London is on steroids during the holidays…in a very good way. Without our family, friends and requisite holiday parties and obligations in November and December, we’ve looked for alternative ways to celebrate the Christmas season. And you don’t have to look far. I dare say it’s my second favorite time to be in London (after summertime, of course.) If you can embrace the cold, there’s lots of holiday hype and festive cheer to get you in the Christmas spirit.
Because the English don’t do Turkey Day, holiday lights start dazzling in mid-November. Towns, shops and streets are bedecked early, but not in an overwhelming, consumer-driven way. It seems that there’s an unspoken effort to bring Christmas cheer to the masses with as many lights, shows, markets and events that a city can muster in a six-week period. Love, actually, is all around (wink). Here are some of our favorites. They’ll surely be a new list next year because we couldn’t possibly hit them all!
1. Ice Skating – This tops my list because I cannot suppress a smile and belly laughter after strapping on an ugly pair of skates and awkwardly gliding around like a baby deer finding her footing. And if you prefer just hanging on the wall, the people watching is top notch. London prides itself on gorgeous settings for its temporary holiday ice rinks and our favorites this year were the Natural History Museum and Hampton Court Palace. Next year, we’ll try Somerset House and Tower of London.
2. Lights – Since it gets dark by 4pm during December, the holiday lights strung from every major thoroughfare bring a sparkle to evenings that would otherwise be drowned in darkness. From extravagant displays like the 20-feet wingspans on angels hung on Regent Street, to quirky ocean-themed decorations on lively Carnaby Street (who doesn’t love a Christmas lobster?!), you can find festive lights strung everywhere. In the city, don’t miss Covent Garden, Seven Dials and the Fortnum and Mason storefront. I particularly liked how our town of Richmond celebrated the turn-on of the lights with a parade led by Santa followed by fireworks. We also loved the Christmas at Kew lights display, more than a mile of lights and music displays in the Royal Botanical Gardens just a few minutes from our house.
3. Theatre and Music – The West End is always flush with incredible plays and musicals, but at Christmas they add a few special performances to get you in the spirit. We saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in the modern Bridge Theatre by Tower Bridge on the South Bank. The production, costumes and anticipation of Aslan gave me goosebumps. I’m thinking of making it an annual tradition. I’d also recommend booking a performance at Royal Albert Hall or St. Martins in the Fields. Both have a variety of shows throughout the month. For a sense of community and the real reason for the season, step into a church for a candlelight Christmas service. We loved learning traditional English carols different from those in U.S., and Bible readings had a new twist with an English accent at our local church.
4. Palaces – Most of the palaces and castles decorate for the holidays and host special events, but you must book way in advance. This summer, I snagged tickets to the Christmas Carol Service and Holiday House Tour at Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle. The castle is usually only open for a few weeks in the summer and for some holidays, so it’s a special time to tour the festively-decorated home. If only Lady Mary and Old Lady Grantham had been there to host us!
5. Markets – I don’t necessarily go to Christmas markets to shop, but I do love wrapping my cold fingers around a cup of hot chocolate and watching other shoppers meander through the stalls. Covent Garden is a permanent market full of artists and antiques, and the pop-up in Trafalgar Square has great London-themed gift ideas. There are a few temporary stalls posing as igloos clustered on the South Bank that have food, drinks and a lively atmosphere. We even visited a few markets beyond London in our town of Richmond, Kingston and the gorgeous town of Winchester (voted one of Europe’s top Christmas markets!)
As they say in London, Happy Christmas!