Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 December 2010
Issue No. 1027
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

London's Christmas magic

There's just something about London at Christmas, revels Rania Helmi

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Christmas decorations at Oxford street (top); the Ferris wheel at the winter wonderland in hydepark (l); ice skating in H ydepark

Nothing beats that time of year in the city: the chaos of Christmas shopping, the festive fun, the parties and gatherings. It's a magical time in London and is accentuated by some of the best Christmas lights in the world, starting in the middle of November until early January. The Oxford Street Christmas lights, in particular, are among the most famous, each year attracting thousands to the West End over the Christmas and New Year period. Couple that with snow and it's the perfect white Christmas.

Walking around Bond Street, Marylebone High Street, Knightsbridge, Carnaby Street, and Covent Garden and basking in the cheerful glow of the lights, festive fairs and Christmas markets is extra special. And there's plenty of time to make the most of outdoor London if you have a panache for ice-skating. London is home to some of the best open-air rinks in the world. Landmark ice rinks include Somerset House, Alexandra Palace, the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and the Natural History Museum, so make sure you go for a spin on the ice as soon as you arrive.

With so much to see and do and only a few days to fit it all in, don't miss out on the season's main attractions.

Day 1

Breakfast at Sketch -- Mayfair

Start the day with breakfast at The Parlour at Sketch, located at 9 Conduit Street in Mayfair; a walking distance from Oxford Circus tube station. A trendy venue offering a range of menus, you can choose from breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and an all-day menu of comfort food, including macaroni cheese and club sandwiches. The Parlour also features a patisserie counter and offers a selection of specialty teas, coffees and signature cocktails.

Santa Grotto at Selfridges

Head down to Selfridges where one of the best Santa's Grotto is located. There, the kids can meet Santa Claus, tell him what they want for Christmas and get a small present to keep them happy. Online tickets will probably be sold out by now, but you can buy walk-in tickets when you visit at the Grotto in the Ultra Lounge on the Lower Ground Floor. Walk-in tickets are allocated on a strictly first-come first-served basis and tend to be snapped up quickly every day, particularly at weekends so be sure to arrive as early as possible. A percentage of each ticket sold goes to Selfridges' chosen charity Mothers4Children.

If you love coffee, tea, scones with clotted cream and jam, make sure you stop by Sienna Café (aka The Yellow Café) on the basement floor below the escalators in the Central Atrium. Order a creamy coffee (ask for some extra glitter sprinkles to add Christmas spirit) along with Sienna Café's infamous carrot cake -- the best I have had in years.

Lion King at the Lyceum

You cannot leave London without going to a musical. If you absolutely have to choose just one, go to Disney's multi-award winning musical The Lion King. Dubbed as one of the most joyous and spectacular musicals in London, you will not want to miss out on the stunning effects and captive African rhythms. The show will redefine your expectations of theatre and will leave you bedazzled by the explosive colours and lively dancing.

Signor Sassi -- Knightsbridge

The show will end around 10pm, just in time for you to rush to Knightsbridge for dinner at Signor Sassi -- one of the most celebrated Italian restaurants in London. Make sure you have a reservation before going or you run the risk of not finding a table. The atmosphere is great and there is a real buzz around the place. If you're lucky, you might hear the chefs merrily singing in Italian in the background. Start with the Bresaola Della Valtellina and savour in the Spaghetti Lobster (Sassi's most famous dish). Both were delicious, very well cooked and served with perfection.

Day 2

Crepes at St Christopher's Place

One of my favourite spots in London is St Christopher's Place, opposite Bond Street tube station and a short hop from Selfridges. Right in the heart of London is one of the most individual specialist shopping areas you'll find. More like a small village, it's characterised throughout by walkways, and offers the largest concentration of pavement dining. Head to French Creperie, a French-style restaurant serving pancakes (savoury and sweet), grills (steaks, burgers and chicken), delicious desserts, milkshakes, fresh juices and ice creams. You will not want to leave.

Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree

Pass by Trafalgar Square to take part in a time- honoured London tradition with the lighting of the Christmas tree at Trafalgar Square. The square has been presented with a large Norwegian tree each winter for over 60 years as a token of friendship and gratitude for Britain's assistance during World War II. This historic tradition has become a definitive Christmas event in London, marking the onset of the festive season.

This year marks the 64th tree to come to London from the City of Oslo, a perennially popular occasion celebrating goodwill and friendship at Christmas. The tree is decorated in traditional Norwegian style with hundreds of individual white lights. The tree itself is traditionally 20-25 metres tall and the sight of it decorated in white light has become an iconic London Christmas image and is a great photo opportunity.

Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland

With a huge observation wheel and a great ice rink, Winter Wonderland is a great place to spend the afternoon. There's nothing quite like getting wrapped up in gloves and a scarf, enjoying a hot chocolate and then making a fool of yourself on the ice. There are plenty of other things to do too, whether it's checking out the German Christmas market, looking for presents or peeking into the warm and friendly bar. There's plenty on offer to keep you entertained and amused, but make sure you dress very warmly to ensure full enjoyment.

La Porte Des Indes -- Marble Arch

After Hyde Park, take a short walk to 32 Bryanston Street where La Porte des Indes is located. If you enjoy Indian food, you will love this place. Its discrete corner location betrays little of what you will find beyond its doors. The restaurant is a versatile space spanning two floors, adorned with antique Indian artefacts and boasting a stunning white marble staircase, 40- foot mogul waterfall, Jungle Bar and private rooms. Exotic plants and flowers (5,000 stems are imported each week) fill the light and airy interior with their alluring scent and provide a visually stunning display.

As well as classic Indian cuisine, the chefs whip up specialties from the former Indian French colonies, and the restaurant is famous for its fruit cocktails. La Porte des Indes offers a treat for all the senses and is perfect for corporate lunches, romantic dinners and family Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet brunches. Eating there is an unforgettable experience, and make sure you have the Cod -- it's divine.

Day 3

Covent Garden's Christmas Market

Part of London's allure comes from the great shopping associated with it, especially Christmas shopping. Though the temptation of bright lights and high street excess is almost irresistible during the festive season, Christmas markets in London are often a refreshing alternative to the usual shopping experience. Christmas markets are usually stocked with all manner of interesting, unique products that make perfect gift solutions.

I went to Covent Garden to seek out the popular Real Food Market. With over 32 stalls bursting with food from some of the UK's most respected producers, the market is a one-stop shop for all your lunch, dinner, shopping and entertainment needs. I spent the entire day shopping there with friends, and had a delicious mushroom sandwich from The Spore Boys, gluten free cakes from Sugar Grain and specialty cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy. I also recommend that you try other stallholders such as The Garlic Farm, Pie Minister, Arabica Food & Spice Company, Gujarati Rasoi, and Crumbs & Doilies.

Dinner at Lancashire Court

One of London's best-kept secrets, Lancashire Court is tucked away behind the hustle and bustle of New Bond Street in a tiny pedestrian alley. The Court has restaurants and bars lined alongside a narrow passage that is almost always full. I had dinner at Rocket Restaurant, popular for its modern Italian cuisine. It is spread over two floors, the décor is stylish and colourful and compliments the food that is cooked in an open plan kitchen. The bar downstairs is always busy and serves great cocktails.

If you are looking for an informal and friendly place to dine, Rocket is the place for you. Truly rare to find in the middle of Mayfair.

These ideas give you a flavour of what London has to offer during Christmas, even if you are only there for a short visit. But also make sure to check out the events calendar before heading there to find out more about ticket sales, New Year's Eve, Christmas carols, food markets and festivals.

Have a Merry Christmas!

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