Monday, December 01, 2008

London at Christmas

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”
Dr. Seuss

What’s the best thing to do in London at Christmas? That’s a tough question since there are so many wonderful Christmas-related events: the Carol services (we’re off to one tonight), the ice skating, the pantomimes. Despite the stiff competition, if we had to choose one single thing to do in London at Christmas time, it would be to pay a visit to the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye Museum on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch.

Every year for the past 19 years, this magical small museum of English interiors decorates its 12 period rooms in the festive style of the season, providing a wealth of information about the development of English Christmas customs. It’s a great way to learn about Christmas traditions and we never fail to come home without some new decorating ideas. But the thing we really love about the Geffrye at Christmas is how it makes us feel.

We always find it strangely calming, and at the same time inspiring, to observe these past celebrations. We’re transported back in time, theirs and ours, and instead of thinking about what we have to do to get ready for Christmas, we think about England’s Christmas memories and our own.

It’s a rich experience but, as is the case throughout the year, admission to the museum is free and we always think how nice it is, particularly at Christmas, to have a warm hearted and authentic experience without having to open one's wallet. The Geffrye does have a good small gift shop with tasteful decorations and books about Christmas, if you do want to spend some money.

If you are hungry and want a warm hearted and authentic dining experience that also won’t cost an arm and a leg, head out the door of the Geffrye, turn left and walk for a couple of minutes along Kingsland Road to the Mien Tay Vietnamese restaurant. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside you’ll find some of the best tasting food, nicest people and cheapest prices in all of London. For example, an enormous pho (a rice noodle soup with beef that is a complete meal), one of the best we’ve had in a long time, was a reasonable £5.50.

We were there recently following a visit to the Christmas exhibition with old friends from out-of-town. We were all completely taken by the charming staff and delicious, beautifully presented food. Being interested in food, we asked many questions and were rewarded with a master class in Vietnamese ingredients and techniques. At the end of our meal, we were presented with a special cake wishing us luck, happiness and prosperity forever.

Oddly enough, that cake pretty much captured our seasonal visit to the Geffrye Museum. It’s not often that we return from a Christmas event feeling lucky to be alive, happy to be together and prosperous in our relationships but such was the case this year and that is why the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye museum will always be at the very top of our Christmas "must see" list.

The Geffrye Museum
Kingland Road
London E2 8EA
Tel 0207 739 9893

Open Tuesday – Saturday 10 am – 5 pm
Sundays and Bank Holiday 12 – 5 pm
Admission Free

The exhibition Christmas Past runs from Tuesday, November 25 through Sunday, January 4th.

Mien Tay Vietnamese Cuisine
122 Kingsland Road
London E2 8DP
Tel: 0207 729 3074


  1. Our family now has a tradition of going to Harrods on Christmas Eve. It sounds crazy, but it all started when we stumbled upon it as a way to avoid the crowds in general, but particularly to avoid the crazy long queues to see Santa.

    One year we just couldn't get our act together to go see Santa until the 24th. When we got there, the grotto was virtually empty. About a 30 minute wait compared to 2-3 hours during the peak days in December. When you think about it, most people don't want to save such a central activity till the last minute and Christmas Eve people are starting to get ready for church/dinner/present/travelling.

    Besides, Harrods does do itself up well for the holidays, the food hall is chock full of special (but pricey) treats (but it's Xmas!). Even though the kids are now grown up, we've continued with our Christmas Eve tradition because the store in general is quite tame at that time, but still festive. This year we bumped into a friend with whom I have shared this tip. She had just taken her little boy for his first visit to Santa and confirmed that they zipped right through.

    Merry Christmas Londoners.

  2. Hi Bruce,

    Thanks for the great suggestion!

    I never would have thought of going to Harrods on Christmas Eve to avoid the crowds, but it makes perfect sense.

    Next year on December 24th, I'll follow your lead and head for Knightsbridge. Maybe I'll see you there.