The start of the festive season goes along with the kick-off of the London Christmas markets. However, it’s not that long ago that UK residents would have needed to go overseas to experience the pleasures of a Christmas market. Back in the middle ages Christmas markets were incredibly popular and they continued to flourish until 1645. Then, the Puritan commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas. This killed off the Christmas markets, along with a few other traditions.
In 1982, Lincoln started to hold a Christmas Market and then in 1999, German Christmas markets started appearing in various UK cities. London was, sadly, a bit late to the party. However, the city has more than caught up, with a host of markets around the capital.
As big fans of Vienna’s Christmas markets, we decided to check out some of London’s markets to see how they measure up.
Southbank Centre Wintertime Market
Running from 10th November 2017 through to 4th January 2018, the Southbank Centre Wintertime Market features igloo dining and a rooftop sauna. It was the first of the London Christmas markets that we chose to visit.
As we wandered over the bridge from Embankment, we were greeted by the sight of the Rekorderlig Cider Lodge. Technically, it’s not part of the Southbank Centre Wintertime Market, but it’s definitely worth a visit. The lodge itself is surrounded by a small village of stalls. With a variety of food stalls, you can indulge in some Swedish classics, have a hot German sausage or treat yourself to some mini pancakes. (The pancakes with white chocolate and Nutella were really scrummy). There are also some burger stalls and a mac & cheese place.
The star of the show is the Cider Lodge. With two floors and an outside seating area, it’s a great place to kick back and relax. With a mix of comfy seating and large tables for big groups, there is plenty of space to chill out with a mug of Mulled Spiced Plum Cider and listen to the music as you watch the crowds having fun outside.
Heading east from the Cider Lodge you come to the Wintertime Market proper. There are plenty of food stalls here too. With options ranging from delicious Schokokuss, with their delicious flavours and fluffy mallow centres, to the savoury sumptuousness of the steak grill, there’s something to please everyone’s taste buds.
Scattered among the food huts are stalls selling Christmas goodies and arty stuff that would look good at any time of year. At the end of the market stalls are the snow globe domes of Jimmy’s Lodge. The lodge offers a grill serving such treats as wild boar hot dogs. The domes can be hired for a fabulous fondue-based private dining experience overlooking the Thames.
Topping things off is the rooftop bar and Finnish sauna. You can indulge in some Finnish mulled wine and nibble on some Scandinavian snacks before (or after) you work up a sweat in the bespoke sauna, designed by Aalto University (Helsinki) MA students and Finnish sculpture Jaakko Pernu. When we were there it was late and there was quite a chilly wind blowing off the river, so we decided to skip the sweat lodge experience.
We enjoyed the South Bank’s Centre Wintertime Market. The balance is more towards food and fun than trying to sell stuff. I think it works well. Who knows, maybe we’ll go back and brave the sauna.
Winterville, Clapham Common
Those who don’t go “South of the River” are missing out on a winter treat on Clapham Common. Billed as London’s alternative festive experience, Winterville boasts the first ever ice rink on the common.
As well as skating, there’s the Backyard Cinema’s Winter Night Garden, Plonk Golf, a large fairground, a roller disco, a market filled with creations from independent designers. There are various themed bars dotted around the sites, most of which have braziers that you can stand around to warm your paws between sips.
If you feel a bit peckish, there’s plenty of choice when it comes down to food. Truck Stop is open 7-days a week and we thought the churros from “Love Churros” were the best we’ve had outside of Spain. From Thursday to Sunday, there is also Street Feast, with a whole load of other yummy treats.
The centrepiece of Winterville is Spiegeltent. It’s home to cabaret, DJs, bingo and Mexican wrestling. At other times, it’s a big bar. We felt that as a bar, I was a bit like a large tea tent at a village fete. The plastic seats and trestle tables enforced that feeling. However, the mulled wine was spot-on.
We had a great afternoon at Winterville. Despite the cold weather, the atmosphere was warm and inviting. With two tube stations (Clapham Common and Clapham South) bordering the common, Clapham Junction station a short walk away and plenty of bus routes nearby, there’s no difficulty in getting there. Winterville runs until 1st January 2018 and it’s well worth heading south for.
Christmas in Leicester Square
Christmas 2017 sees the second outing of Underbelly’s Christmas in Leicester Square. Sponsored by Hilton Hotels, the market packs plenty into the small place that is the garden in Leicester Square.
