So you’re coming to London for your Christmas shopping. Here’s how you do it.
Can you believe December’s here already? Whilst, to us, it might feel like the time has flown, to retail land it means we’re already far too late to be getting the Christmas decorations out. In fact, Selfridges, the iconic London department store, opened the first phase of their Christmas shop 16 weeks ago. In August.
And whilst I agree that, yes, August is rather too early to start getting festive, I do take issue with the people who bang on about the fact Christmas seems to come earlier in the shops every year. They might well do, but here’s the thing: supermarkets wouldn’t stock all that crap if people (well, you) didn’t show up and buy it; it’s not like there’s a Christmas conspiracy happening here. I’m also willing to bet that the “too early” crowd rest on their laurels the moment they smell warm mince pies filling the air or the pop of a bottle of sherry. Just admit it — I do too.
Whilst this year I can’t really say any festive vibes have hit me yet, it is getting dangerously close to the big day, which means it’s likely some of you will be jetting off to London to do a spot of last-minute Christmas shopping for you and your beloved. With that in mind, I’ve put together my top tips for your Christmas trip to London.
1. Set a goal.
Trawling the streets of London recently gave me a big realisation about the kind of shoppers who come to London. I think they fall into two camps: the first treat it like a relaxing holiday: they’ll book a nice hotel, amble around the shops, and buy whatever takes their fancy, without rush or worry. The other type of shopper is the dedicated, obsessive one – they’ve got a shopping list as long as Santa’s, they know exactly what they need to get, exactly which shops they’ll go to, and they’ve got about 5 shopping bags hanging from each arm at any given moment. Whilst there’s no problem with either, all I’m saying is: choose now which kind of shopper you want to be, because one is infinitely less stressful than the other.
2. Just eat instead!
Now that you don’t get 20kgs of free hold luggage when you fly Guernsey to London, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to combat that problem. Sure, you might be limited to a small cabin bag full of gifts, but I’ve realised there’s nothing in the rules that stops you from stuffing yourself silly and exceeding your own physical weight limits. That’s why I think one of the most understated things about Christmas shopping in London is the eating opportunities that crop up along the way. Just off Oxford Street and Regent Street lie the delights of Kingly Street, St. Christopher’s Place, and Air Street, all home to some amazing (and not too busy) food spots right in the heart of the city. Pizza Pilgrims, one of my favourite pizza joints in town, became notable for offering a deep-fried calzone, which, despite sounding horrendous, was delicious and worth every calorie. For the more discerning diners amongst you, there’s also an incredible choice of veggie restaurants, steakhouses, bistros and nearly every cuisine you can think of, all within walking distance.
3. Buy the stuff you can’t buy elsewhere
I think many people fall into the trap of just ‘shopping’ in London. If all you’re doing is buying the stuff you’d previously have ordered online, there’s not a lot of point coming here. No, the best part about shopping in a big city – especially one like London – is that it’s where brands have their flagship stores, so they’ll go out of their way to wow you with ‘experiences’. I fell for it myself a couple of weeks ago when, researching this column, I wound up buying the family a personalised tin of Quality Street from John Lewis. Instead of paying a fiver for a bog-standard tin of sweets, the premise was that you pay another tenner, bringing the price up to £15, but for that, they’ll fill the tin with only your favourite sweets and they’ll also engrave your name on the top. Life changing. But at least it somehow justified the cost, and it’s something else to litter my parents’ house with over Christmas.
4. The shops to avoid:
Any souvenir shop: they’re nearly always filled with poor-quality tat, there’s one seemingly littering Oxford Street every five metres, and you’re far better off finding a special, bespoke souvenir at one of London’s many handmade markets and actually supporting local artists.
Primark: You might indeed be able to pick up a shirt for a few quid, but the horrendous noise and hour-long queues make it so not worth it.
Selfridges/Harrods: Admire the department stores’ famous window displays, but don’t risk going into the busy chaos together unless you truly want to know what it feels like to herd cats.
Hamleys: Yes, it’s a world-class toy shop, but especially at Christmas, this place becomes a cacophonous hellscape. The only way to win is not to play.
5. The best time to visit
London at Christmas is undeniably beautiful: there’s the iconic skating rink at Somerset House, families with kids can have a fun day out at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, and shops truly go out of their way to make their window displays and the shopping streets sparkle.
But the thing is: it all stays well into the New Year. It’s still just as magical, it’s still just as wintery, and it all becomes a whole lot cheaper. Shops start their sales almost immediately, attractions become cheaper, and hotels become more affordable.
So, by all means, come to London to do your Christmas shopping. Just do it in January.
And stop off for food along the way.