London at Christmas is magical. The winter fun starts with pop-up skating rinks in November. The giant fir tree in Trafalgar Square it lit up on 7 December, anticipating the arrival of Father Christmas. Norway annually gives London a Norwegian Spruce tree to thank the city for its support during World War II. Its vertical strings of light shine over Trafalgar Square until 3 January.
Virtually every neighbourhood sparkles, but the 300,000 bulbs around Regent Street are the highlight. This year, the “Spirit of Christmas” lights are illuminated on 16 November.
The biggest Christmas extravaganza is in west London’s Hyde Park at Winter Wonderland. The eastern portion of Hyde Park is taken over by the UK’s largest outdoor ice rink; two circus performances; an ice kingdom; fairground rides and games; and 200 shopping chalets.
The Winter Festival at Southbank Centre, with craft stalls and food vans, also include regular street performances and music. A Nordic theme prevails with an alpine pop-up lodge and a rooftop Finnish sauna in the Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden. It runs from 10 November until 4 January.
Leicester Square, the heart of London cinemaland, gives itself over to Christmas with pop-up theatres, markets stalls and a grotto where kids can meet Santa. Theatre shows include A Christmas Carol reimagined as a 1940s Christmas special and Austentatious, an improvised Jane Austen novel. Events run from 10 November until 6 January.
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London manages to keep outdoor ice rinks solid from November until January — despite not having a cold winter climate. Rental skates are available at all; reserve ahead online. Most rinks are open into the evenings but check websites for details. Since temporary ice rinks are small, the experience is more about the setting than the skating.
The best backdrop for a Christmas selfie? The grand 18th-century Somerset House, whose courtyard is filled with frozen ice. It’s open from 15 November – 14 January.
Children like the rink at the Natural History Museum, perhaps because it’s kid-sized. Or maybe because they like skating in the shadow of a grand Gothic Revival palace. The rink is open from 26 October until 7 January.
How about skating in the moat of one of England’s oldest fortresses? It’s probably not what William the Conqueror imagined when he built The Tower of London in the 11th century, but his Tower still enthralls us. The rink is nestled in to the moat between 17 November until 2 January.
A bit further east, Canary Wharf sports a twinkling ice rink nestled at the base of skyscrapers. After a twirl on the ice, you can have a drink in one of the many bars or follow the art trail to take in the many sculptures and statues that soften the urban surroundings.
The Royal Albert Hall, one of London’s most beloved performance venues, goes a bit crazy for Christmas. There’s a carol singalong on 16 December and numerous Christmas shows including: It’s Christmas show, Jingle Bell Christmas, Christmas Classics and a Christmas Festival.
The National Theatre located next to the Southbank Centre on the banks of the Thames celebrates the holidays with a family production of Pinocchio. (which runs until April) and includes songs from the Disney film. Don’t miss the Hi-diddle-dee-Tea in the House restaurant after matinees and before evening performances from 1 December until 31 March.
The British love silly traditions and one of the best is the Great Pudding Race in Covent Garden on 2 December. Relay teams carry Christmas puddings through an obstacle course in the name of charity and … fun.
Hundreds of Santas will run across London on 9 December at 11am in the annual Santacon. But you’ll have to work to find them. Even they don’t know their starting points until the day before. Keep an eye out on central London streets for all that bearded good cheer.