A couple of years ago, I sadly admitted I had lost the Christmas spirit. I wasn’t in full-on Grinch mode, but I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm. One of the realities of growing up, I reasoned. And then I went to London.
December is absolute magic in London. The city is unashamed of its love for the festive season. Brilliant light displays festoon major streets. Store windows become over-the-top spectacles of merriness. Skating rinks pop up across the city. And everywhere people are drinking it in.
My heart grew three sizes that visit – and again this year, when I went back for more. So for those in need of a holiday reboot – and those who just can’t get enough of the season – here is my guide to finding merriment in London. This is an unabashedly touristy and by no means exhaustive list. But you’ll never see everything the city has to offer in one visit, so best to pick your must-dos and enjoy.
You’ll never be more pleased about short fall days than in London. The Christmas light displays that adorn key thoroughfares are stunning. A canopy of glorious angels watches over Regent Street. Hundreds of glowing orbs illuminate Oxford Street. Over on Bond Street, it’s a peacock motif, with bright white feathers arching across the road. And pedestrianized Carnaby Street, long known for its fun-loving style, likes to mix things up: This year’s theme is a wordy one, with red “HO HO HO”s and lyrics from Bohemian Rhapsody shining overhead in neon script. Tip: Time your visits to these areas for weekday evenings. They are absolute zoos on weekends.
But if you really love twinkling displays, a visit to Christmas at Kew is a must. A two-kilometre walkway winds through the botanical gardens, past displays featuring more than one million lights and thousands of laser beams. Allow yourself at least 75 minutes to appreciate multiple installations, which this year include giant glowing wreaths, a flotilla of glowing boats on a lake and a spectacular tunnel dripping with strings of bulbs. (This is truly an Instagrammer’s dreamscape.) Purchasing tickets in advance is strongly recommended.
In the daytime, if you want some holiday decorating inspiration, simply wander around posh neighbourhoods such as Mayfair, Covent Garden, Notting Hill and Kensington for fabulous displays. Forget a wreath on the door – shops adorn their entire facades with bulbs, branches, bows and more. To scout some noteworthy locations in advance follow the hashtag #londonchristmas on Instagram.
Starting in November, several rinks pop up at historic sites across the city, making for some magnificent backdrops. The Tower of London Ice Rink bills itself as “London’s most dramatic ice rink” and it’s hard to argue that as you watch people glide alongside the medieval walls bathed in purple light. But the title of most beautiful belongs to Skate at Somerset House. There, you take to the ice in a grand courtyard surrounded by a massive Neoclassical building illuminated in pink hues. (A smaller rink is dedicated to kids, who get to steady themselves on adorable plastic penguins.) Also worth mentioning is the National History Museum Ice Rink and its accompanying carousel. Don’t worry if you’re not a strong skater. If my experience at Somerset House is anything to go by, most Londoners have no idea what they’re doing. But they have a ball trying.
If you’d rather not risk falling on your backside, you can brave the crowds at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. Attractions at the immensely popular winter carnival include a Bavarian-style village, a 60-metre-high Ferris wheel, ice sculptures, Christmas markets and, you guessed it, an ice rink (the largest in Britain). Buy your tickets in advance, but still be prepared to wait in a long entry queue.
You’ll find great food for any budget in London (long live the £3.50 [$6] meal deals at Marks & Spencer and Boots for cheap lunches) but not every dish comes with a side of wonder. The title of most over-the-top eatery likely belongs to Sketch, a multirestaurant space that is, well, slightly bonkers and gets even wilder at holiday time. For starters, it “snows” every few minutes in the entry hall. Then, at the Glade, you can brunch in a faux forest atop carpet that looks like moss and under hanging boughs. Or have dinner in the Gallery, a room as pink Barbie’s dream house. And do go to the loo, a room full of vibrant pods (and people taking the ultimate bathroom selfies).
Also a photographer’s paradise is Dalloway Terrace, always lovely but extra enchanting this time of year, filled with frosty white blooms intertwined with fairy lights. Wrap yourself up in a blanket, provided by the restaurant, and get cozy with a classic Swiss cheese fondue and succulent pan-fried pork belly. It’s the perfect way to warm up after a night spent taking in all the lights. The connected Coral Room is also well-suited for the season, with its red walls and golden glow.
For an upscale take on a traditional English meal, make a reservation at the English Grill, located in the Rubens at the Palace. At this grand dining room, essentially across the street from Buckingham Palace, offers a different roast each day as part of its menu, including chicken with stuffing on Mondays and rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. I can vouch that Saturday’s roast pork is worth the £24. Service is impeccable, and if you want to feel like a Queen, spring for H. Forman’s “London Cure” smoked salmon (Irish or Scottish), sliced at your table on a silver cart.
If you’d rather warm up with a tipple, you are spoiled for choice in this town. It doesn’t get much merrier than the Christmas Showtime Cocktails menu at One Aldwych Lobby Bar. The aptly named Rose Stardust, for example – Absolut Elyx vodka, raspberry and rose shrub, orange juice, Disaronno Amaretto, grapefruit juice, rose lemonade – comes in an extra tall decorated glass and with a mini mincemeat pie on the side. But also fun is the Old-Fashioned Cocktail Trolley service, which sees a bartender mix you up a custom version of the classic drink at your table. If you enjoy being the centre of attention, order this.
Cocktail lovers will also want to rush to Dandelyan. Regularly named best cocktail bar in the world, the game-changing spot is set to close soon as the owners work to relaunch with a new concept. (The exact date is unknown, but it appears to be open through December.) If you’ve wanted to try its botany-inspired creations, don’t waste time booking a table.
Book lovers could easily while away a day in the city’s many bookshops. For me, no trip to London is complete without a visit to Hatchards, the self-proclaimed oldest booksellers in Britain (it dates back to 1797). The multistorey shop on Picadilly is full of temptations, including many British titles that simply aren’t promoted back home. I will be the first to say that books are the most impractical purchase a traveller can make, but I still can’t seem to leave without at least six paperbacks. Those with wanderlust will also want to visit Stanfords in Convent Garden, purportedly the largest travel-book shop in the world. (Alas, no Hugh Grant but it does put that measly one in Notting Hill to shame.)
If you like pretty things, then don’t miss the flagship location of Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly. You can easily cross several people off your gift list with this one stop. Oh sure, the tea, biscuits and chocolates are probably overpriced, but the packaging is so gorgeous – I’ve purchased cookies I don’t even like just to have the tin – you won’t even want to wrap them up. The shop itself is also a decked-out beauty, and if you’re wanting to splash out on a high tea experience, you can’t go wrong with the one here. It’s £52.50 a person – but it boasts “never-ending sandwiches."
The writer received free entry to some of the attractions and was a guest of some of the restaurants. They did not review or approve this article.