If you love Christmas time and you love London then we’ve got you covered with this detailed guide to celebrating Christmas in London from one of my fellow expats and friend, Kelly! We cover everything you need to know from shopping to special Christmas activities to where to stay!
It is a fact that the British love Christmas. Christmas decorations appear in the stores as early as October and London formally turns on their Christmas lights, iconic street by iconic street, beginning in November. The city falls into a yule-tide frenzy of Christmas spirit; Christmas carols can be heard in every store, while every reputable pub is serving hot mulled wine and every food store is selling minced pies with full-fat cream. From mid-November, the city is alive with the Christmas spirit. There are Christmas presents to be bought, decorations to put up, ornaments to trim the tree and crackers to open and many Christmas activities to enjoy, such as ice-skating at some of London’s most iconic tourist attractions, singing Christmas carols, seeing the Nutcracker or visiting a Christmas market.
Everyone knows when shopping in London you are spoilt for choice because London has everything, especially for Christmas. The best place to start is at the beginning of Oxford Street, near Marble Arch Tube stop, at the iconic department store Selfridges. Selfridges has everything and everything is shiny, modern and fashionable. You can find a Christmas present for everyone on your list at Selfridges, from gag gifts on the ground-floor next to the stationary department, to designer chocolates, insect sweets, and coffee from monkey poo, to high-end designer fashion, shoes and jewellery on the upper floors. Their children’s toy section has an impressive range of quality toys priced from good, to reasonable, all the way to outrageous. Selfridges goes all out for Christmas and decorates the whole store, all 6 floors, and has a pop-up Christmas section which sells quality British inspired ornaments, traditionally stockings and quality crackers. In addition, you can also order online and shop “click-and-collect”. If you live in Switzerland or outside the EU be sure to go to the tax-free office in Selfridges so that you can get your tax money back at the airport and remember that anything you buy in London is tax free, just tell the merchant and they will sort the papers for you. The only catch with buying tax free is that you cannot use anything you buy until you get your money back at the airport. Where: Selfridges, 400 Oxford St, London W1A 1AB
Walking further down Oxford Street, towards Regent Street, you will come upon another great British department store, John Lewis. John Lewis’s merchandise is all reasonably priced has everything you need for Christmas and more, trendy decorations, gift-wrapping paper, fun crackers, minced pies and more. They devote a whole half a floor to Christmas and anyone who walks out of this department store without something for Christmas must be referred to as “Scrooge”. John Lewis also does “click-and-collect”. Where: John Lewis, 300 Oxford St, London W1C 1DX,
Continuing down Oxford Street at Oxford Circus, turn right onto beautiful curved Regent Street and walk just a couple blocks to the oldest department store in London, Liberty’s. Walking into Liberty’s is stepping back into London’s history. The department store first opened in 1875 and the building, as you see it today, was built in a Tudor revival style in the 1920’s. Liberty’s is known for their iconic textiles. If you wear scarfs or pashminas or know someone who does you must pick up one in one of Liberty’s unique designs. Liberty’s is also a great place to buy fashionable Christmas ornaments and decorations, but be prepared, your wallet may scream. Liberty’s also does “click and collect”. Where: Liberty’s, Regent St, London W1B 5AH
If you have any money left, leave Liberty’s and you will find yourself on Carnaby Street. Carnaby Street actually refers to about five cobble-stoned, pedestrian-only streets, off Regents Street in the outskirts of Soho. Carnaby Street has some cosy restaurants that serve delicious food, a live music blues club which is always popular and many independent shops, not to mention fantastic Christmas decorations and lights along the quaint streets. Where: Carnaby Street, Carnaby St, Soho, London
London has many Christmas markets ranging from huge and modern to small and old-fashioned. However, the only Christmas Market in London that really embodies the non-stop and over-the-top modern London Christmas spirit is Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Every year Winter Wonderland just gets bigger and better than the year before. There are bars with mulled wine and everything else, a large variety of food stalls, live bands, an ice rink, rides for all ages and German-inspired kiosks selling Christmas goods. Any trip to London during the holiday season is not complete without a trip to Winter Wonderland. Where: Hyde Park. Tube: Queensway/South Kensington/Hyde Park Corner/Lancaster Gate. When: November 18th-January 2nd 10AM to Late. Cost: Free.
Where to see the Christmas lights
It is impossible not to see London’s Christmas decorations as they will be everywhere however, unlike other major cities of the world; they are not uniform across the city. In London, each street can have different decorations so if you want to check out some of the most famous streets for good pictures of the lights and their diversity go to:
- Oxford Street
- New Bond Street
- South Molton Street
- Old Bond Street
- Regent Street
- Carnaby Street
- Covent Garden
- Trafalgar Square
During the Christmas season, a number of Christmas ice-skating rinks appear at some of London’s most popular tourist destinations for locals and tourists alike to get into the holiday spirit. Remember to book in advance or you will be disappointed.
