Free things to do in London this Christmas

Free things to do 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…. 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 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 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.

Christmas market

Even if you don’t spend a nickel, a Christmas market can be a nice place to hear some carols and catch some festive vibes.

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.

Southbank London

London’s Southbank is a good place for a festive stroll.

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

London Christmas lights

London’s Christmas lights are among the finest in the world.

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

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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 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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99 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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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!).

    • Nell
      Author
      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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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.

    • Nell
      Author
      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! 🙂

    • Nell
      Author
      November 21, 2016 / 11:11 am

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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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. 🙂

    • Nell
      Author
      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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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.

    • Nell
      Author
      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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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.

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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! 🙂 #citytripping

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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! 🙂 #MondayEscapes

    • Nell
      Author
      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!

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      November 20, 2017 / 9:15 pm

      Ah, yes! If only it were Christmas all year round 🙂 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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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

    • Nell
      Author
      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.

    • Nell
      Author
      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 🙂

    • Nell
      Author
      December 1, 2017 / 1:06 pm

      They’re a real highlight.

  39. November 13, 2018 / 8:17 am

    The South Bank is always so pretty at Christmas time and I love the little market in Leicester Square too. The Christmas tree in The Savoy and the one at Covent Garden are always beautiful and well worth a visit to see (you don’t have to be staying at The Savoy to pop in and see the tree) xx

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 10:45 am

      Now there’s a good tip. I might take the kids to see the tree when we next go into town to visit their Dad’s office!

  40. November 13, 2018 / 8:26 pm

    Your post has made me feel all festive! London is magical at christmas and I’m trying to wangle some way of getting there before the big day.

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 10:53 am

      It’s a really nice place to be at this time of year.

  41. November 13, 2018 / 9:26 pm

    I do love London at Christmas- the lights and the markets, especially by the river, as well as the pop-up ice rinks but I always forget the museums get dressed up for the festivities as well. What a great post and a lovely reminder.

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 10:53 am

      There’s certainly plenty of variety! I love all the unexpected Christmas trees you see inside some of these places.

  42. November 14, 2018 / 9:26 am

    What a lovely festive round up – I’d love to catch some carols in London! We have no plans to visit this year but really want to plan a Christmas trip next year so I’ll be referring back to this post then as London is SO expensive so if we can slot a few free activities in, I’ll feel a lot better.

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 10:56 am

      It’s surprising how much you can do here for free. But yes, there are a LOT of very expensive activities too!

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 10:57 am

      It really comes alive at this time of year.

  43. November 16, 2018 / 9:41 am

    I do love Christmas time in London – the city seems to come alive! Great list and we’ll be doing some of these for sure!

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 10:57 am

      I’ll look forward to following your own festive fun!

  44. November 22, 2018 / 7:21 am

    London is so full of surprises. I love list of fun and diverse things to do.
    My fave is the V&A and I’d love to see the singing tree and you are so right about spending ages admiring the shop fronts of the big shops.

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 11:22 am

      Yes, we haven’t been in to see them yet, but it’s a favourite thing of mine to do.

  45. November 25, 2018 / 6:53 pm

    I’m doing my best to score really great tickets so that my daughter and I can come over and see the Christmas lights and explore London at Christmas, I have saved this post and will be using it when we get there! Thank you for this! Tammy x

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 11:28 am

      I hope you manage to get the tickets sorted! It really is very special here 🙂

  46. November 25, 2018 / 8:54 pm

    Such a lovely post, spreading the festive cheer. I love the Southbank area and walking by in to Hays Galleria. I also love the lights around in Spitalfield market.Thank you so much for sharing this post.

    • Nell
      Author
      November 26, 2018 / 11:33 am

      OOh yes – Spitalfields Market. I haven’ been for years! Thanks for reminding me.

  47. November 28, 2018 / 5:21 pm

    you have picked out some of my favourite Christmas activities. A visit to the Southbank is a must, I love the markets this time of year. I have to get to the V&A also, it’s at the very top of my list

    • Nell
      Author
      November 29, 2018 / 9:40 am

      The Southbank’s lovely, isn’t it?

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