In the season when everything is roller-coasting around shopping it’s easy to forget Christmas is not only about spending. In fact you’d feel much happier to spend some time outdoors, see the city in festive spirit and pick up some gifts on the go. Depending on your budget bring enough to buy warm drinks and street snacks or even take some with you – there’s nothing nicer than a flask of tea and home-made fruitcake or gingerbreads to keep you going while exploring.
Christmas is not the same without the smell of a spruce tree and every year the City of London orders one from Norway to stand in the square centre. It’s a tradition that’s been going on for years and switching on the light ceremony this year is on December 5th at 6 pm (mark your calendars!). There will be speeches and carol singing on the night and every evening through December (singing, not speeches). As the open Christmas venue organised by the city this public tradition will get 10 points out of 10. Bring a hot drink, friends or family and enjoy the holiday spirit.
Walking by the Thames is nice all over the year, but during Christmas the area gets a special makeover for the season, with lights and markets popping up everywhere. Atmospheric Southbank Centre winter market is open for two months from November, bringing the buzz and light to the river. No doubt it will be busy and popular with locals and visitors alike, but if you get overwhelmed you can always step aside and enjoy the views over the river with cup of cocoa, either bought from one of the cosy looking cabins or kept warm in the home brought flask.
For the foodies Borough Market is a great destination on weekends all around the year, but in December it opens every day with seasonal food, decorations and it’s own Christmas tree. You can easily spend a fortune there, but you don’t have to. The samples are often free and if you pick up one or two food items you really liked you can either give them as gifts or have them as special treats in Christmas. Even if you really are on a budget (for example working as independent illustrator!) you can still spoil your taste puds with a doughnut or cinnamon bun from one of the vendors.
There are many ice skating spots popping up in London, but the one in Somerset House is the oldest and one of most beautiful. Even if you don’t plan to skate, you can still watch other skaters and take in the holiday vibe of the beautifully decorated square with its Christmas tree and lights. You can even have hot chocolate while’re watching, but it’s not exactly cheap and you may want to pick one up before heading to the Somerset House. If you bring your own sustainable thermo cup, it will last for longer. At the end you may decide to give a go on skates as well.
Many streets are lighting up for Christmas, but Carnaby street is special this year as all its decorations are recycled and sustainably produced. It’s called Carnaby x Project Zero and this years theme is ocean diversity. There are plenty of street lights in London, but this one is the first to be produced with zero waste from start to end. Even the energy used was renewable! Fingers crossed next year all the others will follow this initiative. When you’re done with admiring the sea creatures you could head to Chinatown and pick up some authentic street food on the go.
Although shopping in the area is one of London’s most expensive the market lights and decorations are free to see for everyone and if not exactly the place for shopping spree you can find a small gift or two. I personally would pop by at Stanfords to pick up a specialist travel book either as a present for myself or to a friend. You could even go to the British Museum later, with more than 60 free galleries there is plenty to see any time of the year. The quirky Clocks and Watches room with the display of wooden cuckoo clocks and golden pocket watches sounds especially seasonal.
There’s more in Greenwich than the Christmas market, although walking around the village and admiring decorated shop fronts could be your main activity of the day. There are plenty of priced activities and this year, for the first time, skating opens up in Royal Museums. Either if you’re skating or not you can still take in the magical vibe at the Queen’s House and watch the skaters whizzing by in their colourful hats and scarves. When you get overwhelmed by holiday buzz, find a quiet spot in the park for treats you brought from home or picked up at the market.
London’s most magnificent bridge is not less magnificent at Christmas and lighten’s up this part of the city in darker evenings. With Christmas market on one side and Tower of London on the other this area has plenty activities including ice skating next to Tower. But even just a walk along the bank in the dusk is atmospheric to see Christmas tree and seasonal art installations near the City Hall, with views over Tower Bridge in the background. You can also take a stroll over the bridge and admire winter lights from the heights. Dress warm as it can get quite nippy.
Natural History Museum
Another museum that is magical in Christmas. Not only because there’s a skate ring next to it, but in wintery light the cake like museum really looks festive. You may think Natural History Museum is about dusty skeletons and extinct species, but the truth is very far from it. The museum has many different collections and even a huge Mineralogy collection with rocks, gems, ores and even meteorites. As the dark skies are lit up during Christmas, this is an ideal time to explore the stars in close contact and add the sparkle to the day.
If you want to get lost in alternative Christmas reality then Camden Market is just the place for it. You can easily spend half a day exploring the quirky shops and stalls in the depths of Camden and if you get tired, pick up some food from the diverse food outlets to eat on the canal side. Even if you don’t find anything to buy (although there’s plenty of funky and weird stuff), you’ll still have festive time with live music, seasonal food and decorations livening up one of the oldest street markets in London.
With street markets, skating rings and lights there’s plenty to explore this season. And while you are walking keep an eye out for real spruce trees as well, growing in local parks and on the streets. With all the pimped up trees across the city, there is nothing more beautiful than a real thing.
Christmas is open. Get outdoors and enjoy the season! 🌲