There’s nothing quite like celebrating the holidays in Europe. Mulled wine, seasonal markets, dried fruit, roasted chestnuts, and peppier spirits fill not just major tourist areas, but entire towns and cities, too. I had the pleasure of spending some time in England this holiday season, and nothing compares to those festive vibes. (Sorry, N.Y.C.)
Winter Activities in the London Area
If that’s not enough to convince you to cross the pond during the holiday season, here are 10 of the best winter activities to try in and around London when you visit during the winter.
(Window) Shop on London’s Famous Streets and Department Stores
There’s just something about the holiday spirit in London that makes it one of the best places in the world to visit in winter. Every street, shop, restaurant, and bar has some sort of interior and exterior decorations to get you in the spirit—so much so that you can’t help but smile. Famous department stores to window shop include Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Selfridges, and Liberty. You could spend hours gazing at designer shops on Bond Street, Regent Street, Oxford Street, Covent Garden, and Carnaby Street, too.
Where to Stay: Brown’s Hotel, located near Bond Street, offers a luxury holiday experience. It’s the oldest hotel in London and also reportedly the first hotel to offer high tea. Even if you can’t afford an overnight stay, it’s worth checking out the Donovan Bar and tea room.
Be a Kid Again at Winter Wonderland Hyde Park
Brits travel from all over the country for Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park, and it truly is a wonderland. The massive space hosts market stalls, hundreds of carnival rides and booths, countless food options, an ice skating rink, indoor performance theater, a Bavarian beer hall—shipped in from Munich—and more. It’s family fun at its finest. If you’re looking to beat the crowds, visit during a weekday. Otherwise, embrace everyone else that’s in a festive spirit.
Where to Stay: The Kimpton Fitzroy, located in Russell Square, is the first Kimpton property in the U.K. Expect Kimpton-favorites like a hosted happy hour, fine attention to detail, pet-friendly rooms, and fun spaces that locals also like to hang out at.
Explore Other Christmas Markets in London
While nothing quite compares to Winter Wonderland, London has plenty more Christmas markets to go around. My favorite, on a recent visit, was the market at Southbank Centre, which had a pop-up riverfront igloo restaurant as well as a cider house. Locals also love Winterville in Clapham and Pexmas in Peckham.
Ice Skate at the Somerset House and the National History Museum
Nothing screams “outdoor winter activity” more than ice skating. Test your skills at one of the city’s two rinks, one at the Somerset House and the other at the National History Museum. Both offer late-night skates as well as food and drink options on site.
Pro Tip: This year, the Somerset House Ice rink is sponsored by Fortnum & Mason, so if you’re looking for a less crowded shopping experience, you can hit the pop-up after you skate.
Walk Around Christmas at Kew Gardens
The magical light installation known as Christmas at Kew is a must-do winter activity in London, where you get to see the Royal Garden’s greenhouses and trimmed gardens animated in the night. This winter event typically sells out well in advance; tickets go on sale in June.
Go to ‘Hogwarts in the Snow,’ the Harry Potter Studio Tour
Every winter Hogwarts gets a makeover at the Warner Brother’s Harry Potter Studio Tour. The studio spares no expense in getting Hogwarts into the Christmas spirit, and a visit here is sure to please even the most skeptical of Muggles.
Do as the Romans Do in Bath
Just under two hours from London by train, the city of Bath is mainly known for day trips from London, but there’s plenty to do, see, shop, and explore there, especially during the holiday season. Soak in the same thermal waters the Romans did at the affordable Thermae Spa, shop the extended Christmas market stalls (all with local merchants), and visit any of the 15-plus museums if the weather gets too wet or wintry.
Where to Stay: No. 15 Great Pulteney is a boutique hotel within walking distance to the main shops, restaurants, and bars. It has a tea room and bar as well as a subterranean spa, so it’s the perfect place for a weekend outside the city in the winter.
Visit Winston Churchill’s Birthplace, Blenheim Palace
Sir Winton Churchill’s birthplace gets festive in winter with decorations, a light trail, and Christmas market stalls (new this year). A visit here is one of the most popular winter activities in the London area, with tickets selling out on the weekends. This year’s theme is Cinderella, with each palace room decorated for a character from the fairy tale. The illuminated light trail is fun for all ages and includes displays, entertainment, and music throughout the palace gardens.
Where to Stay: Blenheim Palace is located just outside Oxford, and the Eynsham Hall country house is the quintessential place to stay, especially in winter. The onsite restaurant, library, and lounge are great places to hang out when the weather isn’t cooperating and the spacious rooms are cozy and chic.
Get Cozy in the Cotswolds
Known as a countryside escape for locals, the towns and villages of the Cotswolds go above and beyond for the holidays. The capital, Cirencester, hosts a Christmas tree lighting and firework show at the beginning of December and has markets set up throughout the month. Or, head to Bourton-on-the-Water and wander through its famous canals while you shop for British novelties.
Where to Stay: The Old Bell Inn is the oldest inn in England, located in sleepy Malmesbury. Stay here for a secluded getaway filled with romantic fireplace dinners and baths in claw-footed tubs. Or if you’re looking for something with a little more going on, stay where the locals like to hang out at King’s Head in Cirencester, located right in the main town square
Cook British Holiday Favorites
Indulge in a cooking class at Foodworks Cookery School, located in the Cotswolds, and learn how to make British holiday food staples like mince pie, mini tarts, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake—yes, they’re different—and more.
More from SmarterTravel:
Ashley Rossi visited England as a guest of Visit Great Britain. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off-the-beaten-path spots.
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