8 ways to spend a rainy day in London
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The weather in the U.K. is fairly… unpredictable, shall we say? Never visit banking on clear skies and sunshine. In fact, hot weather is generally seen as an unexpected bonus. The second the sun comes out, Brits ditch whatever they’re doing and dash to the nearest park or beer garden. With no sunscreen.
So, it’s safer if you’re planning a trip to the U.K. to assume the worst weather-wise. If you’re tucked up in a country pub or the wind is whipping through your hair on a bracing mountain walk, wet and wild weather can be durable and even fun. But, if you’re based in London, not so much. Who enjoys traipsing around all soggy, being splashed by buses and getting steamed up on the Tube? Not us!
However, a rainy day in the capital doesn’t have to be a disaster. There are actually lots of things to do — many of them free — that could be ideal for when the weather isn’t so clement. Just remember your brolly!
1. Museums and galleries
London has some of the finest museums and galleries in the world, many are free and vast enough to easily spend a whole day pottering about. The Natural History Museum in South Kensington should be top of the list. You’ll be greeted by a 25-metre blue whale skeleton in Hintze Hall, and the collections comprise of 80 million specimens, from the extinct dodo to a sabre-toothed cat. The museum is particularly famous for its exhibition of dinosaur skeletons, too. Entrance is free and opening times are currently Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5:50 p.m.
Nearby on Exhibition Road are its sister museums, the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The science one does what it says on the tin and includes a huge space exhibition and the V&A is an art, design and sculpture museum. Both are free, but certain exhibitions may be extra.
Related: 5 top London museums for kids
Other museums worth visiting are the Transport Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate, the Design Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Sherlocks Holmes Museum (Baker Street, of course) and Madame Tussauds. Check each website for opening times and prices.
London’s West End is home to some of the world’s longest-running shows, including “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables”. And yes, if you want to book a private box, it will be costly but you can often find affordable and discounted tickets on the day at one of the many concession stalls scattered around Leicester Square, Covent Garden and Shaftesbury Avenue.
There are many family-friendly shows to choose from, including “The Lion King”, “Matilda” and “School of Rock”, and matinee performances can be even cheaper still. I once went to see Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” on a whim one rainy Thursday afternoon for less than £10 and it was brilliant. Shows will reopen after lockdown in the coming months, so check their websites.
Harrods department store is a real London institution and a very pleasant place to duck into if a sudden downpour hits. It opened in 1849 and ever since has been a purveyor of finery — if fact, it even did a roaring trade in exotic animal until the 1960s. It still sells lots of splendid things like the most expensive perfume in the world, haute couture, caviar, jewels, furs, furniture and much more.
But you don’t have to be loaded to enjoy Harrods. It’s a fun place to explore for treasures with a magnificent food hall and 23 restaurants. Why not look around then have a cream tea and treat yourself to one of the iconic Harrods teddy bears? It’s located in Knightsbridge and is open Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Other fabulous London department stores include Fortnum & Mason, Selfridge’s, Liberty and Harvey Nichols for a bit of high-end retail therapy.
4. Indoor markets
London has lots of exciting indoor markets where you can shop and feast while hiding from the rain. One of the biggest and most popular is Borough Market in London Bridge. It’s teeming with food stalls from truffles to fish to ice cream to the smelliest of cheeses. It’s one of the capital’s oldest markets, too, and dates back to the 12th century. Borough Market is a “riot of colours, smells and human engagement” and is a lovely space to spend a gloomy afternoon, especially if it’s your first time in London. Dotted nearby is a great selection of restaurants and bars. A personal favourite is Brindisa Tapas. It’s always heaving, the manchego is magnificent and it’s also affordable. The market is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Read more: 6 mistakes tourists make in London
Leadenhall Market is another good one. It’s located in the City and is a bit more luxe — it dates back to the 14th century and the site was the centre of Roman London. It was originally a meat, poultry and game market but is now home to a “number of boutique retailers, restaurants, cafes, wine bars and an award-winning pub” and open every day.
Then, for something super fancy, head to Burlington Arcade on Piccadilly, near The Ritz. Built in 1819, Lord George Cavendish, Earl of Burlington, commissioned it as “a safe place for his wife and other genteel folks to shop”. It sells jewels, hats, gloves, macaroons and other costly treats and in olden days, was the place to go for a new bonnet. Open daily.
5. Barbican Conservatory
The Barbican is a performing arts centre in the City of London and is known for its Brutalist architecture — it definitely stands out. Blocky appearance aside, it has theatres, a library and a marvellous indoor conservatory. It’s got three ponds — home to koi and ghost carp — and 1,500 species of plants and trees.
The conservatory is a hidden tropical oasis and best of all, it’s free. Check the opening hours online, as usually it’s only open on certain Sundays. However, right now it’s open seven days a week 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends. Tickets should be booked in advance online — they are available from one week in advance.
6. Family-friendly attractions
There are lots of “experiences” and fun things to do for all the family in London. From the gruesome London Dungeon to the aquarium, you should b able to find something to suit all tastes and ages. London Dungeon in London Bridge is probably not recommended for very young children as some of the scenes there are pretty grisly, but it’s very interesting nonetheless.
It’s a mixture of live actors, special effects and rides and you’ll learn all about London’s macabre past, especially when it came to punishing crimes. Nearby is Shrek’s Adventure, an interactive tour of all things ogre and SEA LIFE London Aquarium, home to sharks, jellyfish and some amazing penguins. Other top attractions include the London Eye, the London Zoo, the Rainforest Cafe and Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford. Check each attraction’s website for ticket prices and opening times.
7. Afternoon tea
Afternoon tea is a British tradition dating back to 1840 and was originally introduced by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, as a “snack” at about 4 p.m. to break up the long wait between lunch and supper. It has evolved into a lovely way to spend a few hours in a pleasing setting, gorging on finger sandwiches, exotic teas and, of course, scones with jam and cream. There are scores of places that do afternoon tea in London, often themed.
Our favourite picks include the grand dame of afternoon teas at the Palm Court at The Ritz, a “gentlemen’s afternoon tea” at the Sanctum Soho and a Shakespearean-inspired offering at the Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. It is advisable to book and prices vary from about £20 up to £75.
8. Get a bespoke umbrella
James Smith & Sons for umbrellas is what Savile Row is for suits. This historic brolly shop on New Oxford Street has been in operation for more than 180 years and is still a family-run business. It makes all its umbrellas in the basement of a beautiful Victorian building and is a fascinating change from all the predictable high street chains that make up most of the street.
Pop inside to admire all the elegant creations, from parasols to walking sticks. The “classic city umbrellas” are topped with intricately wrought handles and engraved silver collars, and some are worth many thousands of pounds. You can have a bespoke one made for about £300. You’ll be the envy of your friends, come rain or shine! Open Monday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
A rainy day in London needn’t be a complete write-off. While the parks and some big tourist spots like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace may not be ideal in a downpour, there are still lots of things to keep you and your family occupied undercover.
Featured photo by oversnap/Getty Images.
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