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It’s hard to beat a trip to London during the holiday season. Come December, this buzzing city swells from its core, spreading Christmas cheer from Chelsea to Southwark to Shoreditch, and every nook and cranny in between. People flood the gates of Heathrow to visit the Harrods Christmas display, to walk the pastel streets of Notting Hill, and to cozy-up fireside in storied hotels with a hot cuppa.
Between shopping, hotel-hopping, exploring Christmas markets, catching live shows, wandering through museums, and getting a taste of London’s dining scene, there is almost too much to do—so we’ve made things simple for you. Here, you’ll find a smattering of everything on the essential to-do list when visiting the Big Smoke around December. A few pro tips: you’ll likely do lots of walking, so invest in a good pair of comfy (waterproof) shoes. And we’re not exaggerating when we say swaths of people come to experience the holidays in London this time of year—it’s one of the peak seasons. So, if you plan to go to live shows or on tours, we recommend booking in advance, when possible.
See the Harrods Christmas Display and Visit Father Christmas
Seeing as this department store was founded in the mid-1800s, the team behind Harrods storefront display really knows how to put on a proper Christmas show. It would be a crime to visit London and not see the iconic building all lit up for the holidays—after all, it’s one of the city’s oldest and most celebrated Christmas traditions. Here, expect to see the epitome of luxury and Christmas cheer in the store windows: puppets and performers, velvet curtains and strung lights, and storybook scenes come to life. And inside (you may have to elbow your way through, but it’s worth it!) you can pop in for a visit with Father Christmas himself. As per, the store’s entire exterior is draped with twinkling lights; it’s a classic London photo op.
Stroll Through Christmas Markets
Yes, we said markets—plural. It’s no surprise that London boasts a handful of bustling Christmas markets each year, each one distinct in its own right. Stroll through the Winter Wonderland market along Hyde Park, where you’ll find the UK’s biggest outdoor skating rink, over 100 wooden stalls with beautiful handmade gifts, and lots of tasty treats. For particularly stunning views alongside top-tier shopping, check out Christmas by the River located on the Thames, just in front of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. And for a very special market that dates back to 1737, take the Tube to the Greenwich Christmas Late Market to wander through dozens of stalls, enjoy seasonal food, and enjoy the neighborhood’s outstanding holiday light displays.
Schedule High Tea
Pinkies up! It wouldn’t be a proper trip to London without cozying up for a steaming cup of England’s finest tea—and it’s a wonderful way to unwind after navigating the Christmas crowds and stomping around the city. High tea services are offered at hotels and shops all over London, but a few stand out among the rest. American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property The Ritz London, for one, is quintessential London, a true classic—think silver tiers of tiny cucumber sandwiches, colorful pastries, white linens, and an impressive array of fine English teas—all to be enjoyed in the hotel’s luxurious Palm Court dining room. If you’re in search of the creme de la creme of London’s afternoon teas, book a service at Fortnum & Mason, one of the city’s premiere teahouses, where you can enjoy fresh baked goods and delicious tea sipped from handmade china in the store's famous Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.
Spend an Afternoon Sightseeing
Sure, these historic sites are available for tours year-round, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing the roots of London during the most festive time of year, when everything is strung in lights and merriment abounds. And there are several pivotal historic and cultural sites that are simply a must-see. Plan to devote a day to exploring the likes of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Museum, the Globe Theater, Big Ben, and the National Gallery. While a tour via bus is a quick way to see everything, we recommend going by foot, so as to get the true Londoner experience. End the day on an especially high note with an evening spent at the Royal Opera House, where you can enjoy London’s premiere performances, like the Nutcracker.
Put on Your Ice Skates
Every holiday season, Somerset House sets up a beautiful open-air ice skating rink. Nestled along the Thames, this rink is the perfect place to breath in that crisp December air and enjoy a hot tea with a few mates as you cruise ‘round on the ice. The best part? There are plenty of shops and restaurants all around the rink, so when you’re just about freezing, you can go warm up in the Arcade and cross some Christmas shopping off your list. Pro tip: check out the Skate Late specials for evening music performances alongside the rink!
Head to Hogwarts
Nothing epitomizes the heart of British popular culture like Harry Potter. Fans of all ages will be thrilled to find that Hogwarts is just in London’s backyard—and the holiday season is perhaps the most magical time to visit the castle and grounds. Located just 20 miles northwest of London, travelers can easily pop onto the train or bus and get to Warner Bros Studio in under 30 minutes (or, of course, you could always fly on your Nimbus 2000). At the studio, guests can book a Hogwarts in the Snow tour (mid-Nov. through late Jan.) and see how the castle transforms into a winter wonderland (think Yule Ball vibes in the Great Hall).
Check Out Cheery Hotel Decor
Whether you’re staying in a hotel or not, it’s worth cruising by a handful of London’s finest hotels, as the city’s accommodations in general tend to go all out during the holidays. You’ll discover nary a hotel lobby without a grand Christmas tree, strung lights, window displays, and cheery ornaments all over. Take The Stafford, for example, known for its opulent rooms and five-star ratings. Located in the heart of St. James, The Stafford’s exterior and interior are completely decked-out with ornate wreaths, glittering Christmas lights, and stunning floral arrangements (and don’t forget to check out their Christmas Party menus). Or, take a little trip just outside the city to one of England’s premiere estate hotels, like Cliveden House—another American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property—where you can cozy up for Christmas in the glamorous, decades-old accommodations and enjoy a wreath making class, or an evening of five-star dining accompanied by Yuletide carols.