Over the years, millions of people have flocked to the UK capital to enjoy a short city-break in the run up to Christmas Attractions . Why not? Being the ultimate retail-therapy destination it is, London’s a fantastic place to come for some serious seasonal shopping musts – and, of course, there’s just so much going on here all-year-round as well. But, what if, this time of year, you’re in the capital with the kids in tow? What can you find to do that’ll not only entertain them but give them marvellous memories they’ll never forget…?
The Southbank Winter Festival
(Belvedere Road SE1 8XX)
Where better to head for entertainment, spectacle and all-round fun in London than the Southbank – the stretch of waterside between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge? Not least at Christmas… in fact, especially at Christmas! Why, though? Well, its Winter Festival’s an all-round, fantastic, family-focused festive jamboree, offering up the likes of seasonal shows, awesome activities and Nordic-themed pop-ups:
• Southbank Centre Wintertime Market (Southbank Centre/ until 30th December) one of the best Christmas markets you’ll come across, this effort serves up 50 wooden chalets vending everything from tasty seasonal treats to local mead to more merry decorations than you could shake a candy cane.
• Finnish Rooftop Sauna (Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden Bar & Café/ until 30th December) yes, this Christmastime, this ultra-elegant venue right in the heart of the capital is indeed home to a Nordic-style sauna, its location proving a big draw, in fact, as it offers a fabulous view of the river and the city’s skyline, as well as changing and showering facilities and warming beverages at the café, of course.
• ABBA Super Troopers (Southbank Centre/ 14th December) what could be more Christmassy than ABBA? Well, granted, maybe a number of different things, but nonetheless, this awesomely immersive exhibit about the Swedish pop gods blends together the likes of original costumes, notes (handwritten), personal snapshots, sketches and more never-exhibited-before artefacts to enable each and every fan and curious mind to throw themselves into the quartet’s ’70s disco-tastic world.
• Ice Music (Royal Festival Hall/ 15th December) yes, ‘ice music’ does actually perfectly describe this performance because, that’s right, Scandi percussionist par excellence Terje Isungset delivers it by playing his unique range of instruments made out of ice – specifically ice horns, ice percussion and an ‘iceofon’; vocals’ll be supplied by Maria Skranes.
• Slava’s Snowshow (Royal Festival Hall/ 18th December 2017-4th January 2018) a genuinely delightful seasonal show for the little ones (which is saying something, as so many can come off as annoyingly twee), each performance of this effort may well feature the usual clowning about, balloons and fake snow, but it’ll also be tempered by an appealing sense of anarchy and off-kilterness – kids’ll doubtless love it; grown-ups should find it equally charming.
Christmas in Leicester Square
(Leicester Square WC2/ 10th November 2017-6th January 2018)
In truth, there are few places more traditionally Christmassy in the UK capital than its premier piazza, Leicester Square. Why’s that? Because it’s slap-bang in the middle of this grand space, right in the very heart of the city, that you’ll discover the giant pine Christmas tree that’s gifted to London by the people of Norway every year in thanks to the UK’s role in the Second World War.
Besides this time-honoured spectacle, though, there’s many more spectacles worthy of checking out here – including, of course, that obligatory combo, a Christmas market and a Santa’s grotto, but also the Southbank’s summer festival showcase team, Underbelly, presenting its Spiegeltent (a pop-up venue hosting a varied programme of festive shows throughout the season). So what performances can you expect this Christmastime? Well, only everything from a Christmas Baby Disco Dance Hall (for under-fives) to Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Medicine Show and Cabaret at Christmas to Fascinating Aida. Entry is totally free but do note that some of the events are ticketed.
Skate at Somerset House
(Strand WC2R 1LA/ open 10am-6pm daily; until 14th January 2018)
Somerset House is definitely where to head this time of year if you fancy the idea of getting your skates on and taking to the ice. That’s because, as it does every year nowadays, the iconic 18th Century venue on the Thames’s north bank has turned its copious and stunning courtyard into an 900sqm outdoor ice-rink for all and sundry to enjoy – and thousands do.
With the beguiling backdrop of the building’s oh-so elegant Georgian architecture wherever you look, it also offers visitors a number of irresistible extras on top; a Fortnum & Mason lodge handling dining requests (everything from cheese fondue to minced pies and smoked salmon to raclette) and serving mulled wine and champagne while, come the evening, guests are serenaded by a soundtrack supplied by DJs from Peckham-based radio station Balamii and the acts Eat Your Own Ears and Supa Dupa Fly from the summer festival Field Day.
Additionally, there’s a Skate Lounge serving further alcoholic beverages and a Christmas Arcade, handy for some festive shopping; both of which can be accessed whether you have a ticket for actual skating on the rink or not.
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
(Hyde Park W2 4RU/ open 10am-late; until 1st January 2018)
Having swiftly established itself as a premier must-visit, multi-event festive attraction for families over the last few years, Winter Wonderland’s back this Christmastime with a, well, giant cracker-sized bang, all right. First up, rivalling Somerset House in the skating stakes, it offers the largest outdoor ice-rink in the entire UK, while its Christmas markets are filled to brimming with all manner of seasonal tasty treats and bits and bobs to catch your eye and, yes, of course the little ones can visit Father Christmas himself in his grotto in ‘Santa Land’.
Adults may be more enamoured (should they be visiting without the little ones, admittedly) by the seductive delights of both Bar Ice and Bar Hütte – the former a venue made entirely of ice, in which the alcoholic beverages are served in glasses made entirely of ice; the latter a cool, laid-back chalet-like destination that seats no more than 20, boasts a karaoke machine and is ideal for Christmas parties.
