Wonderland: London in Winter
Some cities close their doors when winter strikes and the weather makes sightseeing a frigid ordeal. Not London.
Though skies can be gray, you’ll also get plenty of crisp, clear days. The museums, shows, restaurants, and quaint pubs are as tempting as ever and—Christmas week aside, when visitors arrive in force—largely the preserve of Londoners.
If anything, London adds more in the way of temptations, creating the sort of attractions only a proper winter can provide.
Thus, Hyde Park puts on Winter Wonderland, a vast seasonal make-believe that embraces a wide range of shows, markets, and other attractions, while elsewhere the city creates outdoor ice rinks that allow you to skate in the shadow of some of the capital’s finest historic buildings.
> Festive Must:
The sun sets on a frosty central London. Black cabs and red buses run up and down Park Lane, past Speakers’ Corner and the venerable Dorchester Hotel, marking the eastern edge of Hyde Park, once a private hunting ground for Henry VIII and now a much-loved public space.
As dusk falls, walk to Winter Wonderland, a magical mixture of attractions that takes over much of the park starting in late November. Ride the giant Ferris wheel for views over the park and the twinkling lights and city skyline beyond.
Then wander the German-style Christmas Market, with more than 1,000 stalls selling seasonal crafts and food. Take children to Santa Land or hold tight on one of the adrenaline-boosting fair rides. Skate on the country’s largest ice rink and finish with a visit to Zippos Circus.
> Dream Stay:
The Dorchester opened in 1931, some years after the Ritz, the Savoy, and Claridge’s, London’s other historic and classic five-star hotels. But the Dorchester immediately became a favorite of the great and the good. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for one, took a suite here when he arrived in Britain in 1942.
With its heritage, fine rooms, service, and lovely art deco exterior, it’s an exceptional place to stay, especially in winter, when its position opposite Hyde Park makes it the ideal base for exploring Winter Wonderland and beyond.
> Tea Spots:
Warming up after a day’s winter sightseeing with afternoon tea is a quintessential London ritual. Claridge’s hotel offers the classic genteel experience—a choice of 40 teas, dainty finger sandwiches, pastries, scones, cream, jam, and more—but be sure to reserve ahead.
Brown’s Hotel offers a rejuvenating, healthy “Tea-Tox” alongside its traditional afternoon tea, or tip the scales in the other direction at Sanctum in Soho with its belt-busting Gent’s Afternoon Tea rounded off with a cigar.
> Skate Date:
“The Thames used to freeze regularly,” says Maggie O’Sullivan, a travel writer and former editor with London’s Telegraph newspaper. “They held frost fairs on the ice. In some ways, the city’s ice rinks are their modern-day equivalents.”
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There’s no shortage of impressive venues for you to strap on your blades. At Hampton Court, you can skate in front of the breathtaking Tudor palace begun for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey around 1514.
Another majestic frontage, the neo-Gothic Natural History Museum, provides the backdrop for a skating session that you can follow with a visit to this or the nearby Science and Victoria and Albert Museums.
The neoclassical courtyard of the 18th-century Somerset House provides another sublime setting, this time on the Strand at the city’s heart, meaning that theaters, galleries, and restaurants are just a snowball’s throw away.
This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.