Free festive fun in London this Christmas

Free festive fun in London this Christmas

London can be an expensive place to visit, not least at Christmas. But, as someone who’s lived in the UK capital for over 18 years, I’ve discovered that there are an awful lot of exciting things to do in London – all completely free. Carols, twinkly Christmas lights, wacky pudding races….if you want to have a budget Christmas in London this year, why not try out some of these suggestions?

Visit a musuem

Most of London’s major museums are free to enter, and they’re always festooned with Christmas finery. The Natural History Museum even has its own Christmas market, and ice skating rink. I’ve posted about some of our favourite museums; some will be running free family or adult-only festive sessions.

The Victoria and Albert Museum will display a Singing Tree, an illuminated carol-singing tree designed by Es Devlin, whose lyrics visitors can contribute to. The museum’s music-themed festive programme includes events and activities for all ages, from choirs and soundscapes to candlelit concerts.

East London’s Geffrye Museum will transform its 11 rooms with decorations, lighting and music, so that visitors can experience what it would have been like living in an English middle-class home at Christmas, from 1600 to the present day. There’s a free drop-in decoration-making workshop for children on 9 December.

The Wallace Collection, which houses French 18th-Century furniture as well as artworks, will hold a festive cracker-making session on 17th December, as well as seasonal talks.

Take a stroll along the Southbank

Southbank

London’s Southbank always celebrates the season in style. In previous years they’ve hosted Winter festivals that combine shopping, charity events and shows. 2018 is no exception;Β  this year’s Wintertime festival includes several free events, including choirs and social dances as well as ABBA singalongs and live music. There’s always a real buzz along the Southbank at Christmas, with pop-up choirs and Winter storytelling, so it’s a great place for a wander.

Listen to Carols

If you wander around central London, you’re likely to catch one of the many pop-up choirs that festoon the streets, with singers carolling to raise money for charity, or just for the joy of it. Then there are the Christmas Carols in Trafalgar Square, where over 50 carol groups sing for an hour under the Square’s Christmas tree, an annual present from Norway since 1947. Also available at no cost is the series of festive concerts and services that make up Advent and Christmas at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Go to see the Christmas lights

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The festive illumination of London’s streets has already begun: Oxford Street’s lights were switched on by singer Rita Ora on 7 November. Our top picks for the best other places to see the lights are Carnaby Street, Covent Garden and Regent Street. Forget the shopping – the Christmas lights on these streets are worth a visit in their own right.

The top 20 storeys of iconic London Bridge landmark, the Shard, will be illuminated from 4 to 31 December, with special displays on opening night and New Year’s Eve – making it Western Europe’s highest light show.

Watch some festive races

It wouldn’t be Christmas in London without a quirky British event or two, to celebrate the eccentricity that’s helped make this country what it is. On 2 December, the Great Christmas Pudding Race takes place at Covent Garden, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It’s a light-hearted version of an egg-and-spoon race, where people dress in silly costumes and run through a series of obstacles, carrying a Christmas pudding balanced on a plate. Then there’s the Peter Pan Christmas Cup, a 100-yard swimming race held since 1864 on Christmas morning in Hyde Park. It’s only open to the hardiest members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, as the waters are usually below 4C. Brrr!

Check out a Christmas market

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Yes, markets are generally about spending money. But if you can manage to hold onto your purse-strings, visiting one of the capital’s many markets can be a good way to soak up the festive vibe. Underbelly’s Christmas in Leicester Square, for example, has stalls from across Europe selling evocative gifts. By walking through you get to see plenty of twinkly lights, listen to carols and sample the Wintery aroma of mulled wine, cloves and cinnamon. And – if you did want to spend money – visiting a UK-based market is likely to be cheaper than travelling to another European city to do so, given the sorry state of the pound at the moment. Some favourite markets of ours are based at the Southbank, Crystal Palace, London Bridge, the Horniman Museum, inside Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland and at the Museum of Childhood.

