The windows are frosting, the Christmas lights twinkling and sleigh bells jingling – it’s Christmas in London and there’s a plethora of yuletide festivities to sink your teeth into. From ice-skating to Santa’s grotto, Christmas panto to the kind of meal that sees you rolled home to your various hotels near Paddington, here are the best seasonal activities on offer.
You’re doing Christmas wrong if you aren’t obsessing over the snow and ice. The best way to do that is by visiting one of London’s many ice rinks across the city.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is a London bucket-lister, and that’s compounded during the winter months when the area outside the Waterhouse Building is transformed into a dreamy ice-rink. The atmosphere is palpably merry, the lights ever-sparkling and mulled wine on the brew for when you’re finished gliding across the ice.
Somerset House is one of London’s most beloved attractions, so it should come as no surprise that with an ice rink thrown into the mix, it would be absolutely criminal to skip it. Whether you’re a natural or more of a Bambi on the ice, you’re guaranteed to enjoy every minute spent passing the epic 40 foot Christmas tree on display. There are classes available for young children as well as adults looking to improve their skills – so consider this a family affair.
Tower of London
The Tower of London’s ice rink is yet another Christmas-time speciality that reminds you exactly why you opted to spend Christmas in the city. A pinch of activity, a splash of cultural significance and a hefty dollop of catchy Christmas tunes and hot chocolate and you have yourself a cracking recipe.
Nobody decides to spend Christmas in London without intending to spend a good portion of that time enjoying how expertly the city does shopping. Though simply wandering around your local area will likely see you in a mini shopping hub or seasonal pop-up, these are some key hotspots.
Harrods is pretty sensational at any given time, but it reaches a whole new level of mesmerizing over the Christmas season. Think all your favourite brands, but to the backdrop of lights, fizz and the best songs reverberating through the department store.
Though Hamley’s is indeed a toy shop, this isn’t, technically speaking, any reason to write it off as a children’s attraction – it’s the kind of “feel like an excitable kid again” destination that everyone needs at some point. It goes without saying that taking your kids to Hamley’s is a sure way to put a smile on their faces – and grow their list to Santa, too.
If you can only visit one shopping-destination in London, Oxford Street is certainly a top contender for where that should be. Not only do the stores get merrily involved with the festive spirit, with department stores like Harvey Nichols on their A-Game, but the street itself looks plucked straight out of the dazzling movies. The street lights are famous – you might even catch yourself spending more time taking pictures than actually shopping if you aren’t careful!
The West End of London is often referred to as Theatreland – and this is no exaggeration. You will find tickets for London shows, musicals and plays year-round, but over Christmas-time there is always something themed going on (and usually with a star-studded cast to top it off). For example:
Dick Whittington and His Cat
It’s not really Christmas until pantomime is involved, is it? You can catch Dick Whittington and His Cat at Hackney Empire this year, starring Grande Dame Olivier Award-winner Clive Rowe in his 13th panto show, alongside Tarinn Callender as Dick Whittington (who you may recognise from the West End’s hit musical Hamilton), Christina Tedders as Alice Fitzwarren and Sue Kelvin as Fairy Bowbells. The show runs from 23 November 2019 to 5 January 2020. Tickets available: https://hackneyempire.co.uk/whats-on/dick-whittington/
Nativity! The Musical
Is it London without a theatre show thrown into the mix, and is it Christmas without a nativity scene? Well, both of those are covered with Nativity! The Musical, a stage musical written and directed by Debbie Isitt, based on her 2009 film. This year’s production, for a third and final year, takes place at Eventim Apollo and is starring father-daughter duo Dani and Danny Dyer, as well as the legendary Sharon Osbourne.
‘Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas
Comedian Adam Kay wrote the hilarious, bestselling book “This Is Going To Hurt” in 2017, the diaries of his experience as a junior doctor in the NHS before he eventually quit and took to comedy instead – not a usual transition, that’s for sure. The success led to a live show, which in turn was so successful that he has written a sequel this year, “Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas”, a similarly diarised (and equally hilarious by all accounts) experience of Christmas Eve working in the emergency room.
Christmas Cooking Classes
Attending cooking classes in London is a treat in itself – there are so many top-notch institutions where you can really hone your culinary passions and skills. Christmas time is undeniably food-centred – so why not use the opportunity to take a class that will ensure you’re set to make your own Christmas from here on out?
Jenius Social in Islington covers everything from the turkey basting to the perfect roast potatoes and ensures that if you ever want to whip up a Christmas feast, you’re armed with the tools to make that happen.
Cookery at Little Portland Street
You would struggle to pick a cuisine that Cookery at Little Portland Street doesn’t offer, and it would be harder yet to criticise it. They do a little bit of everything, without ever compromising on the importance of the detail. They offer a range of Christmas courses, all worth checking out. There is Christmas baking, Christmas chocolate making, the ultimate vegetarian Christmas dinner as well as the home-run: a full Christmas rehearsal dinner.
