London is one of the few cities in the world where cold, snow and sleet actually enhance your visit. The city is never as atmospheric (and uncrowded) as it is around the holidays.
From misty cobblestone streets by the wharves to tony townhouses clustered around well-planned parks to the industrial-chic of the East End, the city unfurls Instagram-worthy scenes at most every turn. When you visit London in December, you will experience the big, bustling, international city transform itself into a quaint and charming English village.
Here are a few of London’s most quintessential spots to visit over the holiday season:
The Georgian Restaurant on the fourth floor of luxe department story Harrods, which has been open since 1913, is the epitome of London elegance. Plan for afternoon tea and treat yourself to classic scones, clotted cream and strawberries served with a Pimm’s syrup. Afterwards, take time to explore the store itself, which is never more marvelous than during the holidays, and don’t leave without making a pilgrimage to the food court to pick up some traditional holiday treats, like a sticky Christmas pudding.
Head to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland (from late November through Christmas), where you’ll see the largest ice rink in the U.K. paired with a Ferris wheel, fairgrounds and a Euro-style holiday village with more than 200 stalls selling artisan gifts. This is a chance to mingle with locals, who chug gluehwein (mulled wine) while ticking off their gift lists. After dark, thousands of white lights emerge from the darkness, casting a dramatic glow.
Bed down across the street at the InterContinental London Park Lane in the prestigious neighborhood of Mayfair that has the best views of Hyde Park. Here you can do as Brits do and have Christmas lunch at celeb chef Theo Randall’s place, one of the city’s best restaurants, for classic English fare like hearty roasts and mince meat pies. The hotel is a 10-minute walk from Buckingham Place, so duck into the gift shop, which sells high-end knickknacks like ceramic tree ornaments, which, as promised, are “inspired by the Queen’s own collection.”
London has some of the best museums in the world. Don’t skip the Victoria & Albert Museum that showcases everything from contemporary fashion to medieval altarpieces and the Tate Modern, which houses modern masters like Matisse and Magritte. However, The Sherlock Holmes Museum is a London-only experience, which offers fans of the mystery series a chance to step through the doors of 221B Baker Street, where fictional Holmes and Dr. Watson lived. Navigating Holmes’ study and Watson’s bedroom is an immersion into Victoriana.
Of course, like many big cities, Christmas carols are a staple of city life from churches to school steps to street corners. But, if you time your visit right, you may just have the best caroling experience of your life at Westminster Abbey. Christmas concerts inside this iconic church are free, but you need to reserve in advance.
It’s near impossible to conjure an image of London that doesn’t involved Dickens, thanks to his novel A Christmas Carol. You can pay homage to the writer at many a pub, but the 16th century Spaniards Inn on the cusp of Hampstead Heath is the real deal. It even makes an appearance in his book, The Pickwick Papers. Enter beneath a flickering lantern into the whitewashed building to claim a seat in a cozy room with a low ceiling, where you can order a pint and classic fish and chips.
Holiday lights in recent years have become one of London’s biggest draws. Wander along Regent Street for the most artistic (with 3-D moving images), Covent Garden for the most extravagant and family-friendly (i.e. a 22-foot reindeer is a focal point) and Oxford Street (where the city actually closes off the street to traffic) for the most fashionable.
Perhaps, the very best way to experience London during the holidays is to simply stroll the streets, hugging your jacket tightly, cradling a scarf around your neck and just wandering. The city is frosted with a dreamy haze. The high roads and the quiet alleys, the grandeur and the humble thatched roofs marry to impart a sense of tradition, yes, but also of wonder. If the holiday season is about cloaking oneself with the spirit of magic, London is the ideal place to do it.
When you visit London in December, you will experience the big, bustling, international city transform itself into a quaint and charming English village.