There’s nothing quite like Christmas in London. Once a local and now a regular visitor, Katie Bowman curates her perfect festive family trip to the capital this December.
Where to find the twinkliest streetlights
It’s impossible to pinpoint one London street that shines the brightest at Christmas. So, instead, let us reveal which bus route covers the very best displays on its journey, at just £1.75 per ticket (or free to kids if they have their Zip Oyster card).
Ta da: it’s the no.139! Catch it from outside Madame Tussaud’s from where it’ll potter down historic Baker Street, then turn left at Selfridges.
Sit on the right to see glorious Oxford Street
Here is your money shot: Oxford Street in all her glory. Be sure to sit on the right-hand side of the bus as you’ll be able to see down swanky South Molton Street and Bond Street, too.
At Oxford Circus, the bus takes a right on to Regent Street – wow! – past Hamleys, down to Piccadilly Circus – double wow! And then it’s through Trafalgar Square, the theatres of the Strand, and finally showcases the Thames as you cross Waterloo Bridge. See Best Christmas Market for where to go next now you’re on the Southbank.
The starriest shows this Christmas in London
This Christmas it’s all about one show: The Nutcracker. But the difference in 2023 is that there’s a different way to watch it, whatever the age of your children.
The Royal Opera House shows its stellar-reviewed Nutcracker in the most spectacular of surroundings – and runs well into January, stretching the Christmas experience out for families.
Try an alternative Nutcracker with teens
Take over-12s to the Southbank Centre, where the classic ballet is being reimagined in a pop-up jazz club.
Last year’s sell out English National Ballet show returns to the London Coliseum.
For ballet first-timers, consider the Let’s All Dance production of The Nutcracker at Sadler’s Wells – it’s under an hour long and promises crystal-clear storytelling (sadlerswells.com). And if you can’t trust kids to sit through a two hour theatre performance, the Barbican cinema shows the ballet on the big screen.
Where to find the most festive afternoon tea
With a pianist accompanying your cuppa as you devour Yule log in the Thames-side lounge, there can’t be an afternoon tea that gets more “London” than this. Intercontinental O2 Greenwich invites families to its festive Meridian Lounge, with maritime paraphernalia all around, while pastry chef Amit Arya takes care of the treats (he’s such an expert you’ll have seen him on TV in Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas).
Chocolate tea and sweet treats for kids
Children can order Chocolate Tea if they don’t drink the real thing and will love the Christmas spin given to the classics: turkey and cranberry sandwiches; clementine rosemary choux; stem ginger cake and pistachio log.
This part of Greenwich is a great overnight base too if you’re watching an O2 show, taking the Cloud Cable Car or seeing the amazing Disney 100 exhibition at Excel.
The cutest Santa experience this Christmas in London
You could queue in your coats for hours as Hamleys toy store gradually takes grip of your sanity (sorry Hamleys – December isn’t your strong suit) or you could breathe in crisp wintry air as you excitedly follow the outdoors Christmas Sleigh Trail at London Zoo.
Don’t miss the giant animal Advent Calendar
Grab a map on entry and see reindeer and penguins en-route. There’s also a giant Animal Advent Calendar, which is opened daily by elves and reveals which animal to celebrate that day through special feedings, animal crafts and Christmas-themed talks.
End the day at Santa’s magical grotto and learn about elf school, before being gifted an early Christmas present by the Big Man Himself. Upgrade the experience for maximum charm with a Mrs Claus storytelling session and marshmallow toasting.
The coolest ice rink (or three) this winter
As of last winter, there’s a new kid on London’s ice-rink scene: Glide at Battersea Power Station. We love Glide because it could only be in London – right on the Thames, under the gaze of an architectural icon, with three interconnecting rinks that centre around a sky-high Christmas tree.
Little skaters can reserve hold-on penguins for stability, or grown-ups can hire a glass igloo when Granny wants a breather, or cosy up in The Glass House with a post-skate hot chocolate.
