Seasonal Planning for UK Travel
Unless you're focused on attending one of the UK's many diverse festivals or other major events, your decision about when to visit will most likely be determined by seasonal weather. However, the exact timing of seasons varies depending on region and elevation.
The UK's temperate maritime climate is generally cool, with plentiful rainfall at any time of year. It's also highly changeable and unreliable, with significant seasonal differences. Yet it's much milder than might be expected for its latitude (on a par with Newfoundland and Southeast Alaska) thanks to the North Atlantic Drift—an extension of the warm Gulf Stream from the Gulf of Mexico—which sweeps up the west coast of the British Isles. Palm trees grow along the UK's western shores!
The UK rarely experiences climatic extremes, with winter temperatures seldom dropping below freezing and summer temperatures rarely rising above 85°F (29°C). Hence, the UK can be visited at any time of year. Still, it pays to know the seasonal and regional differences. Even small elevation gains can make a big difference in temperature and rainfall. Being more mountainous, Scotland (and much of Wales) is generally cloudier, colder, snowier, and even more fickle than its fickle neighbor England, to the south.
The UK can be bathed in summer sun, but rarely scorching, and typically only for short spells. Since this coincides with school holidays, summer is the most touristed time of year. The best times to visit are late spring and early fall, when it's usually warm and relatively dry. In spring, flowers bloom; in autumn, leaves dramatically change hue. Plus, you get to avoid summer crowds and the cold, windy, and often snowy days of winter.
|Seasons||Pros||Cons||Best for||Where to Visit|
|Profusion of flowers; low-season, with fewer visitors to museums and popular tourist sites; lower prices||March can still be cold, windy, and even snowy; Scottish Highlands are still snowbound; April has showers and often heavy rains; Late-May can be busy with tour groups in Scotland||Birdwatching, stately homes, and gardens||London for the Chelsea Flower Show, Hay-on-Wye for literary fans, Northern Ireland for St. Patrick's Day|
|Summer (Jun-Aug)||Warmest months and longest days of the year; very long days, especially in Scotland; Highland Games in Scotland||Peak travel season; beaches and main tourist sites can be crowded; prices are at their highest||Beaches, hiking, active outdoor adventures, whale-watching in Wales and Scotland, heather and thistle bloom||London for Trooping the Color and Wimbledon tennis, Glastonbury for Glastonbury Festival, Llangollen for the Eisteddfod, Edinburgh for the Military Tattoo|
|Fall (Sep-Nov)||Mild weather in September; spectacular fall colors in October and November; deer rutting season||October and November are typically cold and rainy||Exploring cities and museums, woodlands for fall foliage||London for the Lord Mayor's Procession & Show, Swansea for the Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, Perth for the National Mod of Gaelic culture|
|Winter (Dec-Feb)||Relatively few tourists and lower prices; uncrowded museums and popular tourist sites; mountain snow for winter sports; Christmas decorations||Cold, windy, and rainy, with occasional snow, gales, and blizzards; very short days; Highland regions may be snowbound through winter||Museums and indoor activities, viewing Northern Lights in northern Scotland||York for the Jorvik Festival, London for Christmas shopping, Welsh pubs to watch the Six Nations Championship, Edinburgh and Glasgow for Hogmanay|
Spring in the United Kingdom (March to May)
This is shoulder season, with mild weather, relatively few visitors, and considerably lower prices than summer. In all, a great time to visit, not least as everywhere the spring months are the least rainy of the year.
Whether you're visiting England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, the scenery appears at its best in spring, when the hills are emerald green after winter rains, and wildflowers are in bloom as the first snowdrops give way to daffodils, crocuses, and bluebells. Nesting birds can be seen on coastal clifftops, as auks, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins in Scotland and Wales arrive from their warm-weather winter quarters. Newborn lambs caper in the lush meadows. And by May, baby foxes, rabbits, and hedgehogs emerge from their burrows.
March's weather is tentative and changeable, but spring is definitely in the air. Overall, it is still cool, wet, and wintry, potentially delivering late snowfall. Scotland's spring begins somewhat later, typically no earlier than mid-March (and late March in the far north) or whenever the first crocuses appear. Castles and other tourist venues are still closed in many places, especially in Scotland.
By April, the air is warming, though turbulent with thundery showers. Leaves are now in full bud and bloom. But a late winter cold snap can still bring April snow. Come May, nights can still be frosty, but the daytime average temperature has risen from 44°F (7°C) in March to 55°F (13°C) for May in London; from 43°F (6°C) in March to 51°F (11°C) for May for Belfast; and from 40.5°F (5°C) in March to 49°F (9°C) for May for Edinburgh.
