What to do in London at Christmas? Christmas is one of the best times to visit the English capital! It’s hard not to fall under the spell of the magnificent illuminated streets, the sumptuous decorations in the department stores and the absolutely warm atmosphere in the pubs. It’s so cosy, you’d almost think you were in an English romantic comedy, like ‘Love Actually’ or ‘Bridget Jones’! It goes without saying that the British love this time of year, and do everything they can to turn London into a magical Winter Wonderland
In fact, there are plenty of things to do and see in London at this time of year, from Christmas markets to open-air ice rinks. I’ve listed 20 of them in this article! You’ll also find lots of practical information here, such as opening times for shops and monuments at Christmas, and public transport (non-)opening times… Merry Christmas!
20 things to do in London at Christmas
1. Christmas Carols in Trafalgar Square
Photo: Diliff [CC 3.0]
There are not one, but two reasons to visit Trafalgar Square this Christmas! Firstly, you can see the largest Christmas tree in London. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1947: that year, the Norwegians gave the British a Christmas tree for the first time, as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. A tradition that was repeated the following year… and all the years that followed!
So for over 70 years now, Norwegians have been giving the UK a Christmas tree every year. The tree is usually 20 metres tall and 50 to 60 years old.)
The other reason to visit Trafalgar Square is the famous Christmas Carols. These are the Christmas carols, which also take place in the square every year. This year, a total of 40 choirs will be delighting you in December 2022. The carols take place from 4pm to 7pm on weekdays and from 2pm to 5pm at weekends. The event is free, and any donations left for the singers will go to charity
2. Visit the Christmas markets
Speaking of Christmas markets… How about some mulled wine? Or rather a “mulled wine”, as the English say? The tradition of Christmas markets also exists in Britain, and there are a few all over the city. You can find a detailed list of all the markets in my article on Christmas markets in London. Here are the main ones
- Leicester Square Christmas Market: Right in the middle of a square with lots of traffic… It’s not my favourite, but it’s nice in the evening. During the day, it’s a bit boring.
- Christmas by the River: Located between London Bridge and the Tower of London, with many stalls on the banks of the Thames.
- Southbank Centre Christmas Market: A Christmas market located near the London Eye Ferris wheel, with 60 to 70 stalls.
- Winter Wonderland: the big Christmas funfair! I’ll tell you more about it in the next paragraph:
3. Winter Wonderland: London’s big Christmas funfair
While three quarters of London’s Christmas markets are rather ‘traditional’, there are two that really stand out from the crowd: Winter Wonderland and Winterville. These are a mixture of Christmas market and funfair, a concept that is rather unusual in France
Winter Wonderland takes place every year in Hyde Park, right in the middle of London. It’s divided into two parts: a classic Christmas market and a funfair, where you can go on rollercoaster loops, haunted house tours or merry-go-rounds. Food-wise, the stalls are diverse and varied, and of course you can try the traditional Fish & Chips. There’s even a ‘Bavarian village’ in Winter Wonderland, reminiscent of Oktoberfest – with live music and German sausages. That’s right!
Winterville is a little quieter. A little out of the way in the south of the city, there are no tourists in sight here! Don’t miss the “Street Feast” street-food market, offering dishes from all over the world, from Thai Pad Thai to Indian Chicken Massala! You can also take part in some very original rides. The market also has a roller-skating track (that’s vintage!) and there are plenty of activities organised every day
4. Visit the traditional markets
Markets are one of London’s must-sees. If you haven’t yet visited the romantic Portobello Road Market or the gourmet Borough Market, this is the perfect opportunity at Christmas. In December, all the markets are beautifully decorated and have a cosy Christmas atmosphere. The punk market in Camden Town doesn’t have 100% of the Christmas magic, but the other markets are absolutely worth a visit!
