London at Christmas is pretty magical. London’s best known streets, stores, museums, theatres, venues, gardens and buildings all get into the Christmas spirit, creating experiences that just don’t exist any other time of year. Here are 17 London Christmas activities to bring on the festive cheer.
Is it really Christmas in London without a visit to the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square? The 25 metre high tree is a gift from Norway to London each year, and the lighting of the tree each December is one of the key Christmas events in London. Adorned with Norwegian style Christmas decorations by way of vertical strings of lights, the tree is also the location for carol concerts through the festive season.
Baskets of chestnuts and hung up mistletoe. Chimneys blazing and snowballs thrown with glee. Atmospheric and evocative, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is surely all that we love about Christmas. So, what could be better on Christmas Day than a walk dedicated to the man himself? The Charles Dickens London Walks meets at 2pm by the big Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. You’ll be transported to Dickensian London, deep into the Victorian underworld, with a glimpse of the London that inspired many of Dickens’ great works.
The glorious environs of Somerset House are given a festive makeover at Christmas, with the arrival of one of the best ice skating rinks in London. Skate at Somerset House is such a wonderful, festive experience. Take skate lessons or simply enjoy a rinkside seat with a glass of something chilled. It’s fun for the whole family, regardless of skating ability.
Many of London’s hotels and cafés put on sumptuous afternoon teas at Christmas time. From the upmarket offerings from the likes of The Ritz, Claridge’s and The Connaught to the quirky, with Brigit’s Afternoon Tea Bus Tour from B-Bakery (14 November 2023 onwards); this is certainly one of the tastiest things to do in London at Christmas!
London is transformed into a winter wonderland each Christmas courtesy of its spectacular Christmas lights. Oxford Street is always festooned with lights, as is Carnaby Street, Kew Gardens, Bond Street, Leicester Square and Regent Street. Look out for special opening weekend events where DJs and customised gifts will often be part of the experience. You could take a wander around some of London’s more upmarket neighbourhoods, like Hampstead, Kensington, Chelsea and Mayfair, there are usually good decorations and light displays on lots of the houses. And, there’s no better way to enjoy London’s Christmas Lights than on our Christmas Lights Pub Walk. Discover London at its sparkly best, along with splendid festive stories and a couple of stops in fine hostelries to add to the merriment.
You can never have enough Dickens and at Christmas time, that is doubly true! The London of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol & Seasonal Traditions steps into the heart of the famous festive novella, to the old Victorian City of London. But that’s not all. There will be tales of the origins of the seasonal traditions that we keep alive to this day, from pantomimes to Christmas puddings, cards to crackers. Departing from the Tower Hill tube, from late November onwards on Saturday or Sunday (and both as we get closer to Christmas!). One last Dickens event – head to Rochester in Kent on 2nd-3rd December for the Dickensian Christmas Festival.
Central London department stores really know how to turn on the festive sparkle – and you can’t get that online. Selfridges on Oxford Street always put on a spectacle with their visual displays, and kids get the wow factor from Hamleys Christmas windows. For something rather luxurious, visit Harrods on Brompton Road (last year it was a collaboration with Dior). Fortnum & Mason and Liberty always fill their windows with Christmas cheer tempting us inside for a spot of Christmas shopping too.
One of London’s most famous landmarks, St Paul’s is a delight at any time of year. But at Christmas, it becomes even more atmospheric. St Paul’s Cathedral hosts Christmas carol services, readings and concerts right through the festive season, including the traditional lighting of the Christmas trees and blessing of the crib. The Abbey Choir also performs Christmas concerts at Westminster Abbey, alongside its Advent and Christmas services.
‘The King’s birth-day. To White Hall, where all very gay; and particularly the Prince of Tuscany very fine, and is the first day of his appearing out of mourning. I heard the Bishop of Peterborough preach but dully.’ Delightfully indiscreet, Samuel Pepys’ diaries present a fascinating glimpse into 17th century life. Royal Navy administrator, MP and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, Pepys’ diaries mention Royal palaces, kings and queens as easily as drinking houses, cousins and friends. Celebrate the festive season with a unique Christmas Day Samuel Pepys Walk, stepping back to the Westminster immortalised in Pepys’ diaries. The meeting place is, aptly, the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square – at 11am. What a way to celebrate Christmas!
