For me, the unofficial start of London’s holiday season is awash in poppy red—the flowers that seem to adorn every lapel and storefront in the city to honor Remembrance Day. I am always blown away by the sense of solidarity the occasion continues to bring to the English capital.
While the city isn’t high on many people’s travel lists past early fall, I happen to love London when it’s cold outside. “You get to see the city for what it really is in the winter,” my friend Lauren Bryan Knight, aka London blogger Aspiring Kennedy, told me. “It’s London with her hair down, devoid of anything other than the quiet rhythm of Londoners living out their daily routines.” As she pointed out, what’s better than getting to see the masterpieces of the National Gallery without having to elbow through a gaggle of tourists?
Here’s why London should be on your winter-travel list—and how to make the most of your time while you’re there:
Embrace the Weather: I can’t tell you how many English people have told me—usually with a wink—that it’s not bad weather, just bad clothing! And it’s true. Having the right gear is essential, so be sure to pack your umbrella and rain boots. “The truth is, the weather in England is terrible year-round so coming in the winter only guarantees that there will be less people,” Lauren confided. “At least in the winter, you can feel that the cold and wet is seasonally appropriate!” Once you’re on the ground, there are countless places to escape the drear and drizzle.
Find a New Street to Love: On this trip I discovered Lamb’s Conduit, a pocket-size street tucked away in Bloomsbury and refreshingly free of chain stores. It’s small enough that you can wander in the rain without much trouble and has plenty of cafés (I especially liked Knockbox Coffee) and shops (the French House and Pentreath & Hall on nearby Rugby Street are two favorites) to duck into for respite along the way. For sustenance, try family-run Vats Wine Bar and Restaurant or chic Cigala for Spanish tapas.
Luxuriate Over Lunch: When it’s cold outside, you want to indulge in long lunches. The best place I found to do that was at one of London’s most anticipated restaurant openings, Spring at Somerset House. On a particularly gray day with sheets of rain pouring down, I was happy to be cocooned in a large, airy space with white columns, globed chandeliers, and textured blue walls, dining on grilled fish and bitter chocolate mousse from acclaimed chef Skye Gyngell.
Book a Hideaway Hotel: I fell completely in love with the Marylebone Hotel and the neighborhood it inhabits. But Marylebone was not always this hip—it used to be much sleepier, albeit with the same elegant architecture and the best high street in town. As my English friend remarked: “It was dead as a dodo 10 years ago!” At the hotel, I found stylish rooms with a view (mine revealed the bright red doors of a pub and a charming shop selling ribbons and lace), the cheeriest breakfast area in London, and an inviting lobby complete with a flickering fireplace and soft chairs. Tip: Ask concierge Rahim Ismail to recommend a show to see at the nearby Peacock Theatre.
Try an Alpine-Style Hangout: Though it’s far from the Alps—or from any mountain range, for that matter—London has its own pop-up alpine-style retreats. Hugo Campbell-Davys, founder of Urbanologie, recommends dining on a high altitude-inspired barbecue menu at Le Chalet, lit with candles and twinkly lights atop Selfridges department store, or ordering “hot and toasty” après-ski cocktails at Piste in Soho.
Explore a New Museum: London’s museums are (mostly) free to visit, and many house gorgeous cafés in addition to brilliant artwork. On another afternoon, thanks to Lauren’s tips, I parked myself in the sumptous mosaic-clad eatery at the Victoria and Albert. In Marylebone, I discovered what feels like a hidden gem, at least for visitors: the Wallace Collection. Though there are Rembrandts and Rubens adorning the walls, I spent the most time in a gallery filled with paintings of Venice, many centuries old and painted for British tourists who visited the city on their Grand Tour.
Go Where the Locals Go: Once again, I relied on Lauren to guide me to her favorite neighborhood spots in Notting Hill. At Walmer Castle, which looks like a classic English pub, I dug into delicious Thai food amid a boisterous local crowd. She also drew my attention to Beach Blanket Babylon, one of her favorite places to meet for post-work drinks with friends. “It lends itself to cozy conversations around their fireplace while sipping sparkling drinks and generous glasses of wine,” she said. “It’s definitely a place someone has to bring you to or you’d never know about it.”
Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.