When to go to London
The best time to visit London
There’s no season to avoid when planning a visit to London. The weather is unpredictable, but usually mild. In fact, London’s micro-climate tends to keep the city a degree or so warmer than the surrounding countryside - a blessing most of the year, sometimes a curse in summer.
Even if you do hit a patch of bad weather, there are far more things to do indoors than can be fitted into a single visit. And an extensive public transport network means you shouldn’t have to spend too long without any cover.
Most places are open all year, with the exception of Christmas and New Year, but things are a little quieter on Sundays and bank holidays.
If you can be flexible about the dates of your holiday, you’ll often find better availability and cheaper rates - especially at hotels in London. Things get notably busier and more expensive during Christmas and over the summer, as well as during school half-term breaks.
Cheap hotels in London especially can book up far in advance. My London hotels page has suggestions and useful advice to help you get value for money.
Most years the summer in London is a mixture of glorious, blue-sky days and rain, even heavy thunder. Temperatures are usually pleasantly warm from June to August, but can - as they have done this year - get fiercely hot. In summer, Londoners start to think they’re in a European capital, eating outside restaurants and thronging pub pavements with a cold lager in hand.
Summer is heaven for music fans. Classical festivals include the superb Proms (www.bbc.co.uk/proms), with its legendary £5 'promenade' tickets (standing at the front or sitting right at the back), but the quirkier City of London Festival (www.colf.org) and, in one of London’s loveliest parks, Opera Holland Park (www.operahollandpark.com) also have many fans.
Every summer rock and dance music festivals take over central Hyde Park (Hard Rock Calling, www.hardrockcalling.co.uk, and Wireless, www.wirelessfestival.co.uk), east London's Victoria Park (Lovebox Weekender, www.lovebox.net; Underage Festival, www.underagefestivals.com) and, in the south of the city, Clapham Common (SW4, www.southwestfour.com). Indoors, June is the month for the always excellent Meltdown at the Southbank Centre.
There are even festivals in historic locations: in front of Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath (the English Heritage Picnic Festivals, www.picnicconcerts.com), at Hampton Court (Hampton Court Palace Festival, www.hamptoncourtfestival.com, in June each year) and in the huge courtyard of Somerset House (Somerset House Summer Series, www.somersethouse.org.uk, until mid July).
June is the month to help the Queen celebrate her birthday with the spectacular massed bands and coordinated marching of Trooping the Colour (12 June) - her actual birthday is in April, but when you’re the Queen you get to have an official birthday too. Tickets are allocated by ballot in January each year, but non-ticket holders can either watch the rehearsal parades on the preceding weekends or line the Mall with the crowds on day.
Fans of comedy and theatre might want to avoid August, since many acts head north to the Edinburgh Festival - especially stand-ups. But there are plenty of summer highlights: the always brilliant Greenwich & Docklands International Festival (www.festival.org) and the reinvigorated LIFT: the London International Festival of Theatre (www.liftfest.org.uk), as well as regular riverside performances outside the National Theatre for Watch This Space (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk). For Shakespeare, check out the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park (www.openairtheatre.org) and, of course, Shakespeare’s Globe (www.shakespeares-globe.org).
There are two major carnival parades each summer - the gay march for Pride London (www.pridelondon.org, early July) and, with more than two million attendees the biggest street party in Europe, the Notting Hill Carnival (www.thenottinghillcarnival.com, end of August).
Summer is also a major time for sport. Tickets are usually easy to get hold of for county matches at Lord’s (www.lords.org), the home of cricket, and you can join the upper crust at flamboyant horse-racing meets (the Epsom Derby, www.epsomdowns.co.uk, early June; Royal Ascot, www.ascot.co.uk, mid June) or the Henley Regatta (www.hrr.co.uk, early July). Tennis fans must apply far in advance or queue from early in the morning for tickets to the Wimbledon tournament (www.wimbledon.org, until early July).
If you are caught in a heatwave, make sure you carry a bottle of water when you’re on the Underground - the Tube trains don’t have air-conditioning - and head out into the parks at the first opportunity. Hampstead Heath is high enough to catch any breeze that’s going, or find yourself a spot by one of London's few remaining lidos, such as the one on Hyde Park's Serpentine lake or the fabulous refurbished one in Tooting, south London. There are also some nice fountains to play in - the choreographed water jets in the great court of Somerset House (www.somersethouse.org.uk) are always fun, as is the Appearing Rooms 'water sculpture' that turns up outside the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall (www.southbankcentre.co.uk) each year.
June and July are the busiest months for London's hotels, so avoid these months (August is often much quieter) or book well ahead if you're looking for bargains or a room somewhere hip.
Autumn can be a lovely season to visit London. The families have mostly returned for school, so it’s easier to find cheap London hotels, but the weather can remain summery all through September. Into November, it gets colder and more grey, but throughout autumn there is a scattering of wonderfully clear, crisp days. The colours of the falling leaves can make a normally rather grubby city really beautiful.
The hippest autumn events are London Fashion Week (www.londonfashionweek.co.uk; September) and the hugely successful Frieze Art Fair (www.friezeartfair.com; October), with its cluster of satellite shows. However, the London Film Festival (www.bfi.org.uk/lff; October) is huge and the programmes for the London Jazz Festival (www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk; November) get better and better.
Below the headlines, both Open City London (www.openhouse.org.uk, September) - which gives access to historic and interesting properties that are normally closed to the public - and the international contemporary dance festival Dance Umbrella (www.danceumbrella.co.uk, October) are great fun.
