A Holly Jolly Guide to London During the Holidays
Jordi Briz has many passions—but none greater than London. The professional tour guide was born and raised in a town outside of Barcelona, but motivated by his love of travel, learning, and languages, relocated to the British capital in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history. “The fact is, I fell in love with London (and London loved me as well) and here I am, after more than 25 years!” he says.
For more than 20 of those years, Briz has worked as a tour guide in London, eager to share his love of the city’s people, culture, and history with visitors from near and far. And while he notes that there’s never a bad time of year to visit the city, Christmas—when the capital turns “festive, colorful, and energizing”—is an undisputed highlight.
Since 2012, Briz has led the London Bicycle Tour Company’s Christmas Lights Tour, which offers an overview of London at its merriest. “A few years ago, Christmas decorations and markets became a real feature of London, [so] we revamped our tour to concentrate in the West End, where the main displays are concentrated,” he says. “We visit virtually all the Christmas-garnished streets in Central London, and, at the same time, we can admire the most significant landmarks of the area.”
What makes London great for the holidays
London is a city that takes Christmas seriously: from the twinkling light displays which garland the shopping streets of the West End and the ice rinks that pop up across town, to the jolly Christmas markets and the cozy pubs serving cauldrons of mulled wine, this is a city that knows how to welcome the festive season.
It helps that history undergirds many of these traditions. The Christmas tree, after all, was popularized in London in the 1840s, after Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, Prince Albert, imported the candle-festooned tannenbaum from his homeland. (In a contemporary twist on the tradition, Norway has, since 1947, given the city an enormous Christmas tree every year, which is displayed in Trafalgar Square.)
Londoners have also tucked into Christmassy, spice-laden mince pies since the medieval era, while the carols that ring out in iconic venues including Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral have a timeless quality. “As we pass by the main institutions of Westminster [on our Christmas bike tour], we realize how old London is, and how far traditions hark back,” says Briz. “[Even] the coronation of William the Conqueror was held precisely on Christmas Day in 1066.”
Don’t-miss cozy corners.
Warming up in a London pub with a pint or a mug of mulled wine is a must during the festive season, and Briz has a few favorites to recommend. “The pubs around the Waterloo area, close to our base, are where locals meet, and where tourists are of course welcomed,” he says, highlighting the Hercules, the Three Stags, and the Steam Engine. And “the Bar Elba on Waterloo Road has got an ice rink on its roof.”
When it comes to seasonal nibbles, “all over London, especially in shopping areas, there are fantastic cafés and bakeries serving awesome pastries, cakes, high teas, and typical Christmas sweets,” including Bageriet (which specializes in Swedish cinnamon and cardamom buns) and classic department stores such as Fortnum & Mason. And if you find yourself in London on Christmas Day, when many venues are closed, Briz recommends going for an alternative Christmas Dinner at one of the Bengali curry houses on Brick Lane.
The must-stop spots for festive souvenirs.
Want to work through your Christmas shopping list—or treat yourself to a present or two—all while soaking up the city’s festive feel? “Selfridges, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, and Liberty are general department stores deserving a visit just for the sake of admiring the decor and the displays,” says Briz, as are the bustling Carnaby Street and Covent Garden shopping districts. And for Briz, Christmas markets are also a must, serving as “ideal places to buy crafts from around the world, or to grab some international food or drinks typical of the season.” Look for locations along the South Bank, in Leicester Square, and beyond.
Where to get a good night’s sleep.
For a high-end, festive feel, it’s hard to beat the Rosewood Hotel in Holborn, whose halls are decked with glittering Christmas displays, and whose on-site bars and restaurants—including the Holborn Dining Room, Pie Room, and Scarfes Bar—offer a warming place to share a glass or a bite. Briz also recommends the Marriott County Hall, which has a convenient location near the London Eye, and which also boasts “a huge Christmas fir in its courtyard.”
London’s most festive attractions and activities.
London has so many festive activities during the Christmas season, as Briz notes, from pantomimes (performed in theaters across the city) to lights displays in Kew Gardens, plus Winter Wonderland: “an all-in-one market, with food and drinks, skating, rides, and music!”
Skating rinks also pop up within some of the city’s top landmarks, Briz says, including Somerset House, the Battersea Power Station, and the Natural History Museum. And speaking of museums, London’s great museums are mostly free to visit, and serve as the perfect place to retreat from the cold. Warm up while soaking up history and culture in the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert Museum, or enjoy a candlelit ambiance at smaller institutions such as the Charles Dickens Museum and Dennis Severs’ House.