No one does Christmas like London does. I don't care what you say. The city is filled with festive decor, amazing Christmas markets, delicious food, strong cocktails, and endless activities. The days might be cold and short, but the warm glow of Christmas lights at night will have you looking forward to that early sunset. No matter what your religion, it's honestly impossible to be in London around Christmas and not get sucked into the holiday joy.
Although I'm following the 12 days of Christmas, you can make this your own during the winter season. Just make sure you check the dates, times, and availabilities for everything online.
Attend a Christmas Day service at one of London's amazing cathedrals and churches, including St Paul's Cathedral. Even if you aren’t religious, church services at this time of year have quite a magical atmosphere that you can’t quite experience anywhere else. Check times in advance and arrive early. (For smaller crowds, head to midnight mass on Christmas Eve.)
Want something a little different and quirky? Watch a bunch of people jump into freezing water and race in the Peter Pan Cup. Members of the Serpentine Swimming Club have swam a 100-yard Christmas Day race every year in Hyde Park since 1864. Only members can participate, but spectators are always welcome. The race starts at 9am and takes place on the south bank of the lake, close to the Serpentine Cafe.
There are a lot of restaurants in London that offer a special Christmas lunch or dinner with a set menu. For example, places like The Ritz host an elaborate, black tie, Michelin-starred, four-course dinner with live music and professional dancers. But if you're like me and are looking for something a little less extravagant, check out a list of some of the best Christmas feasts in London here. Spots fill up quickly. Check with restaurants for availability. If you have dinner plans on Christmas, grab an afternoon tea at a restaurant instead.
Can't find a spot at a restaurant? Head to Chinatown for a non-traditional meal.
If you decide to head out for a Christmas dinner, take the long way there and stroll the streets. There is an eerie, but beautiful calmness in London on Christmas Day. The streets are practically empty, so it's the best time to go out and see all of the Christmas decorations along the streets and in shop windows. You get to enjoy the magic without the madness.
Some pubs in London open for a few hours around lunchtime, but most will be closed or ticketed in the evening. If you're really looking for a drink, hotel bars are your best bet. Check with venues in advance for hours.
Note: There's no public transportation on Christmas Day, however, the hop on hop off bus still operates if you want to ride around and see the lights at sites.
December 26th (Boxing Day)
Boxing Day in the UK is the busiest shopping day of the year. And no one does it like Harrods. Over the years, Harrods' legendary Boxing Day Sale has featured live reindeers, garden parties, live performances (Florence Welch!), musical productions, and so much more. There is typically a long queue to get in, but Harrods never disappoints.
If you want to avoid the madness, save Harrods for another day and head to one of the cutest pop-ups in town, the Gingerbread Cabin at York & Albany. Christmas trees, candy canes, and even frosting adorn the cozy cabin; and mulled wine will greet you at the door. It's a great little place to fatten up on festive cocktails and canapés. (The Gingerbread Cabin can be rented out for 2 hours at time. Book your spot in advance online.)
Head to a Christmas market!
Don't let the word "market" fool you. Christmas markets in London are more like festivals. They're big, beautiful, and boisterous. Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is probably the most impressive one of them all. It's open from 10am to 10pm and you could easily stay there the entire day.
Start the day with a stroll through the Bavarian style chalets in the Angel's Market and pick up handmade crafts, jewellery, and clothing. After that, jump on some of the 100+ rides (for kids and adults), take an ice sculpting class, or head to the ice rink, strap on some skates, and fall on your arse.
Once you've successfully embarrassed yourself and/or worked up an appetite, check out the amazing food stalls scattered throughout the market. Then sit and relax during a show, like Cirque Berserk or Peter Pan on Ice.
Once the sun sets, the magic really starts. Hop on the ferris wheel to get the best view of the Christmas lights. And if you're not cold enough after that, grab a nightcap at Bar Ice, where the bar, tables, chairs, and even glasses are made of ice. Not your cup of tea? Head to the fire pit to warm up and toast some marshmallows.
Keep the night alive and head to the Bavarian Village and enjoy live music, steins of beers, and bratwurst. If you want to make your own music, head to Bar Hütte where you can sing terrible karaoke songs and drink cocktails in a private, rustic Hütte.
Winter Wonderland is open November 22, 2018 until January 6, 2019 (expect Christmas day). Entry to the market is free, however, you will need to pay for food, drinks, activities, shows, etc.
Check out additional Christmas markets around London!
Making Spirits Bright.
The most festive bar in the UK literally makes your spirit brighter with their decor. So who holds the #1 spot? The Churchill Arms. The pub is famous for its year round, over the top, flowery facade; but during Christmas they truly outdo themselves. This year Churchill Arms decorated their building with 97 Christmas trees and 21,500 lights. Step in for a pint (or three), but try not to trip over a tree.
(Side note: I love puns.)
