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Christmas in London for 9 days with teenagers

I traveled to London December 20-29th with my two teenage daughters, 17 & 19 years old (one of whom is neurodivergent). With some airline credit that was set to expire at the end of 2023, we decided on a trip to London over Christmas (I've been before, first time for my kids). At first, I was hoping to split our time between London and somewhere like Bath or York, but between general transit restrictions Dec 24-26 plus scheduled repair work on certain lines, we decided just to stay in London for the full 8 nights. Overall, we were focused on history, art, Christmas festivities, markets, and street food. 

Day 1 & 2 / Wednesday-Thursday: Seattle -> Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic. Happy we were able to get out of Seattle as heavy fog was rolling in (and resulted in various flights getting delayed or diverted not long after we left), we were hoping to get 4-5 hours of sleep on the flight over and probably all got somewhere between 3-4, though landed shortly before 10am feeling ok. We were at Paddington station by 11am via Heathrow Express, I had pre-purchased tickets about 3 months prior to get discounted rate. I opted for a taxi to our AirBnB in Pimlico (~25-30 minutes with traffic, £20) so my kids could see some of the city enroute. We were able to check in early and were out the door by 12:30p to start exploring. Our plan was to take the tube to Covent Garden and slowly walk back, exploring lights/shopping/people around Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, St. James' Park, Westminster Cathedral (not Abbey) on our way back to our apartment. I ended up opting for Oyster cards for them since neither of them had contactless credit cards. It's not the cheapest way, but it was the easiest for them and worked great for us (I used my contactless credit card for all bus/tube rides the whole trip). Deeply regretting taking the stairs up at Covent Garden station - a 3 story spiral staircase that nearly did me in after jetlag/fatigue/not eating - we were thrust into the heart of a very, very busy Covent Garden. Lots of walking around and exploring, stopped into the Neal's Yard food hall for snacks, plenty of street performers and holiday lights. On to Trafalgar Square and a quick browse through their Christmas market. Most stalls were not so much artisan things as they were more mass-produced goods in the realm of hats, mittens, ornaments, pottery, etc., but a lively crowd and plenty of food to choose from. We walked through St. James' Park as it was getting dark, quite empty but felt safe, and took in the sights along the way. We picked up a few things at the Cardinal Walk Marks & Spencer, then popped into Westminster Cathedral for a few minutes before finally arriving at our apartment around 6pm. 

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Day 3 / Friday: Borough Market, Winter on the River market, Tower of London. Our first full day in London. I had originally planned to get to ToL early per advice I'd read, but we were a little slower to get up and going so I decided to switch it around and start at Borough market then make our way over to ToL and am glad we did (our ToL tix specificied date but not time). We took the tube and arrived at Borough Market around 10:45am, it was starting to bustle, but still easy enough for us to make our way through. We sampled a few food stalls; I hastily ordered some fish and chips for my daughter at a busy stall without looking at the menu, and as here in Seattle you generally say how many pieces of fish you want, I said something like "2 pieces" and ended up with 2 whole fish. Oops! From there, we headed east along the river as the Winter on the River Christmas market was happening, spread along a stretch leading up to the Tower Bridge. I really liked this market, it was way more relaxed, busy but without the crush of the Trafalgar Square or Borough markets, and had some interesting things for sale - again, mostly mass-produced items, but somewhat unique. We lost track of time a bit and didn't arrive at Tower of London until about 2pm (no line to get in), in time for a Yeoman tour which lasted ~an hour. The tour was highly entertaining and was one of my daughter's favorite things we did in London. While we didn't have as much time as I was originally planning, the later arrival seemed to provide smaller crowds and we were able to just walk in and out of everything at our leisure - including the Crown Jewels as there was no line to get in. Stopped for dessert crepes at one of the food trucks outside, then headed back to Pimlico as I needed to pick up our pre-ordered Christmas dinner at Marks & Spencer by 6pm. We had intentions of eating at a restaurant that night, but decided eating take-out from the Pizza Express across the street from our apartment was where we were energetically and it worked for everyone. 

