Visiting London at Christmas

Christmas in London, New Year’s in Edinburgh — sounds romantic, doesn’t it?

My travel partner and I celebrated Christmas and New Year 2018 in the UK. Our visit was pleasant because we understood and accepted certain caveats.

It’s cold outside. Temperatures never got above 45° Fahrenheit. It is a damp cold, being at sea level and close to the water. The morning of our day trip to Stonehenge, the temperature gauge on the bus showed 2° Celsius (35.6° Fahrenheit).

One of the best times to avoid crowds at Stonehenge is early on a cold winter morning when frost is heavy on the grass.

Frosty morning at Stonehenge
Frosty morning at Stonehenge

Find your own ride! Public transportation in London and most of England shuts down on Christmas Day. Don’t count on the Heathrow Express to get you into London if you arrive on Christmas Day. Forget the tube. It’s closed as well. Your best choice is a hotel shuttle or a taxi. We pre-booked a taxi to take us from Heathrow to Westminster. Our cost was 68 pounds. Transport is limited to a lesser extent on Dec 26 (Boxing Day) and Jan. 1.

Pre-book your Christmas lunch. Most restaurants in London close on Christmas and Boxing day (December 26). The restaurants that are open have limited hours or only take reservations for a set menu.

Bring your patience.  If you land at London Heathrow airport on Christmas morning, the line at passport control will be slow. We counted two officers working passport control on Christmas morning. We waited 2 hours to get our passports stamped. The wait would have been longer but around 11:00 am, more staff arrived to check passports.

A lot of other people visit during Christmas week. Expect crowds at all the major tourist attractions. Be prepared for crushing crowds if you venture to Edinburgh for Hogmanay, the city’s 4-day New Year celebration. The air smelled of candle wax as we gently pushed our way through the throng of bystanders watching the Torchlight Procession. Our goal was an Italian restaurant (Bella Italia at Northbridge Rd and the Royal Mile). We were seated right away. The meal, and the view of the people were excellent once we got there.

Torchlight Procession
Watching the Torchlight Procession from inside the restaurant

Your London rewards for accepting the caveats with grace and good humor are plentiful! You can see holiday street and store front decorations and enjoy traditional holiday fare. Two hop-on hop-off bus companies run on Christmas Day. Anyone is welcome to attend the Christmas evensong service at Westminster Abby or St Paul’s Cathedral. Maybe the best London  reward is the relative quiet of a city that stops on Christmas day so residents can celebrate the holiday.

Mayfair decorations
London’s Mayfair neighborhood decorated for Christmas
Lights near Picadilly circus
Street decorations near London’s Piccadilly circus
Northbank lights
London holiday Northbank decorations
Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

Your Edinburgh reward is celebrating the new year with thousands of other revelers. If you choose to take part in any Hogmanay activities (https://www.edinburghshogmanay.com/whats-on ), plan in advance. I’ll cover driving into Edinburgh in another post, but my final caveat is DON’T EVEN THINK about driving into Edinburgh during Hogmanay. Edinburgh Waverley station (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Waverley_railway_station) is a ten minute walk down the hill from the Royal Mile and accessible to the new town.

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