Christmas in London is magical. The dark evenings, twinkling lights, window displays and festive music as we scuttle from shop to shop, darting in and out of cosy bars and restaurants for pick-me-ups with stylishly wrapped parcels under our arms.
Of course it’s not always like this. Christmas shops open in September, there are gaudy decorations everywhere and every shop seems to scream at you to buy things you neither want nor need. And then there is the hell on Earth that is Oxford Street on a Saturday in December, and the Winter Wonderland at anytime at all.
But it is entirely possible to navigate the run-up to Christmas in a quieter, more considered, more elegant way. You can turn a blind eye to the rampant consumerism and savour each perfect moment of this most atmospheric time of year. This does require some planning, with the best events getting booked up far in advance. But there is time to make this Christmas wonderful and here is how.
Get your skates on
It’s been a very long time since Londoners could skate on the frozen surface of the Thames, and until that happens again we will have to make do with ice rinks. Nowadays there are a lot of rinks in London and though the Natural History Museum rink may be the most Instagrammable, Somerset House is my favourite.
With proper ice, proper music, and a forty foot tree adorned with gigantic baubles, all set against the backdrop of Sir William Chambers’ 1776 Neoclassical building, Skate at Somerset House is a magical experience. There’s even a Fortnum & Mason lodge for your post-skate hot chocolate and fondue, and a Fortnum’s Christmas Arcade for you to sneak in a little present shopping whilst you are there.
There is even skating for wheelchairs users and this year, to celebrate twenty years of skating at Somerset House, the rink is staying open for twenty four hours on the night of the 7th December so you can skate during the wee hours. Now is the time to book.
Or your ballet shoes
Going to the ballet at the Royal Opera House is one of the most glamorous things you can do in London, and losing yourself in a fairytale is one of the easiest ways to make the festive period feel more enchanting. So dress up, drink champagne in the interval and head to the Delaunay for a late dinner afterwards.
This year it’s Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty at the ROH, and the tickets are selling fast. The two performances right before Christmas are already sold out but you can book for one of the other performances here.
At Sadler’s Wells you can see The Snowman, Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes and The Little Match Girl.
Attend a carol service
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without carols, and one of the great things about living in London is that you can have the very best of everything and this includes carol services in some of the world’s most magnificent ecclesiastical buildings.
The Advent service at Westminster Abbey is sold out already – unless you’re happy to have an unallocated seat without a view – but there are still tickets for a variety of wonderful services at St Paul’s. I rather fancy Sankta Lucia, the Swedish Christmas Service this year. There are also tickets for one of the two Christmas concerts at Westminster Cathedral and there are a few options for carol concerts at the lovely St Martin-in-the-Fields, including one aimed at weary Saturday afternoon shoppers.
Visit a gallery
If you fancy a bit of cultural inspiration, there is a wonderful exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition explores the unsung contributions of twelve women to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. One of the women celebrated is Christina Rossetti, who of course wrote ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and that’s about as atmospheric a poem as one could read in December. I’d highly recommend following your visit with lunch at the fantastic Portrait restaurant: the restaurant has one of the best rooftop views in London and the food is excellent.
Visit the Christmas Past
The Inns of Court are inextricably linked with Dickens and therefore are a pretty Christmassy place to head for. On Saturdays until the New Year you can wander the rooms of Sir John Soane’s Museum by candlelight which is a wonderfully enriching way to forget the modern world exists.
Alternatively, an evening visit to the Dickens’ Museum to see Dickens’ house decorated for Christmas as it would have been when he lived there is a great way to absorb yourself in some Victorian elegance. The tickets go on sale on 1st November (this week!) and always sell out fast so you will need to be on top of that one.
And then there is Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. I have a love/hate relationship with 18 Folegate Street; I find it creepy and uncomfortable, but I also find myself returning year after year and now it’s as much a part of Christmas for me as going to see the tree outside the Connaught. If you’ve never been, you absolutely should as it’s fantastically atmospheric in the early evening by candlelight, and the Victorian Christmas room is an interesting contrast to the ones at the Dickens Museum. Christmas there starts on 24th November and, again, tickets go quickly.
Head to Columbia Road
On Wednesday evenings in November and December the world famous flower market is packed nearly away and the wonderful independent shops that line this pretty East End street open late. As well as shopping, there is music, alcohol and food, and what’s not to love about that. Last year carol singers from St Peter’s Bethnal Green wheeled an upright piano out onto Columbia Road and lead an alfresco singalong and I can’t think of many things more Christmassy than that.
