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
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; 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
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
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 for 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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