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London for the Christmas Lights

Made a quick trip to London before Christmas with DH. We’ve traveled there often over the years for business and holidays, but this trip was to see the lights and some theatre, hear some top-notch Christmas concerts, and finish the Christmas shopping.
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Flew direct on Delta from ATL on the Sunday 10PM, topped up our vintage Oyster cards with 7-day Travelcards, and took the Piccadilly tube directly from LHR to Earl’s Court. Stayed at the Marriott Kensington, a five minute walk from the Earl’s Court tube station, from which the Circle, District, and Piccadilly lines are fast direct rides to most places visitors are headed in London.

These late direct flights, and drugs, are my only hope of sleep on planes, and this time it worked! We had 5PM reservations at the Darwin Brasserie at the Sky Garden and planned to get there early to catch the sunset views. The Monument tube stop is just around the corner. I missed the window for the free tickets, but dinner there was a good experience. The entrance line was daunting, but if you have dinner reservations you skip that line completely and are zipped up a separate elevator. We were seated at a corner table on the 36th floor of the building Londoners call the walkie-talkie, with views overlooking the Tower of London on one side and the Thames on the other. Will bring friends back for this one.

Tuesday morning we had blue skies when walking into the Natural History Museum to see the 2023 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit. Museum gift shops are my favorite places for Christmas gifts, and I found something for my rock collector here. Blue skies were over when we left, but the V&A gift shop next door was a treasure trove, especially for unique earrings.

A quick duck into a Pret for their special turkey/cranberry/dressing Christmas sandwich, then a longer stop at crowded, festive Fortnum & Mason. A taxi got us out of the drizzle to the finally reopened National Portrait Gallery for the Taylor Wessing Photo Portrait Prize exhibit - underwhelming. The museum entrance has now moved up the street and around the corner to a more pedestrian area. Especially liked the new layout on the top floor. What used to be a gallery of ancients is now an interesting collection of British movers and shakers from multiple generations. The monumental square portrait of Queen Elizabeth in her military cape has moved to a prime location downstairs, but my favorite painting of Paul McCartney (Michael’s Brother) has gone into a closet for now.

Light was golden at 3PM when we walked out, a good time for a Covent Garden walkabout. Tonight’s activity is Ex Cathedra:
 Christmas Music by Candlelight at St Martin-in-the-Fields. (I bought tickets in May in hopes I could get to London to hear them!)
https://excathedra.co.uk Stunningly beautiful music in perfect acoustics! Afterward walked out into the Christmas lights and Christmas market at Trafalgar Square. London gets dark so early in winter, but no city does Christmas lights better!

Wednesday morning we started at Somerset House, on the Strand, watching the ice skaters, then into the newly reopened Courtauld Gallery, whose collection of masterpieces is small but mighty, and displayed in a lovely, intimate setting. https://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery
This is one of my favorite places to see fine art, and the new gift shop hidden away on the lowest level has treasures.

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We were not far from St. Paul’s, and hadn’t been there in years. A docent’s tour had just started, and they let us join. It was a free tour, lasting a little over an hour and a half, and was excellent! We went into the Harry Potter tower, down to the crypt, and learned some great history along the way. I don’t know how often this tour happens, but highly recommend.

We had pre-theatre dinner reservations, and not enough time to return to the hotel, so we made a quick visit to a few favorite rooms at the National Gallery (and their gift shops.) I appreciate London’s free museums, especially when I’m short on time or brain cells.

From there we were a short walk to our restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, the Hawksmoor Air Street. Our first time at this location, usually go to Knightsbridge or Seven Dials, but this is my favorite steak restaurant group in London. Sunday Roast is excellent; so is their drinks menu. Best Caesar salad ever. You can run up a steep tab here, but Sunday roasts and set menu prices are very reasonable.

Hamnet at the Garrick Theatre afterward. Maggie O’Farrell is a brilliant British writer, and this was an adaptation by the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I had high hopes and bought tickets as soon as news was released…and didn’t read any reviews. The book was better.

Thursday we started at Borough Market, across from the London Bridge tube station. This is such a fun, festive London institution, and so crowded, even on a weekday. Saturdays are impossible, but I hoped Thursdays would be different, especially in winter! They’ve added some stadium seating and a few tables, which are great in good weather, but not so much on a misty cold day. So many great food choices, to eat or take home. I wouldn’t miss it, but be prepared to stand and eat and juggle your drink. (It’s also a good plan to make reservations at one of the few seated restaurants; a pleasant break after you look and shop.)

