In search of a charming Christmas destination? Look no farther than London. We wanted the first leg of our holiday trip to “feel like Christmas” before heading to the sunny Canary Islands, so we chose our favorite UK city. Let me tell you what: the Brits know how to celebrate the season in style. But a trip to the UK at Christmas takes a little extra planning, so I wanted to share a few things I learned about traveling during the holidays in London:
1 – Brits love the “festive season”
Here in the States, we often refer to the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as the holiday season, Christmastime, or simply “the holidays.” In London, we noticed everything was called the “festive season,” whether stores posted their “festive season” hours or restaurants had special “festive season” menus. The good news is that no matter what they call it, the Brits love the holiday season and they do it well. Speaking of which…
2 – The Christmas lights and storefronts live up to the hype
I googled and read almost every list I could about “best places to see Christmas lights in London,” but the truth is that they’re everywhere! And they did not disappoint. Whether walking through Trafalgar Square or down Oxford Street toward Selfridges, the light displays are beautiful. So don’t worry too much about missing the lights–if you’re out and about, you’re bound to see them.
The good news about the sun setting so darn early (just before 4pm!) is that there is plenty of time to see the lights all lit up. And during the precious few daylight hours, window shopping is a joy because stores pull out all the stops to entice and delight passersby with their displays.
3 – Restaurants might be closed
If food is a high priority in travel planning, you might be disappointed to find that your top choice restaurant will be closed. This is mostly an issue right at Christmas, with a majority of restaurants closing for Christmas Eve (12/24), Christmas Day (12/25), and Boxing Day (12/26). I found that some closed a few days before Christmas Eve and some were closed all the way through New Year’s. There can also be closures earlier in the month due to restaurant buyouts for holiday parties, so keep an eye on restaurant websites and social media accounts for updated holiday hours. Unfortunately, I found that most places don’t post holiday hours more than a month or so in advance (which is only a problem if you like planning way ahead like I do!).
Your best bet for finding a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day restaurant is to look for restaurants housed in hotels. We had a delightful Christmas Eve meal at the Corinthia Hotel. Keep in mind that many restaurants will have special menus at Christmas, and you might not be able to order a la carte.
4 – Transportation can be challenging
Apparently it’s widely known in the UK that there is no public transportation available in London on Christmas Day (and limited hours on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day)–including the Tube and buses–but we only found that out *after* booking a flight out of London on Christmas Day. Taxis are available, but they are 100% more (twice as expensive) than the normal fares. Uber is available and more reasonable than a taxi, but still pricey. Plan accordingly if you’re thinking about traveling to or from London December 24-26!
5 – If you want to go to a Christmas Eve service, plan ahead
If you want to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, you might consider going to a Christmas Eve service at the famed St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. If you’re interested in the former, entrance is free, but you need to get there very early. Lines wrap around the cathedral long before the services begin, and the number of people allowed inside is capped (lots of tourists like to go just for the spectacle, not only for the religious aspect). I can’t properly give advice on how early you should get there because we were some of the sad folks who waited in line only to get turned away, but I would guess you’d need to arrive at St. Paul’s well more than an hour before your desired service time.
The Christmas Eve lessons & carols service at Westminster Abbey is a ticketed event, and tickets sell out quickly. The details are released on their website in September. They also have other Advent services that open to the public, but the most popular services require booking.
Christmas in London was a very memorable part of our trip. It’s all so charming and perfectly Christmasy, and I highly recommend that you go check it out yourself if you have the chance!
We traveled as a couple in December 2017.