Gaze at shop window displays

If you can resist going inside to splurge out, looking at the displays in some of the major department stores can be a thrilling Christmas treat in itself – and one that doesn’t cost you a bean. Fortnum and Mason has togetherness as its theme, with a host of animal friends feasting and frolicking in the Piccadilly store’s ‘Together We’re Merrier’ windows. Just off Regent Street, Liberty’s dedicates its window diplay to the famous poem, ”Twas the Night Before Christmas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Liberty’s rooftop, as well as those of the surrounding buildings, are reproduced in the windows, illuminated by a huge moon. On Oxford Street, Selfridges celebrates London by displaying a festive parade, featuring well-loved characters from the UK capital. These include a market stall sporting 5,000 brussels sprouts, and a Pearly King Santa, wearing a suit made from 110,000 pearly buttons. And In Knightsbridge there’s Harrods, where Italian fashion house Dolce and Gabbana has created a display inspired by traditional Sicilian puppet shows.

 

Do you have any ideas forΒ how to have a budget Christmas in London? Or to other destinations?

If you’re interested in seeing a festive show this year, why not check out our guide to the top Christmas family theatre in London?

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79 Comments

  1. November 16, 2016 / 2:14 pm

    The races sound like fun!

    I used to spend my lunch breaks wandering up the Southbank – I miss working in London!

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:03 am

      Aaah I love the Southbank!

  2. November 16, 2016 / 2:20 pm

    What lovely ideas! I love visiting London and we actually went on Boxing Day last year, although a lot of stuff was closed! I had a walk along the Southbank while my family went on the London Eye (most definitely not free!).

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:04 am

      No, there are some things that cost a LOT here.

  3. November 16, 2016 / 4:23 pm

    London at Christmas is so exciting and I love the idea of listening to the carols at Trafalgar Square. I can really get into the Christmas mood in London!

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:04 am

      I know. Christmas is everywhere!

  4. November 16, 2016 / 9:05 pm

    London looks so magical during the Christmas period. I love the free museums there. It looks like there is a lot on offer that is affordable. We love visiting local Christmas markets to get into the festive spirit.

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:05 am

      I know – it’s really nice that they’re all over the country.

  5. November 17, 2016 / 10:36 am

    After having visited NYC and Paris at Christmas time, London is on my list. Loved this post. Thanks for sharing the beauty of the holiday season with #farawayfiles. Now I actually know what I’m missing! πŸ™‚

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:11 am

      You must visit, so you can say you’ve done all three!

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:12 am

      It really has. Properly festive!

  6. November 17, 2016 / 11:36 am

    Wouldn’t mind being in London one day for Christmas and checking out some of the markets! I’ve been a dozen times, but not directly in London for Christmas. #FarawayFiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:27 am

      It’s a great time of year for the city.

  7. November 17, 2016 / 12:34 pm

    Great ideas Nell. We went to St Pauls for the service last year and it was lovely. I’m devastated we wont be here for the cracker making at the Wallace Collection. I absolutely love that place. Another hot tip for you is that Santa’s grotto at Duke of York Square is free/by donation. We went last year and it was really well done and magical for my little ones. Thanks for sharing these great tips on #FarawayFiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:27 am

      Oh that’s a great tip, thanks! x

  8. November 17, 2016 / 8:04 pm

    I love that the museums are free. Museums here in Chicago are so expensive. One of my favorite holiday traditions is admiring the Christmas lights everywhere. Last year I started driving around in the afternoons looking for Christmas lights on houses while we waited to pick up my husband from the train on his way home from work. We’ll probably do that again this year. And the Christmas market sounds wonderful. I’ve always been a fan of those. #farawayfiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:34 am

      What a lovely idea – we like looking for lights too, so I’ll try your trick with my own kids!

  9. November 17, 2016 / 11:07 pm

    Riding on the top deck of a 73 (Oxford Street) or a 23 (Regent Street) bus to see the lights is one of life’s finest experiences. #FarawayFiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:35 am

      Yes, especially if you get the front seat up there!

  10. November 18, 2016 / 12:21 am

    Love this list! I passed by Liberty’s last week and their display was amazing! Probably my favorite. πŸ™‚

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:39 am

      I really need to see it!

  11. November 18, 2016 / 11:17 am

    I love this post! I think that Christmas in London must be so festive and beautiful, but I’ve always stayed away because of the high prices. I’ll have to follow this list and have a more affordable time!

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:46 am

      It can be done. Mind you, there’s still accommodation and transport in London, which can get costly.