We had matinee tickets to A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. This was my husband’s choice, and he was more excited about it than I was. So glad we went! The Old Vic is a small, historic theatre in Southwark. The staging was unique - two raised walkways forming a crosswalk with audience seated on both sides. We were on the front row of the small balcony, looking down on the performance, which was ideal. Before the start, actors pitched satsumas to the audience and others passed out mince pies. There was a string trio, handbells, wonderful music, and a sensitive, creative adaptation of the story. Loved it all. Will see this again if we’re in London at Christmas.

Dinner that night at the new Covent Garden destination restaurant Ave Mario. It’s bold and loud and I’ve had better Italian food in many restaurants in Italy, but all the young servers are Italian, and ours from Napoli was charming. It was fun, and would be ever better with a noisy group of friends. The tiramisu was one of the best I’ve ever had, even in Italy!

Afterward we wanted to see the lights on Carnaby Street, and Soho can be confusing, so we hailed a taxi. This was a good plan. We crept through the narrow streets and traffic, but got to see the best lights of Soho, then walked to Regent Street to see the windows.

Friday we started at Spitalsfields Market for some shopping and fish and chips at Poppies. Back to Oxford Street to the Adidas flagship store to find the Arsenal hoodie, then to Selfridges for their elaborate animated Christmas windows, the best in London! (Harrod’s wasn’t even a close second this year.) Another stunning candlelight concert at St-Martin-in-the-Fields that night, this time with the amazing Tenebrae. https://www.tenebrae-choir.com A late dinner at Wagamama in Covent Garden then home to pack. Going to York for the weekend.

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YORK

By direct train it’s two hours from King’s Cross to York. When we return to London we’re staying at the St Pancras Renaissance, so we packed only what we needed for the weekend and left the rest with the concierge at the Renaissance. (There’s also a place to leave luggage at King’s Cross station.)

In York I booked two nights at the Abbey Guest House, a perfect location and a pristine room overlooking the River Ouse. From the train station we crossed the bridge over the river and ours was the first house on the other side. From the Abbey into the historic center was a 5-10 minute walk along the river or through the beautiful park.

York is picturesque, easily walkable, and a good change of pace from London. I had read they have a good Christmas market. My take was they have a mildly interesting and very crowded market, except for the wonderful local craft market in the Guildhall (but I’ve lived in Germany and think no one’s markets compare to Germany’s and Austria’s.)

What York does really well are breakfasts, antiques, and their Gothic Minster! Our guest house didn’t serve food because there are so many good places nearby that do. Betty’s is the famous one, but the line was always longer than our (actually, his) willingness to wait. We went to Bennet’s across from the Minster on Sunday morning, which was great. Relieved our Sunday Roast reservation at No. 8 Bistro wasn’t until 1:30PM! That lunch ranked up there with Hawksmoor. Sunday roasts are too rare a pleasure to leave to chance, so asked our innkeeper a week ahead to make us a reservation at one of his favorites. Our other memorable food find was authentic Neopolitan pizza from Cresci. (We couldn’t get a table for hours, so walked home and placed a delivery order!)

The most memorable part of our York visit was the 3rd Sunday in Advent service at the Minster. Their famous carillon of bells begins tolling at 10AM, an hour before the service. The advent wreath was the largest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The third candle was lit while it was at shoulder height, then the wreath ascended high into the cathedral. The choristers were glorious, as expected. And the vicar’s sermon referenced this Atlantan’s beloved Congressman John Lewis. A special Christmas memory! (If I had a do-over for York, I would trade the Christmas market for a docent tour of the Minster!)

BACK TO LONDON

Back to London on Monday, checked in to our Marriott within the St Pancras International Station, an impressive Victorian landmark building from outside, with a soaring, beautifully decorated lobby. We’re here only one night before we fly home and wanted to try a new area; also this one’s expensive for a string of nights! They upgraded our room but it looked standard-issue Marriott, and it needed brighter lighting. I think one must go to $$$ range to get a charming Victorian room in the older wing.

We had one final afternoon and far-flung places to get to when our best laid plans caught a wrench. A pedestrian death on the tracks of the Piccadilly line shut down that entire line and overloaded the alternatives for most of the afternoon. We spent a lot of time in taxis but did see festive decorations that we would have missed underground. Side note: London taxi drivers are delighted to take cash, and we dispensed plenty of our remaining pounds sterling that afternoon. LOL

I have always wanted to see a Christmas panto, and on our last night we went (way out) in the East End to Wilton’s Music Hall to see Potted Panto - a slapstick, high energy mishmash of seven classic fairytale pantomimes performed by two actors. Being part of the audience was almost as much fun as what was happening on stage. Lots of yelling back and forth! It’s silly and it’s fun, and now I want to see one at the Palladium with elaborate sets and costurmes.

