Things to do in London

Christmas In London

Surrender to the spiced cider and see how much there is to do in London at Christmastime.

You can’t do better than viewing lights on Oxford Street or browsing at Borough Market. Buckingham Palace is a wonder to behold, but Christmas in London is an attraction all on its own and amongst the best things to do in London.

1. Go Shopping at Covent Garden

One of the top Christmas things to do in London is shopping for loved ones (both naughty and nice) at Covent Garden. Pick up artisanal goods from open-air stalls and goodies from upscale shops carrying luxury brands. As you flit from shop to shop, take in the Christmas tree in the piazza and glance at the dangling mistletoe chandeliers and oversized ornaments.

Thursday nights during the holiday season are even more special. Stores and restaurants stay open later to accommodate after-hours gift shopping and get-togethers. You can stock up on stocking stuffers and sort out white elephant gifts for your coworkers, then settle in for a refresh at a pub.

The 2023 Covent Garden sleigh is a jaw-dropping masterpiece hand-painted by British artist James Gemmill, using a sleigh from the late 1800s as the project's base.

Photographer: Bruno Martins

2. Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

Maybe this is the eggnog talking, but what would happen if you combined the world's most magnificent amusement parks with all the festive delight of the winter holiday season and threw in an artificial ice kingdom for kicks? Sounds an awful lot like Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, one of the many enchanting parks in London.

This 6-week multifaceted explosion of fun hits London's legendary Hyde Park every November. Winter Wonderland is a rich catalyst for thrills we would be proud of.

Over the years, the so-called People's Park has hosted everyone from Nelson Mandela to the Rolling Stones. But in winter, the park is a holiday HQ. Everything from adrenaline-boosting rides to flickering fire pits works to alter the landscape.

Join in on sing-alongs hosted by beloved celebs, go ice skating on the UK's largest open-air ice rink, race friends down the ice slide, and take in a vast array of decor that includes detailed ice sculptures while snacking on festive food and drinks.

There's so much to do, including an opportunity to hang out with the head elf himself, but you'll need to get tickets. Book online for a specific time slot and become one of the 2.5 million people who rock this wonderland each year.

3. Christmas at Kew

Kew Gardens began as a 9-acre botanical retreat created by King George III's mother, Princess Augusta, in 1759. Over time, that flower-strewn escape has grown into a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's brimming with more than 50,000 living plants and the largest Victorian glasshouse on the planet.

That sounds enchanting as it is, but as the winter holidays near, the garden takes on new life as a destination experience called Christmas at Kew.

Wait until dusk to head to Kew, and you'll be greeted with a sparkling barrage of lights strewn across everything from plants to man-made arches stretched over the garden's paths.

There's a coordinated music and water display adjacent to the property's Palm House, floating fields of luminous poppies (part of the Floraison installation), and spots along the 1.6-mile trail to buy hot chocolate or warm cider.

Photographer: Evie Fjord

4. Catch The Nutcracker at a Local Theater

A classic tale of mice, fairies, and Christmas spirit, The Nutcracker is a longstanding holiday tradition that consistently has families flocking to the theater. See the iconic ballet for yourself at any one of Chicago's venues, including the Harris Theater and the Lyric Opera House.

Once you've honored the tradition, head to The Chicago Theatre to experience 'Twas the Night Before..., one of our performances that serves up a heartwarming Christmas tale with an acrobatic twist. 

5. Celebrate Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry 

Holiday customs come together in the melting pot that is Chicago. To honor the city's diversity and showcase the broad group of cultures within, each year the Museum of Science and Industry hosts an illustrious Christmas Around the World display.

Located on the outskirts of Hyde Park, the exhibit features a forest of over 50 Christmas trees, each uniquely decorated to represent a different culture and arranged to encircle a magnificent four-story Grand Tree. This holiday tradition has wowed spectators for over 75 years and remains a cherished citywide celebration that reflects the fantastically diverse makeup of its own community. 

