Visiting European cities during the sparkly festive season is like a little bit of heaven. The key is traveling mid-November to mid-December, right before the hectic holidays kick in, when you’re likelier to find lower prices and fewer tourists. Though it may be wet or frosty outside, many of the enjoyable spots are indoor pursuits—think tearooms, museums, and theaters.
If you travel during the height of the holiday season, prices are at a premium. While many find the premium more than worth it—viewing the experience as a treasured investment—I’m a bit more frugal, so I’ve chosen the late November to early December time frame and still enjoyed plenty of celebrations, decorations, and fancy food fests.
Perhaps because of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or maybe because the British have such lovely traditions, I long for London. One such season, my husband and I emerged from the National Gallery (bonus: all national museums in the U.K. offer free admission) just as the Trafalgar Square tree lighting ceremony began. This annual tradition includes a choir singing carols, with a nod to the Norwegians, as their majestic Norway spruce tree is a gift to her majesty.
On previous trips, we’ve basked in the hilarity of the great British pantomime (or panto), a type of musical comedy for families during the season, where frivolity and outrageousness reigns supreme. The breathtaking Regent Street lights are switched on by a celebrity mid-November amid much fuss, as Regent is the first street in London to adopt this ceremony from 1954, followed by Carnaby and Oxford streets.
Then there is the food. The famous department store Harrods, with its decorative food halls, competes for sales with historic Fortnum & Mason, home of the famed “hampers” (similar to gift baskets). And some of London’s most iconic hotels (Claridge’s, The Goring, and The Savoy) hold full-service, holiday-themed afternoon teas.
For those staying during Christmas itself, tradition calls for indulging in a midday roast lunch, preferably goose or Norfolk turkey and Christmas pudding. Table settings with sparkling crystal and English bone china include playful Christmas “crackers” set aside each dinner plate to be cracked open for a prize inside and a silly joke to be read at the table. This repast is followed by the Queen’s Speech, an annual Christmas message, at 3 p.m., with loyal subjects tuning in.
Where to stay and play in London during the holidays
The Goring: A historic luxury hotel in London’s Belgravia district, famed for its independent style and modern British cuisine. Fun fact: Before she became the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton spent her final night as a “commoner” in The Goring’s Royal Suite before marrying Prince William.
Hazlitt’s: Called “one of London’s best-kept secrets” by Harper’s Bazaar, Hazlitt’s hotel offers visitors old-fashioned hospitality along with friendly yet efficient service. The location is far enough away from the roar of traffic but within a very short walk of popular attractions.
Skate at Somerset House: One London’s most beautiful ice rinks transforms into a winter oasis, ushering in the festive season with a 40-foot Christmas tree.
Winter Market at Southbank Centre: Celebrate winter along the Thames with festive shows, a Christmas market, and seasonal food and drink under twinkling lights.
Spencer House: Yes, that Spencer. Despite its royal ties to Diana, Princess of Wales, the Spencer House holds its own as one of London’s finest surviving 18th-century homes. Everyone from royalty and aristocracy to artists, poets, writers, and politicians have visited the estate.
Covent Garden: The 19th-century piazza is home to one of London’s biggest and best Christmas trees, magical mistletoe chandeliers, and a giant reindeer statue. There’s also ample shopping, with high-end brands like Chanel and Mulberry.
Catherine Addé is a native of Pasadena, a Certified Travel Counselor affiliated with TravelStore and Signature Travel Network She has a Master’s Degree in Tourism Management and has held executive positions with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Windstar and Cunard Line Ltd. firstname.lastname@example.org