Keep the night bright with an Open Top Christmas Light Tour (via bus) or a walk through Christmas at Kew at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Christmas at Kew is a mile long trail through the gardens with over a million lights and thousands of lasers. You'll see the Laser Garden and moonlit woods with glowing origami boats on the lake, the sculptural Fire Garden with the beloved light tunnel, and a light and water show at the Palm House Pond. Then at the end of the trail you'll get to enjoy warm Christmas treats under the stars.
Sit down to afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason or visit the Fortnum’s Lodge for mince pies, fondues for two, hot chocolate, champagne, and more. Fortnum is known for their amazing Christmas decor, gifts, and feast-ready food. It's a great place to indulge in Christmas treats.
If you don't want to eat in, there are plenty of pastries, wines, and other goodies to go. Although I suggest grabbing a goodie bag even if you do decide to stay for tea. The blueberry thyme tart in the bakery on the bottom level is my absolute favorite.
After you're done stuffing your face, head to Covent Garden to see their 55-foot Christmas tree decorated with over 30,000 lights (plus other amazing Christmas displays and decor). If you're lucky, the boutiques will still have some great holiday sales going on.
Check out another Christmas market or two for more handcrafted gifts, festive decorations, and warming winter fare. Try Christmas by the River at London Bridge City (best views) during the day/dusk and Leicester Square (drag shows!) at night.
If you'd rather stay indoors, make your way to the enchanted Frozen Island in Covent Garden and catch a Christmas movie. Sip frozen cocktails under frosted palm trees and icicles as snowflakes fall around you. (Shows only play once a week. Book your tickets in advance on their website.)
And don't forget to grab a traditional Sunday roast at a pub. It's a must. Check out some of the best here.
December 31st (New Year's EVE)
The New Year's Eve Fireworks at the Coca-Cola London Eye is an epic event. And I don't ever use that word. They're massive and magical.
I'm not sure how or why cities ticket fireworks-since you can see them from far and wide-but London is one of those cities. So instead of paying to stand in the cold, find a restaurant with a good view of the London Eye and buy a ticket to their New Year's Eve event. Treat yourself to a lavish dinner, watch the fireworks, and then party the night away. (Be sure to book in advance.)
January 1st (New Year's Day)
Happy New Year! Wake up, grab a coffee for your hangover, and head to London's famous New Year's Day Parade. It starts at noon on Piccadilly near Green Park and concludes in Parliament Square. For more route details, see their website.
Then warm up with a hot chocolate at Chin Chin, Jaz and Jules, Dark Sugars, or one of the many other decadent hot chocolate spots in London.
Once you're all good and warm, get your butt back outside and go ice skating at the Natural History Museum Ice Rink. (They also offer accessible skate sessions. See website for details.)
Go on the set of Harry Potter and experience the magic of Christmas at Hogwarts. Hogwarts in the Snow shows you how the Great Hall, Gryffindor Common Room, Leaky Cauldron, and more are transformed during the holiday season.
Or skip the studio and apparate to Leadenhall Market to see where they filmed scenes of the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful markets in London. Eat, drink, shop, and repeat under the market's elegant Victorian roof and magical Christmas decor.
Enjoy afternoon tea or lunch at Dalloway Terrace. Dalloway Terrace turns into a winter wonderland every year with Narnia-like foliage and cozy blankets. Plus their menu is filled with warming cocktails and amazing comfort food, like truffle cheese fondue.
Then go see a West End show. There's no way I'm going to list them all out, but you can check out the line up here. Look for discount tickets online or sign up for the lottery to get cheaper tickets.
Cozy up in an "igloo" and have dinner and drinks next to the river at the Coppa Club. Each private igloo has fluffy blankets, sheepskin rugs, and one of the best views on the Thames. Some igloos contain dining tables for dinner dates, while others are more laidback with sofas and armchairs. Reservations are not easy to come by, but show up at a rogue time and you might get lucky.
If the Coppa Club doesn't work out for you, here's a list of other equally amazing winter terraces in London.
End your amazing 12 days of Christmas with breakfast at The Wolseley, a stroll through the arcades, and a bit of rooftop fun.
The Wolseley is the best breakfast spot in London. Only the Grinch would disagree. If the interior doesn't stun you, the Eggs Benedict will. On your way out, pick up a box of Cognac chocolate truffles rolled in Feuilletine. Drool.
Work off that holiday hollandaise by taking a final Christmas lap through the shops and arcades of Mayfair. I suggest Burlington Arcade, Bond Street, and the Royal Arcade for the best of the best.
Finally, end your Christmas celebrations on top. Check out the mini skate rink at the top of John Lewis and enjoy views of London while you sip hot gin. (Yes, I said hot gin. It's all the rage now.) Or head over to Roof East for a bit of curling and some Jamaican flare. Queen of Hoxton and Pergola are also beautiful options if you just want to kick back and relax.
Exhausted? Yeah, me too. Do what you can when you can. No one expects you to do all of these in twelve days. Take these ideas and make them your own.