6. Gaze Into Holiday Window Displays on State Street 

Shopping for the perfect Christmas gift is almost as fun as watching your loved ones tear into the colorful packaging. Start your holiday shopping spree by walking the Lakefront Trail in Maggie Daley Park on a journey to State Street, where you'll find everything from historic department stores to locally-owned specialty shops. And finish with Fulton Market in the West Loop.

As you peruse the street, take in the famed window displays on full view for the passing public. Inaugurated by the State Street Macy's in the 1870s, the tradition has caught on with neighboring stores, all of which take great pride in supplanting their windows with lush Christmas trees, animatronics, and scenic snow-capped landscapes so beautiful you'll forget what you were shopping for. 

Photographer: Sven Hansche

7. Sip on Mulled Wine

Not everything on your list of what to do in London at Christmas has to be big and bold to make a huge impact. Simply sipping on a mug of mulled wine can make you feel remarkably festive. It's a good thing, then, that so many pubs and Christmas markets have their own modern versions of wine-filled cauldrons simmering away through the colder winter months.

You'll probably see plenty of signs showing you the way toward your goal, but if they fail you, your nose certainly won't. Follow the aroma of red wine, citrus, and spices to find a vendor serving up their version of this historic treat. It's a way to participate in hundreds of years of tradition simply by indulging in a drink that's been part of life in England since medieval times.

8. Dine in an Igloo

Dining in an igloo seems like an experience reserved for few people (and maybe a few polar bears) in modern times, but anyone who believes that hasn't spent Christmas in London. The city has at least a half dozen igloo restaurants that pop up once the temperatures dip, and they're all structured to allow for maximum joy and memory-making.

Tobacco Dock has already received a nod for its skating rink, but it also offers see-through domes that serve as dining pods with a view. Canary Wharf and Aviary have similar pods, the latter of which turns up the fancy factor with its Nordic Nights igloos that come with plush blankets, dedicated heaters, and a cocktail menu sponsored by Grey Goose.

An extra special mention goes to the Coppa Club for its igloos that overlook the Thames and Tower Bridge. The club serves a set Festive Menu with mouthwatering options, ranging from beetroot salmon gravadlax as a starter to Christmas Mess (a vanilla meringue with orange and cinnamon whipped cream and muddled berries) for dessert.

Photographer: Giulia Gasperini

9. London Christmas Markets and Fairs

The Christmas markets in London are every bit as important to the holiday season as Christmas crackers and Santa himself. Some are year-round markets that remake themselves as winter approaches. Others pop up out of the blue, turning random alleyways and waterfronts into spots where you can shop for bath robes and handmade wooden toys.

  • Christmas Duck Pond Market: This market sits on the grounds of Chiswick House and Gardens. Shoppers can hunt down artisanal-crafted and ethically sourced goods while the Chiswick School's choir sings in the background.
  • Southbank Centre Winter Market: Located along the banks of the Thames, this market is anchored by pop-up snow globes and a raclette bar that serves mulled wine and fondue. If cheese isn't your thing, you can tempt your taste buds with grub from the huts along the walkway. Chase pad thai with a cheese toastie, and buy up all the honey soaps and other bespoke gifts your heart desires.
  • So Last Century's Winter Vintage Market: This market is truly one of a kind, with 40 antique dealers converging at the Georgian mansion at Beckenham Place Park to offload retro posters, first-edition books, vintage maps, mid-century ceramics, and more.
  • Borough Market: One of London's most popular food emporiums, this market operates year-round. But once the holidays hit, it becomes the city's hub for the culinary, especially if your gift list includes presents for your favorite foodie. From first-press olive oil to spicy salume, there are tons of tasty prezzies just waiting to be wrapped up and given to a hostess with the mostest.

10. See the Famous Trafalgar Square Tree

Christmas in London and the holiday season in New York City have a surprising amount of overlap. Notable skating spots, Christmas markets, and bars with mulled wine — three total wins. Both cities also have their own mega trees that serve as a centralized celebration spot for locals and tourists alike.

The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a towering Norwegian spruce that's at least half a century old and reaches the unofficially required 20-meter minimum height.

