Big on Christmassy feelings but short on cash? Yeah, same. This is your guide to getting a dose of the festives for free.
1. Do a big bike ride of all the Christmas trees in central London
What’s more fun than casting a judging eye over lovely things people have lovingly created to celebrate a lovely part of the year? Not much, really. So, go on, grab a pen and get your most organised friend to make an over-complicated scoresheet. Then head out together on a tour of central London’s big-ass and big-budget Christmas trees. Start with Coal Drops Yard’s new-fangled terrarium-inspired one (made of 70 glass micro-gardens), then make your way past the chubby Covent Garden 60-footer before finishing in Trafalgar Square, home to the extremely tall and wonky boy we are gifted from Norway every single year. Multiple locations.
2. Have a brief spiritual moment on the internet
Get in touch with the so-called ‘true meaning of Christmas’ by tuning into a free live-streamed service from St Paul’s Cathedral this year. That’s right: God’s gone virtual, baby! ‘A Celebration of Christmas’ will air via the famous cathedral’s social-media accounts on December 17 and will be sponsored by the famously holy Lloyds Bank. The lads at big Paul’s promise a) words and b) music that’ll help you mark this special time of year with all the pomp it deserves. (You’ll get a cheeky free glimpse of the beautiful interior too.) For more religion, less bank affiliation, tune into one of the cathedral’s advent services on Twitter through December.
3. Hang around in Harrods for a bit just to feel something
Close your eyes. Imagine thick, glorious boughs of holly, streams of light-reflecting tinsel and shiny presents tied with bows. Imagine the smell of cinnamon, hot chocolate and fresh-cut wreaths. Imagine giant piles of toys, hampers full of luxurious food and… some Burberry-clad child called Milly or Miles screaming for their nanny to buy them a massive teddy. That’s what standing in Harrods or Fortnum’s gets you: 100 percent unfiltered Christmas feels, served with a side of awful kids to give you something decent to bitch to your friends about in this gossipless year. It’s exactly the little pick-me-up we all need in 2020. (Although we'd recommend doing it at an off-peak time as things are getting a little busy around London's favourite Christmas shopping spots at the moment.) 87-135 Brompton Rd.
4. Spend an afternoon in one of London’s pretty villagey bits
Plan a day hanging out in Christmas movie London. The one where Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley and Colin Firth spend a lot of their screen time in December, saying things like ‘gosh’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘oh, that’s terribly nice of you’. You know the bits: pretty houses with stucco fronts, stores that sell only wooden children’s toys. The best spot for this vibe? Notting Hill. There you’ll stumble upon 27 St Luke’s Mews, the place where Mark awkwardly declares his love on cue cards in ‘Love Actually’. Stop by The Churchill Arms while you’re there. It’s a pub that’s decorated with row upon row of Christmas trees strewn with thousands of lights every year. Magical stuff. Multiple locations.
5. Meet the deer in Richmond Park
Did you know that Richmond Park is one of David Attenborough’s favourites? You can understand why: this vast expanse of field and woods in south-west London contains everything from a semi-secret Victorian flower garden (the Isabella Plantation) to a big hill that you can see as far as St Paul’s from. But the best thing about it? The red and fallow deer. They’ve lived there since 1625. That’s when Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague (the OG one) and got the deer to come along too. When you spot them pottering about on a frosty day, it’s about as Christmassy a view as London has. No word yet as to whether they’re distant relatives of Rudolph and his crew, but we’re sure the results of their 23andMe tests will come in any day now. Richmond Park.
6. Take a walk down London’s most Christmassy street
Strolling down Lower Morden Lane in December is like downing a bottle of neat Christmas spirit. The residents of the south London road have decked out their houses in OTT decorations for more than 20 years. We’re talking American suburb decorations – big inflatable Santas, light-up reindeer, massive baubles. It’s got so good at glowing up that people come all the way from bloody Portsmouth to visit. If you want to take a look too, know that the houses are free to peer at but the event is a fundraiser for St Raphael’s Hospice, so it’s good to cough up a couple of pounds if you can. Probably best not to mention electricity bills to any of the locals either. Lower Morden Lane.
7. Peruse pretty snowscapes at the National Gallery
For all the white stuff with none of the tube cancellations, pay a visit to the many snowstorms in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Start with Hendrick Avercamp’s cockle-warming ‘A Winter Scene with Skaters Near a Castle’ (room 25). Then visit room 44 for Camille Pissarro’s ‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’, a slushy scene that looks towards Crystal Palace, over the hill, just out of view. End with Caspar David Friedrich’s existential ‘Winter Landscape’ in room 45. It features a gothic church looming over the horizon and a forlorn Tiny Tim figure sat on a rock, having abandoned his crutches to pray for salvation. Ahh, festive cheer! Trafalgar Square.
