We, Ryan and Amanda, decided to take a holiday trip this year; we thought that traveling around Christmas and New Year’s Day would help maximize our PTO (paid time off) days. We left Houston after work on Friday, December 22 and returned January 1 using only 3 PTO days since the rest of the days were weekend or holidays. We contemplated warm vs. cold vacations and decided that London can never really be relied on for pleasant weather anyway, and it has so much Christmas charm it would be worth braving the cold!
We picked a hotel in Soho, and the location was perfect – just a block away from Regent Street with its elegant lit angels cascading over the dozens of shop fronts bustling with last-minute gift seekers; just two blocks from the joyfully colorful holiday décor of Carnaby Street; and a pleasant stroll away from Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and many other essential London tourist attractions. Amanda was mesmerized by all the elaborate Christmas displays. One nice thing about the Christmas season is that it gets dark in London around 4pm, leaving plenty of viewing time for the miles and miles of twinkling and shimmering creations. Daytime is festive too though, particularly around Bond Street with high end shops featuring holiday themed window displays.
In addition to the Christmas decorations sprinkled throughout the city, there are plenty of holiday markets to relish this time of year. We spent Christmas Eve at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and would definitely recommend checking it out. We sipped mulled wine and watched families frolic around the fairgrounds. There are plenty of vendors selling an assortment of food, drinks and treats; dozens of rides such as a Ferris wheel, surprisingly large roller coaster and other spinning, twisting, flipping devices; an ice skating rink where patrons can skate around or catch a live on ice performance; and so much more! The Winter Wonderland has a magically joyful feel, everyone seems so happy and excited; oh, and did we mention that entry is FREE?!
We have to admit that the actual market stalls within the Hyde Park fairground were disappointing, we’d hoped to be overwhelmed by hand crafted, impossible to pass up gifts (Amanda envisioned something like Houston’s Nutcracker Market), but in reality the offerings seemed to be mass produced, made in China type junk. This was also the case when we visited Christmas by the River and Southbank Centre Winter Market. Each market had plenty of seasonal food and drink stalls which were lovely, but we did not find a single souvenir type item worth bringing home at any of the markets, and not for lack of trying!
One, pretty big downside to visiting Dec. 23 – Jan. 1 is that many places are closed for a holiday break. We’d hoped for a nice dinner at The Clove Club, but they were closed Dec. 23 – Jan. 5; many restaurants and bars were closed Dec. 24-26; and all museums were closed Dec. 24-26. We had booked a jaunt to Paris Dec. 27-29, and back to London Dec. 30 – Jan. 1 when, again, many places were closed for a New Year’s holiday. I hope that those facts can lessen the shock that we did not get to visit any of London’s fascinating museums.
We welcomed ourselves to London with a massive fish and chips feast at Golden Union which was a delightful experience all around, from food to vibe to waitstaff, highly recommend. We killed quite a few hours at The Blind Pig, we are suckers for a speakeasy type establishment with a thrilling cocktail menu. The Blind Pig is dimly lit and sophisticatedly decorated, the drink menu reads like a story book with pun-filled references to all your favorite childhood characters, and the bartenders appear to be having a genuinely fun time while they work. We moved from a table to the bar counter after our first drink to get in on some of the laughter and jokes and were not disappointed! The bartenders were from Italy, Venezuela, and Spain; which is representative of most of the folks we encountered around London’s West End, a wildly multicultural city. After The Blind Pig, we grabbed a couple of steam buns at BAO Soho and wished we could’ve eaten more of those delightful little treats.
