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Forget Winter Wonderland: The best spots to visit in London at Christmas and beyond

From cosy spaces to delightfully offbeat ways to spend your time, Benjamin Parker has found a mix of new things to do and classic activities to warm up in the UK capital

Tuesday 28 November 2023 15:38 GMT
<p>Winter in London? A capital idea</p>

Winter in London? A capital idea

It's an inexplicable surprise every year – which really shouldn't be the case for an annual event – when winter rolls into London. Were those languid evenings on Primrose Hill sipping rosé from a can just a fever dream? A frosty breeze as you walk through the city, rugged up in scarf, coat and gloves, will get you wondering.

Somewhere between the Christmas of Coca-Cola adverts and advent calendars and the bitterly cold reality of winter is the sweet spot when it comes to bona fide cockle warming things to do. Stay clear of Oxford Street, swerve Hyde Park’s uber-Xmas wonderland to find genuinely enjoyable spots in which to hunker down.

Hotels where you can linger fireside, restaurants that serve the heartiest of meals, and wonderfully wintry things to do before you pile into the pub: here's how to lean into winter in London.

Read more on London travel:

Winter attention-grabbers

What to do

Lighting up

Hardly an off-grid find but enchanting all the same. Wrap up snug and head to the city’s south-west, and the UK’s original festive light trail. Held annually, Kew Gardens can be seen in a whole new light, with this year’s theme “nature by night”, which promises to bring the site’s natural architecture to life – over 12,000 trees and botanical elements will be accentuated. One new installation for 2023 features Snapper, the Venus fly trap and wannabe Christmas tree starring in this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert.

Experience ‘nature by night’ at Kew Gardens

Crypt crooning

Escape the Christmas songs you’ve heard ad nauseum for some winter music sessions in an unexpected setting – the crypt of a magnificent baroque church. St John’s Smith Square, in Westminster, has turned its underground into a café that plays host to live performances, with a series of jazz and classic sessions over the colder months. Highlights include students from the Royal College of Music Artists (30 November) and The Hot Club of Jupiter (14 December), with not a drop of Mariah Carey to hit your ears.

Going underground: Soothing sounds in an unlikely place

Wonderland swap

This year, think beyond the crowded extravaganza that is Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. Battersea Power Station, a London landmark reborn from the depths of industrial decay, offers a similar festive feel without overloading. There’s still Christmas trees, massive decorations and twinkling lights, but with a Christmas market championing indie businesses in the historic turbine hall and the city’s only riverside ice rink. For something pretty special, step inside Lift 109 and head up one of the power station’s chimneys for breath-nabbing 360-degree views of London.

Festive fun under the shadow of the chimneys

Another option, if you desperately want to eschew Winter Wonderland and yuletide cheer, is the Anti-Christmas Fayre, the final Satanic Flea Market of 2023, at Electrowerkz, near Angel Tube station on 10 December. Expect definite alternatives to your usual stocking fillings, from occult trinkets to vintage clothing, handmade zines to vintage clothing.

Blades of glory

Beyond Battersea, the capital’s premier ice skating space – after the closure of the perennially popular space at the Natural History Museum – is Skate, at the neoclassical complex that is Somerset House, and the activity remains a rite of passage for celebrating winter in the city. There are skating lessons for those new on the blades as well as “Chilled Out” sessions with limited capacity. Off the ice, DJs will blast tunes on decks, while the ultimate rink-side seat is the Skate Lounge from Whispering Angel, where you can keep warm while knocking back the on-trend rosé wine.

Find your inner Torville and Dean

Find a winter’s tale

Brave the outdoors to find yourself inside once again, with bums on seats and snacks (open quietly, please) at the ready, and a show about to begin. For something familiar, opt for The Nutcracker by the English National Ballet, running 14 December to 7 January at the London Coliseum. A whimsical medley of Tchaikovsky’s score heard live, exquisite dancing and a beautifully designed set make for a charming way to spend your time.

The Nutcracker is a tried and tested winter treat

If ballet isn’t your thing, Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis and Louisa Harland are starring in an eight-week run of Ulster American. David Ireland’s play is about power dynamics, cultural identity and the perils of being a woman in the entertainment industry. From 4 December at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.

Hibernation spots

Where to stay

The Rookery

The Rook's Nest suite includes a 40-foot spire with views for ‘saints and sinners’

A labyrinth of rooms, creaky floorboards and open fires give a Dickensian feel to this Clerkenwell haunt in wintertime, though many of the features are Georgian. It’s not sleek, it’s not contemporary, but it clings wonderfully its traditional look. That means polished dark wood, flagstone floors and a wealth of antiques and art sourced from auction houses over the years. Fall asleep beside an ornately carved headboard and wrapped in warm colours. A genuinely cosy hideaway, overloaded with character, for the bleakest months.