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Day 4 / Saturday: V&A museum, Churchill War Rooms, National Portrait Gallery. One of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was the Victoria & Albert museum and it did not disappoint! No tickets or security, we just walked right in. Saturday before Christmas, it was busy but didn't feel crowded at any point. I loved many parts of the collection and personally think the cast courts are must-see. I had lunch at the cafe there, it's a large modern space with fairly healthy options - my soup and salad were both very good. As we were doing some holiday shopping, we stopped in many museum gift shops and the V&A was my favorite as far as diversity of selection and quality. In the 2.5 hours at V&A, one daughter and I spent our whole visit on the first floor while my other daughter made her way through the entire museum. I'll definitely return to see more next time. I bought our Churchill War Room tickets the day before for entry between 1:30-2p; we arrived shortly before 2p and there was no line to get in. The Churchill museum (midway through) was excellent, the war rooms are narrow hallways and snug when it's busy so didn't allow much opportunity to linger, but was definitely interesting. Including a quick snack at their cafe (underwhelming), we were there for maybe 1.5-2 hours. From there, we made our way up towards Trafalgar Square with no particular goal other than finding somewhere to eat. We stopped into a pub for a quick refreshment where my daughters enjoyed the novelty of being ID'd; mulled wine was everywhere for the festive season! This evening I didn't follow one of my hard-learned "traveling with kids" lessons to eat at the first place that looks reasonable; we passed up a not-too-busy festive pub and instead trudged further into the heart of chaos, eating at Mother Mash in Covent Garden. Saturday night before Christmas, the streets were PACKED. We were able to get seated right away, dinner there was ok, but the crowded streets pushed one of my kids to the brink and she opted to take the tube home right after dinner. My other daughter and I decided to check out the National Portrait Gallery as it was open late. No line to get in, not busy, we wandered at our leisure and had many rooms to ourselves. I liked this museum more than I expected. We caught a bus home, stopping in for a late snack at a nearby restaurant.

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Day 5 / Sunday (Christmas Eve): Harrod's, Royal Albert Hall Christmas carol concert. All the major attractions, museums, etc. were closed December 24-26 and transit was closing down early that evening, so it was a day of shopping and entertainment. I had wanted to visit the Food Hall at Harrod's and I suspect we visited during one of their busiest 2-hour periods of the entire year...Christmas Eve on a Sunday at noon, it was truly wall to wall people in the fresh food market. The food selection was amazing and we did navigate the hordes of people to pick up a lot of gift items to take home, as well as some things for Christmas dinner. This was a venue which was *way* too crowded for one of my daughters and resulted in sensory overload, mostly resolved by leaving the food hall as the rest of the store wasn't particularly crowded. We intended to eat Sunday roast at a local pub, but again weren't moving as quickly as we would have needed to to also make our 3pm show at Royal Albert, so opted instead to stop at the photogenic EL&N cafe on our walk between Harrod's & RAH (pretty quick service as it was empty, decent food). A 10 minute walk to Royal Albert Hall where we were able to check the large shopping tote full of Harrod's food/wine. The carol sing-along concert was fast moving and fun. I bought the tickets in late August at which time there was plenty of availability. The royal orchestra has a sense of humor; they came out after the intermission in festive costumes of their choosing - from silly hats to light-up sweaters, full grinch and snowman costumes to one section in full-body pea costumes and halos (heavenly "peas") - it was definitely a joyful environment. We had contemplated going to Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park after the show but decided instead to head back to Pimlico for a very nice dinner out at Iberia (Georgian food). 

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Day 6 / Monday (Christmas Day): movies at home, Christmas dinner, walk to Battersea Park. It's not often on an international trip that I would plan one entire day of just staying in, but with everything closed this was a nice kind of forced-pause in our activities. We watched movies, prepared the Christmas dinner from Marks & Spencer (vegetarian Wellington was excellent) only setting off the smoke detectors once :), then decided to go for a walk in the afternoon. I had originally posted in this forum about possibly attending evensong at Westminster Abbey at 3pm on Christmas Day; it's a non-ticketed event and seemed like a lovely experience for Christmas Day, but I woke up with a mild randomly occurring cough, and felt self-conscious about disrupting the service so we instead walked along the Thames, over Chelsea bridge and through Battersea Park. We reached the park around dusk so didn't get to walk around much, but seems like a nice one to explore. We noticed a coffee stand open on the far side so walked over for hot chocolate and cake. One of my kids wanted to ride Santander bikes on the way back, so we picked some up near the Chelsea bridge and had an easy ride back. The hardest part was finding a place to park them as, unlike Lime bikes, they must be returned to a rack to stop the clock on paying for them. I assume that's usually easier, but on Christmas Day all the racks were totally full or someone else just beat us to the one or two open spaces. But they're cheap, easy to rent and racks are fairly ubiquitous. During our walk there were more restaurants open on Christmas Day than what I was imagining given what I'd read; we would have just eaten at the Indian restaurant across the street from the apartment if we hadn't gone through the effort of ordering Christmas food.

