Christmas lights in London. Photo by Alexey_Fedoren, iStock

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London, the cosmopolitan metropolis capital of the United Kingdom is certainly one of those places that can be visited again and again. On numerous visits to this vibrant city, I discovered that London throbs with varied energies according to the season. While the city becomes gloomy and dreary during the rains, the summers bring forth mild weather, lush parks and a wealth of events. 

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To me, London takes on a fairy tale quality in the festive winter season of Christmas and New Year. The dazzling displays of light, the gorgeous decor of streets and shops, the joyful cheer of Christmas markets and fairs, the holiday themed foods and shows – all come together to make a magical transformation. 

So if you’re planning to visit London in the winter, here are the special things to do with your family.

Christmas lights and fanciful decor on Oxford Street. Photo by Susmita Sengupta
Christmas lights and fanciful decor on Oxford Street. Photo by Susmita Sengupta

Enjoying the Christmas Lights and Trees on Oxford Street and Beyond

Begin your enjoyment at Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in London, that was jam packed with visitors when we visited on a frigid December evening. The sparkling lights, the lit up buildings and the incredible Christmas windows of the stores created an enchanting atmosphere, and high up above us, twinkling silver lights that reminded me of snowflakes crisscrossed the whole length of the thoroughfare. 

Regent Street which abuts Oxford Street was the first area to be lighted up with Christmas bulbs in 1954. Christmas lighting of Oxford Street began in 1959 and though the lights did not switch on in some years, they became a regular affair since the 1980s, with various celebrity guests turning on the lights.

Today, you can view the sparkle of Christmas lights and decorations also in the surrounding areas of Bond Street, Mayfair, Piccadilly and further up at Covent Garden, Leicester Square and King’s Cross.

While there is certain excitement in doing a self guided walking tour of these streets, many guided tours are also available. Find out more about the 2023 Christmas lights here

The decked up department stores on Oxford Street. Photo by Susmita Sengupta
The decked up department stores on Oxford Street. Photo by Susmita Sengupta

Holiday Shopping in the Department Stores

While at Oxford Street and neighboring Regent Street, you have to stop by the many iconic department stores that line these avenues, flaunting their glitzy holiday decor. We began at John Lewis and Partners where the entire store frontage was decked up in colorful lights.

The Christmas store inside was truly eye-catching with its separate enclosures of trees and displays embodying different themes. The ceiling of almost the entire store was covered with hanging lights, baubles and stars. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. 

Selfridges and Harrods, the two seminal London stores, must be visited during the Christmas season. Selfridges on Oxford Street started off its holiday window dressing after it was bought by the American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1909. 

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After admiring the lavish decorations, be sure to stop by and perhaps sample some of the delicious treats at their must-visit Food Hall. A ride on the London Underground or London bus will bring you to Harrods, located in Knightsbridge, for an unforgettable experience.

Founded in 1849, this store definitely belongs to the list of most famous department stores in the world. You can indulge in luxury retail therapy amidst eye-popping holiday decor or simply enjoy the fabulous holiday ambience in its special Christmas stores and dining halls.

Evening at the Tower of London with a glimpse of the holiday lighting of The Shard in the background. Photo by Susmita Sengupta
Evening at the Tower of London with a glimpse of the holiday lighting of The Shard in the background. Photo by Susmita Sengupta

A Wintry Visit to The Tower of London and Tower Bridge

Visiting the London sightseeing stalwarts, the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge in the cold winter of December can be a very unusual but exciting event. The more than 900 year old Tower of London, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a breathtaking place to visit and certainly occupies the top spot on a London trip. 

A winter visit to this historic fortress, palace and prison on the banks of the River Thames, can make you truly feel the plight of the many people including notable names such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey – three queens of England, the statesman Sir Thomas More, and others, who were imprisoned or executed in the royal prison.

But all was not eerie and scary when we visited on a dreary December day. Though the trees were bare, giving the castle towers a stark look against the overcast sky, in front of us was a twinkling Christmas tree as we made our way along the gravelly paths to see the famed Crown Jewels in the Jewel House.

We stopped by the White Tower, easily the most recognizable castle at the tower and marveled at the medieval era Romanesque chapel which was a place of worship for all the kings and queens.

 As we completed the Battlements walking tour, we noticed The Shard, and The Shard Lights, a regular December display since 2013 in which the top 20 floors of the tallest building of Western Europe are lit up in a dazzling display.

Each year the lighting follows a special theme and in 2022 the lights showcased the look of “London at Christmas time”. During our visit in another year, we saw the lights changing from Christmas reds and greens to a dazzling white making the pointed top of the building look like a million shiny diamonds.

