Festive Things to Do in London During the Holidays
Arts & Culture
Some places just know how to do the holidays and London is no stranger to festive feels and special experiences. From Christmas markets to dazzling lights, the UK exudes all the charm and cheer during these especially merry winter months. Whether you want to stay warm inside and indulge in seasonal fare or venture out for an ice skating adventure, get ready to transport yourself to a magical winter wonderland.
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Where to stay in London
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Things to do in London
Christmas at Kew Gardens: Light shows seem to be plentiful these days during the holidays, but the festive lights (with accompanying music) at Kew are otherworldly and some of the most enchanting. The botanical gardens themselves are quite grand and offer a magical trail of wonder for both children and adults alike. Indulge in refreshments at food stalls, and be sure to grab a hot chocolate or spiced cider for the nippy stroll.
Christmas Lights: Oxford & Regent Streets, Carnaby, Seven Dials, Bond Street and of course Covent Garden: You can’t do holidays in London without seeing the Christmas lights. They are not to be missed, and are a crucial sign that the city has officially welcomed in the holiday spirit. Angels twinkle high above shoppers on Regent Street and colorful rainbow and fairy lights shimmer on Carnaby Street amongst the shop displays, while the iconic Christmas tree stands tall (and sparkles!) in Covent Garden.
Afternoon Tea: The Langham, The Goring, The Dorchester, The Savoy and Claridges (among many others): The English are renowned for their tea service, and taking an afternoon or high tea during the holidays is no exception. London’s hotels glow bright and bustle excitedly from within as traditional bakes and beverages are served with extra festive charm. Be sure to book in advance at these iconic hotels as this is a popular activity amongst tourists and locals similarly.
The Nutcracker: Royal Opera House: Having grown up attending the ballet, one of my personal favorite Christmas traditions is seeing a live version of The Nutcracker. The Royal Ballet performs the festive ballet classic every year at the Royal Opera House - an enchanting and glamorous space set with red velvet curtains and a warm candle-lit interior. (Be sure to check out Royal Albert Hall too for their calendar of Christmas concerts).
Christmas Concert at Westminster Abbey: Another personal favorite is the Christmas concert at Westminster Abbey, inclusive of seasonal songs (performed by the renowned Choir of Westminster Abbey), participatory carols, and readings telling the story of the Nativity. If you’re unable to make the annual Christmas concert, be sure to pop in another day during their regular daily services. The rich history and incredible Gothic architecture are reason alone to visit this celebrated landmark.
Ice Skating: Somerset House: A highlight during the winter season in London (even if perhaps a bit touristy) is a festive skate, particularly at Somerset House’s iconic rink. Perfect for a group or date, you’ll enjoy live music, delicious treats, and activities for all to participate in. Don’t forget the 40 ft. Christmas tree that sparkles brightly against the backdrop of the neoclassical courtyard. (Additionally, there are a number of other rinks to enjoy depending on preference and location: Hampton Court & Queen’s House being among them).
A Christmas Market: Hackney, Christmas by the River, King’s Cross, Covent Garden Christmas Village, Borough Market, Southbank Center, and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park: Perhaps most magical of all during the lead-up to Christmas are the markets that pop up all over the city. Decked out in mistletoe, garlands sprouting twinkling lights and all the festive trimmings you might imagine, these markets are full to the brim with things to indulge in. Food stalls emit warm aromas of German sausage, roasting chestnuts, baked gingerbread and mince pies. Roam the craft stalls for stocking stuffers and unique gifts made by local artisans, or perhaps join the local carolers in some festive musical cheer. And of course, your insides will thank you for grabbing a cozy cup of hot chocolate, mulled wine or cider to keep that London chill at bay.
Attend a Pantomime: Although mainly for children, pantomime has become an especially popular activity for families during the holidays. Generally based around a nursery story or fable, slapstick comedy and music is added for a unique twist on the classics. Always sure to be a fun (and interactive) time!
Iconic Department Stores (Liberty, Selfridges & Harrods): The interiors and window displays of London’s most famous department stores take decorations to the next level during Christmas time. Each with a dedicated Christmas shop—often overtaking an entire floor—you’ll find glowing lights aplenty, shimmering tinsel and baubles, and if you're lucky, Santa Clause himself might make a special appearance!
Day Trips from London
Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, the Cotswolds, or a jaunt to Edinburgh for a long weekend is a must.
Places to eat & drink in London
Everyone dresses up for the holidays, and that includes all food & drink establishments. No matter where you go, you are sure to feel especially merry, surrounded by the warmth of Christmas cheer which permeates through the city. It would be impossible to do a comprehensive list, so instead, here is a very small selection of suggestions for you.
Daylesford Organic (Notting Hill or Marylebone): These two outposts are my favorite and often my first stop after landing in London, even when it’s not a particularly festive time. A chic grocery & goods shop with an adjoining cafe, the golden milk and any pastry are my go-tos. The shop is a twinkling jewel box during the holidays, and you must be sure to pop in for their ornament selection, home goods, treats and sweets.
Coal Drops Yard (Kings Cross): Host to over 50 restaurants, bars and shops, this delightful space of converted Victorian sheds has something for everyone to indulge in. Make sure to give yourself time to wander and roam (and eat your way!) through all the curious, lively and especially festive stalls.
The Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, the Strand: Only keeping weekend hours, this seriously seductive bar is set in black & gold art-deco styling, perfect for a luxurious and elegant date night (or a solo indulgence!) Newly re-opened with its Nocturne menu, every cocktail is entirely unique and served with dramatic flair. Just as legendary as the spirits are the Christmas installations throughout the hotel, so be sure to take a stroll about the property.
Churchill Arms (Kensington): Even if you’re going for the lights alone (although be sure to grab a pint, or two), this is one spot in London you don’t want to miss during the holidays. Over 80 Christmas trees and 22,000 lights cover the pub's exterior and rest assured, the spirit of Christmas radiates with a mighty glow.
Monmouth Coffee (Seven Dials): No list is complete without fantastic coffee, and Monmouth is as iconic as it is delicious. This particular location in Seven Dials is one of my favorites, and a perfect stop prior to some last-minute Christmas shopping in the chic surrounding boutiques. Or opt for a cozy pick-me-up whilst admiring the warm glow of twinkling lights illuminating the roundabout.
Need to Know
For more travel tips, check out Things to Do in Rustic (Yet Magical) Los Alamos, CA.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to London, part of our larger series on travel to England.