From Christmas markets to ice-skating: The best holiday activities in London

Friday 14 October 2016

Did you know that some of the most popular American Christmas traditions like decorating a tree, sending cards, and feasting on a mid-day dinner actually originated in Britain? That’s right—from fragrant firs to tender turkeys, we’ve got the Brits to thank for some of our most magical holiday memories.

This year, why not add even more British flair to your holiday season by traveling across the pond and experiencing all of your favorite traditions (and embracing a few new ones—mince pie anyone?) in England’s buzzing capital. Plus, with holiday deals on the horizon, there’s never been a better time for a winter adventure. Best of all, everything can be easily accessed via publication transportation. But to avoid waiting in long lines once you arrive, it's best to purchase your travel card in advance. 

Not sure what to do first? We’ve rounded up the best holiday activities—from bustling markets, to dazzling light shows—to help you have a very merry Christmas in London.

Go ice skating at Hampton Court Palace

Whether you’re looking for a way to tire out the kiddos or burn off calories from one too many clotted-cream covered scones, a trip to this outdoor ice rink overlooking Henry VIII's sixteenth-century pad is sure to fit the bill. Though the view is awe-inducing no matter what time you arrive, it’s especially stunning when illuminated after dark (get that Instagram account ready). For those skaters who are a bit out of practice or simply want a few pointers on perfecting their twirls, private and group lessons are available if booked in advanced.

First skate 11.00am – last skate 9.00pm

Experience the tree-lighting and carols in Trafalgar Square

To catch a glimpse of London’s tallest Christmas tree, head to Trafalgar Square and bask the in spectacular décor and oh-so-charming history. Every year, a tree is gifted by the Norwegian city of Oslo in acknowledgment of Britain’s support during World War II. The tradition has been ongoing since 1947, and each tree never fails to impress. For an extra special holiday treat, visit the square on the first Thursday in December for the official tree-lighting ceremony, complete with carolling performed by local choirs. Looking for even more holiday cheer? Pop across the road to St Martin-in-the-Fields, one of London’s premier concert venues, and treat yourself to a range of Christmas shows.

Shop for designer duds on Carnaby Street

Home to oodles of independent boutiques (plus a dizzying array of designer shops), this world-famous street in Soho is must for any fashionista. Though the street itself is rather small in size (approximately 200 meters), there’s plenty of shops located in the small alleyways. Stock up on English-made beauty products at Cowshed or downtown-cool clothing and accessories at Cheap Monday before tucking into a gourmet burger or plate of beer-battered fish and chips at Carnaby Burger Company. If you don’t have time for a full meal, pop by Shakespeare’s Head (the area’s oldest and most famous pub—it was founded in 1735) for a pint. 

Gaze at wow-worthy window displays

Even those who despise shopping can’t help but smile when walking by London’s intricate window displays, showcasing everything from enchanted forests to fairy tale castles—complete with flamboyantly dressed figures and plenty of playful details. Though you’re bound to find decked-out windows no matter which street you stroll down, for a truly lavish display, be sure to swing by Selfidges or Harrods. Best of all, you’ll be in the perfect place to pick up a last-minute stocking stuffer… or a new winter wardrobe (don’t say we didn’t warn you).

Score tickets to a holiday show

For a Christmas experience you won’t soon forget, head to the famed London Coliseum for limited-edition showing of The Nutcracker. Featuring more than 100 performers and musicians, plus exquisite dancing and beautiful sets, it’s a treat for visitors of all ages. Though performances are offered every day, we recommend booking tickets in advance for the best deals.

Experience Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park

For six weeks every year, London’s Hyde Park is transformed into a magical wonderland of winter festivities. From arctic adventures in the Magical Ice Kingdom, to jaw-dropping circus shows (plus 100 other festive rides and attractions), it’s a great way to spend the afternoon. Feeling peckish? Head to the Bavarian beer garden for a hot cider and Bratwurst, or bundle up in your warmest winter gear and sip a festive cocktail (or mocktail) in a bar completely sculpted out of ice.

Admire Regent Street’s Christmas Lights

Come November, the grand shopping stretch gets a bling-tastic makeover featuring garlands of lights and bushels of mistletoe spanning the length of the entire road. Though the theme of the decorations change from year to year, expect plenty of sparkling snowflakes, dazzling light shows, and festive touches from all your favorite stores.

Beyond London

While there are plenty of holiday activites in London to keep you entertained straight through New Year's Eve, for the ultimate British holiday experience, consider taking a day trip to a nearby town. Whether you're itching to shop all day or party all night, there are tons of things to do and see only a short train ride away--and getting there couldn't be easier. Here are our top picks:

Buy locally-made goods at Bath Christmas Market

Runs November 24th – December 11th
Monday to Wednesday: 10am to 7pm
Thursday, Friday & Saturday: 10am to 8:30pm
Sunday: 10am to 6pm

Looking for something extra special to give that special someone? Skip the overcrowded shopping malls and hightail it to the twinkling 18-day Bath Christmas Market, just an hour and a half train ride from London. Featuring 170 different wooden chalets, each selling a variety of high-quality (and often locally-made) toys, clothes, jewelry, and more, it’s the perfect place to cross everyone off your shopping list—and take in moonlit views of the Roman Baths in the process. Spend a couple hours scouring the glistening square for one-of-a-kind goodies, then warm up with a mug of mulled wine and black pudding sausage roll.

Snap the perfect picture at Windsor Castle

For the ultimate photo-op that you make you the envy of your Facebook feed, throw on some festive gear and head to Europe's longest-occupied palace for an impromptu photo session (selfie-stick optional). Though the palace is typically less crowded during weekdays, should you find yourself outside its wrought-iron gates on a Saturday or Sunday, you might even spot the Queen (it’s where she spends almost every weekend).

Go wine tasting in Kent

Britain may be known for its heavy brews, but thanks to its rich chalk soil, it’s also home to some of the best wines in the world. Spend a day sipping your way through Kent’s award-winning vineyards (many of the tours are even free), before stopping off at The Goudhurst Inn for a tasty meal and (even more) tipples. Wine not your thing? Not to fear! There's plenty of bubbly, cider, and yes, beer to please every palate. 

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