london england

WHAT TO DO IN LONDON AT CHRISTMAS TIME

WHAT TO DO IN LONDON DURING CHRISTMAS

 

The Christmas season can be magical no matter where you are in the world. Scents of pine + peppermint, twinkling lights at every turn and carols sung full of hope + joy have a way of making everything around you seem more lovely than usual. Yet even still, there are certain destinations around the globe that really turn things up a notch and make the most wonderful time of the year even more wonderful. Call me biased, by my favorite of all is London.

Whether living there or just popping in for a quick visit, I've been in London for the past four Christmas seasons. Over the years, I've been able to not only experience a lot of festive activities, but also learn a lot about holiday traditions on this side of the pond. 

So whether you're a London local, visiting for the first time, or simply making a wishlist in your head for a trip in the future, here are my favorite bits you can't miss in lovely London during the Christmas season.

christmas in london
THE DORCHESTER HIGH TEA LONDON

I’ve been to high tea in London dozens of times over the years, but I especially love indulging in this British tradition during the magic of Christmas. And while there are loads of wonderful places you can enjoy this experience, my personal favorite this time of year is at The Dorchester (complete with festive-inspired menus and live music). Their holiday decor is exceptional and they offer one of the most top-notch traditional high tea experiences you’ll find in the entire city of London.

DRINK MULLED WINE IN AN IGLOO BY THE THAMES AT COPPA CLUB

christmas in london

Dining in igloos seems to be a trend popping up in major cities across the globe. I've seen these in New York and Chicago (even in Nashville now too!) but my favorite have been the ones at Coppa Club in London. The concept of cozying up in a heated space that's romantically lit is already enough to entice you, but these have beautiful views of Tower Bridge. You can order food, or simply sip on some mulled wine (my favorite warm beverage of the holiday season: which is red wine simmered with cinnamon, cloves, orange and sometimes brandy). 

UPDATE: This has become an exceptionally popular activity and books up for the entire season as soon as reservations are released in October- so you’ll want to plan far in advance if you’re wanting to add this to your list!

 

SEE THE CHRISTMAS DISPLAYS AT LONDON DEPARTMENT STORES LIKE SELFRIDGE'S, FORTNUM & MASON, HARROD'S AND LIBERTY LONDON

Paying a visit to these London-specific department stores is something you should do on any trip (for a variety of reasons), but especially at Christmas. From the spread of Christmas treats in each respective food hall to the gorgeous, intricately detailed window displays to the seasonal shopping available inside- Christmas is taken to a new level at London department stores. 

 

GO ICE SKATING AT THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OR SOMERSET HOUSE

natural history museum ice skating
somerset house ice skating london christmas

Outdoor ice skating rinks are always so fun no matter where you are this time of year, and London has loads of them! From Tower of London to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park (more about that in a minute) to the rooftop Skylight rink in Tobacco Dock and countless others, I’d argue the two very best rinks are at Somerset House and the Natural History Museum. Both are set against an idyllic backdrop and offer vendors that sell mulled wine, hot chocolate and other seasonal treats. Aim to go during the week if possible, as weekends will be much more crowded (and buy tickets in advance to avoid a long line/queue).

 

 

SEE THE CHRISTMAS TREE IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE

trafalgar square christmas

In NYC, the Christmas tree to see is in Rockefeller Plaza. In London? Head to Trafalgar Square. Last year while living in London it was so fun to go to the ceremony for the lighting of the tree to sing carols and celebrate the Christmas season (you can check the Visit London site each year for details on when the ceremony is the year you're going). Even if you're not around for the illumination, it's still worth walking by at night to see the tree in person. 

