London is a fantastic place for children at any time of year, but at Christmas it really comes alive. Gorgeous lights sparkle on every high street, Santa seems to have taken up residence in all the shopping centres including Westfield Stratford and Canary Wharf, and there are loads of special activities put on in most of the major museums ranging from making Christmas baubles to carol concerts. With so much to choose from, these are my top picks either because they're slightly unusual, completely free or just sound really really fun.
Number one has to be Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. It's bold and brassy but as soon as you arrive it's like stepping into Christmas. There are rides, an observation wheel, a Christmas themed circus (!) an ice-rink and a Christmas market which serves excellent mulled wine for Mum and Dad. I'd say it's best for babies who can stare in wide-eyed amazement at the lights and older children who can enjoy the rides and shows.
Next up is the Jingle Bells London RIB ride (speedboat) along the Thames. Children meet Santa onshore before setting off for a high-speed whizz along the river passing some of London's most famous sites all accompanied by Christmas carols and Christmassy stories. OK, so it might be cold, but children hardly notice the weather and when else can you speed under Tower Bridge while singing Jingle Bells at the top of your voice! They've told me they have life jackets for babies so give it a go if you're brave enough...
Or how about meeting Santa's reindeer? London Zoo is excellent at any time of year with loads to do for all ages, but at Christmas time there is the added treat of being able to meet Father Christmas in his winter lodge and his reindeer too. Not only that but slightly older children will be able to lend a hand at the daily 'Keeper's Little Helpers' sessions, where they'll be preparing treats and presents for the Zoo's animals including stuffing stockings for the ring-tailed coatis. (Weekends in December then daily from 17 December).
If animals aren't your thing then maybe LEGO is - Covent Garden market, one of London's most popular markets is playing host to the world's first ever giant LEGO advent calendar. Every day at 4pm one of the windows will be opened to reveal a 3-D LEGO Christmas surprise. Covent Garden is usually very busy and bustling in the lead up to Christmas and for children who are into LEGO this could be a really fun trip. There's the added bonus of interesting shops and stalls to get last minute Christmas treats if you can drag your children away from the jugglers and entertainers dotted around the market.
If you're looking for something completely free then head to Duke of York Square's Christmas grotto. It's beautifully decorated, children get to meet Father Christmas, have their photo taken, get a small gift and if they're lucky meet Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. There's also great shopping nearby which is ideal for whichever parent isn't on Father Christmas duty. Be warned though, because it's free you might have to book a day in advance. (Wednesday - Sunday)
Another unusual place to meet Santa is Kew Gardens. By its very nature there is loads of room for running around but it manages to be relaxing and refined whilst welcoming lively children. Christmas is no exception and there are enough activities to keep all ages happy and very much in the festive spirit. Once they've met Santa, children can enjoy a ride on a carousel or really little ones can have a go on the mini vintage car ride. The fun doesn't stop on the 25th December - after Christmas day Santa's grotto will reopen to host story telling sessions, where families can enjoy traditional folktales featuring shadow puppetry.
If you're up for heading out of town, an hour of out of London is Hever Castle which is magical at Christmas time. It was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and looks just as you'd expect a fairy tale castle to, complete with ivy and a drawbridge. Children can meet Father Christmas in his grotto and explore a snowy underground world with reindeer and elves to say hello to. There are donkey rides, story time and a carousel at the weekends. The Castle itself is beautifully lit up with Christmas trees which is really wonderful for babes-in-arms although you can't take buggies into the house so bring a carrier.
And finally, if you're looking for a Christmas show for little ones, you can't get much better than The House Where Winter Lives, a collaboration between the Discover Story Centre in Stratford and Punchdrunk Enrichments. Aimed at 3-6 year olds and totally interactive this show is London theatre at its best.
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