New Year’s Eve in London, England, is one of the most exciting nights of the year.
As the clock strikes midnight, the bells of Big Ben ring out like a siren’s call through the streets of London. Each year, the sky above the Thames River comes alive with the glow of 10,000 fireworks. Not even the brightest evening stars can compete with the rainbow of colors that bursts through the darkness over the Coca-Cola London Eye as part of city’s largest annual fireworks display. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about New Year’s Eve in London, from how to get tickets to what you can expect on the big night.
Many people think they can just show up on the day of the event and walk through the gates, but that simply isn’t so. You actually need to purchase tickets to the event, and you need to do it well in advance. In fact, tickets typically go on sale in late September and cost about £10 each. There are no guarantees you will be able to see the fireworks if you do not buy a ticket. Tickets sell out fast. I mean really, really fast. I bought my tickets the same day they went on sale, and already the prime viewing sections were sold out.
There are six viewing areas for the event, which is officially known as the Mayor of London’s New Year’s Eve Fireworks. Each one provides its own unique view of the fireworks. It’s recommended that you think about how you will be traveling to and from the event before you choose a viewing area. Most main streets are closed down to public transportation, so you may have to walk quite a distance to reach your destination.
When to Arrive
As noted previously, most streets are closed down to traffic, so plan to arrive early if you want to take public transportation to the main area. We chose to walk from our hotel. It was a lovely night, and the walk took only about 45 minutes. Based on my aforementioned Time’s Square experience, I was expecting massive crowds. As a result, I insisted we get to our designated entrance before the 8 p.m. opening time. I thought it would take hours to navigate the streets to our viewing area, but I was totally and utterly wrong.
The streets were utterly empty until we got about a block away from the entrance. Then, suddenly, we were swallowed up by a massive, but very friendly, crowd until the entrance opened a short while later. When it did open, the guards let in only a few people at a time. We ended up standing should-to-shoulder with some very friendly people for about an hour, and it felt like time was standing still. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as we got closer and people became less patient. I was with my 60-something mother, and I was a bit concerned for her safety. That said, the people around us were quite protective and did their best to keep us out of harm’s way.
Pro Tip: Dress in layers. In our case, the temperatures were unseasonably warm, so I peeled off a few layers to keep from melting. But the weather could just as easily swing in the other direction. It doesn’t hurt to come prepared for anything.
What to Expect Inside
Once we finally made it through the gate, the staff made sure we actually had in our possession tickets and that we were in the correct viewing area. We then passed through a security check before making our way inside…which was actually outside, of course! I was pleasantly surprised by just how spacious the area was. I had plenty of room to dance and stretch out. At first, I assumed the crowds would fill in around us as the minutes ticked by, but that wasn’t the case.
We didn’t wander too far from the gates, so I’m not sure how far our viewing area spanned in any one direction. There are no seats and no one tells you where to stand. It’s a free for all once you’re inside. A DJ spins tunes and pumps up the crowd, and there are a few vendors selling refreshments and souvenirs. We found a curb we could sit on for the next two hours while we waited for the official countdown to midnight. We chatted idly with the people around us and made a few new friends who were also visiting from other parts of the world.
Pro Tip: You are only allowed to bring small bags inside the viewing area. You can have food and drink, including small amounts of alcohol — only enough for you to consume so make sure your friends bring their own beverages. There are also portable toilets on site, and there are enough of them that you won’t have to wait long to use them.
When Sparks Fly
I’ve celebrated New Year’s in cities all over the world, including the ultimate New York Time’s Square experience, and I can honestly say that London is my top choice to date. When Big Ben begins to chime and the first sparks ignite over the London Eye, the wave of energy that rips through the crowd is truly contagious. The 12-minute pyrotechnics show lights up the sky in time to a specially crafted custom soundtrack that dazzles every bit as much as the visual display.
You’ll be blown away — literally and figuratively by the sheer volume of fireworks and quick clip of the fireworks as they explode across the sky. It’s a sight to behold and a memory to hold dear. I’ve popped in a few super poor-quality pictures to give you an idea of the experience, and while I am a professional photographer by trade, you would never know it. Admittedly, I was much more focused on watching the show and enjoying myself than getting the money shot. It was truly stellar. I’ve interspersed a few more impressive photos taken by others as well.
Pro Tip: Look for benches within your line of sight. People will stand on those benches once the show begins, and you will not be able to see around them. We sat in the same spot for two hours only to have to find a new location once the show started for this very reason. It was especially awesome when they started taking selfies and were not even watching the show.
The entire ordeal lasts only mere moments, but it’s worth every minute. And when the show’s over, it’s really over. In fact, there’s nothing left to see. Most people beeline for the exits and begin making their way to their next destination, which for us was the hotel. Streets that were open to traffic on our way to the show were now closed down to cars. We were in shock and awe to find even Piccadilly Circus at a standstill. But the streets were abuzz no less with pedestrians and partiers. We walked the entire way back to our hotel near Paddington Station. And while the trek took more than an hour, there were plenty of exciting sights and sounds along the way.
For those of you wondering where I stay when I’m in London, it all depends on my budget. If money is no object — which, let’s face it, is rare — I love to stay at Hazlitt’s Hotel in Soho. The upscale 1800s ambiance and boutique service is second to none, and the location near shopping, entertainment, and eateries is ideal. However, when I’m in need of a more budget-friendly accommodation, I turn to the Paddington Point A. Just a five-minute walk from Paddington Station, the location is perfect if you’re planning to take a few day trips by train to places such as Oxford or Windsor. The no-frills hotel is clean, the staff is friendly, and it’s only a 15-minute walk to the ever-popular Oxford Street.
As an added bonus, for the past 30 years on January 1, the city hosts London’s New Year’s Parade. Starting at noon, more than 10,000 participants ranging from cheerleaders to marching bands and cultural performers strut their talent through some of London’s most popular places, including Trafalgar Square and the aforementioned Picadilly Circus. You can purchase seats — yes actual seats in bleachers — in advance so you can rest your feet and stay covered in the case of inclement weather. Or you can take your chances on the weather and find a place to stand on the sidelines at the last minute. Either way, it’s a fun way to spend the day, especially since many stores and attractions do not open on New Year’s Day.
If you’re looking for a fun-filled New Year’s Eve experience that’s action-packed but not overcrowded, check out New Year’s Eve at the London Eye. You’ll be delighted and awed by the spectacular display. And if you’re up for it the next day, the London New Year’s Parade is worth checking out, too.