December can be an expensive time of year, especially in London. So if you're looking for ways to save cash and do Christmas on a budget in the capital, indulge in these free and festive things to do in London for Christmas 2023. You won't have to spend a penny, though of course there are plenty of chances to get rid of your cash if you're so inclined.
See the London Christmas lights
London's various Christmas light displays are switched on from early November (see the exact switch-on dates), and they're free to visit. Wander round Regent Street, Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Carnaby and other areas in the dark to see London at its twinkly, festive best — we've put together a guide to when, where and how to see them, including a handy map.
If you can spare a couple of quid, hop on a bus for an even better way to see the lights.
Wander around London's Christmas markets
There are several Christmas markets and fairs to visit in London, and many of them are free admission — although you will of course have to part with your pennies if something tempts you, or if you fancy warming up with a mulled wine.
Top of the list is Southbank Centre's Winter Market (until 26 December 2023), a cute collection of wooden chalets decked in sparkling lights, right next to the river. It's free to stroll along, soaking up the festive atmosphere — though it can get very busy at weekends. If you're in central London, Christmas in Leicester Square (which also spread to Trafalgar Square) is also a good bet (free entry, until 7 January 2024).
Visit a free light trail
London's packed with light trails and festivals at this time of year, but some of them are a bit pricey to get into. Not so with Winter Light at Southbank Centre (until 7 January 2024), which is free to visit and consists of a series of outdoor artworks by 10 different artists which are colourfully illuminated at night. You could combine it with a visit to the Southbank Centre Winter Market (above).
Seek out the Christmas Nightlights in Greenwich
The usual Greenwich Advent Windows trail isn't happening this year, but instead, there's a smaller free interactive trail across 12 windows in the Greenwich area. The Christmas Nightlights trail features books on display in certain windows. Once you've found one, answer the online question corresponding to that window. Get it right and the book will light up.
Free, available 4pm-10pm weekdays and 10am-10pm on weekends, 1 December 2023-1 January 2024. Full info available online from 1 December.
Go in search of 12 The Snowman sculptures
12 sculptures of festive book character The Snowman have been dotted around the Fleet Street area, in the capital's latest free art trail. Each one has been decorated by a different artist, representing a different day from the song 12 Days of Christmas. You can download a map to help you track them down, or simply wander around Chancery Lane, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street and surrounding areas looking out for them — each one is 1.6m tall, so you shouldn't miss them.
Until 5 January 2024.
See what's on at Winter By The River
Seasonal festival Winter By The River pops up at London Bridge City (the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge) once again. It's free entry, though as is the way with these things, there are plenty of ways to spend money if you're keen to do so (market stalls, pop-up bars, karaoke rooms). For a free day/night out though, time your visit to coincide with one of these free choir performances in Hay's Galleria, and enjoy the live music followed by a stroll along the river surrounded by atmospheric twinkly lights.
Until 1 January 2024.
Admire the Ever After Garden in Grosvenor Square
Over 25,000 glowing roses light up Grosvenor Square again this winter, as the Ever After Garden returns to Mayfair. It provides somewhere for Londoners to remember absent loved ones in the run-up to Christmas, and there's the option to dedicate a rose, for a minimum donation of £10 to The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.
It's free to visit, but as it's for charity, do considering donating a couple of quid if you can.
Open 3pm-9pm daily until 19 December 2023.
Sing your heart out at a carol concert
If you wanted to, you could go to a carol concert every evening in December, and still barely scratch the surface of London's carol services. They're not all free — but many are for charity, so that's understandable — but why not see what's on at your local church?
Visit Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
Since the introduction of entry fees to Hyde Park Winter Wonderland in 2021 the huge festive funfair isn't as easy to do for free as it used to be. That said, if you can go off-peak (an early weekday morning in November or early December, or anytime on 1 January), entry is free, though you still need to book in advance.
Once you get inside Winter Wonderland, there are many, many ways to part with your money (especially if you've got kids in tow), from funfair rides and theatre shows to food and drink, and Christmas market stalls. Wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere, though? That's free, off-peak.
Top tip for parents: Santa Land within Winter Wonderland is home to the only free Santa's Grotto that we know of in London. The flip side is that there's no booking, so be prepared to queue.
Free, off-peak entry tickets are available selected times until 7 December 2023, and on 1 January 2024.
Watch the Peter Pan Cup on Christmas Day
What'll you be doing at 9am on Christmas Day? One hardy group of swimmers takes to the waters of The Serpentine in Hyde Park for the Peter Pan Cup, a traditional race dating back to 1903. The race itself isn't open to the general public — so you're off the hook for a chilly festive dip — but it is free to watch, with spectators welcome around the lake's edge. Just remember there's no public transport in London on Christmas Day to get you there.