Events in spring
St. Patrick's Day, Northern Ireland. Parades and plenty of downed Guinness throughout Northern Ireland on March 17.
Royal Windsor Horse Show, Windsor, England. The country's major show-jumping event in mid-May.
Bath International Music Festival, Bath, England. Six weeks in mid-May to early June of performances spanning the spectrum of music and arts.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, London, England. The biggest horticultural event in the world happens in late May.
Lord Mayor's Carnival, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Colorful street carnival in late May, ending with a massive fireworks display.
Perth Festival of the Arts, Perth, Scotland. A 10-day extravaganza of music, drama, opera, and art in late May.
Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Wales. One of the best-known literary events in the UK, despite the town's small size, and occurs from late May to June.
Summer in the United Kingdom (June to August)
Traditionally, the summer months are the warmest and driest of the year. However, even sunny summer months usually get plenty of rainfall, often in torrential downpours that can result in flooding. On average, summer is hot for short spells when the Brits swarm to the coast and city parks to revel in the sunshine (yet in some years, the sun may barely shine all season). There's no need to bring winter wear, but pack a sweater and light rainproof jacket for chilly evenings and the chance of protracted cool spells.
June weather can be unpredictable and highly variable, with some cold and wet days. July brings the "Dog Days" of summer, with plenty of sunny, sultry weather and clear blue skies. It all depends on the jet stream; there are no guarantees! The year's highest temperatures often occur in mid-August, yet this month is typically slightly wetter than July, which is somewhat wetter than June.
Daytime average temperatures rise to a peak of 64°F (18°C) for July in London, but only 58°F (14°C) for Belfast, and 57.6°F (14°C) for Edinburgh, before beginning to taper off in August. Nonetheless, the temperature can exceed 80°F (27°C) in brief spells for all three regions. The days are long; in mid-June, London has 17 hours of daily sunlight, not counting the lingering twilight. The far north gets even more. Northern Scotland has two hours longer, and twilight lasts through the night.
Nature lovers may spot dolphins off the west coast, while whale-watching trips often deliver sightings of many whale species. And meadows and mountains are replete with wildflowers. This is the best season for outdoor activities and festivals, with everything from the Wimbledon tennis tournament and Royal Ascot in London to the Eisteddfod in Wales. However, this is also peak tourist season, especially mid-July to early September, coinciding with the summer school break. Many roads to popular beaches and tourist destinations can be chock-a-block with traffic, especially on weekends. It's best to make reservations for hotels, etc., well in advance, particularly if you're planning a beach holiday.
Events in summer
Glastonbury Festival, Glastonbury, England. World-class, 4-day music festival with scores of famous bands and singers.
Trooping the Colour, London, England. On the second Saturday in June, a quintessential display of British pomp and pageantry for the Queen's official birthday. Tickets for the parade (plus two reviews on preceding Saturdays) are by ballot.
Lawn Tennis Championships, Wimbledon, London. The world's pre-eminent tennis tournament occurs from late June to early July. Early bookings are essential.
Llangollen International Eisteddfod, Llangollen, Wales. Around 4,000 performers in early July span the spectrum of world music and dance.
Hebridean Celtic Festival, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. A celebration of Celtic music, dance, and culture in mid-July.
Inverness Highland Games, Inverness, Scotland. Scotland's biggest inter-clan gathering with traditional music, dance, and heavyweight sports such as tossing the caber in mid-July.
National Eisteddfod, Wales. The largest and oldest celebration of Welsh culture, showcasing dance, music, visual arts, literature, and much more. Taking place in late August.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh, Scotland. Scotland's biggest event, this month-long spectacle in August features military bands, Highland dancers, fireworks, and much more.
Edinburgh International & Fringe Festivals, Edinburgh, Scotland. Taking place the whole of August, the Fringe Festival is billed as the world's biggest celebration of the arts, spanning the spectrum.
Fall in the United Kingdom (September to November)
The warm summer weather usually lasts well into September (especially in southern England) before temperatures dip sharply in October. Autumn is marked by a wide range of weather, shortening daylight hours, and the gradual onset of wintry storms.