My first recommendation is the very pretty Greenwich market. If you’re planning to go there, take the opportunity to visit the pretty town and walk along the famous meridian! The Brick Lane market and the Old Spitalfields Market are also very pretty, and you’re sure to find a gift or two there. Borough Market is a great place to buy food. And Covent Garden and its famous Apple Market are a must at Christmas
5. Admire the decorations in the department stores
London’s department stores are absolutely magnificent at Christmas! All the department stores go to great lengths to decorate their shops, and it’s often very, very successful
The classic is of course Harrods, whose facade shines with a thousand lights (or bulbs) at Christmas time. Alternatively, the more intimate Liberty shop is not as popular, but just as pretty and renowned
Another alternative is Fortnum & Masons, which is less well known but also very pretty. It doesn’t matter which of these shops you choose, the important thing is to visit (at least) one! You can find an overview of all the shops in my article London’s department stores
6. Neal’s Yard and the Seven Dials: shopping off the beaten track
Neal’s Yard is the pretty little courtyard I introduced you to in this article. It’s full of organic/ethical/fair trade shops and is a great place to dine in the evening. For example, you can eat at the delicious Homeslice pizzeria
Neal’s Yard is located in the Seven Dials district. These are the 7 streets that run from the Seven Dials square (where the musical Mathilda is performed). It’s a pretty nice shopping/bars/restaurants area, not as busy as the big shopping streets Oxford Street and Regent Street, which are packed with people at Christmas time. The Seven Dials are also worth a visit for their Christmas lights, which are among the most beautiful in London
7. Attend the Santa Run (and other crazy Christmas traditions!)
Late at night, when everyone else has gone to bed, do you usually take refuge in your attic, dress up as Santa and admire yourself in front of the mirror? Well, you can live out your fetish in broad daylight in London, by taking part in Santa Con
Santa Con is a stroll through the city in which anyone can take part. The only requirement is that you be dressed as Father Christmas. Every year, thousands of people stroll through the streets of London, all dressed in red and, of course, with a beer in their hand! A rather unusual tradition, which also exists in a sporting version, under the name of “Santa Run” (a race where all the participants are dressed as Father Christmas). For the dates of the Santa Con, click here
There are a few other wacky traditions in this style: I talk about them in my article Christmas Traditions in England and London
8. Black Eye Friday: Beer and brawls just before Christmas
I bet you’ve never heard of Black Eye Friday… Not to be confused with Black Friday! Black Eye Friday is the last Friday before Christmas. It’s also the last day of work for many employees, and a lot of companies hold their Christmas parties/dinners on this night, to celebrate before spending time with their families
As a result, everyone takes the opportunity to go out and party in London’s pubs and clubs. And when you say party, you say booze, and when you say booze, you say brawl! And that’s where the name Black Eye Friday comes from: many people go home that night with a black eye
Black Eye Friday is really something special: men go bare-chested, dressed only in Santa hats, and women dress up as sexy elves… all on a chilly night with temperatures hovering around freezing! Add to that the famous “binge drinking” and you’ve got an explosive cocktail, much to the delight of the police officers on duty that night. Just google “Black Eye Friday” and you’ll see… Some of the photos are legendary
9. Enjoy the snow in London
Does it snow at Christmas in London? Well, it happens quite often! Snow is much more common than in France, and as – statistically – it rains almost 10 days a month in December, all it takes is a cold snap for the drops to turn to flakes. London in the snow, especially at Christmas, is a sight to behold – the atmosphere is nothing short of magical
All the neighbourhoods are sublime when it snows – whether it’s Regent Street, the banks of the Thames or the residential areas. Some places (here in the photos Brick Lane and Bethnal Green) really take you back in time. Although snow is not uncommon, don’t expect a 30 cm layer – don’t dream either!
Unfortunately, the city radiates too much heat for the snow to stay for very long and accumulate. It does happen from time to time in January-February, but it’s fairly rare. No matter: if you’re lucky enough to be in London and it snows, you’ll remember these images for the rest of your life!
