London lights up at Christmas — literally. While the weather is frequently gloomy (and alas, there’s rarely snow), festive lights, glittering shop displays and the warm, welcoming glow of pubs and restaurants make this a wonderful time to be in the British capital.
The brightest lights are in the West End; to be sure, a stroll around the center of London in December can implant festive spirit in even the most Scroogelike of hearts.
Start on Oxford Street, the city’s premier shopping thoroughfare, which is lit up by Christmas lights from late November until early January. Look for 27 “light curtains,” spaced out along the 1.2-mile-long street, made up of 220,000 individual lights.
Many of the most dazzling Christmas shop displays are here, too, particularly at Selfridges, widely regarded as the city’s best: The store features themed annual displays, including one based on famous fairy tales.
Next, stroll toward Regent Street where you’ll find “Spirit of Christmas” angel-shaped lights plus Hamley’s, the city’s most famous toy shop and the object of every young Londoner’s desire at this time of year.
Carnaby Street, just a few yards away, tends to have more left-field illuminations: A sea-life theme will take over the street for this festive period, having been produced alongside conservation charity Project Zero.
Mischievous, pleasure-focused Soho is rather less regimented than the great shopping boulevards, but it still buzzes with pre-holiday excitement.
At this point in your holiday crawl, you might need sustenance. Restaurants roll out special menus — try The Duck and Rice for its dim sum extravaganza if you’re planning to regulate your turkey intake — and pubs, festooned with festive decorations, bulge with bonhomie. For the best beer, head for The Lyric Soho, or try The Harp in nearby Covent Garden.
Leicester Square, to the south of Soho, hosts a Christmas Market each year; walk over and drop in to see Santa in his grotto, or pick up ornate Christmas decorations at one of the many stalls. W London, just a few yards away, is a great base for those keen to explore the market and beyond.
The property transforms into a winter wonderland during the holiday season, thanks to futuristic decorations with a festive twist designed in collaboration with fashion visionary and artist, Jack Irving — known for dressing stars like Lady Gaga, the Spice Girls and more.
In nearby Covent Garden, the Piazza surrenders itself to a huge reindeer sculpture, a dazzling Christmas tree and thousands of twinkling lights. At the London Transport Museum, to the southeast of the Piazza, kids can search for Santa amid the historic buses, trams and tube trains.
London’s theater district comes alive with holiday joie-de-vivre at this time of year, with everything from traditional pantomimes to special productions of children’s favorites. Nothing, though, is more enjoyable than The Nutcracker, a ballet traditionally produced during Christmastime; try to catch the English National Opera’s version at the Colosseum, on St. Martin’s Lane, from mid-December until early January.
There are lots of Christmas trees in the capital at this time of year, but the most famous is in Trafalgar Square, just yards from St. Martin’s Lane. This tree is a gift from Norway, given since 1947 to show gratitude for Britain’s support during the Second World War. It is always 65 feet tall and decorated in the traditional Norwegian style, with vertical strings of lights.
As you wrap up your holiday, there’s just one thing left to do: Belt out a few Christmas carols. You can either stay by the Trafalgar Square tree, where carol-singing takes place from December 9 until Christmas Eve (4 p.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekends), or stroll over to St Martin in the Fields for a classic concert. There are concerts scheduled throughout the festive period at this magnificent 18th-century church.