Things to do in the UK at Christmastime
Merry Happy Christmas!
I spent last Christmas away from home traveling around England and Wales. It was truly magical! Here are some tips and ideas for things to do and see if you are visiting the UK during the holiday season.
Visit the Christmas markets
Christmas markets, seen much more frequently in Europe than in the US, usually consist of stalls set up outdoors along a pedestrian road or park area near city centre. The stalls are often decorated festively with lights or garlands, and a merry-go-round or bar tent might make an appearance as well. Local or traveling craftsmen and artisans fill the stalls with things for sale, such as ornaments and decorations, fuzzy mittens and hats, and homemade chocolates. Stalls with hot mulled wine, pastries, and other holiday treats are also present.
A lot of major towns host a Christmas market. I visited ones in Exeter, Cardiff, and Edinburgh in the weeks leading up to and following Christmas. The Exeter market, with the breathtaking Exeter Cathedral as its backdrop, was definitely my favorite. The sellers were friendly and talkative, and there were people everywhere. At one of the stalls, I bought a “family crest” poster that explained the English history of my last name as a Christmas gift for my dad. I also got to try…
A medieval dish that is traditionally made with suet, dried fruit, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and a brandy sauce topping, Christmas pudding is everywhere in England around the holidays. I even found it as an ice cream flavor!
The British salesperson who made the pudding balls for me in Exeter confided to me that he actually hates Christmas pudding—but I really enjoyed it. Even though I don’t think I had ever had it before, the taste is sort of familiar somehow. Quite raisin-y and a bit molasses-y. Certainly worth a try. Maybe I’ll introduce it to my family at Christmas next year.
I was delighted to see how festive the UK becomes at Christmastime. I stayed in a vacation town in Wales for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and all the hotels along the seaside promenade had decorated trees in the windows.
The most notable lights in the UK are (of course) in London, which really dresses up for the season. I didn’t make it to as many of the London Christmas sights as I wanted to, like the festival in Hyde Park, but the lights along Oxford Street were beautiful, and when I visited Trafalgar Square, carolers were singing beneath a massive decorated tree.
If you are in the countryside in early December, see if there are any events going on in nearby towns. While Christmas Day in England is dedicated to spending time with family and friends at home, churches and communities put on activities (often geared towards families and children) earlier in the month to get you into the Christmas spirit. These events take the form of caroling, parades, candle lighting, performances, and more.
I went to a heavily attended event in Conwy, Wales on Christmas Eve that included singing carols, Santa waving to the children from the castle walls, food trucks, and fireworks. I don’t usually think of fireworks as a Christmas thing, but it was wonderful (I may have teared up a little).
Sightsee on Christmas Eve
If you’re visiting the UK for a short time like I was, you probably want to pack in as much sightseeing as you can. A lot of shops close early on Christmas Eve, but they will likely be open until afternoon, and tourist sites might be available to visit as well without being crowded with guests.
I climbed (part of) Mount Snowdon on Christmas Eve. The buses were running (albeit on a slightly different holiday schedule), and there were a few other hikers on the mountain—mostly residents who were taking advantage of a day off. It was very peaceful on the mountain and not busy at all.
Make sure you check opening hours and timetables before visiting somewhere on Christmas Eve!
I did see snow in Scotland closer to New Year’s, but on Christmas Day in North Wales we got LOTS of rain. It was also chilly in the days surrounding Christmas. As a Minnesotan, I’m used to the cold, but I’m not used to it being so wet out at Christmas! I went for a walk and had to wring out my down coat when I got back to the hotel. Make sure you are prepared for the weather—a warm coat, gloves, hat, waterproof shoes if you are doing much hiking (the UK in winter is pretty muddy), and something to protect you from rain.
A Christmas cathedral service
I’ve been to a few cathedral services, and there is always something very moving about the beauty of the architecture, the music, and the community. If you’re in London for Christmas, I think a service at Westminster would be an amazing experience.
I visited a pretty, old Methodist church building in Llandudno, Wales on Christmas. The service was billed as a “short, joyful celebration,” and it really was. Even though I am not Methodist or British and almost everyone else in the congregation was fifty years older than me, my heart was happy to be surrounded by kind, joyful, faith-filled people on Christmas.
Everything is closed on Christmas
Shops, businesses, most pubs. In America, a lot of places are closed for the holiday, but not quite to the extent that things shut down in the UK. The trains don’t run; you can’t go anywhere by public transport. I was told over and over by people I met to stock up on food for Christmas, since there would be nowhere to buy any. I also bought some crafts so I would have something to do when nothing was open.
A lot of hotels, and probably some restaurants, though I didn’t see any that were open, offer a traditional Christmas dinner. Book early—the seats fill quickly. It can also be expensive. I opted for a chill night of cross-stitching, reading on my Kindle, and watching TV in my hotel room; dinner was composed of snacks I’d bought at Tesco a few days earlier (including some prepackaged mince pies, which taste a lot like Christmas pudding).
I read online that Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was also very quiet in the UK, but that turned out to be false. Some smaller independent shops are closed on Boxing Day, and maybe even through New Year’s, but for the larger chains, Boxing Day is like Black Friday in the US—it’s when all the winter sales begin. So Boxing Day is a good time to go shopping in the UK. Public transportation, however, may be limited or halted until December 27.
What are your favorite Christmas traditions?
For more posts on solo travel in the UK, click the ellipsis at the top of the page and select Follow blog via email. Thanks for reading!
Bonus: My favorite things I saw on TV in the UK during the holiday season
- Nativity!, starring Martin Freeman
- This commercial