Spot Santa’s sleigh this Christmas in London
There’s an old-fashioned fairground next-door to the ice rink as well as live music and DJs, so this is a more a day out than merely a quick skate.
If you’re staying over, choose the art’Otel Battersea, which has an open-air heated pool and Jacuzzi year-round – you might spot Santa’s sleigh from up here.
Where to stay in London if you want to splurge
If your kids aren’t already aware of The Langham’s star power having watched Lady Gaga trip out of its doors, or Selena Gomez check in, then they’ll have clocked it on Tik Tok, where millions of viewers watch everything from the hotel’s haunted rooms to its most expensive suite and its Insta-famous pink balloons.
Make them the stars of their own reel, by staying over this Christmas. All under-18s are given a gift on check in – perhaps a teddy, hamper of sweet treats, or chic sunglasses. And then at Christmas, things ramp up with amazing decorations throughout and special deals on family stays in December.
Also, this year for the first time, The Langham is serving its legendary afternoon tea in collaboration with Liberty, so you can expect the prettiest mince pies you’ve ever seen .
Look behind you! It’s the best panto in town
There are naughtier pantomimes out there – at Soho Theatre and the Lyric in Hammersmith to name a couple. However, if you don’t want to spend the evening with your hands over your little one’s ears, best choose a traditionalist.
This season, that’s at the New Wimbledon Theatre, which has long been known for attracting family-friendly big-name acts. Strictly’s Craig Revel Horwood will play the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella, while Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Alison Jiear plays the Fairy Godmother and Cassie Compton (Call the Midwife) plays Cinders. Oh yes, she does!
The Christmas market you don’t want to miss
Before you’ve even tapped your contactless, you get capital views thrown in free: the London Eye, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, and St Paul’s Cathedral are all there as a backdrop to your festive shopping.
Each Alpine-style chalet holds a different vendor – hand-crafted jewellery, home-made candles, mulled ginger wine, truffle burgers. Although they’re all prettily decorated with strings of fairy lights.
There’s also a vintage carousel for children, as well as the free Jubilee Gardens playground for a runabout.
The most magical carol concerts
For sheer variety, we’d send you to St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square, where there are candlelit performances this year, Gospel choirs, and Handel’s Messiah on different dates.
For big-band sound and atmosphere, it must be the Royal Albert Hall, and for classic choral notes from angelic ruff-collared youths you’ll want to make for Westminster Abbey.
A carol concert to melt your heart
But if you want Christmas carols that make a real difference, take your kids to the annual Battersea Dogs and Cats Home Concert at St Luke’s and Christ Church, where four-legged residents are invited to sing along. Carols don’t come any more feelgood.
Where to stay in London on a budget
The great thing about London hotels is that – unlike other family-holiday accommodation – rooms often cost less out of term time, rather than more. However, if you choose to stay in a business-focused neighbourhood, then Christmas in London is cheaper still.
We love Novotel London Blackfriars, with its space-age design, and proximity to the Southbank Winter Market, Christmas lights, Tate Modern, theatres and Thames Clipper station. It also has a heated indoor swimming pool, relaxed street food-style restaurant with kids’ menu and free WiFi. There are other Novotel London branches with great pools, including Canary Wharf and Paddington.
Shop the city’s ‘wowiest’ department stores
This award goes out to two shops – the one you’ll visit depends upon the age of your children.
For over-10s it must be Liberty of London, with its through-the-roof nostalgia levels thanks to an all-timber construction using two ancient merchant ships that used to trade around the world. Tweens will love Liberty’s exquisite stationery and unique haberdashery departments, while teens will drop all devices when they see the spectacular beauty counters and niche-label jewellery and sneakers.
Selfridges satisfies with good and glittery
Think about taking younger kids to Selfridges with its 4th-floor toy store run by FAO Schwarz. The giant floor piano Tom Hanks played in the movie Big is here. Although, an enormous Jellycat collection is as much of a draw: we challenge you not to give in to furry mince pies or candy canes.
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