10. The magnificent Christmas lights
At Christmas, London is decked out in its finest Christmas lights. The whole city – from the main shopping streets to the smallest pubs – is beautifully decorated with a thousand and one strings of lights. But where can you find the best illuminations? Read all about it in my article on Christmas lights in London. Here’s a quick overview of the best-known places
- The great shopping streets of Oxford Street and Regent Street: These are London’s Champs-Elysées, and they go all out for the lights! To see it all, take a bus from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Circus. There, change buses and take another one heading west down Oxford Street. If you prefer the walking option, you’ll need to cover 2-3 kilometres. Note that the decorations with the angels on Regent Street (known as the ‘Christmas Spirits’) have been the same for almost 60 years.
- Seven Dials: In my opinion, the Seven Dials and Neal’s Street area is one of the most beautiful places to be illuminated!
- Covent Garden: Covent Garden is a must at Christmas. The first place to visit is the magnificent Apple Market, but don’t miss the pretty illuminations all around the square either.
Other places with beautiful illuminations
- Marylebone Street: The main street in Marylebone (where Daunt Books is located) is illuminated from mid-November.
- Carnaby Street: The illuminations are absolutely crazy! A must-see, even if I find the area a little too commercial.
- And finally, Leadenhall Market(where Harry Potter was filmed) also impresses with its pretty garlands and Christmas decorations
11. Have a drink in one of the cosy pubs
After visiting the Christmas funfair, browsing the department stores and skating past the Natural History Museum, your legs will undoubtedly be heavy. So you’ve earned your Guinness at the end of the day! Going to pubs in London at Christmas is really fun. The city’s many taverns are all beautifully decorated and the atmosphere is really cosy – just like in an English Christmas film!
12. See a show, such as The Mousetrap
Christmas is the perfect time to go and see a play or a show in London. In fact, why not give your loved one a ticket as a present? When it comes to musicals, the choice is simply gigantic, and you’ll have a hard time choosing between classics like The Lion King and more recent shows like Motown, for example
13. Christmas ice rinks in London
In November and December, you’ll find outdoor ice rinks all over London. It’s well worth trying your hand at skating in the English capital, given the magnificent locations in which these rinks are set up. You can take to the ice in the famous Somerset House, in front of the Tower of London or in front of the Natural History Museum (see photo). It’s quite something, isn’t it? The atmosphere is great, and the Christmas spirit is just right!
14. Get up early, it gets dark quickly (around 4pm in December!)
England is not in the same time zone as France, so the sun sets an hour earlier. On 21 December, it even set at around 3.53pm in 2021. As a result, it’s pitch dark from 4.30pm! I therefore advise you to visit museums and other “indoor” attractions in the afternoon, so that you can enjoy the light in the morning
But of course you can also do the opposite, for example by taking a boat trip on the Thames or a ride on London’s Ferris wheel in the afternoon, just to admire the city lights. The bus rides to the Christmas decorations are best done when it’s dark!
15. Have a crazy Christmas at Hamleys toy shop!
At Hamleys, Christmas Eve is all year round! But when it’s “really” Christmas, Hamleys toy shop goes one better by offering even more entertainment. There’s so much fun, so many decorations, so many people, so many costumed salespeople, so many toy demonstrations, so much magic and so many products to see everywhere! It’s a must-see, whether you’re going to London with children or not
16. Christmas visits in London
At Christmas, many tour operators offer special tours! From the end of November, you can take part in tours based on the theme of Christmas lights or Christmas markets. By taking part in these tours, you’ll visit the iconic Christmas spots in London and learn a little more about the special traditions of our English friends during the festive season. Here is my selection of visits to do
- Bike tour of the Christmas lights
- Walking tour of the markets and illuminations
- Night cruise overlooking the city
- Christmas-themed private tour
17. Celebrate Christmas in London at Harry Potter Studios
Photo :Tony Hisgett, CC2.0
For many tourists visiting London, a visit to Harry Potter Studios is a must. The original sets are spectacular. Not a Harry Potter fan? Even if you’re not, you’ll enjoy the visit, as you’ll learn so much about the art of film-making and special effects
