This post was written in partnership with Expedia.
It may be raw and rainy in London in December, but the city also puts on its Christmas finest for the holidays. London offers the cosmopolitan, big city appeal but still incorporates some of the charm of traditional European villages. There are so many fun things to do in London at Christmas.
We visited last 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 for families (Expedia offers great hotel options in London). Of course, we got lucky that Hannah gets a two-week holiday break and last year it started the week before Christmas instead of Christmas Eve.
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 so special at Christmas.
What to do in London at Christmas
Winter Wonderland takes over a large part of Hyde Park in Central London from late November through early January. It really is something you can’t miss if you are visiting London during this time period. Winter Wonderland is a mash up of a fairground rides with food stalls, shows, and some terrific Christmas markets.
Tickets are not required to get in to this giant holiday festival, but you will need to go through a security gate to enter. To streamline the process, leave your bag at the hotel and only bring your wallet and cell phone.
You will need to pay (tokens are available for purchase) to ride any of the rides and to take part in experiences like ice-skating, Christmas shows, and rides on the giant Observation 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!
Inside Winter Wonderland you will find two Christmas markets. The traditional German Christmas Market is one of the largest in London with over 200 stalls. The Angels Christmas Market also offers up 150 stalls with arts and crafts, jewelry, and holiday decorations.
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) or your personal alpine cabin with a karaoke machine at Bar Hütte (what a fun way to sing Christmas Carols.) 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!
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. 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.
When the rain stops, it is time to strap on the skates and head to one of the many ice skating rinks around London. You can combine a visit to the Tower of London with the ice rink next door.
There are also ice rinks around London including in front of the Natural History Museum, Somerset House, Hampton Court Palace, Canary Wharf, and, of course, Winter Wonderland.
See the Christmas Decorations
Each year, Regent Street picks a different theme to use for decorations. Last year, it was angels. So up and down the street were beautifully lit Christmas angels bridging the street.
After walking along Regent Street, be sure to also see the brightly colored decorations along Bond Street and Oxford Street.
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 Hanukah Menorah, you will find these in Trafalgar Square.
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 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 state rooms, 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.
- 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