Day 7 / Tuesday (Boxing Day): Camden Market, Peter Pan panto at the Palladium. We took the tube up to Camden around 10:30am. I don't know how the Boxing Day crowd compared to other days, but it felt manageable to me and we liked the maze of shops and buildings. We all stopped and ate whatever caught our attention, so combinations of pho, burgers, and noodles. I skipped the Cyberdog rave store because honestly the lights seemed seizure-inducing, but my kids thoroughly enjoyed it. The Dr. Martens store there has a cool little museum upstairs covering the history of their boots which we had completely to ourselves. We were at Camden Market for about 3-4 hours before heading down to Soho via tube. Soho on Boxing Day was a real scene. So. Many. Shoppers. We walked the streets to see the holiday lights...Carnaby Street was most impressive! The Liberty store was very festive and the whole area was high energy. We stopped into a Spanish tapas bar for a snack before our 5pm show; I was chatting with the hostess and when some rude tourists passed by ignoring her request to wait to be seated, I commiserated with her as I own a business dealing with a lot of customers myself. When I asked for the bill, it was about £25 less than what it should have been and I said I think something's missing...with a wink and a smile, she said nothing's missing, thanks for being good customers. It was a helpful example for my kids to see that sometimes it literally pays to extend kindness! Then off to the Palladium for our panto; when I booked these tickets back in September, my kids really didn't get why I wanted to go. The more I explained what a panto is, the more blank stares and "bruuhhhh" responses I got. So, expectations were, shall we say, muted. Happily, everyone LOVED the panto! For whatever local-politics humor we might not have understood, there was plenty of universal, smutty, silly humor. The costumes! The musical numbers! The acrobats! It was a joy and I'm so, so glad we went. One of my favorite things we did.

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Day 8 / Wednesday: Westminster Abbey, National Gallery. Because our travel dates shifted slightly a couple times, we only had the AirBnB for the first 6 nights then moved to a nearby hotel (Georgian House Hotel near Victoria station - comfortable, great breakfasts). We packed up that morning and dropped our bags before heading over to Westminster Abbey. I had prebooked our tickets a week or so earlier. We signed up for the verger tour (additional £30); I probably could have skipped the tour, though it was informative and moved us quickly through the (heavy) crowds, allowing us to access spaces which were closed off to the general public. We ate at the beautiful Abbey cafe and enjoyed our meals. Our afternoon was somewhat undecided and we ended up heading to the National Gallery. Because I could no longer reserve tickets in advance, we had to wait in line (~15-20 min) and it had started raining pretty hard which seemed to push people from the Trafalgar market towards the museum. Once inside and through the security screening, the museum was absolutely packed. We spent an hour or so walking through, though I imagine we may have stayed longer on a less-busy day. From there, it was back to the hotel for a little rest for the kids, and a trip to a local urgent care clinic for me as I suspected (correctly) that I had developed an ear infection. Side note on the urgent care: because I didn't want to spend a lot of time waiting, I booked an appointment at a private clinic near Victoria station for £99. The appointments were bookable online every 15 minutes, and were plentiful day-of. I saw the doctor right away and within 10 minutes was out the door, antibiotics in hand. I don't know how locals view these private clinics vs. NHS, but I would consider 10 minutes in and out with a diagnosis and prescription in hand an absolute world-record time at any US clinic, so I considered it a great success! We ordered Uber Eats from Giraffe; food was tasty and easy.

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Day 9 / Thursday: Hampton Court Palace, Richmond, Christmas at the Kew. After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we walked to Vauxhall station and caught a train to Hampton Court. I bought tickets at the station for £11 total (discounted when I bought 3 together). The train ride was about 30 minutes out there and just a 2 minute walk from the Hampton Court station to the palace. I didn't buy tickets in advance and there was no wait to walk up and buy tickets when we got there around noon. We spent a out two hours there, including waiting in line for a while at the Cafe (food was reasonable). It was an interesting space, the apartments probably being what I enjoyed most. We walked through the gardens briefly which I'm sure are much more enjoyable when it's not cold and raining. From there, we took an Uber to Richmond for about £18; there was no wait as he was pulling up to drop someone else off at Hampton Court, not sure how easy it usually is. We spent the ~30 minute ride answering questions about Christmas and the US while our driver told us about his Diwali traditions. One of my daughters slept the whole way, so it was a nice break from a day filled with lots of walking. Richmond has a pretty cool village vibe, somewhere I'd definitely be happy to return to and spend more time. We walked by the Prince's Head pub (from Ted Lasso), picked up an empanada around the corner and did some window shopping. We took a break at a pub, largely for bathroom access, then took the short tube ride to Kew Gardens for our 4:40pm entry time to Christmas at the Kew. We had to wait in line about 5-10 minutes to get in, but once inside it was leisurely and didn't feel overly crowded. I've seen a fair number of these types of botanical garden light displays, and this one was the biggest and best I've seen. Each display is essentially an art installation with music accompanying them. Lots of food and drinks along the walk, it took us about 70 minutes to circle the whole thing including a stop for hot chocolate. A 30-minute tube ride back to Victoria station, we stopped at M&S for final snacks for the flight home and souvenirs. They had a really good selection of fresh sandwiches, pastas and salads, so that was our final dinner in London. 

