The holiday season looks good on London. Every December, the capital comes alive with twinkling light installations and glowing window displays. Meanwhile, market stalls, open-air skating rinks, and winter festivals lend the city a celebratory mood, and firelit pubs know just how to stoke the festive spirit. Three days in town is the perfect amount of time to soak up all that joyful ambiance—here’s your perfect itinerary.
Christmas shopping isn’t a chore when you can do it in the rarefied surroundings of London’s elegant department stores. Begin at Fortnum & Mason—a favorite of the royal family—where you can browse its range of indulgent, classically British treats, including seasonal hampers packed with all manner of decadent trimmings. If your preferences are more sartorial, it’s just a 10-minute stroll to Liberty, which tempts with everything from designer purses to chic homewares. Or, for a truly high-fashion experience, head to the unabashedly glitzy Harrods (while stopping to admire its light-festooned facade).
Darkness arrives early in London in December—on the shortest days of the year, the sun sets before 4pm. But there’s a silver lining in the form of the glittering light installations that spangle Regent Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street, and Carnaby Street during the holiday season. With your newly purchased presents in tow, cast your eyes upwards to admire the luminous displays—and don’t miss the festive department store windows as you go. To make the most of your time, you can also explore the Christmas lights by black cab, bike, or open-air bus.
It isn’t really Christmas until you hear those first tinkling notes of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. For a truly magical conclusion to your first festive day in London, join in the seasonal tradition and book tickets to see the Nutcracker. Both the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet perform the ballet throughout the holiday season, and their central London venues are conveniently located (and dizzyingly glamorous). Or, head to the Royal Albert Hall, which hosts the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s annual rendition of the enchanted winter tale.
After warming up with a morning cup of tea (or hot chocolate), make for Somerset House. This grand museum complex which overlooks the River Thames (and which was built on the site of a Tudor palace) makes for an impeccable backdrop to your gliding. Its spacious courtyard plays host to a skating rink each winter, with nibbles provided at the chalet-style pop-up and a 40-foot (12-meter) Christmas tree crowning the whole affair. For another memorable skating experience, you can also head west to the Natural History Museum, whose own open-air rink is a seasonal staple.
Feeling frosty? In the afternoon, venture into the cozy confines of one of London’s many hidden-away, atmospheric museums. It doesn’t get much more enchanting than Dennis Severs’ House, the lavish interior of which is dressed up for Christmas every year and designed to transport visitors to another era. Plus, select dates see it illuminated by flickering candles and firelight. Alternatively, head to the former home of the author of A Christmas Carol at the Charles Dickens Museum or even embark on a walking tour of Dickens’ London.
Speaking of carols: there are few more impressive locations in which to attend a Christmas concert than St. Paul’s Cathedral—the 300-year-old landmark was the tallest structure in London for centuries, and its soaring vaults and gilded interior offer a striking backdrop to an evening of song (with the acoustics to match). Other musical alternatives include an annual carol concert at the UNESCO-listed Westminster Abbey; sing-along carol nights at the Royal Albert Hall; and carols in St. Martin-in-the-Field on Trafalgar Square, where you can also view London’s central Christmas tree.
Start your final festive day in London on a particularly jubilant note at Winter Wonderland. Hosted in Hyde Park each year, the family-friendly festival is among the city’s biggest and most popular seasonal events. Arrive in the morning to beat the crowds, and make the most of everything from shopping stalls and skating rinks to meet-and-greets with Father Christmas and ice-sculpting workshops.
Alternatively, for a less busy (but still buzzing) atmosphere, head to the Southbank’s Winter Market. Styled after a traditional German Christmas market, the free-to-visit event offers a chance to shop for gifts and stocking stuffers—and nibble on mince pies and sip eggnog as you go.
A morning spent outdoors should be rewarded with a warming, fireside lunch; happily, the capital has no shortage of historical pubs that offer a traditional dining experience, roaring fireplaces, and vats of aromatic mulled wine. The Lady Ottoline in Bloomsbury serves up romantic ambiance by the bucketful, the Albion in Angel boasts fires and wood-paneled walls to keep things snug, and the Princess Louise in Holborn is famed for its classically Victorian decor.
It’s only right to cap off three days of seasonal London celebrations with an evening to remember—and a nighttime ride on the London Eye is sure to dazzle. Book skip-the-line tickets before your visit to keep logistics simple, or upgrade for a VIP experience complete with Champagne. Whichever option you choose, you’ll be rewarded with impeccable views of London’s shimmering cityscape as you ascend into the night sky.
Alternatively, for a less aerial—but no less glittering—experience, make the trip west to Kew Gardens to attend the annual Christmas at Kew event. The celebration welcomes after-dark visitors to explore the UNESCO-listed grounds and enjoy larger-than-life illuminations.