The Avenue Cookery School
Whether you’re looking for Vegan recipes for Christmas dinners, or for ways to make your Christmas dinner as easy as possible, The Avenue Cookery School is a great choice. Even the full turkey isn’t as hard as it may seem within The Avenue’s walls. No more slaving away over a hot stove on Christmas – you will learn that cooking Christmas dinner can be social, and made ten times easier with the right preparation.
Does the idea of a cooking course while you’re on holiday cause more of a mild panic attack than the idea of fun? No worries – while a cooking course to some may seem like an absolute treat, it may be exactly why others didn’t stay at home this Christmas. So head to these restaurants, where it’s all done for you – washing up included!
The Cork & Bottle
There are a number of restaurants in Paddington London worth checking out, and The Cork & Bottle Paddington is one of them – especially when you see what is on their Christmas menu! They cover all the Christmas favourites, but also give mind-blowingly delicious contemporary twists to their dishes to ensure it’s one of the city’s most unique culinary experiences this winter.
St John is a Michelin starred restaurant and one of London’s gastronomical beacons of class and food, and Christmas-time promises all the divine indulgences of a proper feast. From the suckling pig to the geese, you can’t go wrong with any of their Christmas options. Their vegetarian spread is just as spectacular and you can alert them to any specific dietary requirements to ensure you eat everything on your Christmas list!
Bread Street Kitchen
The world-renowned British mastermind Chef Gordan Ramsey’s award-winning restaurant, Bread Street Kitchen, is at the heart of London in St Paul’s packs a punch when it comes to their Christmas menu. You get a five-course meal, with each course introducing a combination of traditional Christmas favourites as well as new culinary experiences that insight Christmas cheer. Christmas bookings are open and well-worth getting involved with.
Hyde Park transforms into Winter Wonderland over Christmas-time, with a number of different facets drawing in thousands of Londoners to enjoy the atmosphere, food, entertainment and shopping.
One of the top reasons to visit is its market. Think beautiful hand-crafted gifts, delicious home-cooked treats (which you will often smell before you see) and a rustic shopping experience indicative of the festive season. All to the backdrop of jolly music and the knowledge that all the stores are independent and that you are supporting small businesses when you buy from them.
A big part of Winter Wonderland is the fair-ground style entertainment on offer – there are over 100 rides and games for all variety of adventure seekers and thrill hunters. This year, contactless card payments are available so there is no stress about lining up for tokens or finding yourself with excess tokens. Just ride as you go and enjoy whatever whim inspires you while exploring the wonderland theme park. There is also ice skating available, for all ages and capabilities. A must-do is to visit the Magical Ice Kingdom, which is an exhibition of ice sculptures that are telling the story of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ seasonal classic.
Winter Wonderland is brimful of food stalls and street food setups where you can buy all your favourite Christmas goodies, from warm roasted chestnuts to beer or mulled cider from the apres-ski-style Bavarian chalet. There is a pop-up restaurant called Cedar & Spruce Bar + Kitchen, which is available for booking and walk-ins. Expect all-flavours-Christmas as well as an ambience straight out of the carols.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… and it’s time to ensure those catchy tunes remain in your head throughout the season. What better way to ensure this than to do a bit of singing?
Royal Albert Hall
One of the best places to get involved with this is the Royal Albert Hall, which hosts annual sing-along carol services for the public. Sing all your favourites with world-class accompaniment and support from the Royal Choral Society, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
If you’re more inclined to appreciate than to participate, then head to the Barbican’s Carols by Candlelight event this year, which is staged in full 18th-century costume and includes wonderous musical talent from the Mozart Festival Chorus and the Mozart Festival Orchestra. However, if singing along is more your style, the Barbican’s Christmas Carol Singalong is probably more your cup of tea. Expect all the upbeat classics, accompanied by London Concert Chorus and London Concert Orchestra with special guest performer Louise Dearman.
Royal Festival Hall
The Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Center is yet another port of call if it’s some good old-fashioned carol singing you’re after. The singalong that takes place is of the goosebump-creating variety and hearing everyone singing together, jolly and loving, is a truly uplifting experience that reminds us that Christmas is a time for joy, tolerance and love.
Christmas tree viewing
Everyone loves a Christmas tree, but London really outshines most when it comes to grandeur – and, quite frankly, they are so enormous that outshining comes as part of the package. To catch a look and possibly a selfie with the best of them, head to these locations.
Covent Garden’s tree is a real treat on the eyes and it towers at 55 feet tall. Located on the cobble-stone piazza, there really is nothing better than watching those 100,000 lights when they sparkle into action.
Trafalgar Square is beautiful as it is, so when you throw a Christmas tree into the mix, you really get a sight for sore eyes. This spectacular tree is an annual gift to London from Norway – an exchange that has been happening since 1947. So, not only do you get the opportunity to ogle at the glistening lights in the night sky, but you’re also getting a cultural fix added to your travel schedule.
