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A Holly Jolly Guide To London During the Holidays

Tour guide Jordi Briz, who leads cyclists on a Christmas Lights Tour of Central London, shares tips on the best things to do in London at Christmas.

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Hi, I'm Claire!

Claire Bullen is an award-winning food, drinks, and travel writer and editor who has lived and worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and London. She is the author of The Beer Lover's Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, and the editor at GoodBeerHunting.com. Her writing has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Daily Meal, Pellicle Magazine, and beyond.

Jordi Briz has many passions—but none greater than London. The professional tour guide grew up near Barcelona but relocated to the English capital in 1995 thanks to his love of travel, learning, and languages. The rest, as they say, is history. “The fact is, I fell in love with London (and London loved me as well) and here I am, after more than 25 years!” he says.

For more than 20 years, Briz has been a tour guide in London, eager to share his love of the city’s people, culture, and history. And while he notes that there’s never a bad time of year to visit the city, Christmas in London—when the capital turns “festive, colorful, and energizing”—is an undisputed highlight. He is, after all, an expert on where to find the best festive season activities.

Since 2012, Briz has led the London Bicycle Tour Company’s Christmas Lights Tour, which showcases winter celebrations in the UK capital. “A few years ago, London holiday lights and Christmas markets became a real feature of the city, [so] we revamped our London Christmas lights tour to concentrate in the West End, where the main light displays are concentrated,” he says.

“We visit virtually all the Christmas-garnished streets in Central London, and, at the same time, we can admire the most significant landmarks of the area.” Here’s his selection of London holiday travel tips, to help you find the best winter wonderland experiences.

What makes London great for the holidays

London really brings the holiday cheer at Somerset House.
London really brings holiday cheer to a whole new level.Foto: Sven Hansche / Shutterstock

Discover England’s Christmas capital.

London takes the festive season seriously. At the top of the list of things to do in London at Christmas are admiring the twinkling Christmas lights on Oxford Street and Regent Street, visiting the ice skating rinks that pop up across town, enjoying Christmas-themed afternoon tea; and getting cozy in pubs serving cauldrons of mulled wine. This is a city that definitely offers a wealth of winter wonderland experiences.

It helps that history undergirds many of these London holiday traditions. The Christmas tree, after all, was popularized in London in the 1840s, after Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, Prince Albert, imported the candle-festooned Tannenbaum from his homeland. Norway has, since 1947, given Londonan enormous Christmas tree every year, which is displayed in Trafalgar Square.)

Londoners have tucked into spice-laden mince pies since the medieval era, while the Christmas carols that ring out in iconic venues such as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral have a timeless quality. “As we pass by the main institutions of Westminster [on our Christmas bike tour], we realize how old London is, and how far traditions hark back,” says Briz. “[Even] the coronation of William the Conqueror was held precisely on Christmas Day in 1066.”

Where to try London’s top holiday sips and snacks

The pubs of the capital make a cozy spot to grab a drink.
The pubs of the capital make a cozy spot to grab a drink.Foto: Annapurna Mellor / Viator

Feast on a seasonal selection of winter warmers.

Warming up in a London pub with a pint or a mug of mulled wine should be at the top of your list of things to do in London at Christmas, and Briz has a few favorites to recommend. “The pubs around the Waterloo area, close to our base, are where locals meet, and where tourists are of course welcomed,” he says, highlighting the Hercules, the Three Stags, and the Steam Engine. Adding, “The Bar Elba on Waterloo Road has got an ice rink on its roof.”

When it comes to London holiday traditions and seasonal nibbles, Briz recommends seeking out Bageriet (which specializes in Swedish cinnamon and cardamom buns) as well as classic department stores such as Fortnum & Mason.

“But you’re never too far from something delicious. All over London, especially in shopping areas, there are fantastic cafés and bakeries serving awesome pastries, cakes, high teas, and typical Christmas sweets.” And if you find yourself in London on Christmas Day, when many venues are closed, Briz recommends going for an alternative Christmas Dinner at one of the Bengali curry houses on Brick Lane.

Where to go Christmas shopping in London

Fortnum and Mason Christmas lights.
See the city aglow with holiday lights.Foto: BBA Photography / Shutterstock

Get your holiday gifts in style.

Want to work through your Christmas shopping list—or treat yourself to a present or two—all while soaking up the city’s Christmas theme? “Selfridges, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Liberty are staples of London holiday shopping, and all deserve a visit—even if it's just admiring their holiday decor and window displays,” says Briz. As are the bustling Carnaby Street and Covent Garden shopping districts.

And for Christmas markets in London, Briz says these are ideal places to buy Christmas gifts and crafts from around the world, or to grab some international food or drinks typical of the season. Look for locations along the South Bank on the Thames River, in Leicester Square, and beyond.

Where to stay in London this Christmas

The top of the London Eye offers one of the best views of London’s Christmas lights.
The top of the London Eye offers one of the best views of London’s Christmas lights.Foto: Roberto Evangelisti / Shutterstock

Escape England’s biting cold in these cozy corners.

For a high-end, festive feel, it’s hard to beat the Rosewood Hotel in Holborn, whose halls are decked with glittering Christmas displays, and whose on-site bars and restaurants—including the Holborn Dining Room, Pie Room, and Scarfes Bar—offer a warming place to share a glass or a bite. Briz also recommends the Marriott County Hall, which has a convenient location near the London Eye—one of the top things to do in London at Christmas or any time of year—and which also boasts “a huge Christmas fir in its courtyard.”

Top holiday activities in London

London's light displays at this time of year are something to behold, especially at Kew Gardens.
London's light displays at this time of year are something to behold.Foto: Florin Cnejevici / Shutterstock

The best festive things to do in London at Christmas.

London has so many festive seasonal activities, as Briz notes, from pantomimes (performed in theaters across the city) to Christmas light displays in Kew Gardens, plus Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park which is anan all-in-one market, with food and drinks, ice skating rinks, rides, and music.

Ice skating rinks also pop up within some of London’s top landmarks, Briz says, including Somerset House, the Battersea Power Station, and the Natural History Museum. And speaking of museums, London’s great museums are mostly free to visit and serve as the perfect place to retreat from the cold. Warm up while soaking up history and culture in the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert Museum, or enjoy a candlelit ambiance at smaller institutions such as the Charles Dickens Museum and Dennis Severs’ House—all perfect cozy winter experiences in London.

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