I don’t get into London much these days, so when I do, I really want to make it count. And there’s no better time to get a sense of what London does best, than at Christmas. The shops are overflowing with delectable gifts, the shop windows are decadently dressed to impress, the aroma of mulled wine wafts around temptingly and the crowds, when not striding purposefully towards a department store or tube station, huddle for some roasted chestnuts at a winter stall or a swift half at a heaving corner pub. The seasonal glitz and glamour of our capital city at this time of year is an experience in itself. So off I went one Friday afternoon in December, to meet the friend who was to join me in a leisurely amble through the streets of London at Christmas.
Warming up at the Angel in the Fields pub, Marylebone
I hopped off the tube at Bond Street, at the core of the hive of shoppers, and headed off along Thayer Street to meet my friends as arranged, at a traditional London pub. The Angel in the Fields is a bijou and unassuming little corner pub from the outside, but its ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ exterior belies a very welcoming ambience inside. It’s a cosy haven of dark wooden panels, stained-glass windows and crackling open fire. It’s a Sam Smith pub, brews its own organic beer and is a world away from some of the more pretentious hipster bars you find in the capital these days. You’ll also find fine pub grub upstairs (best book in advance though, as space is very limited). After downing a rich, nutty brown ale, I was feeling fully festive. And so, full of good cheer and mellow beer, we set off a-wandering.
What to remember on a Christmas walk around London
London is a busy place. Obvious, perhaps, but it’s easy to take for granted just how much there is to see and do, and how tiring it can get. Even in these times, when Covid is a consideration, London can be overwhelmingly crowded – especially at Christmas time. For maximum comfort, consider taking a small backpack with you, to carry an extra jumper or jacket if it gets cold – or to store the extra jacket and jumper if you don’t need it! A refillable water bottle is also recommended. Not only are the costs of even a small bottle of water high in the capital, but why fight the London crowds and queues when you don’t need to? And it’s the sustainable option anyway. Speaking of crowds, bear in mind that you won’t always find a public seat if your back begins to ache. Pubs and cafes will also have fewer seating options these days, so it may not be so easy to nip in somewhere for a quick coffee and rest.
But the sparkling lights and luxurious window displays will likely captivate you enough to forget all about how many hours you’ve clocked up. Here are where you can find some of the best places to see London’s festive Christmas displays.
Burlington Arcade, an original shopping centre
Strolling through Burlington Arcade, I was reminded of when I once worked for the British Astronomical Association at nearby Burlington House. I’d visit the Arcade during my lunch break and wonder how the other half lived. Established in 1819, things haven’t really changed here – it still evokes that sense of exclusivity and class. There’s unabashed luxury a-plenty, oozing in all its forms from behind the glass frontage of each outlet, as the uniformed guards, known as Beadles, continue to patrol and add that appealingly authentic touch.
Piccadilly Arcade, Grade II listed building
Set between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly, Piccadilly Arcade opened in 1909 and comprises 28 shops. The ceiling features ornate motifs and a line of lamps which are very much in keeping with the style and ambience of a classy London shopping precinct. While it’s not as well known as Burlington Arcade, it’s equally impressive in its Christmas finery.
Fortnum & Masons, the epitome of London at Christmas
If there’s one ‘shop’ you need to seek out on your seasonal stroll, it’s this one. When it comes to displaying decadence, Fortnum and Mason are the masters, with offerings over the years including lavish hampers and a series of quirky pseudo-fairytale scenes, all with a Christmas theme, of course.
Christmas window shopping – the best of the rest
In the couple of square miles we walk, the creativity and skill of London’s window display designers is as impressive as ever. There are cute teddy bears, resplendently attired mannequins and delicious delicatessen displays. From Brook Street to the Burlington Arcade, from Carnaby Street to Covent Garden, wherever your eyes fall, you can be sure it will speak of decadence that most of us can only imagine. But my favourite of all the window displays was, ironically, the simplest and least expensive of all. A gathering of brightly-lit baubles, each cheekily displaying a message of retail temptation – some with dodgy punctuation! Amusingly, I forgot to note the name of the company, so busy was I chuckling at the irony of it all.
London lights at Christmas
Ahh, the Christmas lights of cosmopolitan, historic, buzzing London. There are glitterballs and giant baubles, mercurial figures glistening above us, sparkling bowl-shaped structures and crystalline pillars at every glance. I can’t help but think that at this time of year it’s a good thing London traffic is so slow – I’m sure there would otherwise be more accidents, as I noticed so many people looking up and around them, instead of watching where they were going!
Oxford Street, Regent Street & Piccadilly Circus
It’s no surprise that these famous locations are the triple superstars of the Christmas lights displays in London. The view of Regents Street from Piccadilly Circus was particularly impressive during my visit, thanks to the striking backdrop of the crescent-shaped road and buildings. Photographs really don’t do the displays justice, especially when the lights switch on and off in special sequences, creating a sense of motion to echo the surrounding hubbub. It must be an incredible feat of engineering to set it all up, and to take it all down again!
London’s sparkly side streets and classic scenes
In between the giants of London retail, there are the pedestrianised alleys, lesser-known side streets and kooky corners of the capital. We found a quirkier, less touristy (but equally festive) ambience along St Christopher’s Place and Jermyn Street, for example. I felt as if the crowds there were exclusively local and half expected to see Bridget Jones in a corner cafe, canoodling with Mark Darcy – caramel latte in one hand, sprig of mistletoe in the other. But if you want more of the classic London Christmas scenes, there are resplendent Christmas trees dotted around all over the city, such as the iconic Trafalgar Square tree, or the one at St James’ Palace (below).
Carnaby Street & Covent Garden
I love that Carnaby Street retains the flavour of its ‘Swinging London’ heyday! Over the years it has featured everything from neon peacenik signs to recent nods towards the climate crisis, but the crowds on the street remind us that we’re in a 21st-century, pre-Christmas retail flurry. The next few years will see more decorations made from recycled and recyclable materials, with better use of energy. That’s something to look forward to. And on that note, we decided we had no energy of our own left and we brought our walk to an end.
A festive mood and good food at Kingly Court
Luckily, we’d stopped at just the right place. Just off Carnaby Street, we found an inner world of gastronomic delights in the shape of Kingly Court. It’s a lively complex of eateries laid out across 3 levels, all surrounding an open courtyard, which is a bonus if you still prefer to avoid very enclosed spaces. It’s a great spot to chill and have a quick snack or a more substantial meal before setting off for home. And best of all, it’s as sparkly and festive as everywhere else on the streets of London at Christmas.
The Christmas decorations of London will continue to dazzle the streets in the years to come. So if you’re venturing to the city centre for a spot of luxury shopping, don’t forget to look up! Maybe it’s because I’m not a Londoner anymore, but I find myself wanting to come back sooner rather than later.
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