While spending money during Christmas seems the thing to do, there’s a lot to do free in London England. Yes, London 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.
Inhale the crisp air and savor the smell of chestnuts roasting. Stroll by pubs with open fires. Take family portraits among the shimmering lights and window decorations on display everywhere.
Used to be that your family had to be rich to enjoy the sights and sounds of the traditional London Christmas. Now, we find the Christmas-New Year’s period is one of the best value times to visit London. Well, with the Great British Pound trading at its lowest in years, and the hotels’ typically low-season rates, this winter is the time to go.
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 Ceremonies Are Free in London
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. More than 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 is world famous for its music heritage and the 14-block area for its cool style. Catch a mix of their holiday displays from the past 25 years in this year’s homage to vintage Christmas. Look for nods to tropical venues, the Rolling Stones, Queen lyrics and more.
Nearest Station: Oxford Circus Tube
Free Trafalgar Square & Covent Garden Displays
The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, symbol of the Victorian family-centered Christmas tradition, was popularized by Prince Albert, who introduced one from his native Germany in 1840. Visit the tree, given annually since 1947 by Norway, and contemplate the Norwegians’ gratitude for Britain’s help in World War II.
Join Trafalgar Square Christmas carolers from Dec. 5-23 during the weeks prior to Chrismas. Although the tree is installed Dec. 1, it is usually illuminated with hundreds of lights and garlands the following week. 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
From early November to just after New Year’s Day, the Covent Garden Piazza is hte site of Christmas festivities and events. Covent Garden’s open air, pedestrian-only plaza ticks all the right pandemic-era boxes. Despite the crowds, safely enjoy all the shop windows, heated terraces with cafes and an ever-changing schedule of free entertainment. Go on a Thursday evening to catch the London International Gospel Choir. Covent Garden, known for its elaborate decorations and busy Christmas Market, also serves a very popular mulled wine.
Nearest Station: Covent Garden
Christmas Windows & Special Free in London Events
The best holiday windows are savored for free in London. Explore 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 elegant Savoy Hotel, now a Fairmont Hotel, has been restored to its Art Deco glory. Families can stop by at no cost and admire the Lalique deco fountain in the Savoy Court entrance and tour the small collection of memorabilia at the Savoy Museum.
Nearest Station: Charing Cross
Save up for afternoon tea at the historic Hotel Cafe Royale. Imagine sittting where the likes of Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Princess Dianna and other British A-Listers once did. And if you stay the night, know that on Christmas Eve, guests will get the chance to spend time with real reindeers.
Nearest Station: Regent Street / St. James
The Southbank Centre features a beautifully illuminated streetscape, Winter Light, from early November to early January. Families love visiting the free Winter Market, a Christmas Market that operates till Boxing Day (Dec. 26). Shop for artisanal crafts, hot and cold beverages, baked goods and traditional gift items.
Nearest Stations: Waterloo, Waterloo East, Charing Cross and Blackfriars.
A Christmas Morning Swimming Race. Yes, it’s free.
Join the bemused crowd to cheer the rugged types taking to the cold water in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake. Race swim more than 100 yards in the very cold lake for the Peter Pan Cup. This traditional event, named for the “Peter Pan” author James M. Barrie, has taken place every Christmas since 1864. Check with the Serpentine Club if you must join in; it typically starts at 9:00 am. Boxing Day.
Nearest Station: Hyde Park Corner Tube
Favorite Small Museums at Christmas
The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Shoreditch is one of London’s best-loved museums. Admission is always free and it’s just minutes outside the center city. 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 different periods. From late October to the end of January, examine the furnished period rooms with traditional games and pastimes, enjoy holiday readings, mistletoe, wreaths, family feasts and popular entertainment.
Nearest Station: Hoxton Station, London Overground
Horniman Museum and Gardens is located in South London, near enough by the Overground to be a fun day trip. This is an unsual, small museum and estate with its own natural history exhibits and landscaped gardens. The taxidermy collection alone is guaranteed to teach the kids about wildlife. Note there is a charge to visit the Aquarium, Butterfly House and some special events and exhibitions. Happily, the museum was awarded Art Fund Museum of the Year for its outreach to different communities and focus on the environment.
Nearest Station: Take train to Forest Hills from London Bridge, London Victoria or Clapham Junction stations.
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.
Go to sing along with favorite carols, to be uplifted by heavenly music, or just to be part of the festivities. Among the most joyful, well-attended services are those at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster Abbey and St Bartholomew-the-Great — London’s oldest parish church. While services are free, you will have to book ahead for the most popular ones.
Trip Planning Details for A Free in London Winter Break
For a complete listing of public events and holiday discounts, check out the City of London Tourism office. If you have time for a daytrip or overnight adventure, do check out the UK’s Top Christmas Markets.
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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