Summer in London can be bright and be-flowered, but also sweaty and crowded. The streets are clogged with sightseeing buses, West End shows are sold out, museums packed to the rafters. The city really comes into its own once the last leaf has fallen, frost appears in Hyde Park and sweaters are pressed into service. The people in the seats next to you in the Olivier Theatre or in the smart new East End restaurant are locals, not tourists. London is at its best — and cheapest — in winter and early spring.
Yes, it's cold, at least to Floridians. Put on a coat, pack an umbrella and remember that British heating is way better than British air-conditioning. And it's dark. London is quite far north, at much the same latitude as southern Siberia. In November, the sun sets around 3:30 p.m. But airfares from Tampa to London in winter and early spring can run half what they cost starting in May. Many hotels have "winter break" discounts or offer an extra night free, especially if you book online.
Starting in November, London is ablaze with colored lights. The British call them "fairy lights," and indeed they transform solemn old buildings into places of enchantment. One year I visited, there were hundreds of flickering silver chandeliers seeming to float in the air above Oxford Street's department stores. Another time, the elegant curve of Regent Street was festooned with huge sunbursts, and the chi-chi shopping precincts of Marylebone were hung with blue and red lights that glowed like sapphires and rubies.
In February and into spring it is quieter. Daffodils are just beginning to push their buds up in the parks, theaters preview new work and museums are comparatively empty. I recently stayed for a few days at the wonderful Portobello Hotel (22 Stanley Gardens, www.portobellohotel.com), minutes from the Notting Hill Gate tube station and even closer to the famous antiques market in Portobello Road. The friendly and knowledgeable staff make you feel as if you're a favored regular; the place, a 19th century townhouse with soaring ceilings, has a certain funky elegance. The drawing room, where you can read the London papers, go online for free or have a drink, looks as if it were decorated by a demented Edwardian dandy, with vermilion curtains, velvet chairs, potted palms and a huge painting of swooping Valkyries. Rooms — some with four-poster beds or clawfoot bathtubs — start at about $200 per night.
First on my must-see list was the Victoria & Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington tube, www.vam.ac.uk, admission free). The 158-year-old treasure house has just opened new Medieval and Renaissance galleries covering 35,000 square feet, showcasing objects long languishing in storage: a 17th century Dutch choir screen, the facade of an Elizabethan house salvaged from East London, 900-year-old stained glass from the ancient church of Saint-Denis.
The V&A has often been called "the nation's attic." Instead of hoarding Old Masters paintings (they're in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square) or Greek statues and Egyptian mummies (that's the British Museum), the V&A focused on applied arts, design, the things of ordinary human life. In the Costume Galleries, you can see stiff-bodiced embroidered dresses from the early 18th century, Chanels from the 1930s, even the sky-high blue lizard platform shoes supermodel Naomi Campbell famously toppled off in the showing of Vivienne Westwood's 1993 "Anglomania" collection.
London is a city of villages. It grew out from the old Roman center, swallowing up country towns and hamlets in 2,000 years. That explains why a 20-minute tube ride from South Kensington to Blackfriars transports you to a whole new landscape. This part of London is dominated by skyscrapers, converted riverside warehouses and the dome of St. Paul's. I walked across the Thames via the Millennium Bridge, taking in the view of the rebuilt Globe Theatre and the old Bankside Power Station, now the free Tate Modern Gallery (www.tate.org.uk). This soaring postindustrial space now houses post-1900 art, with works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Lichtenstein — all the greatest 20th century hits. It's also where you can see contemporary British art by Lucian Freud, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili.
I thought about hanging out here for dinner: The restaurant on the top floor has some of the best views in the city, from the Tower of London to the Houses of Parliament. The food's good, too, with fresh fish from Cornwall and traditional desserts like sticky toffee pudding. From 6 to 7:30 p.m. it offers a two-course meal for around $25. On the other hand, I've been dying to try St. John Bread and Wine (94 Commercial St., www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk), offspring of the famous meat-centric St. John Restaurant in Smithfield. I follow the scent of roasting pig from Liverpool Street Station. The dining room is austere: The tables are bare, the menu's on a big blackboard. But St. John Bread and Wine is throwing down some of the best grub in this foodie town. The beetroot and Ticklemore (an English goat cheese) is a perfect balance of flavors; the Old Spot Belly with chicory and mustard (Old Spot is an heirloom hog breed) is a revelation of what pork can be in the hands of a chef who knows what he's doing. Roast suckling pig is the specialty of the house. Dinner for two without wine runs about $70.
The next morning I decided to walk off some of that porcine cuisine by Regent's Canal. I strolled along the waterside, past circus-bright houseboats docked and decked with window boxes of crocuses on one side and mansions with gardens full of Japanese magnolia and camellia bushes, none in bloom just yet, on the other.
Little Venice is one of the city's most charming "villages" and boasts one of the most beautiful pubs in London. The Prince Alfred (5A Formosa St., theprincealfred.com) is a Victorian gem of etched glass and wooden paneling. It serves old-time ales and new-fangled mojitos. If you fancy staying in Little Venice, the Colonnade (2 Warrington Crescent; rooms from $250) is a pretty boutique hotel near the canal. Sigmund Freud stayed there in 1938 and John F. Kennedy in 1962 — they had a special bed made for him.
Come Saturday I hear the siren call of retail. The Portobello Road market is a cornucopia of high art and low junk: Georgian silver, Russian icons, 1920s beaded dresses and mid-century modern china, pashminas, leather jackets, you name it. Haggling is expected.
The market isn't the only place to get punch for your pound; Notting Hill's charity shops are seriously ritzy. At Traid (61 Westbourne Grove; www.traid.org.uk), an organization working to improve the lives of textile workers in the developing world, I saw a Paul Smith blazer for less than $30. The Oxfam Shop (245 Westbourne Grove) is to your average Goodwill as Nieman Marcus is to SteinMart. I snagged a pair of barely worn Dolce & Gabbana shoes there for about $45. Bargain-scoring impulse satisfied, I headed for Café Oporto (62A Golborne Road), a value-friendly Portuguese bakery nearby. Fortified by sable-colored coffee and a custard tart, I started to plot the rest of the day. Maybe the National Theater still has seats for that new Alan Bennett play. Maybe I'll go to Hyde Park and walk. They say it might snow.
Diane Roberts is a professor of English and writing at Florida State University. She writes about her family's obsession with cake in the recent Oxford American magazine food issue.