For ‘Potterheads’ (the nickname given to Harry Potter fans), the visit is of course compulsory. And at Christmas, it becomes even more magical, as some of the rooms are beautifully decorated with garlands and lights. The Harry Potter atmosphere is mixed with that of Christmas – it’s literally magical! Purists, don’t worry: not all the rooms are decorated and 95% of the sets can be seen as they appear in the films
Book your tickets for Harry Potter Studios quickly if you’re going at Christmas, as places are in high demand
18. Christmas @ Kews
Royal Kew Gardens are the Royal Botanic Gardens, home to over 30,000 varieties of plants. The large Victorian glasshouse around which the gardens are set hosts a world-famous orchid festival every year – and it’s not unusual to bump into Prince Charles there
At Christmas, during the ‘Christmas at Kews’ event, the gardens are illuminated with a thousand lights for a spectacular night-time tour. Add musical fountains to the mix, and you’ve got something truly magical! Kew Gardens’ slogan sums it up very well: “Once the sun has set, the magic begins”. Please note: Tickets for Kew Gardens must be booked at Christmas
19. Taste traditional English Christmas dishes
Photo: James Petts [CC BY-SA 2.0]
What’s for Christmas in London? If you’re visiting the English capital around Christmas, be sure to try some of the many traditional dishes that are eaten during the end-of-year holidays in the UK. There are quite a few – so there’s no excuse not to try one, even if you’re a fussy eater!
- Christmas turkey: Christmas turkey is traditionally eaten on 24 or 25 December. It’s served with gravy, potatoes, carrots or sometimes Brussels sprouts. Now, let’s face it, you’ll have to prepare this in your London hotel. Instead, eat it in a restaurant, as some London pubs offer this dish during the Christmas period.
- Christmas Pudding or Fruit Trifle: For dessert, you can either eat Fruit Trifle or, of course, Christmas Pudding. The recipe for Christmas Pudding is quite complex and takes a long time to prepare (several weeks). I recommend you try it at one of the famous English afternoon teas you can have in London. Most lounges offer this dessert at Christmas time!
- Christmas cake: The alternative to Christmas pudding is the delicious Christmas cake. It is usually eaten on 25 December. The special thing about this cake is that it’s always beautifully decorated, as in this photo, with little Father Christmases, Christmas trees or reindeer. The most important thing, though, is the taste, and there’s nothing to criticise here: it’s simply delicious.
20. Saving money on Boxing Day
Finally, a good plan for the days after Christmas: Boxing Day. Boxing Day is 26 December, the first working day after Christmas, and also… the first day of the sales! And it’s off to a great start: while in France, the sales generally start with discounts ranging from 20% to 30% off, in the UK, 50% to 80% off is the rule!
Boxing Day is an event in its own right in the UK, comparable to Black Friday. People even spend the night in front of the major retailers to make sure they get the best deals when the shops open. When the stores open, there’s a mad scramble to get the best deals! My advice: If you’re planning to go shopping on Boxing Day, don’t do it first thing in the morning. Wait until it calms down a bit (from 11-12am)
And don’t worry: the shops are taking a wide view to avoid being out of stock, so you’ll probably still find something you like
That’s it for the 20 things to do in London at Christmas! There are lots of things to do in London at Christmas, but it’s important to organise your stay properly to make the most of it. During the Christmas and New Year period, museums and attractions are not open every day, and the Tube does not run at certain times either. Read on for all the practical information
Opening times of museums and monuments in London at Christmas
As Christmas Eve on the 24th is not really celebrated in England (at least, not as much as in France), most London attractions are open at normal times on 24 December. Small museums sometimes close a little earlier
On 25 December (bank holiday), many of London’s monuments will remain closed. On 26 December, most monuments and museums will reopen
For the exact opening times of all the monuments (it’s impossible to list them all here!), see my articles in the monuments and museums categories. I’ve listed the exact opening times for Christmas
Opening times for shops and department stores
What applies to monuments also applies to shops: On 24 December, everything will be open as normal (except for small shops, which will close early). On 25 December, everything will be closed
On 26 December, it’s the grand re-opening with Boxing Day, the start of the winter sales!
Warning: No public transport in London on 25 and 26 December!