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London is a great destination in December. By 4PM it’s dark, but the Christmas lights show up much better after dark! It doesn’t get that cold; I never needed my gloves. Maybe we hit a lucky week, but we had rain requiring an umbrella for less than one hour! And glorious Christmas music can be found everywhere. Wishing you adventurous travels in the new year!

PS
Don’t plan on flying out of LHR with your Christmas crackers! Can’t check em; can’t carry them on. Don’t really know why, but we were in the priority Delta line and that’s the one thing they asked if we had. (I didn’t, but only because I couldn’t find the ones with kazoos that I wanted!)

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Thank you for the nice detailed report. Sounds like a great trip. I had a similar London experience about 3 years ago and agree it’s a festive time to visit. I will add that old bond and new bond street are close to Fortnum and Mason. There are a number of fancy boutiques on the street and they had very pretty decorative windows.

A couple of questions.

  • Where is the Selfridge shop you went to?
  • After dinner at the Sky garden were you able to walk around or were the public spaces closed off?

Thanks

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The big Selfridge store is on Oxford St. At the Sky Garden we walked around before our table was ready and again after we finished dinner. I think you can stay as long as you want. There's a bar area on the floor below the Brasserie.

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Ruth, thank you for that trip to London! It sounded like a wonderful experience. And York too of course. I love love the minster and the advent wreath lighting sounded magical.

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Lovely report, Ruth!

I also went to the Old Vic for A Christmas Carol, which my family has loved and has watched every year for the entirety of my adult children’s lives; so it was especially great. I decided a bit last minute and got one of the last 2 seats for my night - first row of the balcony with great sight line. It was pretty fabulous! (And the mince pie was good, too. 🤣) I have to say it was the highlight of my week.

I guess I was there earlier than you, but it was absolutely frozen for several of my days. We needed every layer, hat, and gloves we brought. It did warm up our last couple of days.

Oh, and Christmas crackers? Oops. At the check-in counter the agent asked if we had any in our checked bag. We said no (because they were in our carryons). She did know that - and told us that maybe we’d get lucky and no one would ask. No one asked and they all made it home. Plus mine made an additional flight to Atlanta…. Thanks to a wonderful forum friend, my kids and I have a fun Christmas memory of popping them and reading our bad jokes.

I am completely jealous of all the wonderful Christmas music you enjoyed! I guess I have to go back. And take my kids…..

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Texas mom, thank you! We got our Christmas Carol tickets only a few days before leaving for London, both front row but at opposite ends. He got a mince pie and I was apparently in a special seat that got a drink and a program. I've seen CC (and Nutcracker) so many times I rolled my eyes when Bob bought the tickets. But CC - and the two concerts - were the highlights of our trip! I want to see it again!

Christmas concerts at St Martin are always wonderful. I'm on their mailing list and watch for them when there's any chance I might get to London. They're not expensive but they sell out. I bought mine in May then crossed my fingers that I'd get to use them.

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great report. Interesting about the Crackers. Mine don't have kazoos either...

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Thank you for this absolutely captivating report, Ruth. I have bookmarked it, and you’ve really given me the idea of going to York for an early December visit next year - oops I mean this year. I've been to London at Christmastime, which I absolutely love, but York sound like it would be delightful too, especially going to an Advent Christmas service at the Minster (and how inspiring that John Lewis figured in the message!). Thanks for the lodging recommendation too.

I love that you kind of mocked your husband for wanting to go to see A Christmas Carol again, and then ended up absolutely loving it. That sounds like something I would do. You all really maximizes your shows and concerts. That's a bummer that the Hamnet play wasn't better, that book was absolutely extraordinary.

And interesting about the Christmas crackers on flights! I never would have thought of that.

Thank you again for this report ! I am glad you had such a wonderful time.

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Thank you, Kim. Hamnet's actors were all good, and I liked the minimalist set. To make it work on stage they had to tell the story chronologically, losing much of the mystery of the book. Maggie is such a wordsmith, and her exquisite writing is diminished when reduced to dialogue. Sigh....

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Nigel, one year I found crackers that each had a whistle/kazoo that played a single (out of tune) note. And they came with sheet music. Great entertainment to honk out Christmas carols after dinner!

