Grace Lower | Dec 20, 2016
I’m convinced that London is a tiny bit magical.
Maybe it stems from my childhood obsession with Harry Potter, but something about London’s balance of history and innovation makes it an easy city to fall in love with. Double-decker buses and phone booths are quaint relics of a bygone era, while sharply dressed bankers, multicultural markets, and a vibrant arts scene give the city an undeniably modern feel. When you add Christmas to the mix, the magic of London is only amplified.
I’ve written about London in a previous post, where I talked about some of the challenges that come with group travel. But it was on this same trip that I could fully appreciate the beauty of the city. My group arrived a mere 12 days before Christmas, when London was in full swing—festooned with lights, garland, and pop-up winter markets. The weather was unbearably cold and damp, but there was still a contagious energy that emanated from the bustling crowds. While there was plenty of beauty throughout London, there was also a bit of nostalgia that came with being away from home during the holidays. Throughout my trip, I was able to reflect on the Christmas season—in all its complicated splendor—and how it's celebrated across the pond.
One of my first stops in London was the West End—which is essentially the British version of Broadway. Our group had tickets to War Horse, and we were all excited for a night out on town. The play itself was fantastic, but I found that simply being in the West End was enchanting. Following the show, my travel companions and I strolled through the streets, with brightly-colored Billboards for The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and Mamma Mia! illuminating our path. The West End was alive with creative energy, and it was easy to feel glamorous among so many bulb-lights and flashing signs.
The lights didn’t fade once we were out of the West End, though. As my group traveled through the different neighborhoods, we stumbled across dozens of twinkling Christmas displays, with images of the nativity scene, Santa Claus, and Frosty the Snowman glowing like West End marquees. That evening, I was reminded of the power of stories—especially during the holiday season. Like a good West End musical, the stories that come with Christmas teach lessons and share values that keep us listening year after year.
Perhaps one of the most enchanting parts of my trip was stumbling upon the Winter Wonderland Christmas Market in Hyde Park. After dinner one night, a few acquaintances and I noticed lights glowing from several blocks away. As we approached, we saw the glittering entrance to the Winter Wonderland. With ice skating rinks, Ferris wheels, and dozens of stalls selling seasonal trinkets, the Christmas market looked both inviting and irresistibly festive.
As it turned out, Winter Wonderland was the perfect way to unwind after a long day of exploration. My companions and I may have splurged on gourmet hot chocolates and roasted chestnuts, but wandering the market was certainly worthwhile. We people-watched as families, groups of teenagers, and tourists reveled in holiday activities. Whether they were indulging in seasonal treats or taking a spin around the Ferris wheel (which looked hilariously tiny compared to The London Eye), everyone at Winter Wonderland seemed to be enjoying the togetherness that only the holidays can offer.
While theatre shows and holiday markets were exciting finds, I would be lying if I said that food didn’t have a huge impact on my London experience. At dinner one night, I indulged in a British holiday classic and ordered Beef Wellington (which was incredibly tasty). And over the course of the week, I sampled different seasonal deserts—many of which I’d read about in Harry Potter books. Everything from mince pies to trifle, to English Christmas pudding was fair game. Though some of the foods were slightly questionable (honestly, why would you drown a perfectly good piece of cake in so much sherry?), there was something quite gratifying about sampling another country’s traditional Christmas food. And when I considered my own family’s custom of making Oyster Stew at Christmas, perhaps the sherry-soaked desserts weren’t so strange, after all.
Like food, shopping is another element of the holidays that’s easy to overindulge in. And although there were plenty of open air markets and charming boutiques, nothing quite compared to Harrod’s. Harrod’s is a massive department store that sells practically everything—think Macy’s on steroids. But while typical department stores keep their Christmas décor limited to wreaths and garland, Harrods goes all out. Each year, teams of artists and designers create breathtaking window displays for Harrods. And while I’m not much of a department store shopper, Harrod’s gorgeous displays were enough to convince me to indulge in some seasonal spending, myself.
In many ways, my trip to London encapsulated the beauty and tradition of the holiday season…but I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. As I took in the beauty around me, I realized that it’s the people, not the festivities, that make Christmastime so special. And while I’d absolutely recommend London as a holiday destination, I’d also recommend that you share that experience with the people you love. As my time in London came to a close, I was certainly sad to go—but I was counting down the minutes until I could share my holiday travel stories with the people who were waiting for me back home.
Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.