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The best things to do in London at Christmastime

From the famous Christmas lights on Regent Street to the dozens of ice skating rinks and markets which pop up across town, London is an amazing city to spend time getting into the festive spirit.

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

One of the most iconic and longstanding Christmas traditions in London is the installation of the 60ft Christmas tree, which takes pride of place in Trafalgar Square each December. A mark of friendship between Britain and Norway, the tree has been given annually to the citizens of London since 1947 as a token of gratitude for the UK’s support during the Second World War and is lit each year with the help of the Mayor of Oslo in a joyful ceremony with carols and a torch-lit procession. Once the tree is in place, usually during the first week in December, carols are sung beneath its pines every day in the afternoon/early evening all the way up to Christmas Eve.

Of course, Christmas trees aren’t the only thing to light up London during the festive season, whether you love or loathe Christmas shopping, London’s high streets and shopping centres are well worth a visit in the lead-up to the big day, even if just to see the stunning lights and window displays.

Regent Street Christmas lights

Regent Street Christmas lights

Perhaps the most famous of the city’s decorations are in Regent Street; dating back to 1954, they have become a highlight of the year with thousands of visitors flocking to the Piccadilly Circus area to view the lights and – in particular – department store Liberty’s show-stopping Christmas windows. Across the circus in Oxford Street, more than 1,700 decorations light up the sky each year with 750,000 twinkling lights and, never one to stick to tradition, Carnaby Street usually goes for an alternative display, such as giant disco balls or glitter earphones, marking its musical heritage.

The borough of Kensington & Chelsea is also renowned for its yuletide window displays at this time of year, particularly at Harvey Nichols and Harrods, both of which also have dedicated departments, where you can pick up some festive trinkets to add to your Christmas decorations collection.

London’s high streets and shopping centres are well worth a visit in the lead-up to the big day, even if just to see the stunning lights and window displays

Shop ’til you drop

As is always the way in Britain, you can never count on the weather and, while we hope for snow to fall at this time of year to add to the winter wonderland setting, it’s more likely to be rain that falls. If you need to head undercover, then there’s still plenty of Christmas delights to enjoy in London’s shopping malls, such as Westfield London and Westfield Stratford, where you can get your gifts all under one roof.

However, if you want a more traditional festive shopping experience, then head to one of London’s many Christmas markets. A 22-foot tall silver reindeer and a huge Christmas tree welcome visitors to Covent Garden Market at Christmas. The piazza and cobbled streets sparkle with 150,000 lights and 320 metres of garlands, while 40-ish stalls sell all sorts of festive treats.

South of the Thames, as part of the wider South Bank Winter Festival, the Southbank Centre Christmas Market combines 50 cosily-lit wooden chalets selling warming products such as sheepskin rugs, hats and scarves, mulled wine and cider. There’s also a special Christmas edition of the weekly food market, which showcases some of the best street food and produce in the capital.

Along the river outside Tate Modern, things get a bit of a European twist at the German Thameside Christmas Market, where you can buy hand-made wooden toys, unique jewellery and intricate Christmas decorations before sampling bratwurst, crêpes, roasted nuts and warming cups of glühwein.

Night owls should head to StockMKT at Spitalfields or Bermondsey. Inspired by the night markets of the Far East, with their plethora of delicious cheap street food from nearly every continent and opportunities to shop for unique finds long into the night, these markets take that buzz and atmosphere and give it a distinctly London feel. There is also live music, art installations and street theatre.

A 22-foot tall silver reindeer and a huge Christmas tree welcome visitors to Covent Garden Market at Christmas

Santa Claus is coming to town

Of course, Christmas is really all about the kids – or at least it should be – and you simply cannot visit London is this time of year without taking the little ones for a visit to Santa’s grotto. Perhaps the most famous place to meet Father Christmas in London at the world’s oldest toy store, Hamleys on Regent Street, which gets booked up sometimes months in advance, but don’t worry if you miss out as there are plenty of other places to meet Saint Nick and his merry elves.

In upmarket Chelsea, just off Sloane Square, you can take the children to meet Father Christmas in his grotto while you marvel at the Christmas tree and lights in Duke of York Square. Shops lining the square – formerly home to the Duke of York’s army barracks – offer a complimentary gift wrapping service during the Christmas period too so that ticks another festive chore off the list!

Or you could dress up warmly and take an evening hike through Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where Santa Claus takes over the Princess of Wales Conservatory each year and you can also experience how the Victorians celebrated Christmas with rides from the era. You can even meet Santa at London Zoo! Kids can explore the temporary town of Elfville, where they’ll have the chance to make festive treats for some of the zoo’s furry residents, write letters to Santa and have a sing-song with the elves, before getting to meet the big man himself.

At Hyde Park Winter Wonderland they’ll be spoilt for choice. As well as meeting Father Christmas, they can explore his toy factory and jump on board the Santa Express.

Of course, Christmas is really all about the kids – or at least it should be – and you simply cannot visit London is this time of year without taking the little ones for a visit to Santa’s grotto

Christmas traditions

There’s plenty here to keep big kids entertained, too, from the giant observation wheel and Magical Ice Kingdom to the capital’s biggest ice rink. Ice skating under the twinkling lights is a bit of a tradition at this time of year so it’s a good job London has an abundance of ice rinks to choose from.

Positioned directly beside the London Eye and facing the Thames, Eyeskate is one of the best-located rinks in the city and there are packages available if you’d like to combine your skate session with a rotation on the Eye. Set against the tower’s floodlit walls and with the Thames gushing past, the ice rink at the Tower of London is another which makes the most of its surroundings, while The Natural History Museum also provides a rather magnificent backdrop for ice skating.

Ice skating at Somerset House

Ice skating at Somerset House

Eternally elegant, Somerset House provides one of the most grown-up ice skating experiences available in the capital, and its “Club Night” sessions are particularly popular with dating couples. There’s a Skate Lounge cafe and bar overlooking the ice for drinks after and a dedicated training space for newcomers.

Whatever your festive traditions you’re bound to find something that gets you into the spirit in London – there really is nothing quite like it at this time of year.


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Image credits: ©Chris Dorney/Sung Kuk Kim/stock.adobe.com; Devon Rogers/Unsplash; VisitBritain/Andrew Pickett

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