The tree is cut in Norway as part of a time-honored ceremony that includes representatives from Westminster and Oslo before it's brought by boat to the United Kingdom, set up in Trafalgar, and adorned with a seemingly endless swirl of lights and decor.

11. The London Christmas Lights

During Christmas time, Londonites are all about season-long glittering displays. Many of the city’s shows are lit up the first and second week of November. It starts with Oxford Street’s Christmas lights and seasonal window displays, which usually go up around November 2nd.

Carnaby Street is the epicenter of the '60s Swinging London era. It seems kismet that the cultural hotspot is now known for themed Christmas light displays teeming with neon. Try not to trip on the cobblestone streets of Seven Dials and Covent Garden as you get caught up in gazing at the strings of fairy lights and bold red ribbons festooned across every available surface.

Or you could go back to where it all started. The first public Christmas lights in central London were hung on Regent Street in 1954. Now, the area is home to a grandiose light display called The Spirit of Christmas. It features a canopy of zigzagging lights and 16 sculpted angels with huge wing spans that float over the street and guard the shoppers below.

12. Shopping at London's Department Stores

Holiday shopping in London wouldn't be the same without at least a couple of trips to the city's most prominent department stores.

Harrods in Knightsbridge is luxury personified. Even a simple tea towel with the Harrods logo is a win, but the store also has a 2,000-square-foot Christmas World market for all things seasonal.

Selfridge's splits the difference between high-end goods and more affordable options, so you can get a dress for a ritzy Christmas fete or buy an H&M sweater for ice skating in one fell swoop.

Fortnum & Mason is always stately — what store could have cushy red carpets and warm wood trim and not feel snazzy? But it gets extra oomph around Christmas, thanks to a festive installation in the store's central atrium that makes it feel like you're shopping inside a snow globe as carols pipe over the sound system above.

13. Attend a Service at Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey dates back to the 1060s, when King Edward the Confessor oversaw the rebuilding of a more bare-bones abbey that likely originated sometime in the 10th century. Since then, Westminster has hosted 40 coronations, and 18 monarchs have found their final resting places inside.

The Abbey also offers regular church services open to the public, including Christmas services and advent events with traditional carols and festive readings.

The Westminster holiday calendar is subject to change but often includes an advent liturgy, a service of lessons and carols on December 23 and 24, the first Eucharist of Christmas on Christmas Eve, and Holy Communion on Christmas Day. Some require advanced booking, while others are open door with a first-come, first-seated policy.

Photographer: Robert Linder

14. Visit the Gingerbread City at the Museum of Architecture

Anyone who has tried to construct their own gingerbread house only to have a slanted cookie shack covered in marshmallows and gumdrops is sure to be amazed by the sheer magnitude of The Gingerbread City in London. It makes sense that the city is located at London's Museum of Architecture because it's nothing short of an engineering feat.

Imagine an entire gingerbread metropolis made from confections, plus a moving train. It's a marvel of imagination and creativity, but it also serves as a hint at what real city planning could look like in the decades and centuries to come.

15. Listen to the King's Christmas Day Speech

For most British people, Christmas in London isn't a celebration without the Royal Christmas message from the monarch. For many years, that message was delivered by the much-beloved Queen Elizabeth. Now, her son, King Charles, has the privilege of addressing the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries with a speech.

The speech is usually a well-crafted mix of nostalgia, recognition of current events, and hope for the future. It includes words of wisdom that show what was learned from the last year and what to expect from the next, all tucked into a 10-minute or so broadcast. It's not long, but it's special, and it's an integral part of a London Christmas.

Planning Your Next Christmas in London

More than 160 countries recognize and celebrate Christmas, each with its own set of holiday traditions. However, there's something undeniably distinct about Christmas in London.

Whether you want to plan a streamlined visit that sticks to casual exploits, such as ice skating and mulled wine at a pop-up market, or your itinerary is chockablock with West End shows, it's sure to be one for the books.

Round out your perfect Christmas by checking out our shows in London. Gift a loved one an out-of-this-world experience with the unimaginable — a daring and creative performance that invokes indescribable feelings even in those who have graced our venues before. Book early to get your perfect seats and make this holiday season the best one yet.

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