Skating at Somerset House in London is something straight out of a Charles Dicken’s novel: When: Daily 10am-10.15pm (Club Nights run until 11.30pm and a few morning sessions from 8.45am to 9.45am), from November 18 to January 10. Where: Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2R 1LA Cost: from £7.50 plus a booking fee. Tube: Temple; Charing Cross; Covent Garden
The London Eye has finally gotten on-board with a rink, from here you can see the Eye, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben: When: daily 10am-9pm, from November 14 until January 3. Where: Coca-Cola London Eye, Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB
Cost: from £12.50; children £9.50.
Skating just outside the Tower of London is always a winner, just don’t think about all those beheadings: When: November 20 until January 3. Sessions run from 10am to 10pm. Where: Tower of London, EC3N 4AB. Cost: from £12 for adults; £10 for children. Tube: Tower Hill
Skate like Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace: When: daily 10am-10pm from November 20 to January 3. Where: Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey, KT8 9AU. Cost: adults from £11.50 off-peak to £13; children £9 off-peak to £9.50. Train: Hampton Court
British Christmas spirit truly is not realized until every Christmas carol has been sung at least a million times in every concert hall, church or theatre either by professional choirs, opera singers or just regular out-of-tune people in a sing-a-long with mulled wine.
King’s College Choir Carols at the world-famous Royal Albert Hall is a definite must if you love your Christmas carols. Where: Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore London SW7 2AP. When: December 16th at 7:30PM. Cost: £19.50-£59.50. Book in advance to avoid disappointment.
Childline’s Merry Little Christmas at St. Paul’s Cathedral is sure to get you in the Christmas spirit. Book well in advance. When: December 13th at 6PM. Where: St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD Cost: from £32.
The Royal Opera House’s Big Sing Christmas Carols are always a hit. A select group of musicians and singers sing carols and then lead the audience in renditions of the most famous English carols. The only catch is you have to be a student or a “friend” or know someone who is a “friend “of the Royal Opera House. When: December 15th at 7:15PM. Where: The Royal Opera House Covent Garden at the Clore Studio Upstairs, Bow St, London WC2E 9DD.
A bit outside of central London but worth the trip is Eltham Palace’s (Henry VIII childhood home) Christmas Carols in the Great Hall. Book in advance. When: December 7th at 7:30PM. Where: Eltham Palace, Court Yard, London SE9 5QE. Cost: £7 and include a glass of wine.
Theatre and Ballet
No trip to London is complete without taking in a play, ballet or opera. Just like with the shopping you will be spoilt for choice here. The theatres range from the very modern like the National Theatre or the Young Vic, to replicas of the very first theatres, like the Globe. Of course, there are plays and ballets being performed to keep up the Christmas spirit.
Step back in time and see an intimate play in the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at the Globe Theatre. The playhouse is a replica of where Shakespeare would have performed his plays during the winter months complete with only candle light. In December, see “All the Angels” which is based upon a group performing Handel’s Messiah to a random group of people at a pub. There are not many seats so book in advance. When: December 6th –February 12th. Where: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre, 1 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT . Cost: £10-£62.
The Royal Opera House does an amazing performance of the Nutcracker Ballet every year. Buy tickets well in advance. Where: Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. When: November 23rd-January 12th. Where: The Royal Opera House Covent Garden at the Clore Studio Upstairs, Bow St, London WC2E 9DD. Cost: £5-£92. Tip: The Royal Opera House keeps tickets aside in every section of the theatre that can be bought starting from 12PM on the day of the performance. Limit one ticket per person and get there early as there is always a line.
The English National Opera also puts on a dazzling production of the Nutcracker Ballet. When: December 14th to January 7th. Where: The English National Opera, London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES. Cost: £14-$79 plus a booking fee.
Unique places to stay in London
London has a lot of nice hotels, just google any hotels in Mayfair, Belgravia and Knightsbridge you will be spoilt for choice. However, it also has some unique hotels which are great to experience while in London and without a doubt they will be decorated for Christmas.
The Gir Lion Lodge at the London Zoo in Regents Park. The zoo has built little cottages that you can stay at in the zoo itself. The price of the room includes, dinner, breakfast, 2 days tickets to the zoo and a semi-private tour of the zoo.
Batty Langley’s in Spitalfields is a Georgian inspired hotel with humorous quirks like toilets behind secret doors and such. Some people have referred to it as Downton Abbey in the heart of London. It is a great place to stay to get in touch with an older and more humorous side of British culture.
Super modern design meets an old government building in London’s East End at the Town Hall Apartment Hotel in Bethnal Green. These stylish apartments and restaurants and bars offer everything you would want for a longer stay in London.
Hazlitt’s is one of the best loved of London’s small hotels. It is decorated like a Gentlemen’s Club and is located in the heart of the theatre district, which used to be one of the most fashionable areas to live in Georgian times, when the building was constructed. You cannot go wrong with Hazlitt’s.
The Artist Residence London in Pimlico offers affordable retro rooms, great cocktails and good food. If you are lucky you can even book yourself a “pass” for a front row view of the chef in action.
Happy holidays! Now go get to planning your London trip!
Kelly Curtis is an American photographer who, after spending the last decade in lively London, has very recently relocated to calming Zurich. You can check out her photography website here: http://kellylaracurtisphotography.com