I'm an American Who's Lived in London for 7 Years — Here's Why Holidays There Are The Best

by  Emily Zemler | Dec 6, 2023
iStock/Cristian Mircea Balate

The glittering lights. The smell of mulled wine. The cozy, festive atmosphere. Christmas is one of the best times to be in London, even if you don’t celebrate the holiday. Each year, the English capital comes alive with holiday cheer, with many of the iconic neighborhood light displays being turned on as early as November. The center of town bustles with shoppers and revelers, all searching for the perfect gift or the perfect corner pub. It’s an uplifting way to spend the holidays, which I’ve enjoyed annually since moving to the city in 2016. 

Whether you’re jetting to London for a few days or a longer holiday break, there's a lot to see and do for the festive season. Many hotels and restaurants offer specific Christmas packages and menus, and each year locals flock to experiences like Winter Wonderland and Christmas at Kew. While you really can’t go wrong in London at Christmastime, here's what you need to know about spending the holidays there. 

What to Do

Courtesy of Winter Wonderland/Giles Smith

Christmas in Covent Garden

While every neighborhood in Central London is festive and bright, Covent Garden embraces the holidays with true fervor. The shopping district gets its own tree, which often serves as a backdrop to carolers or street performers, and Covent Garden Market is decorated to the nines. There are usually pop-ups and events themed to the holidays (in 2023 there was a Christmas sandwich festival), so check the website for any upcoming fun. 

Christmas at Kew 

Each year, Kew Gardens ups the ante on its holiday cheer. The vast botanic gardens, located near Richmond, create a glittering path of lights and installations that stretches through its different areas. Visitors arrive after dark and stroll along the route, which is dotted with food and drink vendors. Tickets sell out quickly, but travelers to London can often find them for resale online. 

Hogwarts in the Snow 

The Warner Bros Studio Tour is a bucket list activity for many travelers to London, but the Harry Potter-themed tour is best done in the winter. For two months, from mid-November through mid-January, Hogwarts transforms into a wizarding winter wonderland, with many of the iconic sets dressed up for the holidays. Tickets need to be booked in advance, but if you can score them it’s worth the trip. If you miss out, join the Tour For Muggles walking tour instead. 

Winter Wonderland

While London doesn’t have the same sort of Christmas markets you find in much of Europe, Hyde Park goes all in each holiday season with its Winter Wonderland. The outdoor festival features rides, games, food, ice skating, and an ice bar for adults. It’s a family favorite, with opening hours throughout the day and evening. Tickets are inexpensive, especially compared with some of the other holiday attractions, making it a popular outing when visiting London in the winter.  


Somerset House Ice Skating Rink 

Lace up a pair of skates and enjoy London’s favorite outdoor ice rink, located in the courtyard of Somerset House. Skaters of all ages can stop by for an open skating session, lessons, and DJ nights, as well as festive food and drink. Be sure to book your timed tickets in advance online and dress warmly. Other ice skating options around London include Hampton Court Palace Ice Rink, Glide Battersea, and Alexandra Palace Ice Rink. 

London Christmas Lights Tour

It’s hard to describe the sheer number of holiday lights that garnish London between November and January, but it’s a lot. And they’re everywhere. It’s possible to walk or take the local bus to see many of them, but visitors who don’t want to miss anything should opt for a Christmas lights tour. There are many to choose from, but a few favorites include The Classic Tour, Golden Tours, and Brigit’s Bakery, which runs afternoon tea bus tours. 

Where to Eat and Drink

iStock/Sebastien Mercier

The Churchill Arms

London’s pubs become cozy, lively hideaways during the festive season, but some take the holidays to an extreme. The Churchill Arms, in Kensington near Notting Hill, decorates its exterior with more than 80 illuminated Christmas trees every year. It’s a highlight for many Londoners, who stop by to see the iconic décor, and it’s also a great place to grab a pint or a bite to eat. Unexpectedly, the pub serves up Thai food, which is excellent, especially on a colder day. 

Borough Market 

Open year-round, Borough Market is a must-see for London visitors. The expansive food market has everything, from fresh produce to cheese to baked goods, and it’s fun to experience even if you aren’t buying anything. The market is surrounded by restaurants (Padella is a particularly popular spot), but there’s also an open-air food hall with lots of choices and seating. During the festive season, expect mulled wine, holiday treats, and hot chocolate. 


