Christmas Markets, decorated trees, sparkling lights and holiday concerts galore. On my recent trip to London I found the city wrapped up in all things Christmas. There is always a lot to do in London and this time of year, even more so. So after spending ten days getting into the holiday spirit, here is my list of festive things to do in London in December.
I went to London over Thanksgiving and into the first week of December. Despite the nip in the air and the short number of daylight hours, the city was still very busy with tourists from all over the world. This didn’t totally surprise me. As I was finalizing my plans on what to do in London in December, I had trouble getting tickets and making reservations to some of the activities that I was interested in. I ended up having to rearrange my calendar a few times in order to schedule many of the things that I wanted to do.
Festive Things to Do In London in December
I love the British tradition of afternoon tea: dainty finger sandwiches with a variety of tasty fillings; delicate scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam or lemon curd; and of course, a plate full of dainty cakes. This calorie infused experience isn’t an everyday affair, either for the waistline or the pocketbook. But it is certainly appropriate as a special treat during the Christmas season.
There are many top places in London for afternoon tea. Be aware that popular spots like Claridges and the Ritz fill up quickly for the holidays. (I did not find any December openings for these when I looked in mid November).
I was however able to book at my favorite spot, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum and Mason. I’ve had afternoon tea here before and loved going back. This special experience begins with the doorman that is always present to open the doors, and continues with the festive decorations up and down the historic stairways.
Fortnum and Mason started as a grocery store in the early 1700’s and gourmet food and drink is still one of their specialties. Their afternoon tea reflects that with over 50 different teas to choose from.
The added benefit of having afternoon tea here is that afterwards I was able to wander the store and get some of my Christmas shopping done as well.
Fortnum and Mason closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
In a non touristy neighborhood south of the Thames River is the new home of Backyard Cinemas. They have taken over the space that was once Capital Studios, a filming venue that at one time produced music videos for Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and David Bowie.
Today, Backyard Cinema has turned the act of movie going into an experiential event. Entry into the two theaters is through themed, interactive rooms. I picked the Winter Garden theater which started by entering through a coat filled wardrobe and going through a vine covered passage to a mysterious garden. The theater was also decorated in a garden theme and instead of the ordinary chairs, had comfy, over sized bean bag chairs.
Backyard Cinemas has also raised the bar on movie theater food, going way beyond the typical popcorn and sodas. There are a number of local food trucks serving freshly prepared options and a couple of craft beer stands which makes it very easy to have a dinner and a movie date in one spot.
Throughout December, Backyard Cinema shows all sorts of classic holiday themed movies like Home Alone, Elf, and of course, the British classic Love Actually. When I went to book tickets in mid November, many of the showings were already sold out and I had to rearrange my schedule a bit so I could catch a midweek screening. I indulged my inner child and thoroughly enjoyed watching the Muppets Christmas Carol. Even though it was a midday showing, the theater was full (with only a few kids present) and hardly any other tourists.
This ended up being one of my favorite holiday activities in London because it was both relaxing and felt very authentic.
Backyard Cinema closest railway station: Wandsworth Town
Besides Royal Albert Hall, I also found a number of holiday concert options at the major churches in town. I attended a concert at St. Martins in the Field and heard the world renowned Westminster choir perform Handel’s Messiah at Westminster Abbey. I have to admit that hearing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus sung by those amazing choir voices and echoing off the ancient walls of Westminster Abbey where some of Handel’s works were originally performed and where he is buried was an unforgettable experience.
Try to get tickets for holiday concerts at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and St. Martins in the Field as far in advance as possible. If you can’t get tickets or the concerts don’t fit in your schedule, consider attending an evensong service or one of the other types of performances that these churches offer. (Note, no photos inside Westminster abbey at all, and no photos during concerts or services at St. Paul’s or St. Martin in the Field).
Westminster Abbey closest tube station: Westminster
St. Martin in the Field closest tube station: Charring Cross
St. Paul’s Cathedral closest tube station: Mansion House
Christmas Decorations Galore
Hotels, restaurants, pubs, markets, and shops went all out with the Christmas themed decorations. It seemed like there was an unofficial competition to see who could be the most creative, the most original or the most outlandish. I saw quite a bit of fun Christmas decor around the Covent Garden area.
