10 of the best alternative Christmas events in London, including festive activities for kids and adults alike, carols by candlelight and some cracking strolls.
Had enough of Winter Wonderland? Rather skip the glitzy windows of the big department stores? Love it when the city is dead in the awkward bit between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve? Here are our favourite, lesser-known, festive haunts, activities and walks to occupy your London Christmas holiday (and satisfy your motley crew of friends, family and second-cousins from Canada).
1. Gather round carols by candlelight at St Martin In the Fields
It doesn’t get much more Christmassy than the uplifting sound of carols to an enchanting backdrop of atmospheric candlelight. Some spots for this festive treat may have sold out, but thankfully there are tickets available for performances spanning 20th December and the New Year. Take in the country’s finest chamber ensemble London Concertante perform Viennese Christmas by Candlelight among work by Tchaikovsky and Strauss on Thursday 27th December, or see in 2019 with a New Years’s Day Extravaganza with the Festive Orchestra of London, featuring works by Handel, Mozart and Bach.
St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, WC2N.
Nearest stations: Charing Cross and Leicester Square.
2. Discover hidden London on foot
Take this treasured time to slow down and go for a big ol’ walk across London town. Walking across the capital might seem alien due to the ‘I need to get from A to B as fast as un-humanly possible’ mindset the rest of the year, but now’s the time to slow down and drink it in. Spot over 30 species of birds along the Lea Valley Walk and other green routes along the Lea Valley Regional Park, admire the beautiful canal sides of West London over a relaxed amble from Little Venice to Camden, or adventure over river valleys, heath and parks with a route across Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park.
3. Head to the Horniman Museum
If you’re yet to visit this South London treasure, now’s the time to go get your Horniman on. Stuffed full of extensive collections of anthropology, natural history and musical instruments and tucked away in Forest Hill, the museum is home to a stunning 16 acres of garden complete with views across London and a Victorian conservatory, as well as a highly acclaimed aquarium. Don’t forget to visit the museum’s furry and feathered friends on the animal walk, home to alpacas, goats, rabbits, chickens and more. Entrance is free, with a small fee for the aquarium and ticketed events.
Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, Forest Hill, SE23 3PQ. Open daily 10am – 5.30pm, except 24 – 26 December.
Nearest station: Forest Hill
4. Take a stroll in Postman’s Park
Nestled next to St Paul’s Cathedral and bordered by Little Britain (have a chuckle at this street sign), Postman’s Park is on the site of the former headquarters of the General Post Office and is one of the largest parks within the City of London; as well as one of the most beautiful. It’s enchanting gardens are home to the mesmerising Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice – a wall of 54 memorial tiles that commemorate men, women and children, who lost their life while attempting to save another. The touching stories of everyday heroism will really bring the true spirit of Christmas home. You might recognise it from the film Closer too. It’s closed on the 25th and 26th of December and on New Year’s Day.
Postman’s Park, St Martin’s Le-Grand, EC1A.
Nearest Station: St Paul’s.
5. A Christmas Carol by candlelight
Is it possible to do too many things by candlelight at Christmas? We don’t think so. Head on down to The Charles Dickens Museum in old London Bloomsbury for a very festive performance of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol performed by actor Dominic Gerrard. There’s also the opportunity to explore Dickens’s home dressed lavishly for Christmas (arrive an hour beforehand to explore the whole house), and soak up the atmosphere as darkness falls. There are still tickets available for performances on 29th, 30th and 31st December (book in advance).
The Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, WC1N.
Nearest stations: Russell Square and King’s Cross.
6. Tour London’s Christmas lights on bike
Fingers crossed that it’ll be lovely weather for a bike ride together around town. Ideal for getting the body going after all that glorious sitting down, tours kick-off from the London Bicycle hire centre on Southbank, where you’ll get tooled-up with a bike, helmet and lights for your festive ride. Taking in a route via quieter streets and cycle paths, you’ll see all the glory of Westminster, palatial houses with tree in their windows on the back streets of Kensington and Chelsea, and the world-famous light displays of Sloane Square, Bond Street, Carnaby Street and Covent Garden, with a return that catches the particularly picturesque and iconic views from Waterloo Bridge.
www.londonbicycle.com, Gabriel’s Wharf, Southbank. Tours take place from 3.30pm daily until 5th Jan and are suitable for children over 10.
Nearest stations: Waterloo and London Waterloo East.
7. Dennis Severs’ House at Town Hall Hotel
Haven’t made it to Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields? The characterful and lovingly preserved Victorian four storey home-meets-museum paints a ‘still life drama’ with the 18th Century Huguenot family at the centre. At this time of year guests are treated to wandering the house’s candle-lit chambers whilst stepping into the family’s yuletide celebrations. This year, the team behind the house have extended their Christmas installation to the grand Edwardian halls and corridors of the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green. Get throughly into the festive spirit with the hotel’s seasonal menu inspired by the house, with dishes including sloe gin and treacle cured salmon, wild boar penny pies and douglas fir roasted haunch of venison.
Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, E2.
Nearest stations: Cambridge Heath and Bethnal Green tube.
8. Volunteer in the capital this Christmas
One of the best things you can do (at any time of year, let alone Christmas) is give back. Whether it’s managing donations or working in a soup kitchen, brighten up someone’s day and hopefully even someone’s year by bringing them some cheer will a small act of kindness. Crisis organise the largest volunteering initiative in the country and seek over 10,000 volunteers for a huge variety of roles. With just one day’s notice you can help transform a site with festive decoration or bring cheer late into the night. There are even roles to run feel-good activities such as massages, cooking and crafts, and you can volunteer with friends too. Team London makes volunteering in the city incredibly easy. Simply search from over 50,000 opportunities by interest and area and you’re guaranteed to find a role to suit you.
9. Go sledging on Hampstead Heath (if snow comes)
If enough snow falls, then head for new heights. Visit to the highest point in the capital at Whitestone Pond in Hampstead (between the West Heath and Hampstead Heath) or check out Parliament Hill for some stellar views and great powder (probably). Or if you’re south of the river, try Brockwell Park in Brixton for a range of slope gradients so there’s something for everybody. It’s also near plenty of welcoming cafes to warm up in. This excellent guide will equip you with everything you need to know to choose the best spots for sledging.
Whatever you’re up to this festive season, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Visiting Somerset or have friends celebrating in the West Country? Take a look at our 10 festive things to do in Bristol & Bath.
This article was originally published on the Farmdrop blog in December 2016 and has been updated.