sure you do to make the most of NYE in London: wrap up warm, and arrive early. In fact, very early, as the Southbank gets so crowded that arriving even moderately early will leave you struggling to get a good view. The best vantage points are the balconies of the nearby Queen Elizabeth Halls, Royal Festival Halls or National Theatre, and these fill up fast. Make sure you’re brought a thermos of mulled wine or cider to make the experience complete, and make friends as you ring in the new year with a firework display like none other! Please note: this is now a ticketed event.
There used to be a joke that there was no such thing as “English cuisine", but London’s done a lot over recent years to debunk that myth. In fact, London is now a culinary hotspot with the most diverse cuisine in the world, and we’re very good with our seasonal dishes. Eating out in London is good anytime, but come the cold weather, most places will start putting their own take on standard British fare. Lots of pubs offer winter menus to keep out the mean winds, but by far the best options are the slowly re-emerging bistros such as the Clerkenwell Kitchen on Clerkenwell Close or Upstairs on Acre Lane. The truth is, restaurants are in such demand in London that you won’t have to look far – or look at all – to find something. You could get yourself over to Brick Lane in east London for the curry of your life or head to Chinatown (near Leicester Square) for more Oriental food. There is a great deal of Middle Eastern food in north London, with more Caribbean choice than you need in the South East. Come winter, these places are a great way to get out but stay warm and catch up with friends.
What could be more quintessentially Christmassy than going ice-skating in a beautiful, historic location? With many of them already open and the rest due to open in the coming days, the famous ice-rinks dotted around London are the way for festive cheer. There’s Eyeskate, located in Waterloo behind the London Eye; there’s Somerset House Ice Rink – just a jump across the rover over Waterloo Bridge, and set in the sumptuous palatial grounds of Somerset House; there’s Canary Wharf Ice Rink for the person who likes a more modern feel; Tower of London Ice Rink – great for history buffs; Natural History Museum Ice Rink, outside the purpose-built, architecturally magnificent museum in Kensington; and finally the sublime, historic and undisturbed wonder that is the Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink.
No list about the joys of winter in London would be complete without giving the publican culture a big mention. One could say that you can – and most British do - go to the pub at any time of year; but winter’s special. Not all pubs get the seasonal adjustment right, and some are better for the summer, but a good winter pub can’t be beat. There’s nothing like reclining in a comfortable, leather chair, in front of a roaring fire, with a pint of ale and next to wood-panelled walls, whilst the laughter of people sat at neighbouring tables fills the air. Sounds like something from a Dickens novel? Well the great thing about London is that there are some great places where you can actually do that. The Lamb on Lambs Conduit Street, the Princess Louise on High Holborn, Gordon’s Wine Bar on Villiers Street, The Prospect of Whitby on Wapping Wall – the list is endless. It’s normally a good idea to find one you like and then go into a sort of hibernation for the evening, but it’s just as fun to hop from pub-to-pub and discover your own classic favourites.
It’s impossible to come to London and not shop. This is because you’ve got the most incredible amount of choice, from the two Westfield centres to the super-rich Knightsbridge area, as well as the world-famous Oxford Street and the surrounding area. Like the pub culture, shopping is something you can do every year, but there’s something extra-special about the extravagant Christmas decorations and functions laid on by all of London’s retailers in the run up to the holidays. You can even meet Santa in Harrods when you go to their renowned grotto.
London has a great many very old churches and cathedrals, and around the Christmas season, the majority will offer up some remarkably beautiful concerts. Whether or not you’re religious, these concerts typically cater for all, universalising the Christian message to apply to whoever wants to enter the church. There are usually bible readings interjected with choral music, and a good carol service will have traditional and modern carols as well as other choral music. There will typically be wine and mince pies on offer for a small donation, and you’re always invited to sing along. The best places to go for carol services are St Paul's Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral.
To sum up, London’s a magical place at the best of times, but during winter there’s no city more spellbindingly beautiful. Take London at your own pace this Christmas, because there’s so much to fill you with joy. Be it walking past a Salvation Army band playing “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks" on their warming brass, or munching a mince pie in the fireside glow of a good pub, or dumping the hundreds of shopping bags you’ve accrued over the day next to your table in a good bistro, or wandering arm-in-arm with your loved one through the piazza on Covent Garden next to the 30 foot Christmas trees all bedecked with lights – there is magic in the capital, and it will ignite the glow to keep you warm throughout the winter.