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Ruth,
Once again, you have written a vivid trip report! Thanks for sharing your London adventure with us. I especially love that you bought your concert tickets in May anticipating a visit in December! I am bookmarking your report for a possible trip to London in December this year, I may follow in your footsteps!

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Your trip read so wonderful that now I may have to reconsider our December trip. I was thinking to start in Paris and end in Basel but you made London come alive at Christmas. And museum gift shops have always been my favorite.
Bookmark set!

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What a wonderful report! We haven’t been to London at Christmastime in years but it is truly a special time to be there. I am also bookmarking your report for future reference.

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Ruth, we’ve had those crackers before. They’re good fun and luckily we had one vaguely musical guest to get the tune working. I expect it’s the explosive in the snap that means they’re banned on flights.

Love London at Christmas even though it’s crazily busy. There’s nowhere like it for theatre and choice of restaurants except maybe NYC.

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I enjoyed your report, Ruth; thank you for sharing. I would love to see that Christmas Carol. Trying to decide if it’s worth a trip!

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Thank you for this great TR about London in December. It’s on my radar now to book a trip during the Winter

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Great report. Thanks for sharing

Lucky enough to have spent more than one Christmas in London. Loved walking about on Christmas day. Loved finding an ethic restaurant for my Christmas dinner. Loved watching her Majesty’s afternoon speech.

Not a shopper but whole heartedly agree the V & A gift shop is stellar. So is the gift shop in British Library.

Amusing things to enjoy are the Santa Runs. Never knew they existed but was with a friend who had a meeting at a person’s residence near Regents Park. I decided to walk over there. It was drizzling. I was standing on a park path figuring out which way to go when I heard a voice yell, “ here they come.” Turned around and 100’s of Santas were running towards me. I laughed out loud and remember thinking “I love London!” Watched the run and then walked over to the People’s Tavern. Have a great picture of Santa’s lined up at the bar to order pints!!!

EDIT: FYI Santa Runs are charity runs.

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For those of you that are bookmarking, let me add “Christmas at Kew” as a fabulous Christmas light experience for London. Buy your tickets in advance as they sell out quickly.

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Also don’t forget Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. If going for Christmas do know public transport ( the tube, busses, and overground) are closed on Christmas day.

If you wish to attend a Christmas Eve mass research where they are being held. Also research pantos, and choral offerings. While there look for flyers in church lobbies or in gallery windows for art offerings, musical performances and read Timeout online.

One year saw a church flyer for an Artists open house on Eel Pie Island. I’d gone into the church ( St James of Piccadilly) for a moment of repose. How could one pass up the chance to go to Eel Pie Island?

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Claudia, I've never seen a Santa Run but another December we found ourselves at Trafalgar Square in the midst of a thousand Santas! I don't think there was a run planned, unless it was to find a loo. There were a lot of over served Santas in that crowd!

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Thank you for your detailed report, Ruth. And thank you in particular for mentioning the Museum of Natural History Wildlife photography exhibit. I have put that on the A-list for our April visit.

Having seen the exhibit, do you think the guided tour of the exhibit, with lots more information than they include in the photo captions, would be interesting? They have not set any March or April dates yet for the tour, but I hope they will.

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/events/wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-tour.html

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Lola, I've never done a tour through that exhibit; it's pretty self-explanatory. But I'm always interested in hearing from someone I can learn from. I say "Go for it" if it works with your schedule.

I've seen a number of these exhibits. This year's had a more ecological slant and a little less pure wildlife photography. It was good; I've thought others were better. But at least it didn't leave me traumatized like the special exhibit they did on abuse of captive bile bears in Asia. I've never gotten some of those disturbing images out of my head!

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I have that problem with photos of slaughtered elephants with their tusks hacked off that used to come in the mail with pleas from an organization trying to stop the poaching. It is heart-wrenching to see those photos.

I Believe I have seen many of this year’s award-winning photos on my National Geographic (newsfeed (the one on the webpage of the baby hippo underwater is quite familiar). But it would be so nice to see them in large format. We have some time in the day we are heading west to Holland Park and the Design Museum,

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Lola, please let me know what you think about the tour. If it's good I'll try to fit one in next time.

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Sounds like an incredible London getaway filled with holiday magic and cultural delights! Your detailed itinerary is both inspiring and practical, offering valuable insights for fellow travelers. The blend of art, music, fine dining, and festive ambiance truly captures the essence of a London Christmas experience. Thanks for sharing your adventure! 🎄✨