  12. November 18, 2016 / 2:33 pm

    So many wonderful ideas, I think you can find at lot of things to do for next to nothing all around the country x

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:46 am

      I’m sure you could.

  13. November 18, 2016 / 4:33 pm

    Fantastic ideas, Nell. Christmas can get really expensive so it’s good to remember that you can get into the festive spirit with a little know-how and some good tips. I love The Nutcracker so I’m going to make a point of visiting the windows of Liberty’s. One of my favourite Christmas displays is at Fortnum & Mason’s – it’s always really traditional and looks stunning. Thanks so much for sharing this with us on #FarawayFiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:50 am

      Yes, Fortnum’s is a lovely one too. x

  14. November 18, 2016 / 7:17 pm

    I’ve always wanted to visit London during the christmas season! I feel like it would get super festive, and your post proves it! Amazing pictures! #farawayfiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:54 am

      It’s great. You should come!

  15. November 19, 2016 / 6:50 pm

    I do like the sound of the Christmas pudding race – not seen that before. London is fab at Christmas…all the twinkling lights, the smell of chestnuts and cold chill as you wander the banks of the river. I look forward to following some of your suggestions Nell #farawayfiles

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:55 am

      I’m drawing up a Christmas timetable as we speak!

  16. November 20, 2016 / 8:04 am

    Great ideas! All the museums in London are so good and we are so lucky that so many of them are free.

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:55 am

      I know, we are very lucky.

  17. November 20, 2016 / 9:01 am

    Thanks for sharing so many great ideas.
    I love to stroll along the south bank and visit Greenwich market!

    • November 21, 2016 / 11:56 am

      Ah yes, Greenwich is a lovely place, isn’t it?

  18. November 20, 2016 / 11:58 am

    We’ve been to London a few times on New Years Day and just spent our time visiting the beautiful museums and sites of London, it doesnt’ cost anything and they are just as good as the paid for attractions. We are popping down in a few weeks and I’ll definitely have to take the kids to see the lights.

    • November 21, 2016 / 12:03 pm

      There’s enough free stuff in London to fill several Christmases!

  19. November 20, 2016 / 5:55 pm

    As a kid we always used to go and visit our aunt in London just before Christmas. She never had much money so everything we did was either free or cheap. It was always exciting and a real adventure. As soon as my youngest is old enough I hope to replicate these trips with my family. Thank you for some great tips x

    • November 21, 2016 / 12:02 pm

      It’s a pleasure.

  20. November 22, 2016 / 9:22 am

    I love London at Christmas and this has put me in the mood to have a cheeky trip there next month x x

    • November 27, 2016 / 9:12 pm

      Ooh, do it!

  21. November 22, 2016 / 4:07 pm

    Great ideas Nell! I think it is delightful to stroll along and see the window displays and street lights at Christmas, in fact we did it last night here in Copenhagen! Cheers from Denmark and thanks for linking with #FarawayFiles, Erin

    • November 27, 2016 / 9:13 pm

      Hope you continue to enjoy the festivities over there, Erin!

  22. November 22, 2016 / 4:39 pm

    I went to the Carols at Trafalgar Square one Christmas. I can’t exactly remember but I think it was when they did the tree lighting. It was so beautiful. #citytripping

    • November 27, 2016 / 9:14 pm

      Do you know, I haven’t been yet! Need to change that this year.

  23. November 22, 2016 / 9:15 pm

    London can be an expensive city, but it is also one of my favourite cities to go to at Christmas. This is a fantastic guide about all the things you can do on the cheap. Thanks for sharing. #citytripping

    • November 27, 2016 / 9:21 pm

      It’s a pleasure. Thanks for stopping by!

  24. November 23, 2016 / 11:23 am

    Loved this post. There’s something really special about Christmas in London! πŸ™‚ #citytripping

    • November 27, 2016 / 9:22 pm

      I know – there are just so many ways to celebrate here.

