There’s no denying it, the festive season is upon us. Dark evenings are lit by the twinkling lights of festivity, John Lewis’ much anticipated Christmas ad has hit our screens and Pret’s (equally as anticipated, surely?) seasonal sandwich range has finally launched. Christmas is definitely coming and, with it, a fantastic spate of merry-making events that’ll awaken the season’s spirit in even the greenest of Grinches. Here’s our round-up of the most festive things to do in London this December…
A twinkling tour of the Christmas lights
The city’s Christmas lights are often the first sign that festivities are upon us, and they make a great place to start your spirited adventure into the Christmas season. Gaze up to Oxford Street’s 1778 snowball-inspired baubles to marvel at the some 750,000 LED bulbs that give them their glow, before skipping off to see ever-cool Carnaby Street’s which, this year, are based on the V&A’s new exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. The Strand’s Christmas lights are set to be London’s greenest (they’re powered with used cooking oil from the city’s restaurants) and you’d best pucker up for Covent Garden’s – they’re taking a mistletoe theme for 2016. Why not explore these sparkling spectacles by bike? The London Bicycle Tour Company offer dedicated three-hour tours.
The best time to window shop
The Christmas season offers ample excuse to head to the shops, whether you’re purchasing presents or stocking up on stocking fillers. Take a moment or more, however, to appreciate the impressive efforts that go into the magical window displays of London’s iconic department stores. This year, Harrods have teamed up with Burberry to create the enchanting scenes of A Very British Fairy Tale, which peppers the store’s 29 windows and includes an interactive element. Liberty have teamed up with the Royal Ballet to produce vistas from The Nutcracker that, for the first time in history, include no merchandise at all. Selfridges have set the bar at the surreal extent of “Santa’s magical mischief”, whilst Fortnum and Mason pay homage to the idea of togetherness, with windows that chronicle a heart-warming twist on classic arch-enemy pairings.
Claridge’s at Christmas
Since 2009, Claridge’s have honed the help of a design genius to create a unique feature in their gracefully grand foyer. John Galliano for Dior set the bar high, with a frozen take on a tropical tree and, since then, the honour has been bestowed on Alber Elbaz for Lanvin, Kally Ellis of McQueens, Dolce & Gabbana and, most recently, Christopher Bailey for Burberry. This year, the tempting task falls out of fashion and into the hands of good friends Sir Jony Ive and Marc Newson, the Chief Design Officer at Apple and a leading industrial designer respectively. Whilst you’re welcome to pop your head in and take a peek, why not add to the affair with a fantastically festive Christmas Afternoon Tea in Theirry Despont’s iconic Art Deco Foyer.
Ice skating in iconic destinations
Nothing brings festive cheer quite like ice skating and, over the festive period, a range of rinks pop up across some of London’s most iconic landmarks. Somerset House hosts ‘Skate’ each year, which see visitors gliding around the stately courtyard of this historic building to the backdrop of their ‘gram-worthy Christmas tree, whilst the Natural History Museum pops an ice rink it its front garden, and surrounds it with 76,000 twinkling fairylights. For a skate around the truly historic, head to Hampton Court Palace or the Tower of London – both offer a new way to experience a London landmark over the winter season.
Southbank Centre Winter Festival
If you find yourself on London’s South Bank this winter, you may well wind up enthralled in the South Bank Centre Winter Festival – a tempting assemblage of all things festive. The Winter Market makes for a lovely amble; meander between the wooden chalets to pick up gorgeous gifts, festive foods and warming drinks, before heading over to the Rekorderlig Winter Lodge, where Swedish food and a fire pit give a cosy nod to Nordic winters. The Centre’s programme includes shows that’ll see you surfing the season’s spirit, such as Tchaikovsky’s Winter Tales, the annual Christmas Concert and the Handel’s magical Messiah by Candlelight with full 18th-century dress. There are few elf-laid surprises in store too, such as pop-up choirs and an enchanting peppering of Gonks – a mythological creature from Scandinavian folklore.
Carol concerts across the city
Strike the harp and join the chorus at one of London’s atmospheric carol concerts; there are plenty to pick from for your merry measure. Enjoy the traditional grandeur of St Paul’s Cathedral and its angelic choir, which hosts various events throughout the Christmas period, from an Advent Procession to the Festal Evensong. Sing we joyous, all together for charity, at the Shelter Carol Service in St Martin-in-the-Fields (where charity was founded) or croon alongside our canine and cat friends at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home Carol Concert at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. For a contemporary take on this Christmas classic, opt for the Alternative Christmas Carol Concert, where, heedless of the wind and weather, an all-female choir will lead pop music’s festive favourites in Granary Square, King’s Cross.
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland is a one-stop-shop of all things fun and festive – this is a place that’ll melt the icicles from any so-called Scrooge (it’s free to get into after all). This year sees the seasonal staple’s 10 year anniversary, so you can expect to find it all infused with exceptionally high spirits. An ice skating rink, fairground rides and live music are just some of what’s on hand to entertain, alongside an immersive Magical Ice Kingdom and regular performances of The Nutcracker on Ice. Extensive Christmas markets really add to the atmosphere and, when it comes to eating and drinking, the options are suitably themed for full effect; a Bavarian Beer Garden, an Après Ski Chalet, an Ice Bar and much more.