 

 

STROLL THROUGH THE CITY + ENJOY THE COUNTLESS LIGHTS

OXFORD STREET

OXFORD STREET

ANNABEL’S MAYFAIR

ANNABEL’S MAYFAIR

THE IVY, CHELSEA GARDEN

THE IVY, CHELSEA GARDEN

THE ROYAL ARCADE LONDON
BOND STREET

BOND STREET

COVENT GARDEN

COVENT GARDEN

COVENT GARDEN
SEVEN DIALS

SEVEN DIALS

Strolling is probably my favorite thing to in London anyway, but it's especially wonderful at Christmas. I've never seen people go all out decorating for the season as I have Londoners. Walk along Regent Street + Oxford Street for beautiful, twinkling lights hanging overhead every year without fail. Carnaby (one of my favorite areas) has a different theme every year (this year it’s been transformed with a Bohemian-Rhapsody theme). Covent Garden will always have a massive tree, along with plenty of other festive decorations. Bond Street, home to some of London's most posh retailers, always has equally glamorous holiday lights and decor that will seriously impress you (hence the massive bow on the Cartier storefront). And of course, there's Seven Dials- whose cobbled streets, surrounded by shops and restaurants, is especially charming when lit up at Christmas. Similar to the illumination for Trafalgar Square's Christmas tree, each of these respective areas has a ceremony when the lights come on (and if attending doesn't put you in the holiday spirit, you're truly a Grinch). And if all that strolling made you hungry, head over to The Ivy Chelsea Garden for some more festive decor along with your tasty meal.

 

 

WINTER WONDERLAND

WINTER WONDERLAND HYDE PARK
WINTER WONDERLAND HYDE PARK LONDON
winter wonderland hyde park

This massive Christmas festival (probably the largest in all of London) has been around for 13 years now and is packed with everything you can imagine: from rides to ice skating to food and Christmas vendors to shows and everything in between. Whether you're going with kids, on a date or with your friends, it offers plenty of entertainment in a variety of forms. Haley and I went for Thanksgiving a couple years ago, but it was a Thursday night and more on the crowded side, so we just walked around and sipped mulled wine (then we went back on a Tuesday during the day and had all the rides to ourselves!) While food, drinks and rides will obviously cost, admission into the park area is free so it's definitely worth walking around at the very least to see what it's all about. 

 

 

 

SOUTHBANK CHRISTMAS MARKET

SOUTHBANK CHRISTMAS MARKET LONDON

I adore walking along the Southbank anytime of year (you may remember me recommending this from my weekend in London post). It offers some of the best views of The Globe theatre, St. Paul's Cathedral, Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern Art, and of course, The London Eye and Big Ben. And this time of year? It's occupied by a quintessential European Christmas market- complete with waffle vendors, mulled wine, festive lights and countless of other seasonal attractions you'll love to browse through. It's typically open from 10am to 10pm so you can pop by anytime of the day, really- no excuse to not go!

 

 

TRY MINCED PIES, CHRISTMAS PUDDING + OPEN CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

christmas crackers

I loved learning about British Christmas traditions while living in London! It's fun to not only enjoy them while you're there, but I loved bringing them home with me to incorporate into my own family Christmas. Some of my favorites include: 

MINCED PIES:  Early mince pies were made of meat, fruit and spice and inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine (although you rarely see actual meat in them today- more just fruit and spices). They commonly had 13 ingredients representing Christ and the Apostles, and were formed in a large oval shape to represent the manger. They are simply delicious, and sold all over the city (my favorite place to buy them is from the London department stores I mentioned above. 

CHRISTMAS CRACKERS:  London sweet-maker Tom Smith invented Christmas crackers in the late 1840s. A cracker consists of a segmented cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper with a prize in the central chamber, making it resemble an oversized piece of candy. The cracker is pulled apart by two people, each holding an outer chamber, causing the cracker to split unevenly and leaving one person holding the central chamber and prize. The "prize" usually contains a paper crown, a joke or any variety of fun trinkets. If you're dining at a restaurant in London around Christmas, don't be surprised if you see a table full of people wearing their paper crowns from a cracker! 

CHRISTMAS PUDDING: To explain this, you must first know that "pudding" is a term in the UK that basically means dessert. So a Christmas pudding, therefore is a style of Christmas dessert- typically consisting of dried fruits held together by egg and suet, sometimes moistened by molasses and flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and other spices. The pudding is usually aged for a month or more, or even a year, and contains a high alcohol content to prevent it from spoiling during this time. Not sold on the idea? Head to Borough Market where you can sample them from various vendors (I tried my first one here and loved it so much, I bought one to bring back to my family). 

