London can be an expensive place to visit, not least at Christmas. But, as someone who’s lived in the UK capital for 20 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…. Whether you’re spending Christmas in London with kids, or having an adults-only celebration, it can be a pretty magical place. And if you want to save the pennies this year, why not try out some of these free things to do in London?
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 ice skating rink. I’ve posted about some of our favourite museums. Some will be running free family or adult-only festive sessions. So if you’re looking for free things to do in London with kids, a museum is a good place to start.
The Museum of London and the Museum of London Docklands are hosting a wealth of free festive events, from cracker joke workshops, holiday wreath-making, festive storytelling and a ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty. Some of the free Christmas events need to be booked in advance, so check the Museum of London website to find out more details.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is running free drop-in sessions from Saturday 28-Monday 30 December. From 10.30am till 5pm during the Christmas holiday, families can visit the Imagination Station and build their own modular building by Waugh Thistleton Architects, then add it to a new city.
Although East London’s Geffrye Museum is still closed for renovations, a free wreath-making session for blind and partially sighted people will still run from 2-4pm on Saturday 30th November. The Museum’s Head Gardener and experienced learning team will help participants mix fresh greenery with sumptuous textiles and festive scents to create a unique, hand-crafted decoration.
The Wallace Collection, which houses French 18th-Century furniture as well as artworks, will hold a festive cracker-making session on 20th December.
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. 2019 is no exception; this year’s Winter festival includes several free events, including choirs and orchestral performances as well as a Caribbean Christmas party with Just Vibez. The Southbank’s a must-see if you’re spending Christmas in London, with pop-up choirs and Winter storytelling. It’s a great place for a wander.
Listen to Christmas carols in London
If you wander around central London, you’re likely to catch one of the many pop-up choirs that festoon the streets. Singers carol to raise money for charity, or just for the joy of it.
Then there are the Christmas Carols in Trafalgar Square, from 9-24 December. Over 40 carol groups take it in turns to sing for an hour under Trafalgar Square’s Christmas tree. The tree’s a present from Norway, an annual tradition that began in 1947. This part of town is always very festive. The Christmas lights on Regent’s Street, the Strand and Covent Garden are all just a few minutes away.
Also available at no cost is the series of festive concerts and services that make up Advent and Christmas at St Paul’s Cathedral. But be quick to get tickets, as they disappear within minutes after they’re released.
Go to see the London Christmas lights
The festive illumination of London’s streets has already begun in some places – but the top displays all light up from November onwards, with celebrity attendees, ceremonies, gigs and parties to mark the occasion. Going to see the Christmas lights is one of the best things to do in London to help you get into the festive spirit, in my opinion.
Carnaby Street‘s theme this year is Oceans, in aid of ocean conservation charity Project 0. The Christmas light switch-on is 7 November.
The date for the lights in Covent Garden’s Piazza to be switched on is 12 November. Regent Street’s light-up takes place on 14 November, with the street turning traffic-free to mark the occasion. Forget the shopping – the Christmas lights on these streets are worth a visit in their own right.
Still to be annouced are the dates for the Christmas lights to be switched on in Oxford Street. They usually draw crowds from the beginning of November. And last year, 2018, the top 20 storeys of iconic London Bridge landmark, the Shard, were illuminated from 3 December. We hope the colourful 30-minute light shows will return in 2019.
Watch some festive races
It wouldn’t be Christmas in London without a quirky British event or two, to celebrate the eccentricity that helps make this country what it is. On 7 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. People dress in silly costumes and run through a series of obstacles, carrying a Christmas pudding balanced on a plate.
And if you’re looking for cool things to do in London (quite literally cool!), try the Peter Pan Christmas Cup, a 100-yard swimming race held on Christmas Day in London since 1864. It’s only open to the hardiest members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, who swim through Hyde Park’s lide of the same name. The waters are usually below 4C. Brrr! But if you’re after things to do in London on Christmas day itself, there’s no obligation to take a dip when you’re just a spectator. It makes for a fun family day out.
Check out a London 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 one of the most festive things to do in London over Christmas. Underbelly’s Christmas in Leicester Square, for example, has stalls from across Europe selling evocative gifts. You get to see plenty of twinkly lights, listen to carols and inhale the Wintery aroma of mulled wine, cloves and cinnamon.
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. One that doesn’t cost you a bean. This year, Selfridges was the first store in the world to unveil its Christmas window display. ‘A Christmas For Modern Times’ is the theme. Scenes from fairytales are cast in futuristic silver, white, blue and green-coloured mirror, crystal and transparent designs. Inside the store there’s a a giant 1.5-tonne, 13 metre-high mirrored Christmas tree.
Fortnum and Mason, Harrods and Liberty of London all put on similarly spectacular displays. Look out for their unveilings, which are usually some time in November.
Do you have any ideas for how to have a budget Christmas in London? Please let me know, as I’ll be updating this post throughout the festive season.
If you’ve managed to save enough pennies for a show, we’ve written about The Snowman and The English National Ballet version of The Nutcracker, both of which are delightful Christmas treats. And don’t forget the good old Panto. Check out our guide to London Pantomimes 2019 here.
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