Taste of London Festive Edition
Taste of London (AKA ‘The World’s Greatest Restaurant Festival) graces the calendars of all self-respecting food aficionados. This year, it’s popping up from 17-20 November for an all-out festive edition, drawing London’s best restaurants and the world’s leading chefs to Tobacco Docks for a four-day stint of fabulous food, delectable drinks and fudge loads of festive spirit. Live demonstrations, interactive masterclasses and plenty of tasting sessions will provide no end of inspiration for your own Christmas table and, with gourmet shopping on hand too, you could well walk away with a present or two ticked off the list.
Explore Christmas past
While a museum might not be an obvious choice when it comes to festive fancies, you won’t find a more dedicated peek into the history of Christmas than that of the Geffrye Museum. Set in a former alms house, the museum showcases the interiors of middle-class homes from 1600 until the present day and, for the festive season, it dresses them with decorations that befit their period. Think paper chains strung above mid-century furniture and fire-safety faux pas in the form of wax candles on the Victorian room’s Christmas tree (unlit, of course). Along the way, visitors can learn about the traditions of Christmas, from kissing under the mistletoe and fantastic feasting, to hanging up stockings and sending cards.
Classical Christmas performances
Splashing out on a seasonal show before the big day arrives should be everyone’s Christmas present to themselves. Not only will it see you enjoying one of London’s finest performance venues but it’ll ignite those festive feelings through the inimitable magic of music. Highlights this year include the Barbican’s Bach at Christmas, where the Monteverdi Choir will lull you back to 18th-century Leipzig for an authentic celebration of the season. The Royal Albert Hall has a trusted turn of events too; enjoy London Concert Orchestra’s Christmas Classics, kick back to Carols by Candlelight or join in the fun at one of the Christmas Carol Singalongs. For a bevy of Baroque’s best, be sure to check out King’s Place’s Baroque Unwrapped programme, which fits nicely into the festive season.
Alternative Christmas shopping
There are plenty of ways to forgo the usual high street panic buys over the festive period, and none better than getting yourself to one of London’s more unusual Christmas markets. The Tate Modern offers a suitably stylish edit of goods, which are sold from a set of attractive wooden chalets that stretch from the gallery to the riverbank; festive music, food stalls and a carousel add to the atmosphere here. The Swedish Church Christmas Fair is brimming with wintry wonders, from authentic crafts to gallons of glögg, whilst the Selvedge Advent Festival is the place to go for all things fine and fabric (or for a workshop or two, for some homemade handiwork). Head a little more off the beaten track to discover Sutton House’s Christmas Design and Food Market – this National Trust property in East London draws together some of the city’s best market curators for designer stalls and high-end refreshments.
Christmas at Kew Gardens
Whatever the season, Kew Gardens always impresses, but it makes an extra special effort as the festive season rolls around. As evening descends, the gardens come alight, as the mile-long stretch of ‘sparkling path’ leads the way to further festive delights. Bright laser beams and coloured fountains are used to stunning effect in front of the main glasshouse, whilst a scented Fire Garden and a Tunnel of Lights creates an unforgettable ambience. Vintage rides and a North Pole Village provide ample entertainment for the kids too, making this city haven a real all-rounder.
Christmas on the silver screen
A festive flick is a sure-fire way to get into the season’s spirit and, with a handful of pop-up screenings over London, you can share the Christmas cheer as it’s intended. Pop-up Screens at Hackney Showrooms take a frosty theme for its ‘cinema in the snow’, whilst Backyard Cinema’s screening can be accessed through a Narnia-like entrance – a coat-filled wardrobe. Mayfair’s Hush is hosting classics in its fairy-light-lit courtyard, whilst The Berkeley Health Club & Spa in Knightsbridge is transforming its roof into a cinema for December, with blankets and hot water bottles on hand to fend off the chills. For something a little more off the wall, head to the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, for an all-night festive film marathon, an Elf quote-along (“not now, Arctic Puffin!”) or a Muppet Christmas Carol sing-along.
Belmond Northern Belle Christmas lunch
This unique Christmas lunch lets you celebrate everything that’s opulent about the festive season on-board an iconic train. Whisking you back to the Golden Age of travel, the Belmond Northern Belle luxury train (sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express) invites you to enjoy a delectable seven-course lunch, which includes Great British favourites. A welcome champagne reception will settle you into your unique surrounds nicely, before you journey on a scenic round-trip whilst you dine in unadulterated style. This exquisite experience isn’t limited to London either, as the Belmond Northern Belle departs from stations all over the UK, including Leeds, Glasgow and Manchester.
See a seasonal ballet
If a festive-themed movie, a tear-jerking Christmas TV advert or a heart-swelling performance of Handel’s Messiah in full 18th-century regalia hasn’t quite immersed you in the season’s spirit, then (what’s wrong with you?!) a night at the ballet just might. No ballet is more magical than The Nutcracker. Set on Christmas Eve, the story follows Clara and her nutcracker doll, as they travel from their battle with The Mouse King, through the enchanting Land of Snow, all the way to the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy awaits. Tchaikovsky’s stunning score provides a suitability emotive backdrop to this visual feast, which promises twinkling sets and magnificent costumes, wherever you go to see it. The English National Ballet are performing the ballet at the London Coliseum, whilst The Royal Ballet take it to the stage at the Royal Opera House.
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