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Described as the ‘man who invented Christmas’, Charles Dickens is everywhere in London, and he feels especially present during the festive period. Not only are his former home and old publishing house open for the public to visit, but there are countless bars and restaurants where the author used to spend long, liquor-fueled evenings that are still serving patrons today.
Of course, Dickens didn’t actually invent Christmas, but rather he inspired a generation into a new way of celebrating. The very words ‘Merry Christmas’ were invented by the author, though, and today we wouldn’t have the big family gatherings and festive goodwill without his influence on the Victorian holiday season.
In London, there are hundreds of locations across the city that feature in his Christmas novels, of which A Christmas Carol is his most famous. And so a trip to the English capital come holiday season is a fine thing for a Dickens fan. Here’s how to enjoy Dickens’ London this Christmas.
Get the lowdown at the Charles Dickens Museum, Holborn
Christmas doesn’t get much more festive than at the Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn. The museum is housed in 48 Doughty Street, Dickens’ former home where he wrote the likes of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Every year the museum celebrates like it’s 1869 with a towering tree, clad with baubles and candles, green holly, and ivy wrapped around its furniture and light fixtures, and plenty of classic Victorian decorations.
There are festive events and performances throughout the month of December, including readings of A Christmas Carol, and rare treasures on display such as the first ever Christmas card. There may be no more Christmassy place in the world than Dickens’ own home.
Wine & dine in his former publishing house at Grays and Feather, Covent Garden
Housed in what was originally the printworks for All the Year Round, the Victorian periodical in which Dickens published some of his works as serials, Grays & Feather is a glorious little wine bar and restaurant. Dickens would no doubt have approved: it has been said that the author would drink a pint of Champagne before sitting down to write, and this bar specializes in all manner of sparkling wine.
Printworks was located on the first and basement floors of Grays & Feather, and Dickens and his wife, Catherine, lived in a private flat above. Come here to sample some of the writer’s favorite wines (of the bubbly variety) or enjoy the Dickens cocktail, packed with plenty of his favorite hard liquor: rum. The menu includes cheese plates and brisket burgers, and the crusted cauliflower is a nod to one of Catherine Dickens’ recipes. Ask for owner Andrew Gray when you arrive to get the full Dickens lowdown, and look out for their Dickens themed afternoon tea, which is on its way for 2020.
Pick up gifts at Leadenhall Market
This spectacular Victorian arcade was once London’s top meat market. Back in Dickens’ day, this is where you could purchase the finest cuts of meat the city had to offer, bartering with the hundreds of vendors offering everything from game to poultry. And so it was here, critics suggest, that Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol sent a boy to purchase a prize turkey for his undervalued clerk, Bob Cratchit.
These days, Leadenhall is a regular haunt of the area’s after work crowd for its great bars, and the only turkey you’ll find is on your plate at one of the market’s many pubs. It’s also an excellent place for a spot of Christmas shopping, too, and the area is decorated with twinkling lights and tinsel for the occasion. Pick up luxury items in designer shops like Hobbs or Barbour, or purchase piquant perfumes by fragrance specialists, diptyque.
Dine like Dickens at Simpson's in the Strand
Housed within the same buildings as the much-lauded Savoy Hotel, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, Simpson's in the Strand is a veritable Victorian dining experience. The menu has much changed in the near two centuries since it opened, but it has retained the elegance and grandeur that Dickens once dined among during his time here.
The restaurant is famous for its carving trolleys, which Dickens would likely have feasted from, and has been a favorite haunt for many writers. Arthur Conan Doyle used to dine here, and so his characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson also indulged in some sensational Simpson’s fare in The Adventure of the Dying Detective.
Stay in his old neighborhoods of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury
Dickens lived all over London, from Covent Garden to Fitzrovia to Holborn. A great place to base yourself is somewhere in between, at the Kimpton Fitzroy—one of London’s newest hotels. While this majestic red and white brick building wasn’t actually constructed until 1898, after Dickens’ death, it’s in a perfect position for exploring some of his old neighbourhoods.
Sitting between Holborn and Fitzrovia, you can easily stroll between the two neighborhoods where the famous author lived, exploring their elegant, wide streets and enjoying the many squares and gardens that make this area of London a prime location for writing inspiration. The Charles Dickens Museum, set inside his former home in Holborn, is just a 15-minute walk away and just up the road is an old English pub called The Boot, which featured as a meeting point for the rioters in his novel, Barnaby Rudge.
The hotel itself is palatial, all marble and mosaic inside with stunning suites and a pair of great restaurants, and it overlooks Russell Square Gardens. It’s highly likely that Dickens would have walked through this very park on many occasions.
Visit his memorial in Marylebone
Dickens moved about a lot in London, and for a time he lived in Marylebone at 1 Devonshire Terrace—a home he described as “A house of great promise and great premium.” It was there that he wrote six of his most famous novels—The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and, most importantly, A Christmas Carol. The house has been demolished, sadly, but there is a memorial to the author and to some of his most well-known characters on the corner of Marylebone Road and Marylebone High Street.
If you’re in the market for yet more Christmas gifts, stop by Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road—a more-than 200-year-old shop, which the author spent much of his income in while furnishing his grand Marylebone house.
Have a night out at House of St Barnabas
If you’re keen to spread the festive goodwill, book a night out at House of St Barnabas. This is a private members club with a difference: it’s partially staffed by homeless people who are enrolled on an employment program which aims to help them find permanent work in the city. Dickens was a frequent visitor to the House of St Barnabas back in the 1800s, and research published in The Dickensian in 1963 suggests that the rooms and gardens of the house were the blueprint for the imagined lodgings of Dr Manette and Lucy in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities.
There’s a Dickens Room dedicated to the author, and the club’s special events are open to the public—tickets must be booked in advance—including everything from Christmas-themed afternoon teas to DJs and live music performances. Your patronage supports the very social enterprise this club is founded on, so you can feel good about buying another round of cocktails.
Take a Dickens pub crawl
This writer really loved his pubs, and there’s no better place to hole up in when the weather outside is frightful come Christmas time. While the likes of Buckingham Palace and Bankside don’t get so much as a mention in his novels, pubs are ten a penny and Dickens’ characters spend plenty of time knocking back pints in some of the city’s finest drinking holes.
The George and Vulture on Castle Street is one of the many pubs Mr. Pickwick and his friends share drinks at in The Pickwick Papers, and today you can still visit its 13th-century ‘boozer’, as the Brits call it. From here, head eastward and you can stop in at The Prospect of Whitby, right on the Thames in Wapping, where the likes of Dickens and even Samuel Pepys have raised a toast.
Further along the River is the Dickens Inn, which the author never drank at but it carries his name nonetheless, and then right out in Limehouse is The Grapes—another pub featured in The Pickwick Papers. Hop in a cab back to the Kimpton Fitzroy and finish the crawl in The Boot, just a few minutes’ walk from your bedroom.