London – the city that takes a nap at Christmas

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but London, an equally significant world-centre, takes a long rest over Christmas.

Major institutions close for days and, incredibly, public transport stops altogether on December 25.

It’s great that people working in these sectors can spend time with their families, but if you’re a visitor – and thousands from across the world are in London at Christmas – it’s a time requiring careful planning or,  like us last year, you may miss some ‘must sees’.

There’s no reason to avoid London at Christmas. Apart from the ‘standard’ monuments, memorial and museums, outdoor ice-skating rinks spring up around the city including at the Natural History Museum, Somerset House and the Tower.

Christmas lights, seemingly intensified by the cold, are everywhere and even the front door of many homes hang a classy wreath.

Christmas closures…just plan more carefully.

Most major museums, galleries and other government/Crown sites are closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and when the attractions re-open on 27 December they’re particularly busy as culture and history-starved visitors return en masse.

Christmas Day taxis charge a hefty surcharge, and while pricey hop-on/hop off tourist buses are running this is the time to walk and visit public parks and open-air sights like Trafalgar Square and its buskers, Piccadilly Circus, or walk up The Mall or Birdcage Walk to Buckingham Palace.

Swing past the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge for iconic photos, walk along the Thames or even the famous pedestrian crossing where the Beatles were photographed for the Abbey Road album cover, not far from Regents Park.

If you get up early on Christmas Day brave members of the Serpentine Swimming Club in Hyde Park have an icy dip at 9am to the amusement and amazement of a large rugged-up crowd.

Many cafes, pubs, and restaurants are closed Christmas Day, and those that do open generally require bookings and often pre-ordering of lunch or dinner.

A number of Chinatown restaurants open Christmas Day (long queues though) and the ubiquitous Pret A Manger bakery/coffee shop (at least the one near Trafalgar Square) was open when we visited on Christmas Day 2016.

Tired of walking? Ripley’s Believe it or Not in Piccadilly Circus also opens Christmas Day and is an interesting way to spend a few hours. The popular London Walks (www.walks.com) also runs a limited Christmas Day program.

Top tips for visiting London over Christmas.

  • Save your visits to free open-air sites like Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and the major parks to the days when indoor activities are closed
  • Book early for Christmas lunch/dinner at a traditional English pub or restaurant or stock up if you’re in an apartment with kitchen facilities
  • The sun sets very early in December/January so it’s a great time to get night-time photos of landmarks like Tower Bridge at 4.30 in the afternoon (like the photo above)
  • Rug up. It’s cold and maybe take some sandwiches just in case you can’t find somewhere to eat if you’re out Christmas Day.

Copyright Michael Birt 2017.

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A hidden treasure in the suburbs of Paris

Like major world-cities Paris has many must-see attractions.

The Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, a cruise along the Seine and a visit to the Palace of Versailles are on most ‘things to see and do’ lists, but travelling can be tiring and some time away from the madding crowd is often helpful.

When my family opted for Paris Disney (my idea of hell) I headed for the northern suburbs of Paris and a park known to locals, but not it seems, to many tourists.

The Parc des Buttes Chaumont was once a gypsum quarry, but since it’s establishment in the 1860s the industrial setting has made way for landscaped magnificence and a place to relax and recharge for a few hours.

Located in the 19th arrondisement and served by the Buttes Chaumont and Botzaris Metro stations (both line 7b) which are just outside the park gates, nearby Laumières (line 5) and Pyrenees (line 11), the 25 hectare park is a rarity in Paris, a peaceful place to stroll in hilly terrain.

The park’s lake is home to waterbirds and high above, a spectacular suspension bridge crosses it.

Wide sinuous paths make the Parc des Buttes Chaumont ideal for people with prams or those with mobility difficulties. It’s a good place for a run too, with long gentle curves taking you to the higher parts of the park including a folly, the Temple of Sybil (undergoing restoration in early 2017).

Paths down steep gullies, waterfalls, caves and tunnels add to the adventure and a playground for children is there for when little ones tire of walking.

There is a café, views across Paris and Mont Marte can be seen in the distance. Picnics on the grass are allowed and dogs are welcome.

Even in winter the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is well worth a visit.

Copyright Michael Birt 2017.