MULLED WINE: Mulled wine dates back to the 2nd century in Europe and can be found using a variety of recipes (and called a variety of names like Glögi or Glühwein) depending where you are. In the UK, it's referred to as mulled wine and is essentially just red wine along with various mulling spices (obviously, served warm). It's the perfect thing to drink while bundled up out in the cold and browsing through Christmas markets (but really, it's great to drink for any occasion this time of year!)

 

 

There's probably much more I'm forgetting, but by now you likely don't need any more convincing why London is such a wonderful place to be during the Christmas season! What other things do you love to see + do in the city this time of year? Or what other destinations have you found to be magical at Christmas? Tell me in the comments below!

 

Thanks as always for stopping by!

xx

Whitney

 

london at christmas
christmas in london
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A Weekend In London

a weekend in london

This is one of the more daunting blog posts I’ve ever written. After living in London for a while last year, it quickly became my favorite city in the world. So how do I even begin to tell what to do when you visit? 

In short, I quickly realized that I'll need to put together several London guides: the best restaurants, what to do at Christmas time, a breakdown of all the neighborhoods, and dozens others I just haven’t gotten around to tackling quite yet.  But since lots of people that I know spend only a few short days in every destination they visit in Europe, I figured the best place to start was giving you "A Weekend in London" guide. 

Let me caveat that London is the most diverse, multi-cultural, fascinating and wonderful city I’ve ever been to, but it is also a city of subtleties. Destinations like Italy or France will wildly romance you straight away with in-your-face culture that you can't miss. They're whimsical and feel so different from anything we have in America.  But London doesn’t pack a punch in quite the same way. While I always liked it right from the moment I arrived, it wasn't until I spent an extended period of time there that I fell completely head over heels in love. But even if you can only stay a few days, I still believe that no matter who you are, there is plenty to love about London. The question is, who are you and what do you love? Because if you don’t know what to look for, chances are you’ll miss the opportunity to see the best of this amazing city. 

I've made a list of recommendations that are purely based on my personal London favorites. When I travel, I love blending a mix of popular attractions with a taste of life as a local, along with some fantastic food and beautiful architecture. If that sounds like something you also enjoy, then I'd highly recommend doing as much of the following as you can. But before we dive into the itinerary, here are a few things to know about how to get around the city. 

 

GETTING AROUND

The route I've mapped out below is strategically planned so you can use your time wisely and not waste too much of it in a cab or on the Underground. But nevertheless, there are still a few things you should know: 

  • Black Cabs (while fun) get expensive quickly, and depending on the driver/ time of day, some claim they don’t accept card. Uber/Lyft/ViaVan are much cheaper alternatives should you want to take a car (but check the transport time- often the tube is a quicker option!)

  • The Underground (or more commonly referred to as the tube) is your friend and incredibly easy to use- especially if you download CityMapper to navigate where you want to get to and from. You’ll need to head to a kiosk at any Underground station to purchase and Oyster card (which obviously, is all in English and is pretty self explanatory). I’d suggest starting with £20, as you can always add more (or “top up” as the English say) if you need more funds.

  • Pack good walking shoes (I wrote a blog about the best shoes to bring to Europe here) and a rain jacket (I never used an umbrella as it usually only spits, but that can happen any given hour). Walking is entirely unavoidable in London and most of my itinerary will have you walking anywhere from 5-7 miles a day. It’s flat and there are plenty of stops for breaks so I find it to be easy, but consider yourself warned.