  25. November 23, 2016 / 9:12 pm

    What a great idea – I love wandering along the South bank and seeing all the lit-up ice rinks in the winter, makes me feel properly festive but there’s some really fun thoughts here that I need to put on my list for the next few weeks. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

    • November 27, 2016 / 9:24 pm

      Oh Cathy my list’s already a mile long! I do love all the festivities, though. Hope you get to enjoy some of these. xx

  26. November 25, 2016 / 7:26 am

    I have to admit that I find christmas in London too busy but I would like to visit winter wonderland

    • November 28, 2016 / 12:02 pm

      It’s really great for a trip Kara xx

  27. December 1, 2016 / 5:57 pm

    I love London at Christmas Nell. We love to do similar things to you. Winter Wonderland, skating and carols and all of the markets. There is just so much to do as you wander isn’t there. My daughter is actually singing carols in Trafalgar Square next week with her school choir and I’m beside myself with excitement. Tissues to manual!

    • December 2, 2016 / 2:28 pm

      Now THAT is incredibly exciting! Enjoy. x

  28. December 5, 2016 / 1:59 pm

    I’d love to visit the Christmas markets and gaze into all the amazing shop windows. I don’t think I’ve ever been into London at Christmas. I really should change that!

    • December 8, 2016 / 8:39 pm

      It’s very pretty here at the moment, Claire! x

  29. November 20, 2017 / 8:36 am

    Visiting London during christmas time is so high on my bucket list! You offered some really great recommendations here – definitely saving your post! πŸ™‚ #MondayEscapes

    • November 20, 2017 / 9:14 pm

      It’s a great time of year for a trip here.

  30. November 20, 2017 / 10:49 am

    Some great ideas here Nell. LOVE the V&A singing tree idea. We need a couple more months just to see all the goodies on offer this Christmas!

    • November 20, 2017 / 9:14 pm

      I know! A floor-to-ceiling itinerary….

  31. November 20, 2017 / 11:10 am

    Some brilliant events going on, I love the sound of the Natural History Museum, we might have to try to get down to London for that.
    Nat.x

    • November 20, 2017 / 9:15 pm

      There’s ton of things to do here, Nat x

  32. November 20, 2017 / 7:03 pm

    Can’t wait to come to London for a bit of festive fun! So difficult to chose what to do though, we need longer school holidays! #Mondayescapes

    • November 20, 2017 / 9:15 pm

      Ah, yes! If only it were Christmas all year round πŸ™‚ x

  33. November 21, 2017 / 1:24 am

    Well, I am not an expert in all things London but I do know cities like it often offer some sort of relief (free things) to visitors and residents. I have been to New York during the holidays and there are so many things going on that you do not really have to spend money (or a lot of money) to have a good time. I am getting the feeling that it is the same thing in London. #MondayEscapes

    • November 21, 2017 / 9:41 am

      That’s interesting to hear about NY. I really want to visit at Christmas some time. I can imagine it might have a similar feel to London – although from what I’ve heard, you go into Christmas in an even bigger way over there!

  34. November 21, 2017 / 8:41 am

    Great ideas. Christmas is a super expensive time so anything free is a bonus. Love just wandering around in the late afternoon as it gets dark at this time of year, seeing the lights and Christmas decorations #MondayEscapes

    • November 21, 2017 / 9:42 am

      Yes, you don’t really need to do much else, do you?

  35. November 21, 2017 / 10:08 pm

    Such great suggestions Nell. Christmas lights and markets really get me in the festive mood. I’d love to see the singing tree at the V&A too #MondayEscapes

    • December 1, 2017 / 12:19 pm

      Yes, I really need to try and get to see that one. So much Christmas excitement, so litle time!

  36. November 22, 2017 / 3:02 pm

    I could not agree more London has so much to offer and christmas! I am yet to see the lights this year! I have that on my to do list! thanks for the tips

    • December 1, 2017 / 12:20 pm

      The lights are always so special!

  37. November 23, 2017 / 9:46 pm

    There are some really really super ideas here and I can’t believe they are all free. What a fab round up. Thanks for linking up to Monday Escapes.

    • December 1, 2017 / 12:25 pm

      Yes, we’re lucky with all the free stuff here in London.

  38. November 26, 2017 / 8:35 pm

    Sadly, I’m going to miss out on the London Christmas festivities as I won’t be visiting again until January. I do love seeing the lights though πŸ™‚

    • December 1, 2017 / 1:06 pm

      They’re a real highlight.

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