For 2017 they seem to have cranked things up a gear. The 1920s Spiegeltent is home to an array of shows. These range from the family-friendly Monski Mouse’s Christmas Baby Disco Dance Hall to the strictly-for-the-grown-ups House of Burlesque: 2.0. (If you fancy some “Cheap Flights” or a bit of “Dogging”, you’d better get in there quick – Fascinating Aïda have almost sold out their shows).
Away from the roar of the greasepaint, the market itself offers a good mix of foodie treats and seasonal shopping. Amongst the stalls were some lovely handmade items, giving you the opportunity to buy things that aren’t available elsewhere.
The food stalls include the ubiquitous German sausage stand. This one was advertising Kaiserkrainer. As big fans of this Austrian cheesy sausage, we were intrigued. We tried them, but were a little disappointed. Though they were nice enough, our favourite Kaiserkrainer stall in Vienna has nothing to worry about.
Given its size, Christmas in Leicester Square contains a lot. Having said that, it doesn’t feel cramped. The layout makes effective use of the space. With a great central location, tube stations close by and discounted parking (need to pre-book), It’s an easy one to visit while you’re in central London.
Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park
If Christmas in Leicester Square is the baby of London’s Christmas scene, then Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park is its big fat cousin.
It started from humble beginnings, with a Christmas market, temporary ice rink, giant wheel, and a small selection of amusement rides in 2007. Since then it has gone on to become a massive affair and has welcomed over 14 million visitors.
Winter Wonderland is less of a Christmas market and more of a Christmas fun town. A visit to requires sensible shoes, plenty of time and deep pockets.
There are multiple zones at Winter Wonderland and each one has its own identity. The vast Bavarian Village is a boozy haven of oompah bands and beer steins. On the other hand, circus world is a funfair that would keep any kid happy. In fact, there are so many diverse things that it’s difficult to describe them all.
We spent quite a while in the Bavarian Village. The steaming mugs of gluhwein hit the right spot on a cold night. We were also surprised by the food options. The Almhütte has a full-on menu with waiter service. The food was good, and the accompanying music was entertaining. The Almhütte was also one of the few places on the site that took cards.
We spent a good three hours wandering around Winter Wonderland and there still some parts we didn’t get to. By the time we got to Bar Ice, it was already closing, so we didn’t get the chance to go in. Still, that gives us an excuse for another visit.
With two funfairs, two Christmas markets and more food & drink places than you can shake a stick at, Winter Wonderland has plenty to offer. We’d definitely recommend a visit. However, a word of caution. As I mentioned before, very few places take cash and the only ATMs have hefty withdrawal fees. If you do visit, draw cash before you go.
Christmas by the River, London Bridge City
The strip alongside the Thames that stretches from London Bridge to Tower Bridge has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Following the construction of City Hall, the area has seen a whole swathe of new buildings that now all sit under the label of London Bridge City.
The public spaces are put to good use during the festive season for Christmas by the River. This stretches from just after London Bridge all the way to City Hall. The first section, at the rear of the Cotton Centre, has a few craft stalls and a smattering of food and drink places. We loved the craft stalls, but were bitterly disappointed with the mulled wine (it was so bad that we gave it back and asked for a refund).
In terms of the Christmas gift items, the best ones we found were in Hayes Galleria. Here we discovered the most gorgeous laser cut greeting cards form Dreamy London.
Wandering towards City Hall, there is another burst of stalls, with plenty of food on offer. We were a bit spoilt for choice. However, in the end we succumbed to the temptation of The Lambassadors and indulged in a joyous pulled lamb wrap. Oh boy, was it good!!
We sampled mulled wine from another stall, which turned out to be yummy. As we wandered, the stall holders offered samples of their foods and had we not just eaten we would have been tempted by quite a few dishes.
Finally, we reached the end of the market. We didn’t venture into the Eis House (too long a wait), but we did sit in the bar outside it and enjoyed some more mulled wine.
Christmas by the River has a very lovely laid-back feel to it. It’s on until 3rd January 2018 and we’re planning to pop back there. It’ll be worth it to try some more of the oh-so-yummy food.
And there are more London Christmas markets
As well as the ones that we have visited there are some other London Christmas markets. Kingston Christmas Market offers the chance to find great gifts and enjoy some nibbles in the traditional wooden huts in Ancient Market Place and the surrounding streets. The iconic Cheesegrater is hosting an international Christmas Market and this one is indoors!!
London may not have been an early adopter for Christmas markets, but it certainly has caught up. With such diversity of styles, the London Christmas markets all offer something different. In fact, if I was asked to pick a favourite, I’d struggle to choose. Each one has something special to offer. If you have a favourite, let us know. Just leave a comment down below.