Many travellers looking to visit an exciting city in the run up to the festive time of the year tend to think of the likes of New York or Paris as locations to get them in the proper, seasonal spirit (and to get some much-needed Christmas shopping in Christmas markets done too).
But don’t for a second discount London. For not only is the UK capital revered as the home of ‘the man who invented (sort of, at least, the modern) Christmas’, Charles Dickens, it’s also a place that simply can’t resist going into the whole seasonal shebang as much as humanly possible. And, of course, it offers some fantastic Christmas shopping opportunities of its own too.
A good example of this is the growing and ever popular trend of recent years that’s the Christmas market ; a collection of seasonally-inspired, sometimes German- or Nordic-influenced stalls vending everything yule-related possible. Why’s it a good example? Because this year, London boasts a bevy of them…
Southbank Winter Festival
(Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX/ open until early January 2018)
There are few parts of town more appealing and, thus, a drawer of larger crowds whatever the day, week or time of year than the frankly glorious Southbank – the tourist-trap-tastic stretch that runs approximately from the south side of Westminster Bridge to the south side of Tower Bridge. And at this ‘most wonderful time of the year’, the place is making sure it’s in on the act by staging its very own multi-attraction Christmas festival, resplendent with showcase performances and weird and wonderful highlights at its various venues.
And yet, for the purposes of this list, what maybe stands out most on the Southbank right now is the fantastic Christmas market, in which you can really get lost amidst all the colourful, warming and inviting stalls offering up aromatic snacks and festive treats of all descriptions. And best of all, perhaps, has to be the rather wonderful Rekordig Winter Lodge. What’s this? Well, it resembles a traditional wooden Scandinavian house in design (yes, really), but is, in actual fact, a fabulous two-storey pop-up bar that serves up oh-so tasty, often hot Scandi street-food and top beverages – including Rekorderlig cider, naturally.
Christmas in Leicester Square
(Leicester Square WC2/ 10th November 2017-6th January 2018)
It’s Christmas market-a-go-go in Leicester Square right now too. Maybe London’s most famous piazza of all, this patch of square concrete that connects up Charing Cross Road, the Strand and The Mall is blessed all-year-round by the irrepressibly iconic Nelson’s Column and his four bronze lions, of course, but come late Autumn and early winter, the square comes to bright, colourful life (just as the world around it’s getting greyer, darker and colder) thanks to the annual erecting of a giant Christmas tree from the people of Norway – a tradition that dates back to just after the conclusion of the Second World War.
Nowadays, though, that’s the least of all the festive offerings served up in the majestic Leicester Square, for should you pop along you’ll discover there’s something of a seasonal festival going on there everyday at present. The centrepiece is, yes, a Christmas market over-spilling with the usual cornucopia of street-food and yule-related goodies, but also a temporary performance arena (called the Spiegelstage), which has been put up by the Underbelly performance people (the same team that graces the Southbank’s summer festival each year) and is staging a wide variety of Christmassy showcases and events. Oh, and, of course, kids’ll be delighted that they can also meet St. Nick himself in Leicester Square right now.
(Clapham Common, Windmill Drive SW4 9DE/ open until 1st January 2018)
Previously hosted by East London’s Victoria Park, this year’s fun and frolicsome festive event that’s Winterville switches to a location south of the river, the green and leafy expanse that’s Clapham Common. And it appears to bigger and better than ever too – pulling together entertainments and activities that ensure copious and indulgent amounts of eating, drinking, shopping, dancing and skating; in short, all the great stuff that this season should be all about.
As you’d imagine, given this is an entry in a Christmas markets list, the stalls featuring a plethora of various festive souvenirs and paraphernalia as well as the pop-ups serving visitors outstanding seasonally-inspired street food are hard to resist, but – similar to Leicester Square (see above) – it’s all going on just as much in the Underbelly Spiegeltent, where you can enjoy music acts including South London Soul Train, Sink The Pink, Ultimate Power and Norman Jay.
That said, don’t be thinking the kids are left out of the equation because there’s also a full fairground, brimming with all the popular, traditional rides, and ‘Santa’s Workshop’, where the little tykes can get imaginative and come up with all sorts of seasonal creations to wow mum and dad. What’s best of all about Winterville, though? Well, that’d surely be the roller disco. Yes, your read that right; there’s a roller disco – who could resist that, honestly! Please note that although entry to the festival is free during the week, you will be charged to get in on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
(Hyde Park W2 4RU/ open 10am-late; until 1st January 2018)
To be fair, in the short few years it’s been around, Winter Wonderland, housed in the enormous Central London public open space that’s Hyde Park, seems to have come to dominate the Christmas multi-event genre. And it’s hardly surprising; it does prove to be, after all, the daddy of the whole farrago year after year. And this year’s no exception.
