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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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!