London in December – The Essentials

bigbenbirdL-o-n-g time ago, I lived and worked in London for a year. I loved it. And it doesn’t matter how often I come back for a visit, or at what time of year, there’s always something new and different to see.

If you’ve been to London before and seen Big Ben and The Tower of London etc. – or big tourist attractions just aren’t your thing – I’m going to be talking about some unusual sights/museums or out-of-the-way places you might like to visit over the next few weeks. Especially at this time of the year.

And if you’ve ever seen the movie Love Actually, you know how wonderful this city looks in December. But travelling in winter can throw up a few challenges. Here are some things I think are essential to consider if you plan on visiting London from overseas.

1) ACCOMMODATION: Where are you going to stay? Hotel? Apartment? Hostel? In the heart of the city? Outside? My preference is an apartment in the heart of the city. Often they come equipped with washer/dryer, which is a great boon.  (Allows you to leave more space in your suitcase for goodies to take home!) Currently we’re staying in a flat just two streets away from the British Museum.  At 120GBP per night, it has one double bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and a living room with a double sofa bed, (allowing us each our own ‘bedroom’) and is very comfortable for two friends sharing or a family of four. We can enjoy breakfast here in the morning before setting out for the day and, if we come home exhausted, we can pick up something from Marks and Sparks for dinner in the evening. The only disadvantage? This particular flat is on the top floor (49 steps!!) – but they’re getting easier as the days go by.

2) MAP: Whether you have an old fashioned fold-out map, A-Z book of London, or a map on your cell-phone, it’s an essential. As is a map of the tube. Do a bit of planning beforehand.  What attractions do you want to visit? Are they close to each other? Sometimes it’s much easier to walk between venues than take the tube.  For example, walking from Covent Garden Tube Station to Leicester Square takes about two minutes on foot. By tube? Much longer.

3) OYSTER CARD: Get one of these for travelling on the tube and buses. (You can’t use cash on the bus anymore. You must either use an oyster card or special travel card.)  We took the tube into town from Heathrow on Sunday afternoon and it cost us 3GBP. A taxi runs about 70GBP. (Many taxi drivers don’t take credit cards, so make sure you have plenty of cash!) The tube takes about 50 minutes but it brings you right into the heart of the city on the Piccadilly Line.

4) CELL PHONE: Consider picking up a cheap phone and pay-as-you-go sim card instead of using your own from overseas.  I’m still using one I bought for 5GBP in 2005.  With phone calls, texts and and an alarm clock function, that’s all I need.

5) MUSEUM TIMES: Before you visit, check on the opening times/days for museums you want to visit.  Many are closed on Mondays and some close early on Saturday.

6) paddingtonCLOTHING: A warm coat, scarf, gloves, hat/earmuffs are essential at this time of year. Dress in layers. Always be prepared for rain, no matter the season!

7) SHOES:  Ensure they’re comfortable.  Bring two pairs (in case one gets wet) and bring along some moleskin, blister band-aids and Ibuprofen… just in case!

8) TIMING: Thursday-Sunday are the busiest days. If possible, try to visit the major tourist attractions Monday-Wednesday.

9) TRAVEL: Try to travel during off-peak hours. (After 9.30am.)  It’s much cheaper. And remember that although you can experience flight/train delays at any time of year, you’re more likely to do so in winter time. Make sure you have enough money on your credit card in case you have to book into a hotel for an extra night. (Or two.)

10) TRAINS: Do a bit of homework before you visit, especially if you plan to go out of town for the day. There may be two different train companies that can take you to your destination.  One might take 20 minutes to get there… the other, 50! (For the same price.)

11) THEATRES: What’s London without a visit to the theatre. You can buy tickets online from home or wait until you get here. Deals can be found at the Ticket Centre in Leicester Square, and many theatres offer 15GBP deals at 10am on the morning of the show. (Available from the theatres’ own box offices.)

12) DAY TRIPS: If you decide to take a day-trip out of town, take your time and make it a DAY trip. Don’t plan anything for that evening. You don’t want to be in the middle of visiting somewhere totally delightful and have to cut it short to rush back into town for a meal/show. Slow down. Enjoy the day. (And take along a book for the train back. If it’s after 4pm, it’ll be dark and you won’t be able to see anything out the train window.)

13) CHURCHES: Visiting the big churches (St Paul’s/Westminster Abbey) is very expensive. Even if you’re not religious, consider attending a service for a small donation. Especially Evensong. Think of it as living history. There’s nothing more beautiful than hearing 14th century music sung in a 14th century church. And it calms the soul after a busy day of shopping and sightseeing.

14) PHOTOS: Always – always – back up your photos every night.  And charge your battery!

15) unisexTOILETS: Most travellers know to use the ‘facilities’ when they can.  Be aware that many in London are unisex.  That’s right, gentlemen. Welcome to the world of queueing to use the toilet.

16) IT’S DARK HERE AT 4PM! That’s right, 4pm.

So those are my suggestions.  I would love to hear what advice you would give to visitors new (or old) to London.