Let’s be honest: Christmas is not one of those holidays that people typically think of traveling to a new destination. Typically, we either stay home or we travel to see family. This means there’s an opportunity if you’re a savvy traveler who wants to see London; whether you don’t celebrate Christmas, want a quieter and/or more private holiday this year, or just snag a deal on airfare, visiting London at Christmastime can be a great option.
London is definitely a good holiday/Christmas destination too: the city adorns itself with festive light displays, you can explore the winter/holiday markets to find truly unique souvenirs, sample British dishes that are only offered during the holiday season, and best of all, avoid the crowds that flock to the city literally every other week of the year.
That said, Christmas is still a holiday in the U.K., and your experience in London on Christmas Day (and the following, Boxing Day) will be quite different than the days on either side of it. It’s important to know what you’re in for: will the Tube be running? What’s even open? Can you get a delicious Christmas feast or is every restaurant closed?
In this guide, I’ll share all the essentials: the basics of what’s open, some unique things to do on Christmas Day in London (literally they’re only offered this one day!), and tips for December 26th (Boxing Day) too. Rest easy: you’re going to have a great time visiting London in late December – and make some special holiday memories, too (if you want to!).
Editor’s note: If you can believe it despite my having lived in London, I’ve actually never been in London on Christmas Day! (I spent my holidays in Italy, which is special too.) To help write this guide, I’ve asked my fellow LOMM writer who has spent many holidays in the city. – Valerie
What’s Open in London on Christmas?
Christmas is a big deal in England and, as a result, most things are closed on the actual Christmas Day. If you’re in the city then and want to do more than snuggle up in front of a log fire at your vacation rental or in the hotel lobby, planning will be key to getting the most out of your trip!
You could do as the English (used to) do and head to church: St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, and St Martin’s in the Field (Trafalgar Square) all hold services on the day.
Both Chinatown and the royal parks, such as Hyde Park and Victoria Park, are also open on the 25th of December. You can cheer for the brave swimmers at the 9 a.m. Peter Pan Cup in Hyde Park. (Every year since 1864, The Serpentine Swimming Club has held its annual 100-yard swimming race on Christmas Day.) Alternatively, if you want to participate instead of spectate, head over to the Hampton heated pool for a dip – don’t forget to book advance tickets! – or to JW3 ice rink in North London for some ice skating.
How to Get Around on Christmas Day in London
London – the entire United Kingdom, actually – is notoriously difficult to traverse on Christmas Day, unless you have your own car or very deep pockets. Trains (outside London) are limited and public transport (Tube, bus) does not run so your options will basically be:
- A Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour (more below)
- Paying through your nose for a cab (which charge premium rates on the holidays)
All this to say: be prepared for it to be difficult to travel around London on Christmas Day. Be sure to bundle up, put on the right footwear, and explore the city a bit more slowly.
Things to Do in London on Christmas Day
As previously mentioned, London is both “almost entirely closed” and there are a few unique things to do in London on Christmas Day. Here are some of my favorites to inspire you to make the most of the holiday.
1. Christmas Lights London by Night Bus Tour
If you’re spending Christmas in London and love festive lights, Christmas Lights London by Night Bus Tour is a must-do! This 90-minute tour of London’s gorgeous Christmas lights is the best way to see and photograph the city sparkling in the holiday season.
There’ll be a live guide (English-speaking) to bring London’s most iconic sights, all decked out in their festive glory, to life for you. Your guide will regale you with stories about Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Regent Street, and more! (Note that there may be slight changes to the route and tour duration depending on the traffic conditions.)
2. London Christmas Day Lunch Cruise
Another fun thing to do in London on Christmas Day is the London Christmas Day Lunch Cruise. (There’s also a dinner option if you prefer an evening cruise.)
You’ll enjoy a welcome drink (sparkling wine), a four-course traditional Christmas meal, and tea or coffee over three-plus hours cruising the River Thames. The meal can be adapted for vegetarians, but the company will require advance notice.
