Famous department stores decorated in festive bling, twinkling lights draped above the streets as bright red double-decker buses pass by and sparkling Christmas trees of every size are plentiful. Wine is mulling, chestnuts are roasting and a rosy-cheeked, white-bearded Santa seems to be everywhere at once — how does he do that? — there really is no place like London at Christmas. Yes, the shops are crowded and yes, it is overly commercialised but there’s a buzz in the air, smiles beam at the sight of so many fairy lights and ripples of laughter ring out from the pop-up ice rinks that appear each year around the city. The excitement grows as the countdown to Christmas begins. Don’t be a Scrooge, pop on your Christmas jumper and enjoy my top ten things to do at Christmas in London.
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- Window shop at luxury department stores
- Enjoy Covent Garden
- Explore Winter Wonderland
- Visit the Winter Market at Southbank Centre
- Take a spin on the ice
- See the giant Christmas Tree on Trafalgar Square
- Visit Hogwarts in the Snow
- Discover Kew Gardens at Christmas
- Catch a Christmas show
- See the Christmas Lights
Top ten things to do at Christmas in London
London is home to a number of well-loved high-end department stores, most notably Harrods, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, all of which look fabulous decorated in their Christmas bling. It’s worth visiting them just to see their festive window displays. Be sure to pop inside too, even if it’s just to window shop. Harrods is one of my favourites to explore. You can marvel at the gifts you might be buying for someone who has everything, but you may also spot a bargain or two (my cat loves her Harrods food bowls, which I picked up with 50% off a few years ago).
I love visiting Covent Garden any time of year, with its colourful street performances and a mix of independent shops and quirky stalls, as well as a few well-known high street stores. At Christmas, however, with over-sized silver baubles and gigantic mistletoe hanging from the ceiling, it’s particularly enchanting. There’s such a festive atmosphere here, with the smell of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine drifting through the air, and the giant Christmas tree always looks splendid. It’s a great place for picking up unique Christmas gifts too. And I still love these giant red baubles from a few years ago, I hope they bring them back again one year.
I’ve visited Winter Wonderland, in London’s Hyde Park, a number of times and always enjoy it. Each year it seems to get bigger and bigger. This year it opens from 23rd November 2018 to 6th January 2019, from 10am to 10pm.
In the Bavarian Village there’s a fabulous range of gifts, crafts, food and drink in traditional wooden cabins. There are live shows, over 100 funfair rides, and the biggest outdoor ice rink in the UK (which is even bigger this year). Entry to Hyde Park and Winter Wonderland is free, however, a number of events and attractions are ticketed and pre-booking is advisable for these.
The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew after-dark festival, when the Gardens are lit up with thousands of lights and laser beams, runs from Thursday 22nd November 2018 to Saturday 5th January 2019. This year the winter trail through the Gardens is bigger than ever and with spiced cider, hot chocolate, toasted marshmallows and more, you’re sure not to go hungry or thirsty!
Image courtesy of The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, credit: Jeff Eden
Throughout the year the Southbank Centre hosts a huge range of music and arts events, so whatever time of year you visit it’s worth checking what’s going on. From Saturday 8th December 2018 to Sunday 6th January 2019, twinkling lights will line the south bank of the Thames, with a huge Christmas tree outside the centre, as well as wooden chalets selling Christmas gifts and crafts, German sausages and other festive treats. With a view of the city skyline, it’s also a lovely spot for a romantic walk along the River Thames.
As Christmas in London draws near, ice rinks pop up all over the city. The one pictured below is in Winter Wonderland but it’s grown a lot in size since then!
You’ll also find ice rinks at the Natural History Museum (from 25th October to 20th January), The Tower of London (from 23rd November to 6th January) and Canary Wharf (from 2nd November to 16th February) but there are plenty more dotted around the city.
Each year, a spectacular 25-metre (82-foot) Christmas tree is donated by the city of Oslo to the people of Britain in thanks for their assistance to Norway during World War II. The tree is erected in the centre of Trafalgar Square and decorated by hundreds of lights. This year the lights will be turned on at 6pm on Thursday 6th December 2018. In the lead-up to Christmas in London, numerous choirs sing carols around the tree from Monday 10th to Friday 21st December 2018. Performances take place from 4 to 8pm on weekdays, and from 2 to 6pm at weekends.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter, is some way out of London but it’s well worth the effort to get there. Harry Potter fans will love it at any time of year but at Christmas it’s even more magical, with the giant model of Hogwarts (the actual model used in the filming) covered in snow and the Great Hall laid out for a Christmas Feast.
You can find all the information about ticket prices and how to get there here, The Making of Harry Potter and you can read more about my first visit (I’ve been back a couple of times since!) here, Hovering Hogwarts.
Christmas in London’s theatreland isn’t limited to the great British tradition of pantomime. There are comic adult-only shows, seasonal ballets (most notably two productions of The Nutcracker), musicals, plays and extravaganzas. The most popular shows, such as The Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker get sold out well in advance. The 2019 production will go on sale early in the new year.
Image courtesy of the Royal Opera House, credit: Tristram Kenton
There are numerous streets with fabulous Christmas displays and a good way to discover the best of them is through a walking tour. See the route I took, along with more of my pictures, here; Where to find the best Christmas lights in London. If you don’t have time to see them all make sure you don’t miss Regents Street and Oxford Street.
Whether you are looking for luxury hotels in central London or have a more modest budget, London has it all, from elegant hotels that feel like you stepped back in time to the golden age of travel, to comfy modern hostels and, of course, we now also have AirBnBs.
I recently stayed in a Point A hotel for the first time. There are six in London with rooms from £54. Mine was in Kings Cross, which is the most expensive at £85, however, it’s just a few minutes’ walk from St Pancras International as well as Kings Cross national and underground stations. It was basic but had everything I needed (including a good shower), and was spotlessly clean. And I felt very safe there as a lone female traveller in London. Plus, if you join the A List, you’ll get 10% off.
Check current prices, availability and the latest reviews on TripAdvisor.
They say you can find almost every cuisine in the world in London. You couldn’t be more spoilt for choice. Here are a few of my favourites…
In Chinatown, I love the Orient London, right next to the Chinese gate, for their fabulous range of dim sum, or for a quick snack it has to be the Bun House in Greek Street, Soho. For a business lunch or a night out with friends I head to Social Wine and Tapas in Marylebone. For fish ‘n’ chips my choice is any branch of Poppies. My favourite food market is Borough Market – don’t miss the scallops from Shellseekers.
To get a real taste for London, this food walking tour really hits the spot, Eating London.
The weather can vary greatly, with glorious sunny days not unheard of, but winters in London are more typically cold and often wet. The average high in December and January is 9°C (48°F) and the average low is 5°C (41°F). However, it’s not uncommon to have freezing temperatures and snow is a possibility. Be sure to pack a warm hat, scarf and gloves and a waterproof winter coat. My choice is the Rohan Bergen Jacket. It’s lovely and warm and a little longer than many jackets, with a hood and high collar to keep your neck warm and, of course, it has all the Rohan trademark features of being lightweight, crease resistant, high wicking, quick drying and totally waterproof, with many more great features to keep you warm and dry.