December is the darkest month in the UK, with the shortest day falling in late December. In northern parts of Scotland, this can mean less than seven hours of daylight (and a little more in southern England and Wales). Pair this with cold temperatures and biting winds (along the coasts), and you get a month where residents and visitors to the UK tend to stay indoors.
However, the UK isn't as cold in the winter as its northern latitude might suggest, thanks to the Atlantic Gulf Stream that warms the oceans. Average winter temperatures are between 32°F and 44°F (0°C and 7°C), although these vary from north to south. Of the capitals, London and Cardiff hold the warmest high and low averages of 48°F (9°C) and 41°F (5°C), while Edinburgh has the coldest high and low temperatures of 45°F (7°C) and 34°F (1°C). Belfast, meanwhile, holds high/low averages of 46°F/39°F (8°C/4°C).
Snow is uncommon except in the mountains and further north in Scotland, although it's possible in southern and central areas in December (just don't expect a white Christmas).
Crowds & Costs
December is the low season for travel throughout the UK, as is the whole of winter. However, Christmas draws people out to the marketplaces and shops (especially famous department stores like Harrod's in London, which put on fantastic window displays), so December may feel more lively than other winter months. Note that most shops and businesses will be closed on December 25 and 26.
Major cities like London and Edinburgh have visitors throughout the year, but you're unlikely to encounter crowds at tourist attractions in December. Accommodation in popular places will be more readily available than in the peak summer season, although accommodation and opening hours might be limited in smaller locations. Some lesser-known tourist attractions are only open on the weekends in winter, so check opening hours if you have a niche interest you want to satisfy in the UK in December.
Where to Go
The main cities of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow are all great choices for December travel in the UK. These lively cities have the most festive Christmas decorations and events and the biggest New Year's parties. Try Belfast's Continental Christmas Market or Cardiff's Winter Wonderland. Yet, if in Scotland there's Glasgow's St Enoch Square turned into a Christmas village. If you're looking for quiet, see if you can book a B&B in rural regions, like Wales' coastlines of Gower and Anglesey, or any of its pretty market towns for a quaint holiday market.
Watch the fireworks displays over the Thames in London on December 31, or join a Hogmanay party in Edinburgh or elsewhere in Scotland. You can also enjoy the many indoor galleries, museums, and other historical and cultural attractions in these cities by day, to escape from the cold weather. Don't be surprised if you leave a museum in the mid-afternoon and find it's already dark outside!
To experience one of the UK's most famous and unusual attractions, Stonehenge, at a significant time of year, visit at the winter solstice (December 21). It's believed that the large circle of free-standing stones was built to mark the passage of time, and the shortest day of the year is a meaningful time for people to gather and learn about ancient British culture. Stonehenge is near Salisbury, in the south of England.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
What to Do
While many travelers prefer to shelter indoors in the UK in winter, you can enjoy an outdoor adventure in the Scottish Highlands if you're an outdoorsy type and aren't afraid of the snow. It's a great place to go stargazing and Aurora borealis-hunting in December. You can also enjoy hiking in the largest national park in the UK, the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands by day, and warm up with a Scotch whisky at night.
Another fun activity to enjoy in December (and into January) is a Christmas pantomime. These shows are put on in professional and amateur theaters around the country during the festive season and are particularly fun for kids. Imagine a musical meets slapstick comedy show meets family-friendly drag show.
Beyond participating in the holiday festivities across the UK, December is an excellent month to spend time in any of its museums and galleries. In Wales, there's Cardiff's National Museum as an option or the coastal Aberystwyth's National Library—more than a priceless collection of books, there's a great roster of exhibitions. In Northern Ireland, there's Titanic Belfast for a comprehensive display on the Titanic's tragic journey. Then there's the variety of choices in London, England, from the National Gallery to the Victoria and Albert Museum. And in Scotland, there's Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
Events in December
Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London. London's Hyde Park turns into a winter wonderland for all of December (and sometimes part of November), with rides, games, shows, ice skating, and more.
Grassington Dickensian Festival, Yorkshire Dales National Park, England. In the lead-up to Christmas, a variety of Dickens and Christmas-related activities are held over one week and two weekends.
Cardiff Winter Wonderland, Wales. Held from mid-November to December 24, this winter festival brings ice skating and an ice walk to Cardiff Castle and an ice bar, an Alpine-style village, and a funfair to City Hall.
New Year's Eve, UK-wide. Say farewell to the old year and welcome in the new at a party throughout the UK. London hosts a particularly impressive fireworks display over the Thames on December 31, while towns and cities in Scotland celebrate Hogmanay in their own way, usually involving fire in some form.
Hogmanay, Edinburgh, Scotland. The Scottish New Year is celebrated in Edinburgh, kicking off with a torch-lit procession, followed by several days of music, street theater, fireworks, and carnivals that may last through the first few days of January.
Traveling to the UK in December? Check out these great itineraries
Winter in the Scottish Highlands - 6 Days. Surrounded by frozen lochs and ancient pine forests, you'll settle into a wonderland of scenic treks, wildlife watching, whiskey tasting, and cozy fireside evenings.
Northern England's Castles - 5 Days. Explore iconic medieval castles in England's Northeast region. Visit ruins and modern-day palaces, discover the area's military history, and spend quiet afternoons strolling in countryside villages.