Between getting married, moving to the UK, visiting 8 countries, and celebrating plenty of professional accomplishments, 2021 was, without a doubt, the craziest and busiest year of our lives. We decided pretty early on that we wanted to stay in London for the holidays so that we could finally take a moment to relax. It was really hard for me to choose to spend Christmas without my family for the first time in my life and miss out on our many celebrations and traditions, but I also knew that this would probably be our only opportunity to experience the magic of London at Christmas.
Andy’s mom decided to join us for the week surrounding Christmas, which was a wonderful excuse to spend time as tourists in our own city — in addition to lots of holiday activities and wonderful meals, we also took her to Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace, etc. Even with the sudden rise in COVID cases due to the Omicron wave, we still had an incredible Christmas in London full of quintessentially British celebrations.
Food & Drink
- Winter Wonderland Tea at The Rubens at The Palace: This is the perfect place for a high-end afternoon tea after visiting Buckingham Palace, which is exactly what we did on my mother-in-law’s first day in town. During the holidays, mulled wine is served alongside the traditional afternoon tea menu, which is absolutely delightful in its own right. The pastries alone were worth the visit — all four options were simply delicious and exquisitely presented.
- Afternoon Tea at The Savoy – Thames Foyer: Tea time at The Savoy is a quintessentially London experience and their over-the-top holiday decorations make the already beautiful space even more stunning. A pianist accompanied various performers in lovely renditions of holiday classics, which made it feel even more festive.
- The Windmill Clapham: We booked Christmas lunch at this charming boutique hotel and pub on the edge of Clapham Common, and it couldn’t have been a better way to experience British Christmas traditions (which was the sole reason I wanted to eat out on a holiday for the first time in my life). The service was wonderful and the menu was a fantastic combination of traditional British holiday foods (mince pies, beef Wellington, etc.) and more modern options, and the atmosphere was nothing short of jolly. Each person received a Christmas cracker and most people decided to wear their paper crowns, which made me feel like I was in a holiday movie.
- The Prince Albert: This two-story pub at the edge of Battersea Park and just down the road from the Royal Albert Bridge is one of our “locals”, and it was a great place for an easygoing Boxing Day dinner. The menu is traditional and simple, but above-average for typical pub fare, and the atmosphere is always very pleasant.
Activities & Attractions
- Carols at the Royal Albert Hall: The carol concerts at the historic (and stunningly beautiful) Royal Albert Hall are one of the most beloved holiday traditions in London. It’s a wonderful mix of modern and classic arrangements from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Choral Society, National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and the British Imperial Military Band, as well as plenty of sing-along carols that make traditionally stuffy Brits simply giddy. We had so much fun despite not knowing all the carols, and I’m confident that attending this concert will be a tradition for us as long as we’re living in London.
- Midnight Mass at Westminster Abbey: Attending midnight mass at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve definitely qualified as a “bucket-list” experience. The holiday decorations only enhance the beauty of one of the most famous and historic churches in the world, and it almost felt surreal to hear the world-famous Abbey Choir sing traditional carols and receive Holy Communion from the Dean of Westminster Abbey. The sermon was also quite nice and perhaps surprisingly more relatable and approachable than we had expected in such a formal setting. The icing on the cake was that it was absolutely free — I just had to reserve tickets a few weeks in advance.
- Hyde Park Winter Wonderland: The annual Christmas festival held in Hyde Park is on nearly every list of best holiday celebrations / Christmas markets around the world, and so many Londoners recommended it to us. We were excited to visit on a Friday night in early December…and couldn’t have been more disappointed. I truly do not understand the appeal of this crowded, dirty, kitschy, and over-priced carnival — it felt much more like a seedy American state fair than a traditional Christmas market. Quite frankly, it was one of the trashiest and least “London” events we’ve attended since we moved here.
- Selfridges Christmas Market on the Mews: The tiny but charming Christmas market pop-up at Selfridge’s is a nice (albeit much smaller) alternative to the gaudy and rowdy Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park. A lovely mix of local food trucks and vendors are arranged alongside over-the-top decorations outside of the world-famous luxury department store, and we spent a nice hour or two here on a Friday night enjoying some of the high-quality cocktails offered by a variety of restaurants.
- The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House: Unfortunately, all performances of The Nutcracker by The Royal Ballet we were suspended between December 21 and January 4 due to staffing shortages related to the Omicron outbreak. We are junior members of The Royal Opera and have really enjoyed the ballet and opera performances we’ve attended since we’ve moved, and I was so excited to see this Christmas classic performed at one of the most beautiful theatres in the world. It will definitely be at the top of our list next year!
- Christmas Carols at St. Paul’s Cathedral: Each year, one of the most famous churches in the world hosts a series of free Christmas carol concerts that are supposed to be absolutely wonderful. We didn’t end up trying to attend a service (the ticketing situation was a bit chaotic given COVID uncertainties), but it’s something I would like to try to do in the future, especially because St. Paul’s is one of our favorite London landmarks.
- Christmas at Kew: The annual after-dark trail of holiday lights around the Royal Botanic Gardens was completely sold out months before Christmas due to rescheduled bookings from 2020 cancellations, but it looks absolutely beautiful. Hopefully we’ll be able to visit in 2022!