The day after Christmas Day doesn’t have to be spent feeling over-stuffed and slightly disgruntled after a run-in with an irritating family member. For us in the United Kingdom, Boxing Day (also known as Saint Stephen’s Day) is an official public holiday. Boxing Day’s been celebrated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since the 19th century, but it only became a bank holiday in Scotland in 1974.
But what to do with this public holiday? There’s plenty on offer other than boxsets and Quality Street. So, peel yourself off the sofa, and get out on 26th December. Here are 10 of our festive suggestions for spending time in London on Boxing Day.
Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr, known for serving the poor. Many believe the name Boxing Day derives from the boxes used to collect money for the poor in church, which were distributed the day after Christmas Day. Others believe that the ‘boxes’ were monetary tips given by the wealthy to their staff after Christmas, as mentioned by diarist Samuel Pepys in his 17th century diary. To stay true to the intent of the day, you could spend your Boxing Day ‘giving back’ by volunteering for a London charity, like Whitechapel Mission, Crisis or food bank network Trussel Trust.
On Boxing Day, you may feel like the best of Christmas is “behind you.” But it’s a great day to get to the theatre and enjoy a feel good show. But what popular theatre shows can you watch on Boxing Day?
There’s the traditional English Christmas pantomime and this year you can take your pick from Peter Pan at The London Palladium (with the very naughty Julian Clary and Dawn French), Aladdin at Hackney Empire and Cinderella at Lyric Hammersmith. But other festive favourites in the West End include Frozen The Musical at Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, Elf The Musical at Dominion Theatre, A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic, The Snowman at Peacock Theatre or The Nutcracker by the English National Ballet.
In the 18th century, Boxing Day was a time when the aristocracy would take part in sports such as hunting, shooting and horse racing. Fox hunting was banned in the UK in 2004, of course, but the tradition of sport on Boxing Day endures. Horse racing remains a firm fixture with the headline being the Kempton Park Winter Festival. Premier League football is always a big sporting event on Boxing Day. This year’s matches include clashes between London teams Arsenal v West Ham and Chelsea v Crystal Palace.
If you’re travelling into (or out of) the city, just bear in mind that even though public transport will be running on Boxing Day, there may be a reduced service, so check with TFL before you travel.
Boxing Day has been synonymous with discounted shopping for some years. Recently, pre-Christmas discounts online on Black Friday have superseded this somewhat, but Boxing Day sales remain a big deal. Many stores make a seamless switch from Christmas shopping to sales the day after Christmas.
Where better to get the best of the Boxing Day sales than London? If you prefer to do your shopping indoors, the likes of Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City have department stores and big name retailers. For more bargains, head to London’s popular shopping districts like Regent Street and Oxford Street. If you like to do your shopping in style, it has to be the luxurious boutiques and labels on offer in Bond Street and Covent Garden.
Are there any must-have winter wonderland destinations in London you should consider visiting on Boxing Day? Well, there’s the actual Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park which celebrates (or capitalises on, depending on your take) all things snow and ice. Immerse yourself in a mythical frozen world carved out of 500 tonnes of ice, take the ice slide, skate at the ice rink or drink slushies for grown ups at the ice bar.
Elsewhere, you’ll find ice skating rinks at Battersea Power Station, Queen’s House Greenwich, Hampton Court and Alexandra Palace. But it’s the ice rink in the forecourt of Somerset House that has the most stunning setting imaginable for ice skating in London. It’s been likened to ice skating in St Petersburg. It’s a wonderfully wintry way to spend Boxing Day, when its open from 12pm to 9pm.
If you ended up cooking for the masses on Christmas Day, then let somebody else do it on Boxing Day. Book a table at a cracking London pub with some seasonal British grub, then just relax and enjoy. Festooned with Christmas lights and with a roaring fire going, London pubs are pretty magical at that time of year. Some of our favourites are London’s oldest pubs. They include The Mayflower in Rotherhithe, The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead and The George in Southwark. We explore historic Central London pubs in our Secret Soho and Belgravia walking tours, come and join us.
Wrap up warm and take a winter walk around one of our wonderful parks. The trees may be rather bare and it’ll be dark by 3pm, but London parks do retain their impressive beauty all year round. And after the likely (over)indulgence of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a dash of fresh air and exercise is a great idea come Boxing Day.
Greenwich Park is not only a gorgeous green space but it’s steeped in history. From Roman remains, to Henry VIII’s birthplace and Queen Caroline’s bath, there’s plenty to discover. Head to St James’s Park or Green Park for prime views of Buckingham Palace. On the outskirts of London, Kew Gardens is always spectacular but its larger than life festive illuminations rival Central London Christmas lights.
Regents Park has much to offer, but if you’re wondering if London Zoo is worth visiting on Boxing Day, we say yes! Christmas Day is the only day of the year that London Zoo stays closed, so it’s back open again on Boxing Day. It can be a bit quieter that day and it still has its special Christmas charm and twinkliness.
Many London museums remain closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. But those that are open tend to be pretty quiet, making them enjoyable spaces to explore without the crowds. Try the Museum of London in Docklands, the Sherlock Holmes Museum, Southbank Centre and Somerset House, but always check updated opening times before you visit.
Should you consider taking a cruise on the River Thames on Boxing Day? We highly recommend taking to the river to view London from a different perspective. Don’t forget your woolly hat and scarf though – that breeze along the River Thames can be icy but it would blow away post Christmas Day cobwebs! A superb way to explore London by river is with one of our guided tours – Thames Sightseeing, Brunel’s River Cruise – but this runs Thursday to Sunday (Boxing Day is a Tuesday in 2023). There are other river cruises operating on Boxing Day however, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Treat yourself to a walk, and not just any walk but a London Walk! We have a full programme of events running on Boxing Day. You could start with the The Splendour of St Paul’s Cathedral or Shakespeare and Dickens’ Old City, ease into the afternoon with Past The Palace or build up your appetite for an evening walk, courtesy of the Jack the Ripper Walking Tour. The full London Walks programme will be finalised in the weeks before Christmas. Be sure to check back for any updates.
Looking ahead to New Year’s Eve? Find our suggestions for the best places to be in London for the new year celebrations.