What's Free In London Over The Holidays - My Family Travels

While spending money during Christmas seems the thing to do; London England actually offers great traditional family activities that come at the best price: free. The city that inspired Dickens’s holiday classic "A Christmas Carol" is simply magical at the holidays: the air is crisp and filled with the smell of chestnuts roasting, the pubs often have open fires, and there are shimmering lights and window decorations on display everywhere.

London, cheap? Well, with hotels priced at their lowest-season rates and business travelers flying home for the holidays, the Christmas-New Year's period is one of the best value times to visit London.

And while your family doesn’t have to be rich to enjoy the sights and sounds of the traditional London Christmas, it helps — the city’s reputation as one of the most expensive in the world is not exaggerated. Yet you can experience many of season’s wonders without paying for the privilege.

Here are some cherished customs and festivities to partake in during your London family vacation that dear old Scrooge would have approved of.

Christmas Lights Switching On Ceremonies

London’s Christmas lights are world famous and the switching-on ceremonies are popular public events, often attended by celebrities. All through the season (November to mid-January) they are beautiful to see.

Regent Street Christmas Lights: The festive season in London typically starts in the first two weeks in November along Regent Street, with the ceremony of switching on the world famous Regent Street Christmas lights. The lighting is often themed to popular events such as a movie release, so that you're guaranteed it will be a different display each year.  The season’s biggest free street party includes a series of live acts before the official switch-on at nightfall. Around 10,000 revelers attend each year.
Nearest Station: Piccadilly Circus Tube.

Oxford Street Christmas Lights: Around the start of November, a chosen celebrity switches on the Christmas lights on the Oxford Street, the world’s most famous shopping street.
Nearest Station: Oxford Circus Tube

Carnaby’s Christmas Lights: Carnaby Street, world famous for its music heritage, collaborated with The Rolling Stones in celebration of their 50th Anniversary for the 2012 Christmas light installation, as you can see above. Huge 3D spheres containing gold and silver vinyl records, plus the famous Rolling Stones' tongue logo, can be seen throughout displays that tell the band and the street's story from the 1960s to the present day.
Nearest Station: Oxford Circus Tube

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree, symbol of the Victorian family-centered Christmas tradition, was popularized by Prince Albert, who introduced one from his native Germany in 1840. A tree given annually since 1947 by the city of Oslo, Norway as an expression of gratitude for Britain’s help in World War II, is erected in Trafalgar Square. Dates are usually early December to just after the New Year in January; there are regular carol concerts (from 5-9 pm) around the tree until December 23.  And New Year's Eve is a big, free celebration in the Square as well.  For more information, call 020/7983 4750.
Nearest Station: Charing Cross Tube/Rail

Reindeer Petting

From late November to Christmas Eve, reindeer are trotted in (flown?) to a pen in the Covent Garden Piazza so that amidst all the shopping, families may pause to feed and pet them in their corral.  It can be quite the photo op! However, there's a fine line between animal appreciation and abuse so this unusual event may not suit every family's tastes. If you go on a Thursday or Saturday you can catch a mini-cultural performance held in St Martin's Courtyard–including traditional Christmas carols, opera, award-winning gospel music, Bollywood dancing, and a Mexican mariachi band.
Nearest Station: Covent Garden

Christmas Windows & Special Shops

The best holiday windows are in the West End on Regent Street — check out Hamleys and Liberty. On Oxford Street, it’s hard to beat Selfridges. And of course, there's Harrods in Knightsbridge.
Nearest Station: Ask at your hotel for the closest tube stops.

The newly renovated Savoy Hotel, now a Fairmont, has been restored to its Art Deco glory.  Families can stop by at no cost and admire the Lalique deco fountain in the refreshed Savoy Court entrance, tour the small collection of memorabilia at the Savoy Museum, then drop by the Savoy Tea shop to watch the pastry chefs and chocolatiers work on the holiday confections being sold there. Save your farthings for a High Tea in the Savoy Grill, now run by Gordon Ramsay.
Nearest Station: Charing Cross

Christmas Morning Race

Join the bemused crowd to cheer the rugged types taking to the cold water in Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake, as they race over 100 yards for the Peter Pan Cup. This traditional event, founded by “Peter Pan” author James M. Barrie, has taken place every Christmas since 1864. It typically starts at 9:00 am.
Nearest Station: Hyde Park Corner Tube

Favorite Museums for Christmas

The Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, just minutes outside the city, is one of London's best-loved museums, and it's always free. This collection of home interiors from 1660 to the present is showcased in immaculately furnished period rooms. As it has for many years, the museum features "Christmas Past" in 11 different periods by furnishing these rooms with traditional games and pastimes, holiday reading, mistletoe, wreaths, family feasts and popular entertainment themes.
Nearest Station: Liverpool Street, then bus 149 or 242

Horniman Public Museum and Public Park Trust is located in South London but near enough by rail to be a fun day trip. This is a small, private natural history museum and estate with its own aquarium, landscaped gardens, and a taxidermy collection that is guaranteed to teach the kids about wildlife.
Nearest Station: Take train to Forest Hills from London Bridge, London Victoria or Clapham Junction stations, or buses 176, 185, 197, 356 and P4.

The Best London Holiday Church Services

London has thousands of churches and many are architectural gems. Christmas is the time when churches welcome back those Londoners who haven’t crossed their threshold since last Christmas. They go to sing along with their favorite carols, to be uplifted by heavenly music, or just to be part of the festivities.

Wondering which congregation to join? Here’s a selection of the most joyful, well-attended services.

Advent Sunday Carol Service, St Martin-in-the-Fields
Celebrate the start of advent on Trafalgar Square, at this famous service: the Sung Eucharist, when the first candle is lit, is held at 10:00 am followed by the Advent Carol Service at 6:30 pm. This church is one of the best venues for smaller concerts in the country and has a reputation for top quality music. In the past the church played host to many famous musicians including Handel and Mozart.  Advent, the season of preparation for Christ’s coming, begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day.
Nearest Station: Charing Cross Tube/Rail

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St Martin-in-the-Fields
Steep yourself in the glory and magic of traditional Christmas. The famous church is a short walk from the Trafalgar Square and is the perfect place for a fitting finale to a festive season.
Nearest Station: Charing Cross Tube/Rail

Christmas Eve at Westminster Abbey
This historic annual service is a simple celebration of Christmas’s religious message. The awe-inspiring surroundings of the Abbey provide the perfect backdrop for a classical evening of carols starting at 4:00 pm (free ticket must be obtained beforehand). Christmas Eve services are rather late, though–typically from 11:30 pm; for more information call 020/7222 5152 or visit their website.
Nearest Station: Westminster Tube

Christmas Services at St Bartholomew-the-Great
There are more than 35 churches in the city of London, and though each is worthy of a visit the city’s oldest, active parish church tucked away behind St Bartholomew’s hospital is well known for the high standard of its music. For their annual Christmas program, call 020/7606 5171 or visit their website.
Nearest Station: Barbican/St Paul’s Tube

Trip Planning Details for your Free London Winter Break

For a complete listing of public events and holiday discounts, check out the City of London Tourism office.

Note: It's sort of free, and it's great fun: the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland is an outdoor amusement zone in Hyde Park that includes ice and snow sculptures, a skating rink, Christmas markets, the Zippos Circus and a Bavarian Village that emulates German Christmas markets by serving bratwurst and mulled wine. Entry is free for all, but it will be hard to resist your kids' requests to pay for rides, restaurants and shops.

It's not free, but the London Pass is a great way to save on local sightseeing, as most of the city's small off-beat museums are included in a one-price admission booklet.

Photo courtesy wikipedia.org

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