Mediterranean rooftop restaurant Seabird, located in the Hoxton Southwark, revamps itself each November and December as Snowbird, a cold weather retreat where visitors can book a table for dinner or stop by for some drinks. Expect sea-to-table shared plates inspired by Spanish and Portuguese cuisine, along with their beloved oysters and a selection of cocktails. The restaurant also serves a festive brunch on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and New Year's Day featuring a set menu of indulgent dishes like a lobster waffle.  

Fortnum & Mason 

There's an endless number of afternoon tea options around London, but one of the most classic can be found at Fortnum & Mason, a high-end shop that goes all out for the holidays. The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon serves a traditional afternoon tea daily (it’s closed for Christmas and Boxing Day), and guests can enjoy special Christmas menus in December with Champagne cocktails, finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets, as well as dishes such as Black Pudding Scotch Egg, Victoria Lobster Omelette with Truffle, and Welsh Rarebit. It’s a good pick for those with dietary concerns as well — the tea salon offers vegetarian and gluten-free menus. 

Mauro Colagreco

For something special, book a table at Mauro Colagreco in the new Raffles hotel. The fine dining restaurant, helmed by three-Michelin-starred chef Mauro Colagreco, is one of the best new openings of the year. While you can order a la carte, the tasting menu is the best way to experience Colagreco’s new take on British cuisine, which emphasizes local fruits and vegetables. It’s open on Christmas and Boxing Day, as well as New Year's. 

Where to Stay

Courtesy of The Dorchester

The Dorchester

Situated on Hyde Park, The Dorchester is one of London’s grand dames, boasting historical charm and a sense of high-end luxury. It was recently renovated and offers a comfortable stay for guests looking for something indulgent this holiday season, as it truly goes all out with its festive décor. Guests can book a park view room or suite, and the surrounding neighborhood of Mayfair is ideal for shopping and dining out. Don’t miss the hotel’s afternoon tea, which is worth a splurge. 


Each year, Claridge’s transforms according to a different, intricate Christmas theme. The five-star hotel, nestled in the heart of Mayfair, offers a glamorous stay that’s especially good for couples. Its restaurants serve festive menus and guests can expect carolers, a visit from Santa Claus, and some of the best hot chocolate in town. To fully immerse yourself in a London Christmas, book one of Claridge’s three-night special packages. 

The Chelsea Townhouse

Hidden on a side street near Sloane Square, The Chelsea Townhouse is one of London’s newest hotels and it’s perfect for an intimate holiday getaway. The boutique hotel, which opens into the private Cadogan Gardens, has contemporary, quiet rooms and suites that feel like you’re staying in a wealthy pal’s guest room. It’s a sister property to the nearby 11 Cadogan Gardens, where guests can go for afternoon tea or dinner. The neighborhood is festive and bright, with Knightsbridge and Harrods only a short walk away. 

Treehouse Hotel 

For something more casual and family-friendly, check out the Treehouse Hotel, located only steps from Oxford Circus. The contemporary, whimsical rooms offer skyline views and a cozy vibe, especially for those with kids. The location is perfect for exploring Soho, Marylebone, and Regent’s Park, or for shopping on Regent Street. The hotel is home to a rooftop bar and Pizzeria Mozza, a California import from chef Nancy Silverton. 

Tips for Visiting 

  • London’s convenient public transportation system shuts down on Christmas, with only taxis and Ubers available. Many locals choose to walk around town on Christmas Day since it’s blissfully free of traffic. Shops and grocery stores are closed, but hotel restaurants and bars remain open and there are plenty of festive lights to see. Expect Oxford Street and Regent Street to be busy despite the holiday. 
  • Many churches and cathedrals hold public services for the Advent and on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The popular services, including those at Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, and Southwark Cathedral, book up in advance so check online for tickets. 
  • It rarely snows in London, but it does frequently rain. Be sure to carry an umbrella with you when exploring the city and consider bringing waterproof shoes. Layers are key since it can be chilly — but not freezing — outside and warm inside.  
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