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.
The Victoria and Albert Museum will again display a Singing Tree. This year architects Studio Weave designed the tree. It’s been reimagined as a spectacular 21st-century architectural gateway in the Museum’s Grand Entrance. Architects, designers and engineers have also designed and created over 50 gingerbread houses at the museum, in a special ticketed event.
Although East London’s Geffrye Museum is still closed for renovations, the beautiful front garden of the museum will open with festive cheer. A Maker’s Market on Saturday 8 December features carol singing, and free workshops for adults and children.
The Wallace Collection, which houses French 18th-Century furniture as well as artworks, will hold a festive cracker-making session on 15th 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 Winter festival includes several free events, including choirs and orchestral performances as well as a Caribbean Christmas party. 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 Carols
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, 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. 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. On 6 November Oxford Street’s lights were switched on, with DJ and music performances up and down the street to celebrate. 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 3 December, with special displays on opening night and New Year’s Eve – making it Western Europe’s highest light show. On other nights, the top twenty floors of the Shard will reflect golden sunrises, the pinks and lavenders of sunset, and dark blue of twilight. The 30-minute show appears every half hour from 4pm to 1am.
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 8 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. 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! 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.
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. Some favourite markets of ours are based at the Southbank, London Bridge, the Horniman Museum, inside Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland and Clapham Common’s Winterville 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. One that doesn’t cost you a bean. Fortnum and Mason has festive moments as its theme, with bejewelled crackers and flying mince pies in the Piccadilly store’s windows. Just off Regent Street, Liberty’s showcases its rich furnishings and sumptuous fabrics, with 2D monkeys, bears, owls and other creatures sitting elegantly amidst the Christmas gifts. The animals also hide around the store. On Oxford Street, Selfridges celebrates rock-n-roll with a glam rock party, where Santa will appear in the form of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. And In Knightsbridge there’s Harrods, whose fairytale ‘Once Upon a Time’ theme features moving puppets, Christmas mice and lashings of sumptuous red velvet.
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.
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