Southern England, the capital of the United Kingdom, a short hop by plane, ferry or train from the European continent.
The sun has set on the British Empire but London remains one of the world’s most influential cities — it’s not only a major financial center but one of the world’s great capitals of culture as well.
London is served by no fewer than five airports, from the very major Heathrow to the small and central City — but the most humane way to travel remains the high-speed Eurostar train from Paris or Brussels.
It’s a legendarily expensive city, but London offers a few budget-friendly rewards. Most of the state-run museums are free to enter, and there are few better no-cost cultural itineraries than a morning tour of Tate Britain, a nice walk along and across the Thames, and an afternoon browsing the collection at Tate Modern.
When the December holidays roll around, the body cries out for something mild — some tropical island, some balmy beach — while the soul, if it’s anything like ours, craves fresh snow, hot cocoa, roaring fires, twinkling lights, the works.
London is closer to the second than the first, to be sure, although snow, for better or worse, is far from guaranteed. What it lacks in warm weather, however, it more than makes up for in atmosphere, specifically the sort of festive romance we’re absolute suckers for this time of year.
Whether you’re embracing the season’s various religious meanings, taking in the secular sights (the markets, the wreaths, the scarves and mittens worn by skaters on the outdoor rinks), reading up on your Scrooges and Cratchits, or simply in the mood for a Christmas roast, London’s got you covered.
It’s fair to assume that almost every neighborhood in London will be adorned with some array of twinkling lights — the festive cheer runs thick throughout the city. Major thoroughfares like Oxford and Regent streets merit a special stroll while Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square are renowned for their signature trees. The grand classic hotel Claridge’s makes an ideal, centrally located headquarters, not least for the pronounced throwback vibe about the place. This season more than any other is a time for reveling in luxuries of the most traditional variety — including the hotel’s reliably over-the-top Christmas tree tableau designed by Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz. Over in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, where Sloane Square and Harrods are perennial pulls, The Berkeley converts its roof deck into an alfresco holiday lounge and shows classic Christmas movies on an outdoor screen. For some of us, the Christmas tradition that matters most is the literary one. In Clerkenwell you’re a few streets away from Charles Dickens’s old house, now a museum, set to re-open in December after a massive renovation. Nearby is The Zetter, a sleek and stylish modern boutique hotel, but we’re sure they’ll forgive us if we say that in winter we lean towards the cozy, bohemian-luxe Zetter Townhouse.
Many of the city’s restaurants offer Christmas menus with everything from a Brazillian churrascaria to a Southern Indian thali available in seasonal form. However, for typical London fare, independently owned gastro-pubs are your best bet. Our favorite is J Sheekey, which serves some of the best seafood in the city. Located in the heart of Covent Garden, it puts you in prime position for a post-dinner walk through the area’s sparkling Christmas lights. Another top spot is the iconic Bull & Last, beloved for its old-fashioned Sunday roast. The special Christmas menu includes dishes like bronze turkey and Christmas pudding with brandy cream. For the freshest festive delicacies, head to the Real Food Christmas Market on the South Bank, which runs from December 14–16 and 20–23 and offers traditional and contemporary artisanal fare — from charcuterie and cheese to free range turkeys and geese from the Thoroughly Wild Meat Co. plus craft beer and sweets.
Throughout the season pubs all over London are generally crammed with festive cheer — not to mention the occasional corporate holiday party. These days the smart nightlife money is on Shoreditch, the Hackney Road area and Dalston, which have become increasingly accessible over the past few years. The jovial staff at Casita, an underground lair in Shoreditch, keeps spirits high on dark winter nights — not least by keeping the mulled wine and hard cider flowing. Then again there’s plenty to do at points farther west, including the fantastical Sketch, whose top-notch cocktails, fun crowd and variety of distinct spaces to hang out in make this venue one of London’s best. And hotel bars are at their best during this season as well — The Soho Hotel’s comfy Refuel bar is known for themed cocktails like last year’s twist on mulled wine.
Christmas shopping in London, while stupendous, is not without its difficulties — huge crowds, Roman-sized roads and all sorts of barriers to traveling between shopping areas. As a rule, it’s best to focus on one area that suits your tastes rather than trying to explore them all. Beyond the main hubs of Liberty, Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, which are mini shopping areas in their own right, with some of the city’s best seasonal fashion and food offerings, decorations and window displays and pop-up experiences, we tend to drift towards High Street in Kensington, with its one-off boutiques and cozy cafés. And what’s Christmas shopping without a German-style Christmas Market? The Southbank Centre Christmas Market runs from November 16 through December 24, and features vendors selling everything from traditional wooden holiday decorations to bratwurst and seasonal beers. Set beneath the London eye on the bank of the Thames, it also offers excellent views of the classic sights across the river.
Beyond all the shopping, eating and drinking, London’s festive spirit also lends itself to winter activities and family fun. For classic scenery, check out Skating at Somerset House which opens today and runs through January 6th. There’s a special “Penguin Club” for kids, and a venue for adults with club nights and DJs, plus a warm rink-side lounge and, for those who just can’t let go of the material urge, a pop-up Christmas arcade for shoppers. Perhaps London’s most celebrated Christmas event, though, is Hyde Park’s annual Winter Wonderland, an apt name; this seasonal event, which runs November 23 – January 6, is perfect for families, with holiday-themed rides and performances, plus an opportunity to meet Santa. And when the inevitable chill encroaches, the adjoining Christmas market offers classic winter warmers like mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.