One of the best things to do in London at Christmas is surely a pantomime. A traditional British festive activity, a ‘panto’, as it is affectionately known, is a fun, family trip to the theatre. New for 2023 is Elf The Musical at Dominion Theatre, Peter Pan at The London Palladium, Cinderella at Lyric Hammersmith and The Snowman at Peacock Theatre. The Nutcracker by the English National Ballet is always a special festive experience. And one last mention of Dickens – A Christmas Carol is on at The Old Vic.
The most wonderful time of the year doesn’t have to end on Boxing Day as you also have New Year to look forward to! The London Walks New Year’s Eve Pub Walk breaks out from the mayhem and madness of London’s West End. Instead, you’ll see in the New Year on the summit of Parliament Hill Fields, far from the madding crowds. The London Walks crew know just the spot for the best view of the main event fireworks, and all the side dishes from private displays across the city. There may be some rather lovely (and not too busy) Hampstead pubs involved in this walk too!
Mulled wine sipped from gloved hands, the scent of warm mince pies, Christmas wreaths and twinkling lights high above, the London Christmas markets are a must in the festive season. One of the biggest and best Christmas markets is at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, complete with outdoor ice rink for ice skating followed by a warming hot chocolate. Then there’s the Southbank Centre Winter Market which lines the River Thames. Covent Garden Christmas Market is brimming with artisanal fare and unique gifts with street performers providing a welcome distraction from Christmas shopping. The London Bridge, Christmas By The River market, offers street food from pop up stalls and chalet vendors, plus mesmerising views of the Tower of London. Get a slice of Europe at the traditiona Kingston-upon-Thames Christmas market, complete with Bavarian Curling Lanes and European goodies. And for fine festive food, don’t miss The Hampton Court Palace Festive Fayre on 1 – 3 and 8 – 10 December 2023.
For the best of British food, served in a traditional and authentic fashion, you can’t beat Rules in Covent Garden. At Christmas, the decorations are simply sumptuous and the menu is exquisite. It’s the perfect place for a memorable Christmas dinner, but expect to splurge. Alternatively, book a table at a great London pub like The Mayflower in Rotherhithe, The Flask in Highgate or The Queen’s Head in Hammersmith.
Father Christmas is set to make an appearance at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, which opens on 17th November. Santa’s grotto is located in Santa Land, a dreamland for the little ones. Hamleys in Regent Street hosts a Santa’s grotto that promises to be full of joy. Or how about the enchanting Christmas at Kew Gardens event? The after dark trail through the famous botanic gardens is illuminated with festive light displays. Then you can visit the big man himself in his grotto!
Many of London’s museums get into the spirit of the season with special events and trails for the family. The London Transport Museum has loads of interactive elements for kids to engage with, and from 25th November there’s a Routemaster inspired sleigh. In Docklands, the Museum of London turns on the sparkling lights and even hosts Santa for the festive period. Then at the Charles Dickens Museum (yes, Dickens again!), there’s a festive family trail, Santa’s grotto and A Christmas Carol live.
Rivalling the tree at Trafalgar Square, the Covent Garden Christmas tree is bedecked with over 30,000 lights. But it’s not only the tree that will capture your attention at Covent Garden this Christmas. The traditional Christmas sleigh creates a perfect photo opportunity, as does the traditional Wonder Wood on James Street. There’s the Christmas sandwich festival. An array of mulled wine hotspots to stave off the cold. Plus there will be special events in the many boutiques and stores of this popular Christmas shopping district.
As the festive season approaches, you’ll find pop-up igloos appearing across London. These swanky snowglobes are special venues to celebrate Christmas with your favourite people. Offerings vary from cheesy raclette in Shoreditch at Aviary Rooftop to food with a river view at Neverland, Fulham or cocktails at Coppa Club by Tower Bridge.
We always recommend a good walk around London, but it’s a particularly good idea at Christmas. On Christmas Day itself, there’s no public transport in operation. It’s a reduced service on Boxing Day. And on Christmas Eve, it starts to wind down from early evening.
That’s a definite, yes. London does Christmas really well and the streets look particularly pretty when festooned with twinkly lights.
Well, the obvious place is Trafalgar Square with the towering Christmas tree. But Somerset House is a favourite place at Christmas. With the festive decorations and ice rink, it feels like a real winter wonderland.
Keep an ear on the London Walks podcast for even more Christmas ideas and specials in the run up to the big day!