Conrad London St James

From the deeply classic to contemporary. This hotel is located right next to its namesake park (and its Tube station) and less than a mile from Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Rooms offer more than simply the necessary conveniences, are spacious and smart, and the bar is a popular Westminster hangout. Various winter packages include vouchers towards food and drink at the on-site restaurants, Christmas gifts, champagne in the rooms, and even a Christmas-themed Mini Cooper tour.

The Bedford

Within this Grade II listed building in Balham is a solid pub – and what are pubs if not places to pass the time in before summer’s beer gardens open again? – but also 15 boutique-style hotel rooms. Each is different, some more snug, some a little more luxe, but across all are Hypnos beds, Nespresso machines and en-suite bathrooms with rolltop tubs or rainfall showers. Guests get a third off their food bill in the pub, where the menus span pub grub, mezze dishes and European classics.

Feasts for the festive season (and beyond)

Where to eat


Move over Seabird, the Snowbird has taken over the nest

Seabird, the rooftop restaurant 14 floors high at The Hoxton, Southwark, has put on its winter coat to become Snowbird. Inside has been transformed, with an illuminted arch of twinkling lights, enormous pampas installations on the ceiling and dried Alpine flowers. And with the change comes new food: a series of sharing plates such as smoked oxtail croquettes, Basque stew, and lobster and crab pumpkin pie topped with caviar. The drinks menu is fresh, too, designed in collaboration with Grey Goose vodka. Mine’s a Fizzy Dirty Martini, please.

Tipis on the Green

Tipi dreams in west London

Embrace Alpine life with Tipis on the Green, a new pop-up in Parsons Green, south-west London, inspired by snow-covered European chalets. Inside the wood-panelled walls are glittering fairy lights, old-school Christmas decorations, and (most importantly) a biofuel fire pit to keep toasty. Dishes have a distinct apres ski bent to them, including tartiflette, wild mushroom arancini, and diot sausages. For further warmth, sip Baileys hot chocolate from the bar.

Bank House

If you find yourselves out of central London and in leafy Chislehurst, dine at Bank House, owned by Gordon Ramsay’s former number two, Stuart Gillies. Restaurant critic and current I’m a Celebrity… contestant Grace Dent labelled it “unpretentious, welcoming and warm-spirited” – quite the antithesis to winter chill. Colourful art, velvet furnishings and cosy exposed brickwork soften what was once a bank, and menus draw on Stuart’s years cooking around the world.

For those whose social media eats first, Insta-favourite Farmer J is a welcome winter pitstop from days pounding the streets of the city, with 10 locations across London, including Piccadilly, Canary Wharf and Regent Street. Their viral fieldtrays – which you customise to your tastes from a base, main and two sides – have just been updated a yuletide twist, such as their take on Christmas dinner, with chermoula-marinated chicken alongside charred Brussels sprouts and hispi cabbage in a miso dressing. If you're stuck on what to buy for fussy friends, there's a new “farmer's pantry” that is stocked with an eclectic jumble of goods that might fit the bill, from hats emblazoned with “I want harissa, not your opinion” to bundles of spices to add a firey kick to your food even when it's cold outside.

Mix and match your ‘fieldtray’ or ‘fieldbowls’ at Farmer J

Winter sips

Where to drink

The Devonshire

The Devonshire, an 18th-century pub given a storming new lease of life, is the hottest place in town right now. The menu, heavy on cuts of meat, is a corker; unfortunately, tables for December sold out in just minutes. Try for a seat for January, but if you have no luck at least pop in for a pint or two of Guinness – it might be the best pour in the capital.

The Holly Bush

For a pub that knows its onions when it comes to enveloping punters with warmth, head to Hampstead and The Holly Bush. It’s a tick-list of all things cosy: wooden surfaces, a log fire, a jumble of rooms, comfort food – all the more welcome if you pop in after stomping around Hampstead Heath.

Warm up beside the fire with a pint

Noble Rot

For grape rather than hops, try Noble Rot on Lambs Conduit Street. The townhouse may not have changed much since it was built two centuries ago, and that makes it even more charming. There’s an impressive cheese menu, so order a glass of something smooth and use it as a chance to either prep your stomach for Christmas or, come January, to ease your cheese withdrawal symptoms after you’ve halted days of grazing.

Italian Bear Chocolate

A tried-and-tested way to banish the winter blues is hot chocolate, and Italian Bear Chocolate serves up an incredible cup of it at two outposts (one in Fitzrovia, one in Soho). It’s thick, creamy, and ladled all over the cup, and there are buttery pastries to dip.

Satisfy that sweet tooth this winter at Italian Bear Chocolate

Read more on the best hotels in London

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