Ideal should you be staying one of the Hyde Park hotels and serving up the largest open-air ice-rink in the whole country (installed around the park’s grand Victorian bandstand, on which artists provide a soundtrack to all the eager skaters circling it); a pair of eclectic bar offerings (Bar Ice and Bar Hütte), two circuses (Zippo’s Christmas Circus and Cirque Berserk); major family-friendly, festive-themed shows (Cinderella on Ice and The Sooty Christmas Show); a spectacular ice-sculpture zone (Magic Ice Kingdom’s Deep Sea Adventure); fairground rides aplenty and a giant, 60-metre-tall observation wheel, it quickly becomes obvious just how diverse and impressive its different facets are and why it’s attracting multitudes of visitors from all over the world.
Oh, and, yes, of course, there’s a classic Christmas market too, filled with stalls vending Christmas items, top treats and tasty snacks drawn from cuisine from all over the globe. Just make sure you don’t spoil your appetite if, afterwards, you’re planning on checking out the restaurants near Hyde Park!
London Bridge City Christmas Market
(SE1 2DB/ open until 3rd January 2018)
Several centuries ago, when the temperatures in the UK capital genuinely plummeted in the winter months and stayed down there for weeks on end, it was so cold that the River Thames froze over – and did so to such an extent that ‘frost fayres’ were held on its icy surface to provide an atmospheric and very seasonal highlight for the good people of London Town. Clearly, those days are long gone now, but something of that vibe feels like it’s been recreated in the form of this Christmas market held in the shadow of London Bridge.
Make no mistake, this one’s also a seasonal winner, blessed as it is by magnificent views wherever you look – of the Tower of London, of Tower Bridge and, in the opposite direction, of Waterloo Bridge and Westminster away upriver to the west. Needless to say, what’s actually available at the market’s a bit special too; we’re talking the likes of glorious homemade gifts and fantastic food, all of them vended from charming German-style chalet pop-ups.
In fact, in total, there’s supposed to be 68 separate, independent traders in attendance at this year’s London Bridge Christmas Market (impressive, eh?); plus, of course, as well as the foodie stalls, there’s a smattering of bars where you can buy a delicious Christmas cocktail, a glass of mulled wine, try some hot cider or delight your taste-buds with a craft beer. The perfect thing to sip at then while you watch one of the many performances constantly taking place at the event’s show-space.
Spirit of Christmas Fair
(Olympia London, Hammersmith Road W14 8UX/ open until 5th December)
Technically speaking, this isn’t exactly the sort of thing that tends to spring to mind when you hear or think of the words ‘Christmas market’, given that it’s a festive-related shopping event on an epic scale. Yes, it’s basically a Christmas consumer show and, hosted as it is at the vast Olympia exhibition centre (itself located at the point where Central London meets West London), it boasts as many as 800 separate stalls of vendors, many of them carefully selected by the organisers (thus, you’ll find them selling everything from crafts to toys and unique teas to the finest caviar). There are even workshops in gift-wrapping and festive food preparation.
Be sure to take a note of the thing’s closing date above there, though; it’s not running right up to (or beyond) Christmas like other entries on this list.
Greenwich Wintertime Festival
(College Approach SE10 9LW/ open until 31st December)
Head east down the Thames from Central London and you eventually reach the glorious elegance of Greenwich. Officially a ‘Royal borough’ and of huge historical resonance to the maritime world, Greenwich is now home to a splendid Christmas market too (had you guessed that?). Specifically, it’s the world heritage-listed Old Royal Naval College – one of the district’s many major landmarks (which also include the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and Queen’s House, all of which are also worth checking out whatever the time of year) – that’s home to the Wintertime Festival, as it’s called.
What can you expect? Well, the forecourt of this grand, gracious example of Georgian architecture has been converted into a covered ice-rink, while there’s a Christmas market there too, fit to bursting with craft and design stalls and more. The more here being genuinely more-ish – we’re talking pop-ups vending the likes of traditional festive favourites: mulled wine and mince pies.
That said, Greenwich overall, with its sophisticated olde world vibe, tends to throw itself into the Christmas spirit with gusto, so if you don’t fancy paying extra for ice-skating or visiting Father Christmas (yes, it offers that too, of course) on top of the entry price for a three-hour festival session, why not mooch about the general area instead?
Portobello Winter Festival/ Jolly Hobbies Japanese Christmas Market
(Portobello Road W11 1LJ; 9th-10th December/ St. Mary’s Parish Hall, Cranley Gardens N10 3AH; 10th December; 1-5pm)
Finally, for something a bit different, why not give one of either – or even both – of these ‘alternative’ Christmas markets a go? The first, you may not be surprised to learn, given its location (Portobello Green, possibly the centre of London’s Afro-Caribbean cultural identity), is all about live calypso rhythms, lively Christmas choirs and rum shacks. The latter, by contrast, although being hosted by a church hall in Crouch End, takes Japanese craft-making as its inspiration; serving up stalls selling the likes of beautiful handmade printed fabrics, ceramics and gyoza (pan-fried dumplings – delicious!).