Ever dream of spending a magical Christmas in London? We got the chance this past Christmas when our New Years plans hit a snag. You see, we were very excited about booking a New Year’s trip to Edinburgh to experience Hogmanay. Wanting to ensure we did not miss out on festival tickets, we bought tickets before securing airfare. After realizing it was not within our budget to fly into Edinburgh from our hometown, we began looking into alternatives. Luckily, we found a fantastic airfare deal that had us landing in London on Christmas Eve!
Since London was a last minute add on, we did not have much time for pre-planning. We knew we wanted to stay for a few days to give us time to take in the sites, lights and sounds of a quieter time in London. We secured a hotel at the best place we could find at a reasonable price, which happened to be just outside the usual tourist areas. We did not book Christmas Lunch reservations in advance. Although, this made us a bit apprehensive, these few days turned into some of our favorite Christmas memories. If you have yet to experience Christmas in London, we hope we can provide you with some insight and suggestions to assist you plan your next Christmas in this magical city.
Where should I stay?
We started the search for lodging immediately. The best deals we found were in Westminster, so we chose to stay at DoubleTree by Hilton London – Westminster. Although we enjoyed the hotel, there were very few businesses open during Christmas and the days after. Although we found this a bit disappointing, it encouraged us to explore other areas where we could find more dining choices. During our walk, we found quite a few areas that had better options for tourists: Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Covenant Garden and Piccadilly Circus. Of course, if you have your own mode of transportation, do not mind paying cab fare, or walking, your lodging choices are limitless.
Transportation options from Heathrow to London?
We noticed from Twitter that people were surprised at the lack of public transportation available from Heathrow to London during the holidays. The Heathrow Express Train that runs to the city does not run on Christmas Day. Some years there is bus service offered in its place. Use the Transportation for London website for the latest schedules. If you do not rent a car or book transportation in advance, be prepared to pay between £70 and £75 in taxi fare from Heathrow to the city hotels.
Transportation options in the city?
The London Underground does not run from late Christmas Eve through Christmas Day. It does run on 26 December, Boxing Day, with a reduced schedule. Several lines can have construction with limited service through early January. Verify schedules Transportation for London.
Taxis and Uber are both readily available. We only took cabs when under time constraints as there was a £4 holiday surcharge added to every fare. Bike share services proved to be a popular option based on the number of people we saw on bikes and the empty bike racks around the city. Otherwise, London is a walkable city and we walked practically everywhere we went.
Is Christmas Lunch/Dinner Hard to Find?
For Christmas Day dining, making advanced reservations, or staying in a hotel with a full-service restaurant is the surest bet. If you are searching for food on your own, as we did, we found heading to Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral areas in the early afternoon to be a good option as they had pubs open for lunch service. Other sure bets are the Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden areas where restaurants were open late. We did not manage to find a Starbucks or a Pret a Manger open, although we were told by several people that they would in fact be open. Therefore, for mid-day snacks and drinks, we visited several family owned stores that were open and a street vendor at Westminster Pier.
More restaurants open on Boxing Day, the 26th, though many in less touristy areas remained closed, sometimes through early January.
What Activites are Available?
On Christmas Eve, there are Christmas markets to visit, performances and church services to attend. Although, we had wanted to go to midnight mass at Westminster Abbey, we did not get tickets, which are made available each November. There are also popular services at St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Martin’s-in-the-Field !
We ultimately decided to forgo services and instead attend a performance of “Carols by Candelight”, which was fantastically fun. Performance dates and info can be founds here: Royal Albert Hall. It was there we discovered just how much Londoners enjoy the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which had us reminiscing of our caroling days.
On Christmas Day, take advantage of the fairly empty streets and closed businesses to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. Walk through the various historic neighborhoods, take in the historic statues and buildings and take in those famous and magical Christmas lights.
If you are looking for a more formal tour, check out London Walks. They have 2 walks on Christmas Day that meet in Trafalgar Square. If you are looking for a museum to visit, Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Piccadilly Circus is open on Christmas Day.
December 26, Boxing Day, is a big sales and shopping day. Most major stores are open offering sales on everything from the high end brands on Bond Street to the bargains that can be found on Tottenham Court Road. There are also a few Christmas Markets open and a few West End shows. We chose to attend the Nutcracker with the English National Ballet which was the perfect choice! It was the highlight of our trip. The costuming and dance talent is some of the best in the world.
We lucked into fantastic weather this year and did not let the drizzle keep us inside. We enjoyed our few days so much, that we know we just have to come back for another Christmas. Have you ever spent Christmas in London? If so, do you have any tips to share?