London truly comes alive at Christmas time. There are substantial crowds but there’s also plenty going on, and the festive party spirit tends to take over the city. Christmas is everywhere you look, from the lights twinkling over every street to the sudden appearance of turkey in every tiny café. The only problem is, all the shops are so busy that doing your last-minute gift shopping becomes more of a nightmare than a pleasure. So don’t bother – get your gifts online instead and throw yourself into enjoying the festive season.
Start with a London By Night sightseeing tour in an open-top bus – remember to wear your warmest coats against the cold. This is an unbeatable way to see all London’s best Christmas lights, especially the displays on Oxford Street and Regent Street which tend to be both creatively and literally dazzling. The tour takes you past Piccadilly Circus, the Tower of London and Harrods – known for its magnificent Christmas window displays, which take the whole year to design and construct and are well worth a photo stop.
While you’re at it, take a wander through some of the shops – the ones you can find only in London. Hamleys is a seven-storey toy shop filled with everything a child could possibly dream of – and plenty that you never knew existed, from the softest teddy bears to marvelous tech gadgets. Take a walk through and be amazed – though preferably not in the week before Christmas, when it’s extremely crowded. For a similar, more grown-up experience, Harrods department store is famous for selling anything and everything – see who can find the weirdest, most beautiful or priciest product for sale.
For more pretty lights as the nights grow longer, head to Kew Gardens for their annual Christmas lights display. This is a very different experience to the inner-city tour: you’ll walk a winding path that takes you throughout the gardens, where a selection of artists have done some incredible things with light. This year featured a “choir” of singing, illuminated holly bushes; a Fire Garden lit with real, flickering flames and topped with a phoenix; a tunnel hung with long, vertical strings of lights which slowly changed colour for a mesmerising effect, and much more.
Christmas markets are held all over the city, with plenty to be found close to the Park Grand London Kensington. Here you’ll usually find mulled wine, Christmas ornaments, German-style street food such as bratwurst and roast pork, and handmade gifts and jewellery. With plenty of variations such as the Scandinavian market and the massive one in Winter Wonderland, you’ll be totally spoilt for choice.
Winter Wonderland is also an ideal place to go ice-skating, and there are other rinks in various locations around London including the Natural History Museum, the London Eye, Somerset House and Alexandra Palace. Though it rarely snows or freezes in London, ice rinks are very much a winter tradition – tickets are usually from £10-£15 with skate hire included, and most rinks will give you a set session time to avoid overcrowding.
We all have our favourite Christmas movies, like Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life and – for some – Die Hard; but did you know that England has its very own Christmas theatre tradition? The Christmas pantomime is a theatre production aimed at families, usually based loosely on a fairy-tale and featuring plenty of slapstick, songs, groan-worthy puns and sly innuendo for the grown-ups. At the end of a Christmas “panto”, Santa Claus generally comes out and hands sweets to all the children in the audience, to leave you all feeling extra festive.
And finally there’s the Christmas carols in Trafalgar Square. Underneath the fifty-foot Christmas tree donated every year by the city of Oslo in Norway, a new choir sings carols every evening from 8-23 December. Entry is free to all comers, though donations are encouraged and are all given to charity. After a long day of fighting through crowds of eager shoppers, there’s no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than a good old sing-song.