Close and visible from the unreal splendor of the Tower of London, is the other icon of London landmarks, the Tower Bridge, that takes on a different hue come Christmas. Built in the 19th century, this suspension and bascule bridge with its two towers, is  lit up every night and also to mark special days and occasions. 

Visiting the Christmas Markets in London 

When in London in the winter, one has to visit some of the many Christmas markets that dot this city. You can begin at the Covent Garden Christmas market, where you can see three markets offering a variety of handmade art, crafts and gifts. The markets begin in November and continue till January offering special events in different months. Find out more about the events of 2023 here.

Continue on to Leicester Square Christmas market, near the four movie theaters, the venues of red carpet film premieres in London. The square itself is transformed into a delightful Christmas market filled with wooden chalet booths offering food, mulled drinks, and unique gifts.

A big draw in this market is the Spiegeltent, the venue for a holiday themed show, La Clique that combines circus, cabaret and comedy.

The Trafalgar Square Christmas market is held under the magnificent setting of the Trafalgar fountains, Nelson’s Column and The National Gallery. After spending a few moments at this market, you can decide to take a stroll down to the Big Ben, the Parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey.

But before that you might want to step inside St. Martin-in-the-Fields, located right next to the square. An architectural jewel from 1726 by James Gibbs, the church also has a Cafe in the crypt where you can enjoy food in the backdrop of vaulted brick ceilings and historic tombstones.

The Magical Ice Kingdom at the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Photo by Susmita Sengupta
The Magical Ice Kingdom at the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Photo by Susmita Sengupta

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland 

After touring a few of the Christmas markets of London, we visited what could arguably be the largest London Christmas extravaganza – the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.

Located in the Westminster neighborhood, Hyde Park covers around 350 acres and is the largest of the Royal Parks, making it a prime destination for tourists and locals. Having visited the park in the summer months, we were completely surprised by its winter metamorphosis.

This Christmas market had a modest beginning in 2006 with an open air market of stalls and over the years has now transformed into a mega holiday spectacle. We walked in through a series of archways twinkling with colorful lights on a cold, foggy evening and stepped as if into a dreamland. Though this market has a ticketed entry, I felt it was money well spent.

There was an overwhelming choice of rides, booths, foods and games and the look was that of Bavarian Christmas markets. My favorite was the Magical Ice Kingdom, a completely new experience for me and my family.

This was a world of ice sculptures like ice swans floating on water, horses with riders, deer amidst pine trees, ice chairs to sit on and ice slides to slide down. We stepped out spellbound. 

For tips on visiting Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, see here.

The Nutcracker ballet by the English National Ballet at the London Coliseum. Photo by Susmita Sengupta
The Nutcracker ballet by the English National Ballet at the London Coliseum. Photo by Susmita Sengupta

The English National Ballet

For many families and also for us, taking in a show of The Nutcracker ballet is a Christmas ritual and tradition. Based on an E. T. A. Hoffmann children’s short story from 1816, written in 2 acts and scored sublimely by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1891-1892, The Nutcracker has evolved into a must-do Christmas event.

So if you’re in London, heading to the London Coliseum to see the grand presentation by the English National Ballet is a must. Revel in the dream world of flowers and fairies, mice and soldiers, a nutcracker doll magically transformed into a prince and the brave heroine Clara who joins her prince in defeating the evil Mouse King. 

Do not also miss clicking a photo with the annual pointe shoe Christmas tree built out of 500+ pointe shoes that are recycled and hand-dyed from the discarded shoes of the dancers. 

Find more info on the English National Ballet

The Qing dynasty inspired gate at London’s Chinatown. Photo by Susmita Sengupta
The Qing dynasty inspired gate at London’s Chinatown. Photo by Susmita Sengupta

Christmas in Chinatown 

For a different winter and Christmas vibe in London, head to London’s small but authentic Chinatown, not far from Leicester Square. It is the perfect place to go to for an alternative to traditional Christmas fare if you so desire. And especially on December 25, when many eateries and restaurants are shut for the day, you will find delicious food here. 

Browse the stores selling Asian cosmetics, products and gifts and stop at the food stores, bakeries and supermarkets to try baked delights like mooncakes, rice balls or mung bean cakes. And definitely avail of the photo opportunity at the monumental Chinatown gate, constructed in 2016 and based on traditional Qing dynasty design. 

For detailed information on London Christmas events in 2023 see here.

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Author Bio: Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, loves to travel with her family. She writes frequently for Go World Travel and other online travel magazines such as GoNomad, Matador Network, Travel thru History, In the Know Traveler and others.

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