8. Go see the decorations in Piccadilly’s arcades
Oxford Street and Carnaby Street might grab most of the London Christmas lights switch-on headlines every year. (And, fair play, they have had the likes of the Spice Girls and Kylie Minogue pop by to do it.) But there are far nicer twinklers to check out in our city. The real treats can be found in the Burlington and Piccadilly Arcades. These glazed streets run off Piccadilly in the West End and have been home to to quaintly posh stores for more than a hundred years. Strolling through them now is like stepping into a glossy period drama adaptation of London’s past. Piccadilly and Burlington Arcades.
9. Plan a day trip to see the firs in King’s Wood in Kent
Sure, that Christmas tree you’ve got in your kitchen-lounge is pretty. Good height, Decent girth. Looks great with those knowing novelty ‘Tiger King’ baubles you bought from Stoke Newington Church Street to gussy it up. But isn’t it sad that, here in London, we only ever see firs in captivity? Every year we cut them off from their roots and drag them into our tiny flats to die alone. Wouldn’t it, for once, be nice to see them frolicking (metaphorically) in the wild habitats where they belong? Well, you can, if you go on a day trip to King’s Wood in Kent: 1,500 acres of former royal hunting forest, dotted with sculpture trails. It’s roughly an hour and a half’s drive from London’s true centre (M&M’s World) and offers hundreds of opportunities to see Christmas trees chilling with their families and friends in the wild. Ashford, Kent.
10. Wander along the South Bank
It’s one of those things that people who live in not-London imagine Londoners must do all the time. ‘Just a little wander down the South Bank, maybe go up the Oxo Tower then dinner at Zizzi!!!’ And, to be honest, why don’t we? Strolling along the South Bank on a December evening is hella festive. There are the smells of mulled wine and roasted nuts. There’s the twinkling of lights on the nearby bridges and their reflections in the Thames. This year it’s all even Christmassy-er thanks to ‘Winter Light’: a series of glowing artworks commissioned by the Southbank Centre. ‘Winter Light’. Southbank Centre. Until Feb 28 2021.
11. Go to a Christmas market
The pandemic might have claimed office Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve and our happiness, but one thing it hasn’t swallowed up is window shopping. There’s a handful of free-entry Crimbo markets still running this festive season. Perhaps Selfridges’ mews-side one (with fairground rides, gift stalls, street food and a ‘tunnel of light’ installation) might be for you? Maybe you’d rather support local creatives at Pexmas Emporium (a feast of stocking fillers at Copeland Park). If it’s raining? Greenwich’s indoor night market, running on Wednesdays through December, offers all things handmade and eco-friendly. Whichever you pick, may we recommend taking your richest loved one and pointing out things, saying ‘Oh, isn’t that nice! I wish I could buy it to put my monstera in!’ before running off ‘to the toilet’ to give them time to buy it. Multiple locations.
12. Witness a living advent calendar in Walthamstow
Back in 2015, a community art project was launched in Whitehall Park, Highgate. The plan was for 24 volunteers to turn their front windows into a giant neighbourhood-wide advent calendar. On each day of December a household would illuminate their window with a pretty design. The aim? To make both volunteers and passers-by feel part of a community and less lonely at a difficult time of the year. (A sentiment that’s needed in 2020 more than ever.) The project is still running and has been joined by another living advent calendar this year in Walthamstow – with windows due to light up on Winns Terrace, Brighton Avenue, Hove Avenue and Camden Road. See how many windows you can spot. Multiple locations.
13. Attend a virtual carol concert
Absolute West End head? Here’s a treat for you. The stars of shows like , ‘The Lion King’, ‘Mary Poppins’ and more are coming together to put on a virtual Christmas singalong on December 11 for movement disorder charity Naomi’s Garden. Meanwhile, you can catch a glimpse of the beautiful Lambeth Palace while streaming its concert ‘A Starry Night’ on December 15. Expect appearances from the English National Opera Choir and the Male London Welsh Rugby Choir. Disclaimer: you’re going to want to donate some money to the organisers because, while they are free, they are also fundraisers. Tickets for both available via Eventbrite.
14. Have a moment of peace and quiet in Croydon
Christmas can be an overwhelming time in a normal year. Add to that the whole massive, horrible pandemic thing and it’s no wonder many Londoners are feeling frazzled. Want to counter that? Take part in Peace in the Park at Croydon’s Coombe Wood Gardens. It’s a season of walking, sharing and guided meditations in the forest with a little tree-hugging thrown in too. A perfect antidote to the horror of Zoom work Christmas parties. Coombe Wood Gardens. Every Wed until Jan 6 2021. Tickets available via Eventbrite.
15. Go to a pop-up like it’s the old times
What would Christmas in London be without a gaudy pop-up? This year’s big ones have all been canned. There’ll be no Winter Wonderland. But do not fear. Winter Village (pictured above) is landing at Battersea Power Station. There you can stroll through 100 Christmas trees before having a chill on a jetty by the Thames. Wavey Garms is also putting on its XXXmas Pop Up in Walker’s Court in Soho. It’s an option if you’re less keen on firs, more keen on Sports Banger and posh teenagers in vintage tracksuits. Multiple venues.
More free sights to see? Seek out these secret wonders of London on your next walk.
And check out more incredible Christmas light displays in London this year.