Flashing lights, roller coasters, and festive afternoon tea. Christmas in London isn’t as traditional or old-world as in some other European destinations like, say, Christmas in Vienna, but there’s something about the Holiday season in London that still gets me excited. There are London’s Christmas markets which range from carnival-esque fairs to quaint German-style wooden huts. London’s Christmas lights which vary from glittering elegance to wild and wacky neons. And, of course, Christmas shopping, Christmas shows, and Christmas tea in London.
I’ve wanted to see London at Christmas since I first watched Love Actually, and it was as magical as I hoped. There’s plenty to see and do in London at Christmas and even though there probably won’t be snow and the temperatures will feel more like an autumn day in October rather than a winter day in December (at least to this Canadian girl), the capital of England certainly does a good job in making you feel festive. Ready to explore? Here are my top recommendations for experiencing the magic Christmas in London.
London Christmas Markets
I’m a huge fan of European Christmas markets and while London’s Christmas markets didn’t have quite the same charm as those in Germany or Austria, they are still a lot of fun to wander around and explore- especially if you come hungry.
London’s Christmas markets are a random mix of carnival/fair type places that are perfect for families to more food and drink oriented markets, perfect for grabbing a pint or a mug of gluhwein with your friends. Personally, I didn’t find any that were ideal for actual shopping or finding Christmas decorations and ornaments, but the London Christmas markets still had a great atmosphere.
There are several London Christmas markets spread across the city. Some are open daily in the weeks leading up to Christmas while others are more of a pop-up variety that only run for a day or two, normally over a weekend during the month of December. For this reasons, I suggest checking the London Tourism Board’s website in advance to see exactly what is going on during the time of your visit (you can find it here). However, there are four London Christmas markets that I definitely recommend popping into.
Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park
Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park is one of the most popular London Christmas Markets, however, I’m not sure I’d really call it a market. Winter Wonderland is more like a giant fairground with rides, games, beer tents, and plenty of yummy stands offering everything from bratwurst and pretzels to pints and chocolate. It definitely has a family-friendly vibe, though is appropriate for all ages.
Leicester Square Christmas Market
When it comes to London Christmas markets, I think that the one at Leicester Square was probably my favourite. Ironically, it’s also the smallest one that I went to, however with the lights through the trees and adorable wooden huts, it was the more picturesque and traditional looking Christmas market in London. I’d also say it was the best one to actually shop at; there was a selection of vendors offering jewellery, ornaments, and decorations among other things. I picked up two really cute Christmas tree ornaments here. Of course, there was some food and drink vendors as well.
South Bank Christmas Market
If you are a foodie looking to socialize, then the best London Christmas market for you is the one at South Bank. It’s nearly all food and drinks so I suggest pacing yourself or going with a friend so you can share and try as much as possible. There are pizzas, Asian cuisine, sausages, fish and chips, steak and chips, and raclette served on garlic potatoes (which is delicious). The South Bank Christmas market also seemed to be one of the most social markets as well- plenty of people stopped by for a pint or a mulled wine and the crowds were pretty intense. That being said, it has a great atmosphere and it’s location, beside the London Eye, was picturesque as well.
Christmas by the River
Perhaps the largest of the London Christmas markets is Christmas by the River which is located along the river bank by the London Bridge. Unlike the other markets, which are clustered together and therefore very congested, Christmas by the river is spread out in a line which made it a little easier to explore and get around. As with the South Bank Christmas market, there are plenty of food options at Christmas by the River but there are a few artisans, jewellers, and photographers as well selling their work. With the backdrop of the London Bridge, Christmas by the River is a must visit when it comes to Christmas markets in London.
London Christmas Lights
When it comes to Christmas in London, I tend to think that the light displays are the main draw. There are three main areas to see the London Christmas lights and, luckily, there are all relatively close together making it easy to walk from one area to the next.
The best-known areas for London’s Christmas lights are Oxford Street, Regent Street, Covent Garden, and Carnaby Street. Oxford Street and Regent Street tend to have more elegant displays. This year, Oxford Street had silver and purple balls strung across the street while Regent street had elegant white displays that reminded me of angels. Covent Garden also had pretty white light displays of giant stars strung over the streets. Carnaby, on the other hand, is known for its funky and wild displays. In 2017, it was a tropical theme. This year, they have bright HO HO HO lights as well as the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody strung above in bright, neon, colours.
Please keep in mind that the London Christmas lights are a big attraction so the crowds and traffic in these areas can get pretty crazy. I made the mistake of going just after sunset, which also happened to be rush hour. The crowds were insane, so I’d suggest going later in the evening when it’s (hopefully) a little bit quieter.