It was fun to wander the pedestrian only streets in Carnaby and gawk at the whimsical decorations and creative light displays hanging overhead. Filled with boutique shops, unique eateries and bars, I think this section of SOHO would also be a fun place to just hang out and take a break from sightseeing.
Carnaby closest tube station: Oxford Circus
Covering miles, the major shopping streets of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street were hung with large light installations that glowed, twinkled and pulsed, lighting up the night sky so that it was almost as bright as day.
Christmas lights display closest tube station: Oxford Circus or Picadilly Circus
Christmas Lights Bus Tour
The first day after landing in London, I made sure to keep busy and active. This is easier to do in the summer when it is light out till 10 PM. But on this trip the sun was setting at 4 in the afternoon. I knew that by early afternoon I would be tired and probably would not have the energy to walk that much anymore. The solution was an open bus tour of the city that also included the Christmas lights displays.
There are many open bus tour companies to choose from. I picked the Christmas Lights Bus Tour with The Classic Tour company which left from the Trafalgar Square area. For 75 minuter, a restored 1960’s double decker bus drove us around the major sights in London while a guide told us about the history and the buildings that we were seeing, with a few bad puns in between. This was a fun and easy introduction to the seasonal sights throughout central London. And even though it was raining lightly, it did not keep me from sitting on the open top level of the bus.
Trafalgar Square closest tube station: Charring Cross
Christmas Performance at Royal Albert Hall
Royal Albert Hall is one of my favorite concert venues anywhere and I try to see a show there any time I am in London. I like to stay nearby in the Earl’s Court or South Kensington area of the city, so it is easy for me to get to the Hall on the tube or by walking. I usually book my tickets in advance but have also had success getting good seats on the day of a performance.
This iconic and historic building was opened by Queen Victoria in 1871 and honors her beloved husband Prince Albert. Throughout the year the venue is host to all manner of musical performances and events. In December there are daily holiday themed shows to choose from. I went to see a Christmas concert by the Salvation Army choir and band which also had a number of other guest performers that sang and did readings (including Mary Berry of The Great British Bake Off show). It was a very enjoyable evening and a lovely way to get into the seasonal spirit.
Royal Albert Hall closest tube station: South Kensington
The Christmas Market tradition may have started in Germany, but it seems that Londoners have adopted it with a passion. Villages of little wooden huts popped up all over London. They sold crafts, clothes, gifts, a variety of food and drink, mulled wine and cider and everything else you can think of related to the Christmas season. I saw some of the same vendors at all the markets, while others were clearly unique at just one market.
The Christmas Markets that I found that were located in the main tourist areas were at Leicester Square near Covent Garden, in Trafalgar Square and on the South Bank near the London Eye.
Trafalgar Square closest tube station: Charring Cross
Leicester Square closest tube station: Leicester Square
London Eye closest tube station: Waterloo
London’s West End offers a huge selection of theatrical performances. But at Christmastime in the UK, the traditional form of entertainment is the Pantomime.
A pantomime is a musical comedy that is (very) loosely based on a children’s story or fairy tale. All “Pantos” have certain elements in common: the female lead is played by a man, there is always an evil villain that is defeated in the end, audience participation is expected, and slapstick comedy and innuendos abound.
On my last evening in London I was able to catch the opening night performance of the pantomime Goldilocks and the Three Bears a the Palladium Theater. In this version, Goldilocks and her mother Dame Betty Barnum (played by a male actor) own a circus that is threatened by an evil rival circus owner. In between lavish musical numbers and bawdy comedy routines that sort of followed a story line to save the circus, there were also excellent authentic circus acts and a fantastic magician. At one point in the story, Goldilocks and her friend do go out to find the house of the three bears, and singing and dancing to the tune of ‘Hot Stuff”, try the porridge, the chairs and the beds. As the show progressed, the costumes became more and more outrageous, the comedy more silly, the double entendres more obvious and eventually, good won out over evil and the circus was saved. Shakespeare this was not, but it was highly fun and entertaining.