September is frequently sunnier, warmer, and drier than August (it has the fewest rainy days of any month) and is a great time for outdoor activities and a beach holiday, as families return home after the end of school holidays. By the end of the month, the first frosts may appear at night in upland areas and northern Scotland, while everywhere, leaves are beginning to adopt autumnal colors as temperatures fall. By October—a fairly wet and windy month—the leaves (and the heathers of Wales and Scotland) are at their most colorful. However, this is an excellent time to visit popular sites without the crowds, although many tourist sites and hotels begin to close for winter, especially in northern Scotland and other mountainous regions.
By November, the air has a wintry chill, and some days can be very cold. On average, this is also the UK's rainiest month and one of its cloudiest. The air is typically chilling and damp but with the occasional brisk, dry spell marked by crystal-clear skies. The fall colors have mostly faded as trees have shed all their leaves by month's end. Upland areas may receive their first snow, and many regions see their first wintry fogs and frosty nights.
The daytime average temperature falls from 59°F (15°C) in September to 46°F (8°C) for November in London; from 56°F (13°C) in September to 46°F (8°C) for November in Belfast; and from 54°F (12°C) in September to 42°F (6°C) for November for Edinburgh.
Events in fall
The Braemar Gathering, Pitlochry, Scotland. Scotland's preeminent Highland Games in early September.
The Ascot Festival, Ascot, England. The last weekend in September sees Britain's premier horse-racing weekend.
Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, Swansea, Wales. Two weeks in October of classical and jazz concerts, plus ballet, opera, and theater by the world's leading orchestras, bands, and troupes.
The Royal National Mod, Perth, Scotland. Scotland's premier celebration of Gaelic language and culture in mid-October.
Stirling Whisky Festival, Stirling, Scotland. Sample Scotland's tastiest drams the last weekend in October.
Belfast International Arts Festival: Belfast, Northern Ireland, late October & early November
Guy Fawkes Night, UK-wide. A centuries-old holiday celebrated with fireworks and bonfires, especially in England, on November 5.
Lord Mayor's Procession and Show, London, England. On the second Saturday in November, London's most elaborate parade features gilt coaches, military corps and bands, and traditional livery companies dressed in ancient regalia as the Queen asks permission to enter the City of London for the annual appointment of the Lord Mayor.
Winter in the United Kingdom (December to February)
Winters throughout the UK are typically windy, cloudy, rainy, and very damp (and often foggy). While temperatures can fall below freezing in any month, snowfall is common, especially in upland areas and northern Scotland, so pack a warm winter coat, plus a woolen hat, gloves, and scarf. Daylight hours are very short, with sunset in the late afternoon (London gets only 8 hours in late December, and more northern regions have fewer still).
December is prone to gales, but this month is warmer than January and February. January is the coldest month, bringing high winds plus plenty of rain and snow. However, it typically has several crystal-clear sunny days, albeit often bitterly cold and frosty. February is similar to January, with February 7 the coldest day of the year on average. Still, the first snowdrops and other flowers (even crocuses and daffodils in warm years) emerge by month-end in more southerly regions.
There are relatively few visitors, so you get to explore popular tourist sites without the crowds, and hotel prices are at their lowest. This is a good time for museums and other indoor activities and shopping at Christmas markets, but note that the Christmas holiday often extends into New Year, and many businesses and offices shut down for the entire period. The upland regions have a special appeal in winter when the mountains (and briefly the lowlands) are blanketed with snow, so don't let winter stop you from an active vacation if you fancy a brisk walk or bike ride along a footpath or coastal trail. You simply need to dress warmly in layers.
The daytime average temperature hovers between 41.5°F (5°C) in December and 35.5°F (2°C) for February in London; between 42°F (6°C) in December and 38°F (3°C) for February in Belfast; and between 38.5°F (4°C) in December to 34°F (1°C) for February in Edinburgh.
Events in winter
Edinburgh's Hogmanay, Edinburgh, Scotland. Three days of New Year festivities from December 29 to January 1.
Charles I Commemoration, London, England. On the last Sunday in January, hundreds of cavaliers in 17th-century costume march through central London to mark the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I.
Celtic Connections, Glasgow, Scotland. An 18-day celebration of Celtic culture in late January & early February.
Glasgow's Whisky Festival, Glasgow, Scotland. A celebration of Scotland's iconic tipple in mid-February.
Jorvik Festival: York, England, mid-February. This 2-week festival celebrates York's Viking (and Roman and medieval) past.
Six Nations Championship, England, Scotland, and Wales. February and March see England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales go into the rugby scrum for the cup.