London at holiday time can be stressful, with the area around Oxford Circus overrun by last-minute shoppers and lost tourists looking for Primark. But when you do Christmas in the capital the right way, it’s the perfect place to get into the Christmas spirit. Pretend you’re in your own seasonal romcom with these suggestions for where to go and what to do for a picturesque Christmas experience.
The South Bank is one of the nicest areas in central London, with its impressive Brutalist architecture and tree-lined walkways. Strolling along it is enjoyable at any time of year, but around Christmas there’s even more to see here than usual, as the traditional Winter Market sells handmade gifts and street food from all around the world from its twinkly wooden stalls. Pop into one of the Southbank Centre’s cultural behemoths afterwards for a film or a show.
Carnaby Street has been a highlight of the London shopping experience since its swinging ’60s heyday, and is still worth visiting, both to buy gifts and to take pictures of the Christmas lights. There’s one main display on Carnaby Street itself – 2019 saw dolphins and other ocean creatures swimming through a neon kelp forest, in collaboration with Project Zero – and the small side streets leading to the busy thoroughfare have their own illuminations, so there’s plenty of different light installations to see. Stylish department store Liberty, in the instantly recognisable mock Tudor building at the top of Carnaby Street, is a great place for some additional present-buying.
Ice-skating: Christmassy, right? Evening ice skating to music from some of London’s best DJs, playing everything from experimental pop to rock, psychedelic soul and reggae – Christmassy and even more fun! Somerset House’s ice rink is set in the centre of its beautiful old courtyard, and comes complete with a gigantic Christmas tree and tents where you can have a drink – maybe a tipsy hot chocolate? – and some food after skating. While the rink is fun to visit at any time of the day, the special Skate Lates events are when the DJs come on and make this one of the more unusual winter experiences you can have in London.
The home of the hamper, Fortnum and Mason is definitely the place to go if you want to treat someone to the ultimate indulgent Christmas gift. But its iconic London food hall is also a must-visit to get into the Christmas mood. Founded in 1707, its turquoise-painted exterior hides a cornucopia of food delights: luxury teas, preserves, condiments, sweets and more, all in some of the most well-designed packaging you’ll ever see. The decorations are always lovely here, and it’s the perfect place to find that last-minute present for someone. If you can’t quite stretch to a hamper, the gift boxes are more affordable, or go for a merry-go-round musical biscuit tin that’s guaranteed to be a playful surprise.
Pubs are lovely around Christmastime, when the decorations are up and everyone is in a festive mood. After hours of shopping, find a nice one and put your feet up! London has a pub on (almost) every corner; a good one in the city centre is The Prince Regent on Marylebone High Street, which has a special selection of Christmassy drinks. Marylebone High Street should be on your Christmas visit list anyway – the pretty street always has elegant Christmas decorations, and this time of year it really does look like London does in the movies.
One of the best things about big cities? The amazing variety of cuisines to try out. While you may not have got tired of Christmas food yet, when in London, try something different. Restaurant chain Dishoom, which pays homage to the Irani cafés run by Zoroastrian immigrants in Mumbai, has a special festive Christmas menu that’s a really fun take on tradition. Try the turkey raan with all the trimmings, prepared in the traditional style and cooked slowly over a day, with spicy cranberry chutney, and finish the meal with a chai eggnog. If you’re after something quicker, pizza chain Franco Manca has a selection of Christmas pizzas.
East London’s Columbia Road is best known for its fantastic flower market, held every Sunday, but the street is also lined with inspirational independent shops that are a great choice for more personal, unusual Christmas presents. Normally, a lot of the stores are only open at weekends, but for the Christmas season the street is holding ‘Christmas Wednesdays’. Carol singers, mince pies and Christmas lights enhance the shopping experience, which sees the shops stay open until 9pm on Wednesdays leading up till Christmas. And with plenty of good pubs and restaurants in the area, like the Royal Oak and Campania & Jones, it’s easy to find somewhere to go after you’re done shopping, too.