Day 10 / Friday: London->Seattle. This was the only day the tube didn't go smoothly for us. We had to wait almost 20 minutes for the circle line to Paddington due to some unspecified delay on the track which delayed our Heathrow Express ride by a couple trains. We got to the airport around 10am for a 12:25pm flight and had to check luggage as we employed our packed duffle and had too much to carry on. It took almost an hour to get our bags checked, but fortunately security was almost no wait at all and I had time to grab sandwiches from Pret before heading to the gate.

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What worked well: traveling with my kids a lot as a single parent, one big lesson around food is adhering to path of least resistance; we eat street food for breakfast/lunch because it allows anyone to stop whenever they see something they like. I also used the cafe at almost every museum and attraction we went to as they're fast, convenient, and the quality is usually adequate. Dinners go best when I remember to just eat at the first place that seems viable the first time someone says they're hungry...it goes off the rails quickly when we pass up options and people get hungrier and grumpier. Timed reservations for attractions overall worked well for us because my kids know what the plan is and I don't hear as much "can't we just go back to the hotel?". Generally, we had no more than 2 big things each day (ex: V&A, Churchill War Rooms) which allowed enough flex in our schedule to not feel super rushed or too aggressive. I'd prefer to be out the door earlier but letting that be more like 10-10:30 makes the kids happier. Staying somewhere easy to access via public transit was key, as was me being ok with evenings in so they could recharge. Two of us are vegetarian and found all restaurants did an excellent job of providing/labeling vegetarian options.

What I'd do differently: there were a few places we just couldn't fit in that I really would have liked to, like Shoreditch/Spitalfields Market. Such is the way when traveling, and especially when traveling with kids. But in retrospect, I would have loved one more day to have more wandering-with-no-agenda time. The National Gallery and Hampton Court Palace were both kind of meh for the kids. We skipped the British Museum (I've been, they hadn't) because the afternoon we were going to go is when I needed to go to urgent care; bummer, but next time. I also pre-bought tickets for ice skating at Battersea Power Station, but as things shifted closer to the trip I decided to let go of doing that because of itinerary logistics. It was warm and raining that day anyway so I'd only recommend ice skating there if it worked in the moment.

Big thank you to many in the England forum who provided incredibly valuable insights and feedback throughout my planning process!

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Wow you 3 did a lot! Hope you are still enjoying conversations and pictures about your special London Christmas. With the weather being iffy some days, it sounds like the decision to stay in London gave you plenty to do. Good job planning, executing and evaluating!

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You sound like a superb mother and traveler. So well organized, creative, flexible, and generous! Great family memories for sure! One question about the English Christmas markets - do they make their own special mugs for sale with the mulled wine? I love collecting them in the markets in Germany and France....

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Excellent report. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like the teens enjoyed there first visit to London.

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I enjoyed reading this, especially since we are taking our niece this May. We have been but she has not.

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Julie, thank you for the kind words! That's a good question about the mugs...I saw the mulled wine at pubs and at Borough Market (no mugs for sale), and I know it was available at the different Christmas markets but I didn't go into the larger "drinking garden" at each one which may be where they would sell them? Maybe someone else knows for sure...

Mona, it did work out really well to stay in London the whole time!

BethFL, perhaps you've already been and have thoughts on it, but I would consider Spitalfields Market if that seems at all up her alley. I had heard good things about it, especially for teens, and wish we would have been able to fit it in.

Claudia, I learned a lot from your comments throughout the England forum, so thanks for all you contribute here!

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What a lovely trip and report! And I think your decisions on when to eat are spot on - and apply to most adults I have traveled with, in addition to kids. Ha! I was there Nov 28th-Dec 5th and agree it wasn’t long enough. I could easily have filled several more days (we did some of the same things, of,course). I had been putting off spending time in London (this was my 5th time to England) but it was so much easier than I anticipated. And I agree - Christmas was a great time to be there!

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I'm preparing a trip to London for our family (including two teens), and this is all so helpful. Thank you for the detailed trip report!

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Texastravelmom agree it's such an easy city to visit! And so much to choose from that more days would always be nice.

Amyslidell the things my kids cited as their favorite were Tower of London (especially yeoman tour), Borough Market (go early), Camden Market, V&A Museum, Churchill War Rooms (might depend on the kid), and general people watching/window shopping around Trafalgar Square and SoHo. Have fun!

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Thanks for your London Christmas trip report. What a wonderful time for you and your girls. The Portrait Gallery was closed for renovation when we were there, and Westminster Abbey (Coronation time) was closed, so a return visit is a must. We finally returned to London last April/May after visiting 37 years ago. Now I am hooked. Luckily my husband just comes along on all my planned adventures.
I was thinking of visiting Paris this Christmas, but after some advice on our last International Zoom meeting and reading your report, I am leaning more towards London. I guess I should make a decision soon cause the planning takes way longer then the actual trip.