There’s something extra magical about Christmas in London. Maybe it’s the cheery red double-decker buses and nostalgic red phone boxes intermingling with expansive green parks and trees. Perhaps it’s the historic landmarks and cobblestone lanes, which look even more impossibly charming when they’re adorned with sparkling lights and a dusting of frost. After recently visiting London in all its seasonal glory, I know one thing for sure: it’s the perfect place to get in the holiday spirit.
After Thanksgiving, I spent nearly a week wandering around the city with a local friend as my guide. Around almost every corner, we encountered a festive market, brightly decorated street or creative window display — making it easy to pair traditional tourist activities with these opportunities for seasonal fun.
1. Gift shop ’til you drop.
The night I arrived in London, my friend and I ventured over to the South Bank Centre Winter Market to browse the stalls while sipping on mulled wine. While we were there, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the city skyline at dusk, including the London Eye and the Palace at Westminster (home to the world’s most famous bell, Big Ben).
On Saturday, we visited the huge Portobello Road Market, which actually spans multiple streets in Notting Hill. Here vendors sell everything from antique door knockers to Scottish cashmere – along with international street food ranging from Indian to Peruvian. Later, we made our way over to the expansive holiday market at Covent Garden, complete with giant mistletoe chandeliers and street performers galore. But perhaps my favorite locale for holiday souvenirs was the adorable gift shop Sass and Belle, where you can find unique, crafty ornaments that are everything but cookie-cutter.
And don’t forget the city’s myriad department stores, which deck their halls and their windows for the holiday occasion. A trip to London isn’t complete without taking in the glittering spectacle of Harrods (just visit during off-peak hours if you want to maintain your holiday spirit). Or explore the understated elegance of Fortnum and Mason, a 300-year-old store known for its tea, wine, sweets and charming window displays. On the store’s lower level, you can relax at the wine bar, taste varietals dispensed from enomatic machines or sample featured spirits. I opted to try a holiday spice vodka that tasted like raisins, which was better than it sounds.
My personal favorite shopping destination was Liberty in the West End, located in a building fashioned from the timbers of two ships. Specializing in fabrics and fashion, the store boasts plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. The biggest seasonal attraction is the twinkling holiday shop on the top floor.
2. Ice skate (or spectate).
I’m a natural-born stumblebum, so setting foot on the ice was a hard pass for me, but that didn’t stop me from soaking in the nostalgia at several pop-up skating rinks scattered throughout the city. I encountered the first during a visit to the beautiful Romanesque Natural History Museum. After spending a few hours encountering an animatronic T-Rex and a giant sloth skeleton, among other weird and wonderful things, you can take a ride on the carousel, grab a hot drink at the café and take a spin on the ice (or do what I did and watch other people skate from a safe distance).
Across town at Somerset House overlooking the River Thames, I spotted another ice rink in the massive courtyard. By day, the venue offers family-friendly skating and a skate school; by night, it transforms for Club Nights with international DJs providing a skating soundtrack. If you can’t get enough holiday cheer, feel free to poke around the Fortnum’s Christmas arcade or eat fondue at Fortnum’s Lodge, one of several dining venues within the historic building.
3. Walk in a winter wonderland.
On the final evening of my stay, we ambled over to Hyde Park for Winter Wonderland. This over-the-top celebration of holiday magic features a carnival, holiday market, beer garden and theme park all rolled into one.
My friend and I wandered around the market area for a while, looking at handmade ornaments and multicultural trinkets. Feeling a bit chilled, we made our way to the semi-indoor, semi-heated beer garden to warm up with a stein of lager. Then, continuing with the evening’s Bavarian theme, I decided to board the Munich Looping — a popular ride hailing from Germany’s Oktoberfest. It’s also the world’s largest transportable rollercoaster, which explains its appearance in London. And it was a wise choice: the coaster was fun, fast and featured five vertical loops reaching G-forces of up to 5.2G. Not bad for a carnival attraction!
If you’re planning to spend the evening in Hyde Park, I recommend arriving early so you can take a detour to nearby Kensington Palace as the sun sets. Here you’ll find one of my favorite spots in the city: the picturesque Cradle Walk, a tunnel of lime trees bordering the sunken garden. Even in winter when the trees have lost their leaves, the scene is majestic — and quite the peaceful contrast to the city’s bright lights and bustling markets.
Admission to Winter Wonderland is free, but you have to purchase tickets for shows, food, rides and games. The event can get so busy on weekends that the city shuts down the closest Underground station, so avoid the crowds and long lines by going on a weeknight.
Where to Stay: