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Winter in London: Chilly weather, warm memories

  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009, at 12:13 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009, at 6:46 a.m.

London dazzles year-round, but for a true "back door" experience, consider visiting in winter, when airfares and hotel rates are generally cheaper — and there are fewer tourists.

London's a super one-week getaway, with sights that can keep even the most fidgety traveler well entertained. As an off-season adventurer, you can wander alone through the National Gallery, gaze at the crown jewels undisturbed, and be the only one trying to talk to stiff-lipped guards at Buckingham Palace. In wintertime London, you'll stroll beneath Big Ben and wonder, "Where are the tourists?"

Despite the short days and dreary weather, Londoners have plenty of reasons to go outdoors this time of year. One of the coolest wintertime activities — literally — is to don some skates and hit one of the outdoor ice rinks around town. Somerset House and the Tower of London are considered the Rockefeller Center of ice rinks — but they're even better because you get to glide alongside the facade of a grand neoclassical building or under the shadow of London's most famous prison and execution site. (Be thankful that the blades are on your feet, not above your head.) Ice rinks also sprawl in front of the Natural History Museum and Hampton Court Palace.

Speaking of rinks, the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland boasts that it has the largest one in London. It also has plenty of kitschy carnival fun, with a Ferris wheel, carousel, circus show, German market, Bavarian village, and vendors selling silly hats.

For those who prefer to spend winter days under a roof, London's museums, theaters, concert halls and pubs offer a warm welcome. Many of London's best sights are free (although many request a donation), including the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, British Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The British Museum, larger than many villages, is a wonderful place to explore and escape the cold.

In winter, London's theater season is in high gear. The plays rival Broadway's in quality and usually beat them in price. Choose from 200 offerings — Shakespeare, musicals, comedies, thrillers, sex farces, cutting-edge fringe, revivals starring movie celebs, and more. London does it all well. I prefer big, glitzy — even bombastic — musicals over serious chamber dramas, simply because London can deliver the lights, sound, dancers and multimedia spectacle I rarely get back home. Music-lovers seek out winter concerts at the grand, red-velvet-draped Royal Albert Hall; ask about candlelight events.

Pantomimes or "pantos" are a holiday tradition. While they have nothing to do with silent mimes — and they don't mention Christmas — these campy fairy-tale plays entertain with outrageous costumes, sets and dance numbers. The audience is encouraged to speak up, and it doesn't take long to learn the lines ("Look behind you!"). Adults will laugh at the more risque jokes, while kids will giggle at the slapstick. Two London theaters that usually stage pantos are the Hackney Empire or the Old Vic.

Stop by Trafalgar Square to see the Christmas tree given to London every year from the people of Oslo, Norway, in appreciation for British help during World War II. Free carol concerts are held beneath the tree in December. The Geffrye Museum's 12 historic rooms are decorated for Christmas every year, highlighting holiday customs from the 17th century to today.

If you're visiting through the New Year, don't miss the New Year's Eve fireworks from the London Eye. The show attracts at least 400,000 revelers to Trafalgar Square and the nearby riverbank. Good viewing spots are staked out hours in advance, and public transport is free after the festivities. The next day, a parade featuring 10,000 performers snakes from Big Ben to Piccadilly Circus.

Stroll around and enjoy the elaborate light displays and store windows on major shopping streets (through early January), especially on Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street and Brompton Road. Winter brings out the best deals. Post- holiday sales start Dec. 26 for many stores; the famous Harrods winter sale begins a day or two later.

Nibble your way through Borough Market, where you'll find lots of seasonal and gourmet treats. Sample traditional favorites such as mulled wine, pudding and mince pie.

For solo travelers, winter in Europe can be lonely, with fewer fellow travelers to share your experiences. But in London, you'll have a better chance of making new friends since the locals speak the same language we do — in theory.

London is much more than its museums, markets, plays and landmarks. After dozens of visits myself, I still have a healthy list of reasons to return — in winter and any time of year.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.

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