 

I could write an entire blog about transportation, about places to stay, and many other details you should know to plan a trip. But given the fact that I have more knowledge about London than any other destination, I've got to stay focused here if I ever want to get anything posted. So again, the point of this post is to lay out the top things to see and do in a quick weekend trip. So now that we've got all that sorted, let's dive into the 3 day itinerary:

 

DAY 1

Any day that you first arrive in a new city usually involves jet-lag, getting checked into where you're staying, and other time consuming factors you don't initially consider. So let's talk from the afternoon on. Hop on the tube and take the Piccadilly or Bakerloo line to Piccadilly Circus (Exit 1 at the station). Don’t worry- you won’t stay here long. This is arguably the most touristy bit in all of London so look around and take it all in, but it’s not what you’re there to see. Head straight down Sherwood St. until you hit Beak St, hang an immediate left and an immediate right and you’ll find yourself in Carnaby. "From being the birthplace of Swinging London in the 1960’s, the home of Mods, Punks and New Romantics to the street style tribes of today. Carnaby has and always will be the epicentre of culture and lifestyle in London’s West End". This is one of my favorite little areas in London- even though today, it’s highly commercial. I used to work from Joe & the Juice (an upscale Danish juice + coffee bar) most days that I lived there, so it’s a bit nostalgic for me. No matter what time of year it is, Carnaby St. is always lit up at night and feels magical every time you visit. 

Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street

While you're here, be sure to visit Liberty London, a posh department store with more than two centuries of sourcing incredible textiles. Liberty is more of a London institution, really. I always load up on greeting cards for all occasions whenever I’m here (and be sure to walk to their Great Marlborough St. entrance if you’re there during the day to see the most beautiful flower displays you’ve ever seen.) 

Liberty London

Liberty London

Also around Carnaby, you'll find tons of places to eat or grab a drink (Kingly Court is an idyllic open air courtyard with twinkle lights overhead). But where you need to eat is Dishoom: my favorite curry house in all of London.

Most tourists think they have to eat fish and chips in London and while you certainly can, locals will tell you what you really should try is the curry.

London been said to now have more Indian restaurants than Mumbai or Delhi, and their hole-in-the-wall curry establishments (especially on Brick Lane in Shoreditch) are incredible. Considering you’re only here a few days, I'd advise dining at Dishoom, which was voted Britain's favorite eatery. While it’s definitely a much more posh experience than the hole-in-the-wall spots on Brick Lane, it's certainly made waves in London and it seems everyone wants to eat here (I'd definitely advise you make an early booking in advance to avoid extensive waiting.) If you don't have a booking, try to go early to put your name on the list and then head to The Clachan: one of my favorite pubs in London (no real reason- just nostalgic I suppose) for a pint while you wait. 

Dishoom

Dishoom

After dinner, go to the theatre! London has so many amazing shows, whether you choose to partake in a West End performance, The Royal National Theatre, The Globe- you can’t go wrong. I’ve seen several shows in London including Wicked, The Lion King, Matilda, Aladdin and my absolute favorite of all time Les Misérables (I highly recommend this one). 

Still not ready for bed after the show? Head to Archer Street in Soho to close out your evening. I came here for the first time for a friend's birthday and was told that it's where theatre recruiters often come to scout talent (the staff all appear to be talented performers and often hop on a make-shift stage to sing and dance). Most of the entertainment throughout the night is a DJ, but they always play songs that are shamelessly fun to sing along to. I've been back a few times since and have never not had a blast. 

 

DAY 2

Whitehall Gardens |  Photo by Joel Smedley

Whitehall Gardens | Photo by Joel Smedley

Wear your walking shoes- today is going to be a doozie. Wake up and head to Borough Market straight away (you can easily get there by the Jubilee or Northern line on the Tube- getting off at the London Bridge station). This is one of my very favorite parts of London. (Fair warning, it’s only open from Monday-Saturday and has a limited market on Monday and Tuesday, so ideally you can go on a Wednesday through Saturday). As I’ve said before, London is such a global city that’s comprised of nationalities from all over the world, so this isn’t any farmers market: it's London's oldest food market and most of the stallholders are the producers themselves (including amazing food from all over Europe).

borough market

While you're here, let yourself completely pig out. Just walk around and nibble on anything that appeals to you- it's seriously one of my favorite things to do in the world because they literally have every kind of food you could ever want. It's also a great place to sample fish and chips (Fish! has been voted one of the best fish + chip shops in London by Esquire) if that's on your list, just don't let it be the only thing you try here!

