Christmas is truly the most magical time of the year here in London. With the days growing dark and cold, Londoners do their best to infuse light, warmth and holiday spirit into their lives. The result is a beautiful city sparkling with fairy lights, where mulled wine is offered at every corner and ice rinks pop up out of nowhere. Though some complain that Christmas has become too commercialised, in this multicultural city the magic is in no danger – despite plenty of excellent deals to entice savvy shoppers. Here are our top ways to make the most of your Christmas in London.
Ice-skating: There are temporary outdoor ice rinks dotted all around London during winter, in spaces that otherwise would see little use in chilly weather. Central London has Somerset House in Aldwych or, slightly closer to the Park Grand Paddington Court Hotel, the rink at the Natural History Museum – both of them surrounded by beautiful historic buildings. There’s also the ice rink at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland – more on that later. For stunning views of the city and plenty of tasty street food, try the rink at North London’s Alexandra Palace. You can even skate inside a shopping mall at the upmarket Westfield Shepherd’s Bush. Most rinks require tickets to be booked online in advance for a specific timeslot to avoid overcrowding.
Winter Wonderland: This massive winter-themed carnival in Hyde Park makes for a fun, if expensive, family day out. Entry is free, but the attractions inside range from ticketed activities that must be booked in advance to fairground rides paid for with tokens, which you buy at standalone booths. As mentioned, there’s an outdoor ice-skating rink strung with fairy lights, which requires advance tickets as well; there’s also a “museum” of ice sculptures and a traditional travelling circus. Food options are plentiful and hearty, including mulled wine and cider, bratwurst, churros, hot chocolate, roast pork and standard carnival fare; adults can enjoy a variety of bars including a merry-go-round which slowly revolves, and a German beer hall. Finally, hit the Christmas markets for handmade crafts, decorations and souvenirs.
Christmas markets and shopping: Other spots to pick up gifts are dotted around London’s neighbourhoods with varying themes, including German, Scandinavian and offbeat and edgy. Greenwich Market is well-known for its quirky, artistic offerings, as well as excellent street food. There is usually plenty of mulled wine on offer while you browse. As for the high street, the biggest buying season is in full swing and you should find plenty to choose from, no matter your tastes. London hotel packages for determined shoppers include private transfers to and from major shopping hubs to save you battling the mobs on the Tube while laden with bags.
See the lights: The Christmas lights on Oxford Street and Regent Street – indeed, all through the city centre – are famous for good reason. Take a moment as you navigate the crowds to take in the glitter. Big department stores including Selfridges and Harrods have elaborate window displays which take months to design, complete with moving parts – they’re worth a look and kids will be entranced. For something different, hop on the Tube to Kew Gardens in west London; the gardens themselves aren’t much to look at in winter, but their highly inventive Christmas lights trail includes gems such as singing holly bushes and a garden lit with captive flames. In Trafalgar Square, a towering Christmas tree sent specially from Norway is decorated to preside over the season, and you can go along to experience choir-led carol singalongs in the shadow of Nelson’s Column.
Pantomime: These theatre productions are a British holiday tradition and a must-see for Anglophiles. The posters begin to appear in mid-November, featuring fractured fairy-tales and plenty of corny holiday jokes. This is absolutely a family event and audience participation is encouraged, with lots of singing and usually an appearance by Santa at the end. The humour is distinctly British but plenty of warmth and slapstick means it should coax a few laughs out of the most miserly of holiday Scrooges.