Palladium Theater closest tube station: Oxford Circus
It seemed like I saw Christmas trees everywhere. In train stations, restaurants, hotel lobbies, department stores or city squares, there were decorated trees galore. Some only had lights and others had traditional decorations while some were fantastical creations. The Claridge Hotel had a forest of trees in its lobby along with an intimate train restaurant, while the tree hanging in the atrium of the Liberty of London department store looked like something out of a Dr. Seus book. The lit red and white tree with the London Eye as a back drop was also pretty.
I learned that THE main Christmas tree in London is put up in Trafalgar Square and is donated each year to the city of London by the city of Oslo in Norway. The tree is a specially picked Norwegian spruce that is 50-60 years old and over 60 feet tall. This tradition started in 1947 as a token of gratitude by the Norwegian people for Britain’s assistance to Norway during WWII.
Tragalgar Square closest tube station: Charring Cross
Christmas Pudding Race at Covent Garden
The land that is now called Covent Garden has a long history going back to Roman times. Perhaps its most colorful aspect was the red light district that once operated here in the 18th century.
Today, the Covent Garden market and the streets surrounding it is another mecca for boutique shops, pubs and numerous eateries and is a huge tourist draw. For the holidays, the area was highly decorated, especially around the covered market.
The plaza surrounding the main market also acts as a stage for a variety of street performers. I think you could probably spend the whole day watching the diverse acts as they cycle through their performance around Covent Garden.
While I was there, I caught the Great Christmas Pudding Race, a fun charity event that was raising money for cancer research. This did indeed seem to be another very local, very British activity that was fun to watch. Teams in holiday themed fancy dress (ie: costumes) raced around an obstacle course holding a plate with a pudding on it. (Note – in the UK, a pudding is a steamed cake. So while it wobbles as you are running, it is not quite as wobbly as the American version of a pudding).
Covent Garden closest tube station: Covent Garden
Department store (window) shopping
London has many great department stores and it was fun to see what innovative Christmas displays they had in their windows. I perused the windows of Harrods, Selfridges, Liberty of London and Fortnum and Mason. Each store had a creative and unique interpretation of the holidays, but I am a traditionalist and my favorite was definitely the childlike appeal of the windows at Fortnum and Mason.
Dinner at The Shard with a view
I like to splurge on a foodie dinner during a trip, and if it comes with a view, even better. You can’t beat the view from the top floors of The Shard over the Thames River with the nearby Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. There are a number of restaurants to choose from at The Shard, all with great views, and this time I opted for TING where the menu is sourced form the nearby Borough Market. Of course, the restaurant was beautifully decorated for the holidays. The service was extremely attentive and the food was delicious.
The Shard closest tube station: London Bridge
As a child many years ago, I used to take ice skating lessons. I still enjoy watching it though I haven’t tried skating for a very long time. I was surprised at the number of skating rinks set up around London during this time of year. There was one in the shadow of the Tower of London as well as one in the courtyard of the large Sommerset House and a Tiffany sponsored one at Covent Garden. The most scenic ice rink though had to be the one set up next to the Natural History Museum. With the Christmas tree in the middle, the nearby carousel and the historic museum building as a backdrop, the scene looked like the model for a Victorian Christmas card.
Natural History Museum closest tube station: South Kensington
Kensington Palace was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and is where she grew up and lived until she became queen. Today the palace is still a residence for some of the British Royal Family, but some of the historic apartments are open to the public.
For the holidays, Victoria’s apartment was decorated like it might have been when she was growing up there. Throughout December, there were also a variety of family oriented activities in Victoria’s apartments.
Kensington Palace closest tube station: Queensway
Victoria and Albert Museum
I always enjoy popping into the Victoria and Albert Museum for a little bit and checking out an exhibit or two. Since entry into the museum is free, I don’t mind going in to see just one or two of the global art and design displays that the museum is known for. When I stopped in in early December, I caught one of the lunchtime Christmas carols concerts in the lobby. Such a lovely way to get into the festive spirit.