On Christmas Eve, we enjoyed a brunch at Dishoom which claims on its website to pay homage to the old Irani cafes of Bombay; they are a charity restaurant donating “a meal for a meal” through different food banks. We sipped their infamous, bottomless house chai and indulged in the Big Bombay breakfast and bacon and egg naan roll. With multiple locations around London and their goodwill mission, Dishoom is a no-brainer, must-try. With attractions being closed for the holiday, we decided to take advantage of Rick Steves’ Westminster walk. If you don’t know Rick Steves, his guide books and advice are a great starting point for any European destination; we based our Italian Honeymoon off of his Italy guidebook. Unfortunately, Big Ben is covered in scaffolding for repair at the moment, but we enjoyed passing by many London icons like Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the London Eye before heading to Hyde Park for the Winter Wonderland as mentioned above. We had dinner at Bill’s Soho Restaurant where we indulged in a very English meal with a Pimm’s punch, fish pie and braised lamb shank; we decided that English food is heavy and not all that flavorful but were happy to have given it a try. After dinner, we tried to find a bar to hang out at but most establishments were closed, so we went back to Karma Sanctum Soho and watched Home Alone in bed.
We scheduled one big event for Christmas day, a meal at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, consistently featured on the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the past 5 years. We could write an entire post about this dinner; it was a four-hour seating with 6 courses and a full-pour wine pairing with each dish. Dinner focuses on spotlighting Britain’s culinary history in a new, exciting and unexpected way. We enjoyed the likes of sherried scallops, roast cod, venison loin, and Heston’s infamous meat fruit (chicken liver parfait sculpted and wrapped in a spiced red wine shell to resemble a perfect plum fruit). We took our time getting to the restaurant, walking the 1.5 miles from our hotel, meandering through Hyde Park and Knightsbridge. The city is eerily quiet on Christmas day. Seeing the families gathering through apartment windows or feeding ducks at the park made us a little nostalgic for Christmas with our own families, though we’d arranged for alternatively timed celebrations with them. We met a nice English family on our way out of Dinner, the parents and two young boys had been dining immediately behind us and the mother commented to us how much she enjoyed doing something a little different for Christmas, though I don’t know if her boys would be on board to repeat four hours seated in a restaurant booth; one of them almost toppled the vase between our tables on a couple of occasions with his jitteriness. As we waited for our coats at the front desk, a man approached the hostess inquiring about grabbing drinks at the bar which was full at the moment, and after turning him away, the mother of the English family said “neat, that was John Cleese”; to which the hostess replied “Really?! Oh shit.” And went to inform her manager who handled the situation by making room at the bar for John Cleese. We thoroughly enjoyed our experience at Dinner and can understand why it receives so many accolades. Afterward, we were stuffed and tipsy so we wandered back to the hotel passing by as many Christmas light displays as possible, then snuggled up in bed and watched The Great Gatsby.
December 26th is also celebrated as a public holiday in England, Boxing Day. So again, many establishments and attractions remained closed. We grabbed coffee and tea at Sacred Café on Carnaby Street then trekked over to Covent Garden which is a former fruit and vegetable market turned tourist attraction with permanent shops lining the hallways within a windowed, domed ceiling, and temporary stalls filling the spaces in between. Covent Garden contains food, fashion and handmade crafts and was our favorite market environment of those that we visited. We walked the streets around this area admiring architecture and people watching before having a spot of tea at Whittard of Chelsea. We had read about a tasty udon bar, Koya Soho, that happened to be open today and decided that warm soup would really hit the spot on this cold day. There was a queue outside the restaurant where we waited about 20 minutes before being seated at the long bar; the delicious broth and thick, chewy noodles were worth the wait! We headed back to the hotel to relax for a while. Later in the evening we went for a pasta dinner at Pastaio and then hit up the hot tub and fireplace on the roof of our hotel with a bottle of wine from Whole Foods. A really lovely final night in Soho before heading to Paris on the Eurostar the next morning.
We arrived back to London from Paris on Friday night, December 29 around 9 pm after some Eurostar delays. We took an Uber from the station to Hotel Mondrian where we would stay through the New Year. We loved this hotel for its décor, amenities (great gym and spa, flashy rooftop bar, well reviewed restaurant and cocktail bar) and hospitable staff. We had not reserved anything for New Year’s Eve, but they arranged a spot for us at their restaurant and cocktail bar despite previously being told that they were completely booked. The location on the south bank is not as hip as Soho, but it is still convenient for reaching attractions like the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Borough Market, The Shard, and the London Eye if you fancy that.
