There’s never a bad time to visit London, but the festive season around the holidays are especially magical. The city comes alive with millions of Christmas lights and elaborate displays appear in the shop windows; pedestrians sip steaming mulled wine and hot chocolate as they wander past towering trees and through the stalls of Christmas markets. It’s like stepping into a historic novel, as even Christmas carolling is still popular, and it never fails to enchant kids. Here are 10 classic Christmas activities in London with kids to make your next holiday vacation extra joyous.
Hyde Park is Christmas incarnate in London, and the Winter Wonderland is an extravaganza of cold-weather fun. The attractions include one of London’s several ice rinks for skating, live performances, a Bavarian village, Santa Land, the Magical Ice Kingdom filled with ice-sculpted creatures and a long list of other fun events. My kids just love this place. Note: It can get crowded. And while entrance is free, prepare to pay for most of the rides and activities here. If you want a smaller Christmas market and carnival experience, consider Christmas at Leicester Square. With just a few rides and stalls set up, it’s usually a bit quieter than the manic Winter Wonderland.
If you are walking and/or shopping in Knightsbridge, Harrods’ pretty white lights are an iconic sight, and the famous food hall is chock-full of yummy holiday treats like Christmas pudding. Children can visit Santa in his Christmas Grotto. This books up months in advance so be sure to get on their email list to reserve a time slot. There’s also a holiday shop filled with seasonal swag and souvenirs. You’ll often find live reindeer stationed outside to delight young believers in Father Christmas.
London turns itself out in grand fashion at Christmastime, and kids will be awed by the lights, garlands and other trimmings at every turn. A few favorite spots: The Royal Arcade is located in one of the most beautiful shopping areas in all of London and is always decorated in exquisite style. Trafalgar Square is an easy stop, as it’s usually on the standard sightseeing route. Here you’ll find a manger and Christmas tree. In Belgravia, the oh-so-posh Neill Strain Floral Couture shop is world-famous for their innovative and creative windows, switched out seasonally. Annabel’s, a club housed in a Grade 1 Georgian Mansion, is not open to the public, but the outdoor decorations are so incredible that it’s worth a look if you are in the area. And if you want a picture of a classic London pub decked out for the holidays, Mr. Fogg’s Tavern at Covent Garden is your photo op.
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Shops galore, a range of dining options and world-class street performers all come together to make Covent Garden a wonderful place for families to explore during the holidays. The centerpiece is a 55-foot, British-grown, handpicked Christmas tree strung with 30,000 lights. And don’t miss the fab green car complete with a tree on its roof.
What could be more festive at the holidays than a classic English tea? Fortnum & Mason’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is a great spot for all ages, and the exterior is as exquisite in its holiday finery as the scones, sandwiches and other treats served within. As a bonus, the shop is a great place to get gifts to bring home for yourself and others. Fortnum & Mason is especially renowned for the lavish Christmas hampers it offers, filled with sweets, caviar, bubbly and more.
Oxford Street is London’s most prominent High Street; you’ll find all the most famous UK and international brands here. Warning: This place gets absolutely packed during the holidays. If you and yours do not like crowds, it’s best to go just as it opens or just before the area closes. Or go at night, after the shops close, to enjoy the lights.
These beautiful gardens are a UNESCO world heritage site. After dark, during the holidays, the gardens are lit up in all their splendor. Sip hot cider, mulled wine or hot chocolate as you stroll amid the Fire Garden or along the Winter Trail. Vintage fairground rides will keep the kids amused too. Be aware that this is a popular event and it sells out fast.
Check out the beautiful expanse of the 18th-century Chiswick House after the sun sinks and contemporary light installations set the grounds aglow, all timed to coincide with a specially created soundtrack. Depending on the day of your visit, fun events at the end of the trail might include screen-printing your own wrapping paper, making wreaths or decorating Christmas ornaments.
While Hampton Court Palace is about 45 minutes from central London, it’s well worth the trip during the holidays. My family has enjoyed skating on the rink by the Thames and learning about how Henry entertained at Christmastime. We watched the world-famous Boys’ Choir sing hymns and followed in the footsteps of Henry’s ghost in the evening lights while listening to actors and actresses read from Shakespeare’s works.
Ice skating at the 18th-century Somerset House, a London tradition, is just beautiful. This year it’s being sponsored by Fortum & Mason, so you get two “Best of Britain” experiences in one go. There are Skate with Snoopy events and a skating school for little ones, while parents can enjoy Champagne and chocolate fondue, wine and cheese fondue, mulled wine and mince pie, or other treats designed to share. Ice skating is also an option at the Natural History Museum, if you want to mix a museum visit with skating.
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