Victoria and Albert Museum closest tube station: South Kensington
Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park
In the northeast corner of Hyde Park I explored the huge Winter Wonderland. Set up for only six weeks, this is a huge winter themed combination theme park-carnival-Christmas market-drink and food garden. There is something for everyone here and entry was free, though tickets were required for rides, shows and activities.
There are over 100 attractions including carnival rides for all ages, different shows including a circus show and an ice skating show and fun carnival games where you can try your luck at winning a prize. There is huge ice skating rink and a Christmas Market with over 100 vendors. And plenty of food and drink choices including a Bavarian village, a fire pi, an ice bar and street for vendors. There is also a Santa Land where you can meet the big man himself. At night the site becomes a real wonderland as twinkling lights add to the kaleidoscope of colors from all the attractions.
I only spent a few hours strolling and browsing the park but could have easily spent a whole day if I wanted to experience many of the attractions and shows.
Winter Wonderland closest tube station: Knightsbridge , Hyde Park Corner or Marble Arch
Festive London Day Trips in December
Just outside the town of Oxford is Blenheim Palace which is best known as the birthplace and burial place of Sir Winston Churchill. and is also a UNESCO designated site. The land was gifted in 1704 to John Churchill, a distant ancestor of Winston Churchill, for his military successes in the War of Spanish Succession.
Today Blenheim Palace continues to be the home to the Churchill descendants (aka the Duke of Marlborough). The palace and grounds are also open to the public and in December, there are a variety of holiday events that draw huge crowds. There is an illuminated light trail throughout the extensive grounds. Inside the palace, the public rooms were also creatively decorated around a children’s story theme – last year it was Cinderella and this year the story was Alice in Wonderland.
The grounds around the palace also had a huge Christmas market with food and gift stalls and a fair with small rides for the little kids. To cap off the day, I also had a very nice dinner in the palace Orangery.
This is a very popular event, especially with families and I had trouble getting tickets to the light trail in the evening hours. I had to settle for the “Alice in the Palace” tickets and dinner and saw the light trail at dusk before the trail officially opened for tickets.
The Blenheim Palace website provides directions on how to get there from London. I took the train from London Paddington to Oxford, spent the morning exploring Oxford for a few hours, and then took a taxi to Blenheim Palace. To get back to the train station in Oxford, I took the Park&Ride500 bus from in front of the Palace gates.
British Pullman seasonal journey
I don’t know if there is any more special way to celebrate the holiday season than to take a day trip on the Belmond British Pullman train. The British Pullman celebrates the glory days of train travel with restored vintage train cars, exceptional meals and the most attentive service.
I had experienced the British Pullman on a previous trip when I took the Venice-Simplon Orient Express from Venice to London. I was thrilled to find a few last minute tickets still available on a day trip excursion to the Winchester Christmas market.
This all day trip started with a leisurely train ride through the British countryside as we had a Champagne brunch. Once we reached Winchester, there was a guided tour of the cathedral and then a few hours free time to browse the Christmas market. As the sun set, we started heading back to London while enjoying a delicious gourmet dinner.
Such an extremely memorable way to get into the Christmas spirit.
Christmas at Kew Gardens
One of the things that I was most excited about seeing at this time of year was the Christmas lights display at Kew Gardens. I have been to Kew gardens a couple of times, most recently to see the Chihuly exhibit which was outstanding. So, I was really looking forward to seeing the holiday display. Unfortunately, when I started planning, all the tickets were already sold out for the whole event. Apparently, tickets go on sale in the summer and this Christmas light display is clearly very popular. From the photos that I saw, it looked to be an amazing. I signed up for a ticket resale site, but no tickets became available during the first week of December when I was there. Oh well. Next time.
Kew Gardens closest tube station: Kew Gardens
Hampton Court Festive Fayre
Hampton Court is an interesting London day trip any time of year but going during the weekend of the Festive Fayre in early December provided twice as much to do and see.
At Hampton court you can experience the lifestyle of two different monarchs living in two different centuries. This was one of Henry VIII’s many palaces, and some of the Tudor architecture and the Tudor kitchens can still be seen as they existed in the mid 1500’s.
A little over one hundred years later, monarchs William and Mary started “modernizing” the outdated palace, trying to outdo the Palace of Versailles, and a few subsequent rulers continued the work. As a result, Hampton Court is an interesting mix of late medieval and baroque architecture.
