Londoners take Christmas very seriously. The festive fever starts when the Oxford Street Christmas lights are officially switched on. Innovative window displays at Selfridges attract the crowds, while children flock to Hamley’s toy store on Regent Street to visit Santa’s grotto. City residents hit up Covent Garden Christmas Market for handcrafted gifts, and the independent shops of Lamb’s Conduit Street in nearby Holborn. They also gather to listen to carols by volunteer choirs in Trafalgar Square, where London’s official Christmas tree is a 50-year-old Norwegian spruce decorated with hundreds of white lights (each year since 1947, the people of Oslo have sent the tree as a gesture of gratitude for British support of Norway during the Second World War). And sporty types can get their skates on at Somerset House, where the outdoor ice-rink has become a permanent fixture on the holiday calendar.
The “panto’” is a peculiarly British brand of musical farce based on a fairy story. This year sees Jerry Hall playing the wicked stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Richmond Theatre. Visit this leafy Royal borough, and pack in some pre-show gift shopping while you’re there.
Perfect for children, the Winter Wonderland has an immersive walk-though Magical Ice Kingdom featuring an ice castle, circus shows, a traditional German market where grownups can drink a warming gluhwein and youngsters sip warm apple cider. To get there easily, avoid the crowded Hyde Park Corner tube station and walk from Green Park.
Ice Skating at Somerset House
One of the most iconic buildings in London, Somerset House is best known for hosting London Fashion Week—but come the holidays, it draws just as many crowds with its annually installed outdoor ice rink. Club nights let you skate while top DJs spin; during the day, traditional cream teas and fondue lunches let you fuel up between turns on the ice. And if your blades (and skating skills) are rusty, join one of the regularly offered skating refresher classes.
Candlelit Carols at Royal Albert Hall
Tickets get snapped up quick for this annual evening event, which is one of the most glorious holiday traditions in London. Performed by the Mozart Festival Orchestra in 18th century costumes, “Silent Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” have never been so festive. Just be careful not to knock over a candle.
Covent Garden Christmas Market
This annual market is where Henry Higgins famously came across flower girl Eliza Doolittle in the George Berard Shaw play Pygmalion (better known in its movie adaptation staring Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady). In early November, a 60-foot Christmas tree is installed here, along with 15-foot-high topiary reindeer. But it’s the real reindeer, set up in a petting-zoo-style enclosure, that truly excite the kids who visit here during the holidays.