They’ve not released the dates yet but you can follow them on Twitter to find out. It’s a really lovely atmosphere, it’s relaxed, happy and a real antidote to the craziness and commercialism of Oxford Street. It’s also the most enjoyable place in London to buy your Christmas tree.
Take a stroll around Mayfair
It’s no surprise that London’s most expensive jewellery stores put on some of the best window displays in December, and Mayfair at Christmas is probably the prettiest part of London to head to. It has three of the best Christmas trees (Berkeley Square, Claridges and Mount Street) and some of the best bars for glamorous Christmas cocktails, including The Connaught and Claridges.
If you’d like to take this walk in company, on Saturday 7th December, I am hosting a special Saturday afternoon walk designed to take in the best of the twinkling Christmas lights and the wonderful window displays of Mayfair and Piccadilly. It’s hugely atmospheric and designed to make you feel as festive as you possibly can. Our walk ends with a cocktail in a glamorous hotel were we can toast this wonderful season with new friends. You can book a place here.
Take in some fresh air
I adore St James’s Park at Christmas. This pretty park in the centre of London has been the filming location for feelgood films such as 101 Dalmations and I have always found it the most romantic of all the parks at this time of year. A walk from Piccadilly Circus or Green Park to Westminster will allow you to bid a happy Christmas to a pelican and to the Queen, and stop at Inn the Park for a hot chocolate along the way. My St James’s Walk makes the most of this park and the surrounding streets. You can download the walk for free here.
Or just go shopping
Shopping for Christmas presents can be a tiring and miserable affair. Personally, I try to do it mostly in one go with a smash and grab at Selfridges (which is very Christmassy if you can cope with the high-octane nature of it and the thumping music), followed by a more leisurely time at Liberty, and then a trip to Piccadilly and St James for edibles from Paxton & Whitfield, smellies from Santa Maria Novella, books from Hatchards and sugary things from Fortnum & Mason. There are a whole host of other great old world shops in St James and Piccadilly and it’s entirely possible to take as much pleasure in buying presents as it is in giving them.
And find a restaurant to dive into
This special time of year calls for special restaurants and special meals. One of my favourite ways to top off a Thursday evening of late night shopping is with an impromptu dinner at Pollen Street Social. It’s in the middle of the best shops for Christmas shopping and they do a phenomenal Clover Club, which is much needed by then. If you love Indian food then Bombay Bustle is also perfectly placed and the glamorous, cosy interior and incredible food will warm you up and revive you after a marathon present buying session.
Another really lovely Christmassy restaurant to head to is Odette’s in Primrose Hill (possibly my favourite London restaurant). It makes for a pretty perfect evening to put on your mittens and climb to the top of the hill to sit on a bench and gaze down on our wonderful city until your nose freezes. After this you can scamper down the hill and dive into the candle interior of the restaurant to warm up afterwards.
I also love The Ivy for a once-a-year lunch on the day after my husband finishes work for the year. With its dark, hushed interior it’s the perfect place for a long, lazy lunch with champagne to mark the end of the run-up to Christmas and see in the start of the holiday itself.
Stock up on food at Borough Market
Borough Market is wonderful at Christmas. There are all sorts of Christmas culinary treats on offer and it’s a visual treat. I love the indoors/outdoors vibe, you can wrap up warm but not freeze your fingertips off. I can’t help but think of Bridget Jones when I’m here (it’s where her flat was in the first film) and as that’s my favourite Christmas film it conspires to make me feel very Christmassy indeed. Dive into Monmouth Coffee for an espresso to keep you going, and finish your trip with plates and plates of ridiculously affordable pasta and wine at the magnificent Padella.
Attend a Christmas party
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas party, and this year I am hosting the first ever Bleak House Christmas party! You’ve probably worked out by now that Mayfair is one of my favourite places to be in December and so I am hosting the party at the wonderful Thomas’s at Burberry. And so if you work at home alone and have no party to go to, wouldn’t be seen dead at the one on offer, or who just believe the more parties the better, then do come along, I’d love to see you. You can book a place here.
Next week we take possession of a dilapidated, neglected Victorian terraced house in North London and so begins a six month renovation project, during which we will be moving to the country.
Christmas shopping in London can be an enjoyable and fun adventure, far removed from the stressful crowds of Westfield or Oxford Street. Here are my favourite destinations.