The lights are twinkling, the mulled wine is flowing and London’s festive season is in full swing.
Whether you’re looking to get into the Christmas spirit or simply enjoy a cozy winter adventure in the city, here are 10 of the best things to do in London this season.
Get your skates on at a scenic ice rink
In the colder months, many of the city’s most spectacular landmarks play host to grand ice-skating rinks. Against the magnificent neoclassical architecture of Somerset House, the courtyard has been given a Swiss makeover, complete with a pop-up Alpine restaurant serving cheese fondue and waffles. There’s also a series of “Skate Late” sessions featuring renowned DJs spinning tunes while you glide under the stars. Pre-booking is recommended as slots sell out quickly.
If you fancy an even…fancier setting, Henry VIII’s former residence, Hampton Court Palace, is a 35-minute train journey from Waterloo and offers stunning views of Tudor architecture as well as skating thrills. Afterward, head inside the palace to learn more about the dramas of the Tudor court.
Be dazzled by glittering lights
A longstanding favorite, elegant Regent St is bedecked with famous “spirits” floating above London’s busiest shopping destination, while nearby Carnaby St, known for its uniquely vibrant Christmas lights, has this year been taken over by a galactic neon display.
Home to the city’s finest tailors, Savile Row has a gorgeous new design of golden shears cutting into a shimmering swathe of “fabric,” while Marylebone Village, one of the city’s most charming streets, features lights made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
For an even more festive experience, hop on the Lights and Sights tour from the London Transport Museum, a 60-minute journey aboard a heritage bus, accompanied by a guide in a traditional conductor’s uniform.
See the first-ever Christmas card
The Postal Museum in Clerkenwell makes for a lovely family day out in the run up to the holidays. Visitors can check out the seasonal displays, which include letters to Santa from across generations – and even the very first Christmas card ever sent, from 1843. Travel back in time on the Mail Rail, a 100-year-old underground train that carried post through tunnels from Paddington to Whitechapel, and discover unseen parts of the railway on foot, with a festive tunnel walk led by one of the museum’s expert guides.
Step inside a festive Georgian home
Tucked away on a cobbled side street in Spitalfields, Dennis Severs’ House is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. It was described as a “living painting” by its namesake creator, a Californian artist who bought the property in 1979 and spent 20 years building a “historical imagination” of the life of an invented Victorian family.
Each winter, it is richly adorned with vintage Christmas ornaments and paper chains, illuminated only by candlelight. Visitors can immerse themselves in the atmosphere of centuries past on a silent tour.
Treat yourself to afternoon delight
Afternoon tea is a must-try on any trip to London – and the menus at Christmastime are especially tempting. The offering from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the oldest London theater still in use, is a particular highlight: warm turkey and cranberry pie topped with caramelized onion chutney, followed by an English crumpet with Earl Grey–infused cream cheese and smoked salmon. Sweet treats by baker to the stars Lily Vanilli include a festive spiced chocolate pudding, served in the lavish surroundings of the Grand Saloon.
Those with lower budgets can warm up with a decadent hot chocolate from luxury chocolate cafe Knoops. At a handful of locations around the city, you can choose your percentage of white, milk or dark chocolate, then add festive spices or a pillowy gingerbread marshmallow for complete indulgence.
Hear the sweet sounds of carol singers
Christmas concerts in the capital combine a musical feast with a serious architectural wow factor. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the best known, with carol services on weekdays and weekends throughout December. Many of the events are free and unticketed – a wonderful chance to get a glimpse of Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.
Lesser known but almost as impressive is Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden, a hidden gem of art deco design. Enjoy carols by candlelight from the Belmont Ensemble and Trafalgar Sinfonia in the gilded setting of the Grand Temple.
Be swept away by a night of ballet
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker has become a holiday staple, and the English National Ballet’s long-running production is one of the best loved, performed in the splendor of the London Coliseum.
For a more modern take on storytelling through dance, an adaptation of Edward Scissorhands arrives at Sadler’s Wells. Dance maestro Matthew Bourne and company have adapted the score and unforgettable costumes from Tim Burton’s cult film for the stage, enchanting audiences with winning set pieces and innovative visual effects.
Browse the stalls at a winter market
Pop-up Christmas markets tend to be fairly repetitive – yet London has a number of standout exceptions. The Southbank Centre’s winter market sees the Queen’s Walk covered in wooden chalets and sparkling lights. Stroll along the Thames while perusing the wares, or people-watch with a hot toddy in hand from the riverside igloos.
Borough Market is unmissable for food lovers at any time of year. In December, visitors can drop in for the annual “Evening of Cheese,” pick up a gift basket or wander the stalls with a warming spiced apple drink.
Check out a blockbuster exhibition
The National Portrait Gallery has updated its major David Hockney show, Drawing from Life, which was open for just 20 days in 2020 before Covid forced its closure. Alongside self-portraits and works depicting his friends and family, Britain’s greatest living artist has added new pieces, including a typically vibrant portrait of Harry Styles.
If you favor European masters, head to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, where you’ll find a collection of more than 100 objects from Henry VIII’s court tracing the career of Hans Holbein the Younger. Among the items on display are portraits of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, plus Henry VIII’s famously adjustable armor, designed to accommodate his expanding waistline.
Take in a West End show
One of the year’s most anticipated theatrical events is Stranger Things: The First Shadow, a brand-new, staged prequel to Netflix’s hit sci-fi series. Running at the Phoenix Theatre, it follows teenage versions of Jim Hopper, Joyce Maldonado and Henry Creel in 1950s Hawkins, and features awe-inspiring special effects and a synth soundtrack.
Younger families will be delighted by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the Studio Ghibli classic My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican, with its jaw-dropping puppets by Jim Henson’s studio. For a more festive treat, the Globe Theatre is staging an epic version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which promises music and magic for audiences aged five and up.