The Royal Exchange
The Royal Exchange is a pillar of commercial significance in London, but even the finance gurus get a twinkle in their eyes over Christmas – or, more accurately, a twinkle on their enormous Christmas tree feature out the front of the building. This year, Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt is turning on The Royal Exchange Christmas tree lights – an honour which, in the past, has been bestowed upon the likes of BBC Strictly Come Dancing presenter Claudia Winkleman and British girl band The Spice Girls’ very own Baby Spice Emma Bunton.
Ask anyone their favourite Christmas movie, and they usually answer without a second’s thought – and it’s usually accompanied by a story about how the whole family watches it together every year without fail. Here are a couple of new films that may become the new family favourite, as well as somewhere to watch the classics.
This new Christmas romantic comedy has been called the next Love Actually – which for many is a staple of movie-watching during December. It’s called Last Christmas and stars Emilia Clarke as our lead, a young woman who accepts a job as an elf at a department store over the Christmas holidays. Produced by as well as starring Love Actually’s beloved Emma Thompson, a British film icon, this film is set to warm your heart and crack your sides. It will be screening at all major cinemas in London, from the Vue in Piccadilly Circus to the Cineworld in Leicester Square.
Are you more of a traditionalist when it comes to holiday films? Is Love Actually one of those “don’t fix what isn’t broken” kind of films for you? Then head to Wandsworth’s Backyard Cinema experience this year for all things nostalgic and wintery. You enter the facility through a wardrobe and step into a magical snow kingdom of lights and beanbags, ready for you to sink into and enjoy the screenings of some Christmas classics. On top of Love Actually, they will be screening Will Farell’s Elf, as well as Die Hard, The Holiday, Home Alone (1 and 2 of course) and even The Muppets Christmas Carol.
Out from early November and showing through the holiday season is Klaus, an animated film following the story of a postman who, after yet another unsuccessful attempt at being a postman, heads to the North where he discovers Santa Klaus hiding out. Famous voices include Joan Cusack, Rashida Jones and J.K Simmons and it promises to be one that both parents and children can enjoy in equal measures. Again, any local cinema will be screening this so it’s all about figuring out which suits you best. Perhaps you want to visit Santa’s Grotto in Leicester Square before watching where he’s been hiding all this time? Or perhaps the Odeon on Tottenham Court Road is better suited to your Oxford Street shopping agenda.
If you’re following this guide point by point, you will have already visited Hyde Park’s incredible Winter Wonderland. However, London is brimful of Christmas markets so if you discovered that you’re less into the sparkling ferris wheels and more rustic market stores where you can buy your family members bespoke Christmas gifts, then here are your best options.
The market at Leicester Square is compact – but diamonds come in small packages. It has everything you would expect from a traditional Christmas market, in one of London’s most famous quadrangles. It’s open every day.
Southbank Centre Winter Market
This market at London’s Southbank Centre is the place to go if your intentions are food-orientated – it’s essentially a big, Christmas-themed street food extravaganza with a real focus on artisanal food. Who doesn’t love a bag of homemade chocolates for Christmas? It’s open on weekends.
Zero Waste Christmas Market
For something slightly alternative, head to London’s Zero Waste Christmas Market and support those making more sustainable, green gifts this Winter. The event takes place on Saturday 7 December and is an annual occurrence which just gets bigger and better every year, while keeping in line with its environmentally-friendly objective. Christmas can be indulgent, but still waste-free if you make an effort. Tickets are from £7.59 and can be found here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/londons-annual-zero-waste-christmas-market-tickets-52935304922.
London is scattered with opportunities to dine from within quirky igloos, making you really feel at one with the chilly season – but never without delicious food and drinks at hand. Look out for these highly Instagrammable snow-beacons!
Coppa Club has it all – a view of Tower Bridge, delicious food and drink, as well as beautiful glass domes on the river bed to ensure those elements are enjoyed to the max! With the help of some frosted glass and trusty fairy lights, these pods make you feel as if you are inside a Christmas bauble.
Jimmy’s Lodge on the Southbank are pop-up igloos which offer a remarkable private dining experience for up to ten people. They are heated domes are about as close to the water you can get without being on a barge, where you can order from a menu that puts all others to shame. They are an outdoor feature of Jimmy’s Winter Lodge Restaurant, which in itself is worth a visit.
Winterland in Wandsworth is doing similar stuff to Jimmy – they’ve set up some pop-up igloos on the river and are serving up all your favourite alpine treats! From within these domes, there will be no doubt in your mind: ‘tis the season to be jolly!
If you didn’t know it already, you sure do now: London is an absolute hotspot when it comes to Christmas. They get it all right – the lights, the songs, the food and merriment. Best yet, you know that no matter how busy a day you end up having, you always have the comfort of the Paddington Spa to come back to after a long day of exploring.