If it’s chilly out, get a cup of mulled wine to warm up. And if it’s warm? Go for a Pimm's. Either way, I can't recommend this place enough (I daydream about it on a regular basis when I'm not in London).  

Once you can’t fit anymore in your stomach and your bag is too full to purchase anything else, head for the Thames. You’ll likely come out somewhere in-between London and Southwark Bridge, which means immediately to your right, you’ll see Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge- which many people often call it). If you want you can walk across it, but I’d argue this is a plenty good view (and you truly have so much more you should do).

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

Snap a picture or two and start walking along the South Bank in the opposite direction of Tower Bridge. This route (while a bit long) certainly doesn’t feel like it and takes you by some of London’s most historic landmarks. You’ll see The Globe theatre, St. Paul's Cathedral, Millennium Bridge (the one the Death Eaters destroyed for all you Harry Potter fans), Tate Modern Art etc. Assuming you’re there on the weekend, there are street performers, musicians and all other kinds of entertainment to make the stroll an enjoyable one (plus you won’t be alone, tourists and Londoners alike enjoy this route).  Once you reach the London Eye (which I'd skip riding if you're only there a few days- more important things to do!) don’t take your Big Ben pictures just yet. Keep walking under Westminster Bridge and you'll come to another one of my favorite spots in the city.

Big Ben

Big Ben

For whatever reason, tourists don’t seem to come to this side. It’s much more tranquil, offers a more direct shot of Big Ben, and you can even sit and enjoy the views with a drink (although you have to BYOB if you choose to partake- that's what Haley and I always do!). Once you’ve taken it all in, head back up the steps and walk across Westminster Bridge toward Big Ben. You’ll likely want to take lots more photos along the way...

Big Ben

Big Ben

Big Ben

Big Ben

Once you reach the other side of Parliament, up ahead on the left you’ll see Westminster Abbey. They do offer tours, but again- I’d argue you don’t have time in a short weekend (unless it’s really important to you). Take some photos and then head to your next stop(s) just around the corner: 10 Downing St. (home to Prime Minister Theresa May) and Horse Guards Parade (a ceremonial parade ground with British pomp and pageantry).

Horse Guards Parade

Horse Guards Parade

 

Once you've seen both of these, stroll through St. James’s Park: one of the most prominent parks in central London. Head to St. James's Cafe for a drink or snack (and take it outside to sit in the grass if the weather is nice. After resting your legs, walk through the park toward Buckingham Palace. You certainly can time it with the changing of the guard if you like. I personally never watched it myself because I didn't care enough about it to fight the crowds. Regardless of whether or not you watch the guard change, you should at least pop by Buckingham Palace to see it in person (and if the Royal flag is flying, that means the Queen is in the building). 

St. James's Park |  Photo by Joel Smedley

St. James's Park | Photo by Joel Smedley

As previously mentioned, this guide doesn't consider where you may be staying, so take breaks at your own discretion. But this would be a great time to head back to your hotel/ flat to rest and freshen up for dinner. When you're ready to explore again, head to Oxford Circus, at the other end of Regent St. from Piccadilly Circus and head south. You don’t need to spend much time here- chances are most of the shopping you can find wherever you live (and do you really want to spend your few short days in London shopping for high street fashion?) But you still need to see the iconic architecture as the double decker buses and Black Cabs go by. After browsing a bit, head to the gallery at sketch for dinner. Sketch is a gastro-brasserie that's a destination for food, drinks, art and music and is comprised of multiple restaurants. Each is a uniquely-designed concept (but the gallery is my personal favorite). Again, you'll want to make a booking in advance or you likely won't be able to get a table for the evening. If there were ever a place you want to use the toilets, it's here. Just trust me on this one...

The gallery at sketch

The gallery at sketch

 

Looking for a fun place to get drinks after dinner? You can always pop into a local pub (although I find these to be more fun just after work rather than later in the evening). I'd advise walking just 10 minutes to Fitzrovia where you'll find Berner’s Tavern: an upmarket Modern British restaurant in the London Edition Hotel. I came here on my first trip to London and fell in love with the beautiful decor, fantastic drinks and overall incredible ambiance. Chances are that you're exhausted, by now but if you still want to grab more drinks after that, I'd head to The Ivy Soho Brassiere.

