London Prepares for Olympics, Christmas

As London prepares for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games (the stadium is going up!), the city has become even more happening than ever. Travel Agent checked in with Sally Chatterjee, the interim CEO of Visit London, and Jacqueline French, senior public relations manager, to see what's going on.

As the 1,000th-day-until-the-Olympics draws closer (mark your calendars for October 29 and start counting down), London is gearing up for the influx of visitors with numerous events celebrating the best of English heritage and culture. From October 8 to 13, the city hosted the first London Restaurant festival, letting locals and visitors alike sample some of London's most famous (and great-but-undiscovered) dining options. The festival celebrated "the quality and range of our food in London," Chatterjee said. Among the highlights: 40 chefs prepared the classic English Sunday roast dinner, and celebrity chef Gordom Ramsay prepared a meal in a capsule of the London Eye.

Of course, the home country of Charles Dickens is always a bright spot for Christmas, and with the upcoming release of Disney's CGI-animated A Christmas Carol, the season seems poised to be brighter than ever. November 3 will mark the start of the holiday with the illumination of Christmas lights all over the city, coinciding with three cinemas (otherwise called movie theaters for you Yanks) in Leicester Square that will be screening the movie.

“London takes on a twist at Christmas,” French said. Mince pies, fruitcake and mulled wine being served throughout the city to encourage the holiday spirit. Even better, she added, Christmas in London is surprisingly affordable. “Many attractions are free. You can see Window displays for free. The Tate Modern and Brit museum are free.” Shoppers can browse through markets and fairs, window shoppers can peruse special window displays, and skaters can take to the ice.


Shopping & Skating

Here are some spots throughout London to visit for shopping, skating and admiring holiday decoration.

Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum's Christmas Fair (and ice rink--see below!) will run from November 2009 to January 2010.

Christmas on the Southbank
The Southbank Chocolate Festival has dozens of stalls all specifically dedicated to chocolate and all its different forms. Ideal for picking up Christmas treats.
From Friday December 11 to Sunday December 13, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. daily (6 p.m. Sunday).

The Cologne Christmas Market makes its return to the riverside (Friday, November 20 – Tuesday, December 24) with traditional German crafts, confectionary and treats. The Slow Food Christmas Market will run from Saturday, December 19 to Tuesday,  December 22), with over 30 stalls offering seasonal food and drink. Southbank Centre’s three shops will sell contemporary design pieces, jewelery, gingerbread-themed decorations and stocking-stuffers.

Maritime Greenwich, London’s Christmas Village, has decorations, a giant Christmas tree and carol singers as well as visits by Santa Claus and his helpers. Festivities will kick off on Friday, November 27 with a lantern procession and switch-on of the lights in Greenwich Market by the cast from Greenwich Theatre’s pantomime, Mother Goose.
British Red Cross Christmas Fair
On November 18 and 19 the British Red Cross will be holding its annual Christmas Fair at Kensington Town Hall to raise funds for the charity's work.
The Old Truman Brewery
A Christmas shopping special event featuring London’s first alternative Pop-Up department store. November 26 –December 20.

Trafalgar Square
Obviously, a visit to the see the tree at Trafalgar Square and listen to the carolers is a must for any Christmas vacation in London.

For the best light displays in the city, head to Oxford and Regent Streets, and check out the Carnaby Christmas Lights Launch  on Tuesday, November 10.

The Natural History Museum's outdoor ice rink (next door to the fair—see above!) remains one of the most popular in England (November 5–January 17, 2010), and the ice-rink at the Tower of London overlooks the ancient building (November 21–January 10).

Visit There are also rinks at Somerset House and Kew Gardens.