We tried to visit Maltby Street Market on Saturday, Dec. 30, but most of the stalls were closed for the holidays; we would love to check it out on a future trip. We spent most of our time strolling around the area. We walked through the Borough Market which is bustling with patrons and vendors, you can get almost any kind of food prepared to order or raw to take home for a later meal, this market is all food so bring your appetite! We walked by The Shard, but didn’t think the observation deck would be worthwhile with the overcast skies today. We walked to the Tower Bridge and then passed by Shakespeare’s Globe. We stopped by Flat Iron Square in hope of lunch, but again, closed for the holiday; similar to Maltby Street Market, we’d love to visit this hip food court and event space next time we’re in town. We settled for pizza and pasta at O ver, a bright and airy space with giant windows and fresh Italian fare. We peeked in the windows and entered the few shops that were open at Oxo Tower where different types of artists rent space to display and sell their work, from paintings and sculptures to jewelry and clothing. We walked down Gabriel’s Wharf which also has some shops and restaurants worth checking out, when open (not during the holidays). We took it easy the rest of the afternoon and evening, grabbing a drink at the rooftop bar of the hotel and then ordering room service for a cozy night in watching a cheaply produced British mystery series.
On New Year’s Eve, we got pancakes at Where the Pancakes Are, they make all kinds of sweet and savory concoctions to satisfy every palate! We walked to Westminster in hope of getting into the Churchill War Rooms museum, but there was a queue around the block so we gave up and just kept walking, 10 miles in total, just taking in the crowds and scenes as the city prepared for its massive New Year’s celebration. We got ourselves ready for dinner and then went down to The Den at Hotel Mondrian to have a glass of wine, reminisce on 2017 and daydream for future plans in 2018. Dinner at Sea Containers in the hotel was a three course feast with champagne and more wine, followed by cocktails at Dandelyan cocktail bar to ring in 2018. We really enjoyed dinner, but weren’t as impressed with the cocktail bar as we’d expected based on its reputation. On New Year’s Day we caught a flight from Heathrow home to Houston.
We thoroughly enjoyed our holiday abroad, stay tuned for more on our Paris excursion coming soon. A couple of things to keep in mind as you plan your holiday trip to London…
- Soho is a convenient district in the middle of all of the tourist attractions, it is hip and trendy with tons of good food and renowned cocktail bars – be prepared to EAT and DRINK!
- While Soho is a great location, we found our hotel a little loud at night, not sure if it was the hotel’s rooftop bar or patrons of other establishments out in the street
- We loved our hotel on the South Bank, though the area doesn’t have the same restaurant, bar and entertainment scene as the West End
- Check out Kingly Court, Maltby Street Market or Flat Iron Square for a new age food hall feel with a communal courtyard for dining or drinks
- Visit while the Christmas décor is up, the city is so festive and joyful, just Google when the lights go on, it seems like it is usually the last of November or first of December and stay on through the first week of January
- Try to be in town outside of the holiday week as Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day severely limit options for establishments and attractions
- Walk everywhere! We did this because lots of things were closed so there wasn’t much else to do, but I’m a firm believer that the best way to get to know a city is just by walking the streets
- Book a dinner reservation in advance, all the restaurant reviews we read mentioned the impossibility of securing reservations so if there’s a spot you really want to go, make sure you know how far in advance the reservations open and call ASAP once they do
- Reserve attractions in advance online if possible, we tried to visit the Churchill War Rooms on December 31, but the line was around the block so we gave up, if we’d reserved the day before online we could’ve walked right in
- We joined the Arsenal America to try to get tickets to an Arsenal game, we were informed a few weeks before our trip that we got the tickets, but the game was moved up a day so we weren’t going to be in town yet; may be worth looking into if you want to catch a game
- We used taxi, Uber and the Underground and would recommend to use the Underground/trains when able, especially to/from the airport; otherwise try to call Uber while still available since taxis charge 15% fee for using credit card which we didn’t realize until after a couple of transactions