Christmas Tea in London
London and afternoon tea go hand in hand, so why not get festive and have a Christmas tea in London during your visit? There is no shortage of tea houses across the city and the majority of them offer a holiday tea service. The big thing though is the price. As I scanned through some of the top Christmas teas in London, I noticed prices as high as 80GBP per person. I mean, I love a shortbread snowman as much as the next girl but I’m not sure if it’s worth $150 CAD. (Though if you think it is, then all the more power to you!) Thankfully, for those of us with tighter wallets, there are a bunch of smaller, lesser known tea houses that offer delicious food, great service, and holiday-themed treats.
Some of the classic spots for fancier (ahem, pricier) Christmas tea in London include The Ritz, The Langham, and the Savoy.
For those who are looking for something a little more budget friendly, I recommend Nobu Hotel London Shoreditch or the Tea Terrace.
Insider tip: be sure to check ahead of time and see if reservations are required!
Christmas Shows in London
London is famous for its stage plays, musicals, and theatre, so why not take in a Christmas show in London during your visit? Classic Christmas shows in London include The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, however, there are some family-friendly options for young children as well. Just be sure to check the schedule for Christmas shows in London ahead of time so you can plan what to see based on your schedule. Or, if you are flexible, you can check last minute deals at TKTS London.
Christmas Shopping in London
You can’t do Christmas in London without some Christmas shopping in London! Personally, I love shopping abroad because you can often find different, unique things for those special people on your list. AKA no worries of duplicates. When it comes to Christmas shopping in London there is plenty of choice; shopping streets, malls, department stores. Heck, even some of the busier tube stations have shops in them. Personally, I skip past anything that I recognize at home (I’m looking at you H&M- you are EVERYWHERE!) and go to the local shops instead.
A must when Christmas shopping in London is Harrods. Yes, this department store is crowded (often with tourists) and yes, you can’t afford a good 90% of what they sell (unless you are secretly a millionaire; then please add me to your Christmas list). However, it’s fun to wander around and look and there are some affordable sections and brands. My favourite during the holiday season is Harrods’ Christmas World and the Harrods’ gift section which also features some fun holiday items and affordable gift ideas. From London themed Christmas decorations to adorable, fluffy Harrods’s teddy bears, cute tote bags with London icons and pretty mugs; Harrods’s makes Christmas shopping in London easy if you are looking for good quality souvenir type gifts.
If you are Christmas shopping in London for a woman, I love Monsoon and & Other Stories for women’s clothing and accessories. Monsoon is my go-to for cozy sweaters and & Other Stories always has fun, quality accessories for an affordable price.
For the fragrance lover (male or female) on your list, add Bloom Perfumery in Covent Garden to your list of places to go Christmas shopping in London. It’s not cheap, but they have a huge variety of scents and knowledgeable staff that are bound to help you find something special.
For the foodies on your list, be sure to stop by Fortnum and Mason which specialize in luxury food items in London. A classic idea would be some proper English tea and they also have some great holiday-themed hampers. In fact, when it comes to Christmas shopping in London, this is one of the places where you may want to do a little shopping for yourself as well!
London Christmas Hotels
If you really want to experience London at Christmas, then your best bet is to stay in one of the most decorated London Christmas hotels. From fairy lights to Christmas trees, garlands and sparkling crystel ornaments, there are three London hotels that really stand out during the holiday season. So, if you are looking for the best London Christmas hotels I recommend: The Connaught, The Dochester, or Claridges.
What to Pack for Christmas in London
Christmas in London may not be cold and snowy but there are a few things you should pack; just in case.
Being that it is London which is in the UK which, let’s be honest, it known for its rain I highly suggest bringing an umbrella. This one is perfect for travel and packs away nice and small.
Evenings can be a bit chillier, especially when the wind picks up. So you may also want to consider bringing a cute winter hat and maybe some mittens. Or, if you plan on taking a bunch of photos and using your phone, swap mittens for these touchscreen gloves.
A water-resistant reusable bag may also come in very handy. After all, we’re trying to save on plastic when shopping but canvas totes may not be ideal when raining. Try these.
And finally, if you are feeling super festive, then why not bring a classic ugly Christmas sweater?
Despite the city’s history, London at Christmas is not as old-world and charming as you would think. But, rather fun, fast-paced, and bright. Foodies will love the London Christmas markets, shoppers will love the Christmas shopping in London, and those just looking to get in the festive spirit will love London’s Christmas lights, shows, and festive afternoon teas.
If you find yourself in the area during the holidays, it’s absolutely worth visiting London at Christmas!