How to Do London Right at the Holidays

Conde Nast Traveler

London is a beautiful city during the holiday season. To make your winter trip perfect, we've rounded up the classic sights and events you don't want to miss, plus the local favorites to hit before and after.

Christmas Windows at Fortnum & Mason

Photograph courtesy of Fortnum and Mason

Photograph courtesy of Fortnum and Mason

You can’t spend the festive period in London without checking out the elaborate window displays of Fortnum & Mason, the city's grocery store with a royal warrant (meaning it supplies the royal household). The theme this year is "Where Dreams Come True." But don't just ogle the exterior, head inside to stock up on Fortnum’s Christmas pudding and rum butter, and peruse the store’s famous Christmas hampers—they predict 100,000 will be sent this year. (181 Piccadilly; 44-845-300-1707)

…and while you’re there

Check every last person off your gift list at Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop, a couple of doors down from Fortnum’s on Piccadilly. As well as new releases, you’ll find all the English literary classics and a particularly alluring poetry section. (187 Picadilly; 44-20-7439-9921)

Dukes Hotel’s famous afternoon tea takes on festive flavors during the month of December, featuring smoked salmon and turkey and cranberry open sandwiches and Clementine meringue pies among the treats—plus your choice of cuppa and a glass of Champagne. (St. James's Place; 44-20-7491-4840)

Ice Skating at Somerset House

Somerset House. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

Somerset House. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

There are few more dramatic ice-skating backdrops than grand, neo-classical Somerset House, and it’s a great activity for the whole family, with lessons for youngsters and DJs spinning a glide-friendly soundtrack after dark. On Glad Tidings Tuesdays, mince pies, mulled wine and toffee apples are served rink-side and there’s a pop-up mini mall with gift-friendly British brands including Crabtree & Evelyn and Brora. (Strand; 44-20-7845-4600; through January 5)

…and while you’re there

One Aldwych, just seconds from Somerset House, is screening a series of Christmas flicks in its luxe, leather-seat cinema this December. The ticket price includes a glass of Champagne and a meal at the hotel's Indigo restaurant; choose between White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. (One Aldwych; 44-20-7300-1000)

Christmas isn’t Christmas in England without a few mince pies—pastry shells filled with a sweet mixture of fruits, suet and spices. Konditor & Cook has won numerous Best Mince Pies accolades and has six locations in London. (various locations; 44-20-7633-3333)

Carols at St Martins-in-the-Fields

St Martins-in-the-Fields. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

St Martins-in-the-Fields. Photograph via Conde Nast Traveler

There’s a Christmas concert or carol service of some description just about every night from the end of November until New Year’s Eve at St Martin-in-the-Fields church, on the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square. Highlights include Handel's Messiah by candlelight on December 21, and Carols for Christmas by Candlelight the following day. Bring a limber pair of lungs—this is not a spectator occasion. (Trafalgar Square; 44-20-7766-1100)

…and while you’re there

Admire the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree, London’s answer to Rockefeller Center's, which has sailed all the way from Norway since 1947. The lights go on December 5, and there’ll be carol singing under its boughs every afternoon from December 9 through 22. Have a gander at the new 4th Plinth sculpture on Trafalgar Square, too.

Thanks to mulled wine, apple cider, and a 32-foot topiary reindeer this year—not to mention some of the best shopping in town—Covent Garden, a short stroll from St Martin’s, is a great place to spend a merry couple of hours.

Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre

This preposterously successful musical-theater adaptation of British author Roald Dahl’s bestseller, about a young girl with magical powers and her nitwitted parents, has had rave reviews since it opened in 2010 and makes a great alternative to the usual children’s Christmas pantomime. (Cambridge Theatre; 44-844-412-4652)

…and while you’re there

The Christmas shop at Liberty, every discerning Londoner’s favorite department store, is the place to find quintessentially English tree decorations that you’ll want to use year after year. And don’t forget the Christmas crackers—they come in Liberty print. (Regent St.; 44-20-7734-1234)

You can’t beat the atmosphere of a Soho pub in December for Christmas cheer, particularly as the holiday draws near (most London offices close between Christmas and New Year). You’ll find plenty of demob happy media industry types at the Shaston Arms (4-6 Ganton St; 44-20-7287-2631) and the Sun & 13 Cantons. (21 Great Pulteney St; 77-20-7734-0934)

Meet Santa at the London Zoo

At London Zoo’s Claus encounter, the kids don’t only get to meet Santa, they get to shake paws with his reindeer, too. Your brood can also help out preparing treats for the other zoo animals, listen to story time with Mother Christmas, and decorate gingerbread men. (Regent’s Park, 44-844-225-1826)

…and while you’re there

Primrose Hill’s annual Christmas Street Fair attracts a staggering number of celebs—Alexa Chung, Kate Moss, and Pixie Geldof have all rocked up in past years. Dust off your fake fur and join them in Regent’s Park Road on December 1 this year.

A Winter Wonderland bonanza is hitting Hyde Park again this year—there’ll be ice sculptures, an ice rink, rides, a circus, a Bavarian village, and much more. (Hyde Park; through January 5)

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