Anyone who’s caught the cycling bug can take part in Skyride’s organised pedals around the city (www.goskyride.com) or join the masses cheering on the professionals when the Tour of Britain road race (www.tourofbritain.co.uk, September) arrives in town.
There are also traditional events. Bonfire Night has joined with Diwali to produce almost non-stop formal and informal firework displays around 5 November. The new Lord Mayor of London parades through the city in his historic golden coach (November), while the sober Remembrance Sunday Ceremony takes place with a veterans’ march at the Cenotaph at a similar time.
This can be a bleak season in London. Even in normal years, when the temperature rarely dips below 0°C, the days are short. The good news? This is when the traditional London pub really comes into its own. You’ll rarely be far from one with an open fire where you can get yourself into the warm and outside a whisky mac (whisky with ginger wine - very mollifying). There are also temporary open-air ice-skating rinks all over town, some in parks but many in museum courtyards. Great fun.
A more serious business is the seasonal sales. Last year they seemed to start soon after summer ended and never stop, but in less recession-wary times Boxing Day is when the queues form at all the major high-street shops. There are plenty of bargains to be found, but you will have to fight for them.
Christmas Day is very quiet in central London, with almost everything shut and no public transport. In the run-up, there’s always a grand Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square and fun window displays in traditional shops like Fortum & Mason. Christmas Markets, usually appearing in places like the South Bank, Covent Garden and Hyde Park, are increasingly popular, but the Oxford Street lights are rarely captivating - try smaller shopping areas like Marylebone High Street or St Christopher’s Place.
The New Year celebrations focus on a fireworks display from behind the London Eye. Crowds descend each year on Trafalgar Square, but I’ve never seen the appeal myself - nothing much happens and it’s incredibly slow getting back to your hotel afterwards. If you fancy going out, expect to pay a premium and always plan ahead: the good restaurants and clubs book up and sell out well in advance, especially ones with a view of the river, and you won’t be the only one who suddenly decides a spontaneous New Year’s Eve in London would be cool and starts looking for something great to do at the last minute. Transport runs all night (the only day of the year this happens).
Following New Year, there are a few big events. January’s London International Mime Festival (www.mimefest.co.uk) sounds niche, but actually covers a great range of international theatre, including puppetry and shadow plays. You can also check out the lion dancers for Chinese New Year (February), with the festival probably on the previous weekend) and the second appearance of London Fashion Week (www.londonfashionweek.co.uk).
Watch out for the weather after Christmas. For the last few years, the pattern has been snowfall around February. Sometimes twice. London snow isn't heavy - let's be honest, no one in Canada would even notice the small amount we get here - but it is easily enough to disrupt public transport in the city and flights from London airports. Check the forecasts in advance - and try to build some flexibility into your holiday plans.
From March to May, the city is often at its best. Your mental picture of London may be more about Dickensian fogs than nodding bluebells, but the circle of large and lovely Royal Parks around the centre of the city help make spring a real event. The weather is mild and usually less rainy than in other seasons. Even better, the shift to British Summer Time at the end of March - when all clocks go forward an hour - means that daylight lasts later into the evening.
It’s always a wonderful time of year to visit Kew Gardens (www.kew.org), with its annual Spring Festival, and those planning well in advance might be able to get tickets to the ever popular Chelsea Flower Show (www.rhs.org.uk; late May)
If sport is your passion, it doesn't cost a penny to line the barriers for the London Marathon (www.london-marathon.co.uk; April) or to watch from the banks of the Thames as Oxford and Cambridge University rowing eights contest the historic Boat Race (www.theboatrace.org; March).
There’s also a growing number of micro-festivals for fans of up-and-coming bands: a wristband gives you access to any number of acts playing on the same night in the back-room stages of pubs in Camden or Shoreditch - the best of them are the Camden Crawl (www.thecamdencrawl.com) and Stag & Dagger (www.staganddagger.com), both usually held in May.
This season the city also plays host to the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (www.bfi.org.uk/llgff; late March), the third biggest film fest in Britain. If you're feeling at a loss for culture, both Shakespeare’s Globe (www.shakespeares-globe.org) and the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park (www.openairtheatre.org) start their annual theatre seasons in late spring.
The following are public holidays in England. Note that when they would normally fall on a Saturday or Sunday, public holidays are moved to the next working day - for example, Christmas Day and Boxing Day this year.
- New Year’s Day - Monday 3 January 2011
- Good Friday - Friday 22 April 2011
- Easter Monday - Monday 25 April 2011
- May Day Holiday - Monday 2 May 2011
- Spring Bank Holiday - Monday 30 May 2011
- Summer Bank Holiday - Monday 29 August 2011
- Christmas Day - Monday 26 December 2011
- Boxing Day - Tuesday 27 December 2011
On these days, banks and government offices are shut, but most shops, restaurants, visitor attractions, music venues and so on are open. Many adopt Sunday or weekend opening hours - usually midday to 5pm or so. Public transport follows Sunday timetables.
Only on Christmas Day and, to a lesser extent, New Year’s Day are there wholesale closures of shops and attractions - don’t expect to see anything or buy anything apart from the tackiest souvenirs on these days.
School holidays vary across the country, but the dates are roughly:
- Spring half-term - 19-27 February 2011
- Easter holidays - 9-25 April 2011
- Summer half-term - 30 May-3 June 20
- Summer holidays - 24 July-1 September 2010
- Autumn half-term - 22 October-1 November 2011
- Christmas holidays - 18 December 2011-4 January 2012
The clocks go back one hour on 30 October. They go forward again to British Summer Time (Greenwich Mean Time + one hour) on 25 March 2012.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, check out my favourite hotels in London on my London hotels page.