Even though I had been to Hampton court previously, I thought it would be fun to visit again during the Festive Fayre weekend. It turned out that this was a Festive Food Fayre and there was all manner of food and drink options to try and/or buy. I tasted lots of goodies, including local sausage rolls and I wished that I had room in my suitcase to take home a few of the cheeses, jams and cookies. (I did succumb to buying a bottle of local gin though). I was also able to attend a carol service in the historic palace chapel.
And for those looking for some fun exercise, there was also a large skating rink set up on the grounds in front of the palace.
To get to Hampton Court, take the train from Waterloo Station to Hampton Court.
Warner Brothers Studio
As a huge Harry Potter fan, vising the Warner Brother’s studio outside of London where the movies were filmed has been on my list for a long time, and on this trip, I finally had the time to do it. Again, when I went to purchase entrance tickets directly from the studio, none were available for most of December. I was able to find a tour with Premium Tours that still had availability which I booked through Viator.com.
The tour included bus transportation to and from Victoria Coach Station and the entrance tickets to the studio. The tour left London very early, which put us at the studio pretty much when it opened. Our group had a little over 4 hours to tour the studio which was just about the minimum amount of time to see it all at a comfortable pace. (Had I not been on a tour, I probably would have stayed a few hours longer).
Some of the sets, like the Great Hall and the huge Hogwarts model were decorated for Christmas, which I thought really added to the experience.
Winchester Christmas Market
I visited the Winchester Cathedral and its Christmas market on the British Pullman train trip from London. However, you can easily get to Winchester on a regular train in about an hour and a half from either London’s Waterloo or Paddington Stations.
The Winchester Cathedral is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe and is the longest of any Gothic Cathedral. This long length is balanced by a beautiful high arched roof which is supported by some pretty impressive buttresses. Jane Austin fans note that she is buried inside the Winchester Cathedral
The Winchester Christmas market is considered to be one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. Nestled among the flying buttresses of the huge cathedral, over 100 little wooden chalets sold everything from British crafts to artisan festive food to mulled wine and spiced cider. The vendors for this market are individually picked for their unique and exclusive products.
I could easily have spent the whole day exploring the town of Winchester, the Cathedral and the Christmas market.
Windosr Castle is a quick half hour train ride from London’s Paddington Station. It is the Queen’s weekend retreat and parts of the large complex are open to the public (note-no photos inside). The castle was decorated for the season, including a 20 foot tree in St. George’s Hall. Throughout December, there are a variety of holiday activities for the whole family.
The day I was there, I attended Evensong in St. George’s Chapel followed by a lecture on The Christmas Carol in Victorian England which included performances of Victorian carols by some of the Chapel singers.
The town around the castle was also beautifully decorated for the holidays.
Tips for visiting London in December
- Book tickets and reservations as early as possible. I had to wait till early to mid November before I knew my final travel schedule, and by then it was a challenge finding tickets to some of the events and activities that I was interested in.
- My holiday visit to London was during the last week of November and the first week of December. Temperatures while I was there were in the upper 40’s F to mid 50’s F during the day and the upper 30’s F at night. It was cooler walking around the city but then warmer in the underground tube stations and on the trains. I layered my clothing and had gloves and a compact hat in my pocket for when I needed them.
- I like to stay at a hotel in the Earl’s Court or South Kensington area of London. These areas have many fairly reasonably priced hotels (as compared to hotels closer into the center of the city) and are directly accessible on the Picadilly tube line from Heathrow. Also, both of these areas are served by both the Picadilly and the District/Circle tube lines which provides a lot of easy options for seeing the major sights in London by tube. I use an Oyster card to get around on public transportation, but I noticed that now tap and pay credit cards could also be used.
- It seems that London is busy any time of year and the Holiday season was no exception. There were many British tourists enjoying the seasonal events, not just foreign tourists. Pack lots of patience and allow plenty of time to get to wherever you need to go.
There were a lot more festive places to visit in London in December than I expected. I loved my time in London in December and found it a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit. I highly recommend it.
Thanks for visiting.