On your journey, you’ll enjoy live music and iconic London sights such as Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, and Canary Wharf. Don’t forget to come in your Christmas best, as there’s a smart-casual/ festive dress code!
3. Christmas Day Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour
Public transport isn’t the best on Christmas Day but thankfully London’s iconic Hop-On/Hop-Off Bus Tour (also sometimes called the “HOHO” bus, which is particularly fitting!) still runs, departing every 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Unless you have your own car, this is probably the most affordable way to see as much of the city as possible on the 25th (other than walking, that is). The bus ride will take you to London’s most famous attractions, such as the Tower of London, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace.
On certain journeys (not all), the Christmas Day Bus Tour will have a live guide to share London Christmas tales with you!
4. Take a Stroll in London’s Parks
To walk off your Christmas meal, why not go for a wander in one of London’s many parks? As previously mentioned, all of the royal parks are open on
At Richmond Park, the largest London Royal Park, you may spot some intrepid Londoners riding their horses next to some of the 350 fallow deer who freely range the area.
For something more central and more (human) company, head to Hyde Park where you can cheer on the Peter Pan Cup swimmers! (See more below.) Alternatively, try St. James’s Park – you’ll get great views of Buckingham Palace and this may be your one chance to get an unobstructed view of the famous London landmark!
5. Watch the Peter Pan Cup Swimming Race
An unusual thing to do in London on Christmas Day is watch the 100-yard Peter Pan Cup Swimming Race, one of London’s oldest Christmas traditions dating back to 1864. Unfortunately, unless you are a member of the Serpentine Swimming Club which competes regularly throughout the year, you cannot take part. However, you can certainly cheer the swimmers on- some sporting Santa caps!- from 9 a.m. sharp.
Fun fact: The name comes from the fact that the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, presented the Peter Pan Cup between 1904 and 1932.
Where to Eat in London on Christmas
When I used to spend Christmas in London in the early 2000s, there were very few places to eat besides Chinatown! Luckily, you have more choices in 2023: besides Chinatown, some hotel bars and London pubs stay open on the 25th. (If you really want Chinese food, Christmas deserves something more special than your regular Chinatown haunt so why not try the Peking duck at Mei Ume?)
I highly recommend booking in advance if you plan to eat out on Christmas. Other places to check out for the 25th include:
- The Flask in Hampstead: recommended for a warm and cozy traditional English Christmas lunch
- Cadogan Arms: you have to pre-order your meal
- Riding House Cafe Fitzrovia: a short walk from the Oxford Circus Christmas lights
- Salaam Namaste: if you’re looking for a more affordable option
- Sea Containers: open for Christmas lunch and dinner, set next to the beautiful River Thames
- The Windmill (Clapham): for a meal that champions British farm produce
I wrote a whole guide to restaurants open on Christmas in London if you want more details on these or other options.
What About Boxing Day?
If you’re not familiar with the term Boxing Day, it refers to the day after Christmas/December 26th. Brits have a great love of Boxing Day too, as they often need to recover from the festivities (and mulled wine enjoyed) the day before.
The most famous Boxing Day “activity” in London is the annual Boxing Day sale, where you can enjoy terrific discounts of up to 80%. (You can think of it as the British Equivalent of the Black Friday sale.) It’s a good chance to spend any cash or gift cards you might receive as holiday gifts this year.
However, there are many other fun things to do, such as heading to the theatre to watch a popular musical (you’ll need to pre-book tickets) or visiting Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland where you can eat, drink, ice-skate, listen to music or sit on fairground rides.
Note that although Boxing Day is a public holiday, life is almost back to normal in London. Many restaurants (not all) will be open and limited public transport will resume. (Check the Transport for London website closer to the date for more details, as there are often closures and service changes.)
Have any questions about Christmas in London and how to make the most of your time there this holiday season? Let me know in the comments!