 

DAY 3

Another big day so put those walking shoes back on! Head straight to Notting Hill (Notting Hill Station on the Central, District or Circle line) for Sunday Roast (that is, assuming Day 3 for you is on a Sunday) at The Ladbroke Arms. If you're wondering what Sunday Roast is, basically it's a traditional British meal that is typically served on Sunday (hence the name), and consists of roasted meat, roast potato, and accompaniments such as Yorkshire pudding, sausages, stuffing, vegetables and gravy. It's fun to experience and is a very "British" thing to do. We actually went to The Ladbroke Arms for dinner but it's a lovely atmosphere and right on the way to your next activity: Portobello Road- the world’s largest antiques market with over 1,000 dealers selling every kind of antique and collectible. Unfortunately, the market itself is actually closed on Sundays (Saturday is the main day to go) but unless you're big into antique collectables, I believe you can actually see more of Notting Hill without the crazy crowds if you go on a Sunday. And even still, there are tons of shops and darling cafes that will still be open (be sure to visit Biscuiteers and Farm Girl- two of my favorites). But the main reason I love wandering through Notting Hill is the bright pops of color that are unique to this area. Most of the buildings in London are traditional white flats or red brick. Notting Hill, however, boasts a rainbow assortment of every color imaginable. 

Portobello Road, Notting Hill

Portobello Road, Notting Hill

Notting Hill

Notting Hill

Notting Hill

Notting Hill

After letting yourself get lost in this idyllic neighborhood, walk about 20 minutes to the west end of Hyde Park. Call and make a booking in advance so you can have a proper English afternoon tea at The Orangery (right next door to Kensington Palace).  We did this on our initial trip to London and had the best time (and after doing several other high-tea experiences in the city, this one is still my favorite). 

High Tea at The Orangery

High Tea at The Orangery

After tea, take your time strolling through Hyde Park. This is arguably one of the greatest parks in the world and hosts countless concerts and events throughout the year (if you're there at Christmas, be sure to visit Winter Wonderland!) But even when nothing is going on, it's a great place to see tourists and locals alike soaking up one of London's many green spaces. 

The Orangery

The Orangery

Take the road that cuts Hyde Park and half and head south. You'll exit onto Exhibition Road, which will guide you directly into South Kensington: a posh London neighborhood that's home to the V&A and Natural History Museum. London museums are all free (they do have a donation box at the front which recommends a contribution) so I'd advise taking advantage of this and popping into both briefly if you have time (if you can only pick one, do the V&A- it's my favorite!) 

 

*Also, should you want to try a church while you're in London, HTB (Brompton Road) is where I went and is also in this neighborhood. They have several services throughout the day so you can try to squeeze it into whatever makes the most sense for your schedule. 

South Kensington

South Kensington

Victoria

Victoria

For dinner on your final night in London, head to Sky Garden for the most spectacular views of the city. Sky Garden has a few different restaurants depending on your budget and culinary preferences, but just be sure to make a booking well in advance as this is a very popular destination (for good reason- these views are seriously incredible).  

Skygarden

Skygarden

If you still want to have another drink after dinner, I'd recommend Duck and Waffle nearby for more great views of the city, One New Change for stunning views of St. Paul's Cathedral, or Bronte in Trafalgar Square if you want to head back closer to the city center.  

One New Change

One New Change

 

Again, there is still so much I have to say about London, but I need to draw the line somewhere (and I'm not sure you can fit much more into your schedule in such a short time to be honest!) I hope this itinerary gives you a taste of why this is my favorite place in the world and that you fall in love with it yourself!

 

Still have questions about London that I didn't answer? Let me know in the comments below so I can incorporate it into another one of the posts that I have coming. 

 

Thanks so much for stopping by! Hope everyone has a great rest of the week. Stay tuned on Insta-stories next week... I'm heading somewhere incredibly fun (hint: I went there last October too). Can't wait to share!

xx

Whitney

a weekend in london
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