More on a family theme again is the extraordinary ice-sculpture-boasting ‘Deep Sea Adventure’ to be found in the Magical Ice Kingdom, where the bright, colourful ice creations bring to (frozen) life magnificent creatures of the oceans; particular highlights being a giant octopus battle and the opportunity to sit on the sea god Neptune’s throne for that must-experience selfie moment. Additionally, there’s two separate circuses to attend – the traditional Zippo’s Christmas Circus and the more daring, adult-oriented Cirque Berserk – as well as the Sooty Christmas Show (featuring everybody’s favourite little ursine TV star and his friends Sweep and Soo), ideal for really young ones. And who could resist fairground rides like rollercoasters and a 60-metre-tall observation wheel; a trip up it affords you a terrific view from high above Hyde Park London of the whole cityscape, day or night!
Christmas at Kew Gardens
(Royal Botanic Gardens TW9 3AB/ open 10am-3.45pm daily; stays open later for special events)
Always popular with visitors from wherever they hail in the world and whatever the time of year, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (as it’s officially known) becomes especially essential this time of the year, thanks to magical illuminations adding bright, vivid, warm shades to the stunning plant- and tree-life of which its over-spilling. The main attraction has to be a full mile-long, glittering pathway that guides guests past enormous flora-influenced lights. kaleidoscopic projections, a fire garden and, yes, singing trees. Mulled wine and tasty snacks are on hand for the grown-ups, while kids can get to meet VIP No.1, Santa himself.
Santa at Battersea Park Children’s Zoo
(Battersea Park, Chelsea Embankment SW11 4NJ/ open 10am-4,30pm; 8th-24th December)
As you may expect, a high-quality children’s zoo is worth taking your little tykes to in the spring, summer, autumn or, indeed, winter – and Battersea Park’s is no exception. Especially because, in the run up to Christmas, you can combine a few hours discovering and getting to know cute critters of all kinds with meeting that icon of the season himself again, Father Christmas. Little visitors to his grotto will be encouraged to share their Christmas wishes, while receiving a small gift, a seasonal treat, a suitable drink and a sticker to remember the occasion by. Be aware you’re advised to book a Santa-visit in advance – and entering the grotto is extra charge on top of the entry price for the zoo itself.
Christmas Tales by Chickenshed
(290 Chase Side N14 4PE/ 5th-30th December)
An intriguing and rather original take on the age-old festive-season tradition that’s the pantomime, the capital’s marvellous storytelling-for-young-ones theatre group Chickenshed have rustled up a treat this Christmas that’s something they like to refer to as a ‘talesomime’. It’s set to feature not just quirkiness by the bucket-load (with character names ranging from ‘Can-Can’ to ‘The Thing that Goes Bleurgh’), but also puppets aplenty, silly songs and sillier dancing, all combining to deliver a supersized extravaganza that’s ideal for kids up to the age of six (babies go free, apparently), dishing up fun and frolics sure to appeal even the toughest of young crowds. You’re advised to book early to avoid disappointment and be aware that each performance runs for around 50 minutes.
ChildLine’s Merry Little Carol Concert
(St. Columba’s Church, Pont Street SW1X 0BD/ 6th December; from 6.15pm)
Held – as it has been in previous years – in aid of the terrific and sadly enormously necessary ChildLine charity, this musical showcase features not just traditional carols (which, of course, you and yours can sing along to), but also celebrity readings (previous famous names delivering them have included actors Natalie Dormer and Martin Freeman) and a seasonal Lindt chocolate treat to take away with you.
Hogwarts in the Snow
(Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden WD25 7LR/ until 28th January)
Sure, Warner Bros. Studios may be a little way out of town (just a short trip by train or coach, however), but they remain enormously appealing for visiting families to the capital intent on enjoying a short-break. And that’s because, yes, they give all guests an opportunity to see with their own eyes the sets on which every one of the Harry Potter blockbuster movies were filmed – thus, it’s the closest surely anyone will get to actually stepping inside J. K. Rowling’s witch-, wizard- and Muggle-filled universe.
And, don’t doubt it, this time of year’s undoubtedly the ideal time to make such a visit, as the place gets a thoroughly festive makeover to reflect exactly how Christmas at Hogwarts school was celebrated on the big screen. To wit, the Great Hall and the Gryffindor Common Room are festooned with decorated pine trees, streamers and more, while snow drifts fill Diagon Alley and the extraordinary scale-model of the whole school (which was used by the filmmakers for crucial special effects shots) gives an idea how on-screen winter is achieved, fascinatingly applied with snow and ice effects, by hand, as it is. Maybe best of all, though, is the fact entry to ‘Hogwarts in the Snow’ is included in the standard ticket price for the studio tour.
The Christmas Forest
(Various locations across London/1st November-24th December)
Finally, while its unlikely should you be visiting the capital during December (and so staying at, say, one of the 4 star hotels in Paddington), you’ll be in the market for purchasing and lumbering back to your accommodation a Christmas tree, you may be interested and even pleased to know that this initiative is going on across the city. What is it? Well, the idea is that for every tree sold at a participating pop-up ‘forest’, another will be planted in African drylands, the project overseen by the Tree Aid charity. A very worthy cause, indeed, and one that seeks to improve the environment and lives of specific populations in nations including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mali. In total, there are 10 pop-up tree-selling ‘forests’ in London right now, spread across areas like Dulwich, Highbury, Finsbury Park, Lavender Hill, Stoke Newington and more.