Like everywhere in the northern hemisphere, December marks the seasonal transition during the winter solstice around December 21. This means you'll see the earliest sunsets of the year, occurring before 4 pm in England, so you'll want to plan your daylight-dependent adventures carefully. It's also time to bundle up: The capital of London sees daily highs averaging 48°F (9°C) and lows averaging 41°F (5°C). Northern England, in places like Newcastle and York, is typically a few degrees cooler, while the southwest coast in Cornwall will be a few degrees milder this time of year due to the Gulf Stream.
No surprise, gloomy skies and rain are expected in December, and sleet and light snow are possible. Overall, the country receives an average of 3.4 inches (8.7 cm) of rain this month, with a higher concentration on the south and west coasts. The northeast coast receives less rainfall, but it could feel quite brisk with winds from the North Sea. Wherever you travel in England this time of year, you'll want to bring warm layers, a winter coat that can handle moisture, and an umbrella or brolly.
Crowds & Costs
If London is on the docket for the holidays, keep in mind that December is an extra exciting month when the famous markets and shopping streets are bursting at the seams with locals and tourists from around England—and the world—who come to see the fantastic lighting displays and decorations. You'll want to save up and book hotels, restaurants, and tours early, especially if you plan on arriving at the height of the season, around mid-month through New Year's Eve.
For the rest of the country, it's a slower and cheaper time to travel with fewer tourists at the attractions, though the Christmas markets draw plenty of locals, especially during the evenings and weekends. Keep in mind that some rural businesses may shutter for the low season, so it's wise to check the hours of operation in advance if you're planning on taking a self-guided road trip.
Where to Go
London is often the first place travelers head to when they arrive at the nation's busiest airport, Heathrow, and December is no exception. There are many ways to get into Central London, from a hackney carriage or black cab—a classic choice if you want to see some street scenery and learn from the driver, who has to pass an extensive exam called The Knowledge to get the gig. Or take the Tube or London Underground, the cheapest option, which can take about an hour with 20 or so stops.
You can ride an express train from Heathrow to Paddington Station, just north of Hyde Park, in about 15 minutes for the shortest route. If this last option sounds like a winner, you can easily get to several neighborhoods within walking distance of the station like Notting Hill, Mayfair, Marylebone, and Maida Vale—all offering a wide range of hotels and modes of transportation to get around the city.
From London, you can take an excursion to see more of England, with several options that take 90 minutes or less by train. An easy outing is a trip to where the Queen lives at Windsor Castle to tour areas of the largest occupied residence in the world, or head west to Bath to see the Georgian architecture and Roman Baths complex. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge are a fun way to spend a day walking around famous collegiate landmarks, as is Canterbury, a cathedral town with three UNESCO-listed sites.
Though the daylight hours are short, travelers may choose to rent a car and explore the peaceful countryside. Consider the six counties that make up the Cotswolds, a designated AONB, or area of outstanding natural beauty with lovely walking trails. Another option is to travel south toward the English Channel, with access to the UNESCO-listed Jurassic Coast for a range of day-hikes. For a more extended trip, head to England's southwestern tip in Cornwall, which boasts the country's longest stretch of coastline with winter waves for experienced surfers at places like Fistral Beach in Newquay.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
What to Do
The Christmas market season is in full swing for most of the month, and there are dozens of enticing options selling gifts, food, and mulled wine all over the country. London has a winter market at Southbank Centre, one at Trafalgar Square with a giant menorah, and one at Hyde Park with more than 100 wooden stalls and the UK's biggest outdoor ice rink. Another ice skating rink is the Somerset House, located near the elegant Covent Garden, which is Christmas-y this time of year with specialty foods and gifts.
If you visit Bath, you can see the city's version of a market that mainly offers British items from high-quality artisans. Meanwhile, the city of Manchester has arguably the best market in the country, fittingly since it was the first one. Each year you can find 300 stalls across 10 locations with a range of gifts and international food and drinks.
These smaller cities are also great for exploring the beautiful architecture and museums with fewer crowds than London. In Liverpool, you can tour a museum about the Beatles and then head to another museum to learn about the city's role in the transatlantic slave trade. In York, you can choose between museums dedicated to dinosaurs, Vikings, and Romans. Then there are the guided tours all over England, from Shakespeare-themed tours in Stratford-upon-Avon to tours covering Harry Potter locations in Oxford University to a tour in Canterbury outlining the introduction of Roman Christianity to Britain.
At night—and they come early—you'll want to plan your time well with tickets and reservations of what London has going on. You can take a dinner cruise and sail down the River Thames or book a seasonal outdoor restaurant, like the winter domes near the London Bridge. After dark, walk through Kew Gardens and see the Christmas display, or book tickets to famous venues like Royal Albert Hall or theatre productions on the West End. On New Year's Eve, head for Big Ben just before midnight and wait for the fireworks above the London Eye.
Events in December
Christmas markets, nationwide. From late November through Christmas, you won't have to go far to find a festive holiday market offering food, drink, gifts, and live entertainment, often in the form of music and carol singers.
Christmas at Kew, Richmond. The famous botanic gardens get extra special at Christmastime when you can follow a festive trail of lights and music after dark.
Hogwarts in the Snow, London. If you plan on seeing the Warner Bros. Studio Tour while in town, you can see the iconic Harry Potter sets, like the Great Hall, transformed with impressive holiday decorations.
Christmas Eve, Christmas, Boxing Day, nationwide. All three days are celebrated in England. Finish your shopping early on Christmas Eve and expect closures.
New Year's Eve, nationwide. London goes big for the last day of the year with various shows, activities, and ticketed events. For a simpler night, snag a restaurant reservation with a view and wait for the fireworks over the London Eye.
Traveling to England in December? Check out these great itineraries
Road Trip Through Southern England - 7 Days. This week-long escape to beautiful southern England combines road trip adventures with luxury activities in the Cotswolds, Oxford, Bath, and Stonehenge.
Family Fun in England: Wizards & Castles - 10 Days. This family adventure includes highlights from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace to Stonehenge and Windsor Castle, including many "Harry Potter"-themed activities.