London in December may be rainy or raw but when the sun sets in the late afternoon, the lights glitter and you can feel the magic of Christmas in the air. Like most big cities, London offers cosmopolitan, big-city appeal, but during the holidays it still incorporates some of the charm of traditional European villages. There are so many fun things to do in London at Christmas, but if you are visiting it is hard to fit them all in so I wanted to share some of the highlights.
We visited London in December just before Christmas and thought it was a perfect time to see the sights and capture the holiday spirit. Since it was the week before Christmas, we found cheap flights (~$500 per person) and better availability at London hotels.
Our days were filled with visiting the sights…Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the British Museum, and everything Harry Potter. But we also made time to squeeze in some special holiday events and meals. I mean, if we are visiting London for Christmas, it is a must, right?
While there is so much to do in London (see my 7-day London itinerary for how to fit it all in), make sure you leave yourselves time to enjoy some of what makes London at Christmas so special.
Things to do in London at Christmas
1. Play all Day at Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland takes over a large part of Hyde Park in Central London from mid-November through early January. It really is something you can’t miss if you are visiting London at Christmas. Winter Wonderland is a mash-up of fairground rides with food stalls, shows, and some terrific Christmas markets.
Tickets are now required to get into this giant holiday festival and must be booked in advance. During off-peak hours, entrance is free but will cost you £5-7.5 for entry during peak hours. But if you spend £25 on rides and attractions, your entrance fee will be free.
To get in, you will need to enter through a security gate so to streamline the process, leave your bag at the hotel and only bring your wallet and cell phone.
You will need to pay to ride any of the rides and to take part in experiences like ice skating, Christmas shows, and rides on the Giant Wheel (a fun alternative to the popular London Eye.) Many of these special activities book up early, especially if you are visiting on the weekend. I would highly recommend booking these tickets in advance when you reserve your tickets!
Inside Winter Wonderland you will find a magical ice kingdom, a real ice slide, ice sculpting workshops, circus shows, and so many rides from roller coasters to the family-friendly Santaland train.
If you want to shop, there is also a Christmas market within the Winter Wonderland. The Angels Christmas Market also offers over 100 charming wooden chalets packed full of unique gifts, handmade Christmas decorations, and tempting culinary delights.
There are many beer halls and food stands throughout the park, allowing you to warm up with mulled wine, hot chocolate, bratwurst, and other traditional foods.
If you plan ahead, you can also book reservations at Bar Ice (where everything is made of ice). There are even giant tipis at Thor’s or you can warm up at the Fire Pit bar.
I would recommend visiting in the late afternoon so that you can get your bearings and explore while it is still light out and not as cold, but stay when the sun sets and also see the festival lit up in all of its glory. Just make sure to bundle up!
2. Shop Traditional Christmas Markets
If you don’t get your fill of the Christmas markets at Winter Wonderland, head across the Thames to the Southbank Centre Winter Festival. Here you will find free and ticketed events, shows, family entertainment, festive foods, glittering lights, and a traditional Christmas Market from early November through early January. You will also find market stalls offering unique gifts and artisan crafts.
You can easily spend the entire day on the South Bank between the Borough Market, Globe Theater, Tate Modern, the London Eye, Shrek’s Adventure! London, SEA LIFE London Aquarium, and so much more. Or, you can finish off a visit to the Tower of London with a walk across Tower Bridge to the Christmas Market on the other side.
If you walk from the Southbank Centre towards Tower Bridge, you will come to Christmas by the River at London Bridge. You can catch beautiful views of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. The market features handmade crafts, specialty foods, and steaming cups of mulled wine.
You can also find other Christmas Markets around London including those at Borough Market, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and Trafalgar Square.
3. Ice Skating
When the rain stops, it is time to strap on the skates and head to one of the many ice skating rinks around London. Sadly the rink by the Tower of London is now closed, but there are still many outdoor ice rinks around London including Hampton Court Palace, Canary Wharf, Somerset House, Skylight Ice Rink on the rooftop of Tobacco Dock, Queen’s House Ice Rink in Greenwich, and Glide at the Battersea Power Station. Of course, you can also add ice skating to your list of things to experience at Winter Wonderland!
4. See the Christmas Decorations
One of the things we enjoyed the most about visiting London at Christmas was the tasteful and festive holiday decorations making the streets glitter and glimmer. Regent Street started this tradition in 1954 and its “Spirit of Christmas” displays are spectacular with sweeping canopies of light that run from Langham Place all the way to Waterloo Place at the southern end of Regent Street St James’s. This is a great area to walk around when visiting London at Christmas.
After walking along Regent Street, be sure to also see the brightly colored decorations along Bond Street, where the peacock feathers are now being replaced by a royal theme. The display pays tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II with 93,652 LEDs that feature four enormous crowns at key junctions on Bond Street, inspired by The Imperial State Crown.
Oxford Street’s light display of 5,000 dangling stars switch on in early November, but starting in 2022 they will only stay on from 3 pm to 11 pm because of energy costs. The displays across this busy shopping thoroughfare are also now focused on sustainability, using 300,000 LED light bulbs and recycled plastic, making them 75 percent more efficient than traditional bulbs.
We also liked popping into the shops in Convent Garden and the Burlington Arcade to see the lights and draping of evergreen garlands showing off the festive spirit.
If you are looking for a giant Christmas tree or Hannukah Menorah, you will find these in Trafalgar Square.
5. Visit the Shops
The kids will love visiting Hamleys, one of the largest toy stores in the world. Floor after floor offers delights for all ages. Even though some toys might be found anywhere, there are also specialty keepsakes, like Hadley’s own stuffed teddy bears.
Fortnum and Mason is a feast for the eyes and the belly. This is where you can order and ship some of its famous holiday hampers. They can be filled with whatever specialty foods and delicacies you desire.
When you are done shopping, be sure to also stop into the ice cream shop for ice cream sundaes. Or, pick up some chocolates or beautiful marzipan candies on the first floor.
And of course, Harrods is a must-visit no matter what time of year. But seeing this block-size department store draped in twinkling lights is something special. Kids will enjoy meeting the life-size Harrod Bears.
Bonus: Blenheim Palace
We didn’t get to visit on our visit but Christmas at Blenheim Palace looks magical! There is an illuminated light trail, beautifully decorated staterooms, vintage fairground rides, and an “Alice in the Palace” experience.
Tips for Visiting London at Christmas
- Visit a week or two before Christmas to avoid the largest crowds.
- Read my tips for planning your London itinerary
- Find out how much a trip to London costs and create your vacation budget
- Be prepared for traffic jams from delivery trucks dropping off holiday packages so plan on using the Tube and Heathrow Express instead.
- When using the Tube, avoid rush hour when it is most crowded.
- Make a reservation for a holiday meal where they supply traditional Christmas Poppers and Crowns — it is a special experience!
- Visit the Harry Potter Tour at the Warner Brothers Studio to see Hogwarts as it is decorated for Christmas (see my guide for all the Harry Potter attractions in London.)
- Use the London Pass to save money if you plan to visit many of the popular main attractions.
- Dress in warm layers and be sure to pack rain boots and a long, water-resistant jacket