TRIP REPORT: A British Christmas story

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

Katie and Joe aboard a hop-on-hop-off boat en route to Greenwich, with Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben in the background. 

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Katie Pesznecker just returned from England last month: Liverpool, York, Greenwich and London. With husband Joe Niva, they celebrated a “Happy Christmas” in the British way–with proper “Christmas crowns” and “crackers”. This is her report.

Traveling overseas at Christmas has long been on my travel wish list, and this year we made it happen, spending the holiday season in England. Our itinerary included two nights in blue-collar Liverpool, an overnight in storybook-pretty York, and then eight days in bustling London. This being our first trip abroad during Christmas, we definitely learned some valuable travel lessons, and discovered so many magical and unique things about celebrating the winter holiday in a country that takes its Christmas very, very seriously. Here are some key takeaways from this epic vacation that will help those planning similar holiday-timed travels overseas. 

Our friend Remy and husband Joe stroll a cobbled lane in Knutsford, a village near Liverpool. 

Take advantage of personal relationships 

Our friend Remy in Liverpool always offers her spare room; this time, we took her up on it. This meant staying in a proper suburban neighborhood where we walked to the local market and train station; enjoying home-cooked British food like a full English breakfast, roast chicken butty sandwiches and Indian curries; sipping delightful Snowball cocktails and nibbling minced pies; and benefiting from a top-notch local guide when we hit up Liverpool’s lively holiday market.     

Lights galore at Liverpool’s market. 

The Liverpool market has loads of games and rides, plenty of tasty food vendors, and various pop-up bars for warming and sipping. It was impressively sprawling. We went at night, because Remy advised, “It’s all about the lights,” and it really was spectacular to see the glittering and twinkling displays set up across the cobblestones, against the stunning and historic backdrop of St George’s Plateau and William Brown Street. 

Holiday-themed games with Christmassy prices abound at the markets. 

Remy insisted we try market staples: warm roasted chestnuts, that cracked open easily in our hands, the nut tasting almost like baked potato. That was followed by pork cracklings, which were basically really salty, flavorful, and seriously addictive pork rinds. 

Remy and Joe strike a pose with the chestnuts. 

Also during our Liverpool stay, Remy threw us a party. It was important to her we experience a proper British house party, and did we ever – in fact we enjoyed it until well after midnight which made the next morning’s early train to York a fairly groggy experience, but it was well worth it. We met locals, had deep and interesting conversations about life in Liverpool in England, of course answered their curious questions about Alaska, all while eating delicious British treats. 

Party time at Remy’s parents house. 

Go to all the markets 

From Liverpool, via a swift 2-hour train ride, it was on to lovely York, a walled medieval town known for its towering cathedral “York Minster”, storied history, and British charm. In 2018, York’s Christmas Market was voted the Best in the UK by the National Association of British Market Authorities and was also named the UK’s Most Festive City. This reputation draws a crowd. I have visited York before and never found it so busy! 

Joe enjoys a quiet moment at a York pub. 

York’s Christmas Market and the stone’s-throw-away Shambles Market did not disappoint. We browsed the charming little wooden stalls, where one could purchase everything from ornaments to knitted caps and scarves to locally made soaps and home décor. 

The York Christmas Market. 

 York is also known for being central to England’s chocolate industry and a chilly night was definitely improved by a rich Cadbury hot chocolate with Bailey’s Irish Cream, whipped cream and giant marshmallows. 

Boozy cocoa on a cold winter’s night. 

Most English towns worth their salt will have a holiday market – whether modest and homespun, or sprawling and commercialized. They all have their charms and provide a fantastic way to sample food, chat with craftsmen, and get a sense of the local culture, all while feeling exceptionally Christmassy. 

Shoppers line up at the Käthe Wohlfahrt shop.

Beyond the markets, York brimmed with holiday cheer, with lights strung across narrow ancient streets and funny little Christmas trees jutting outward above doorframes. There were long lines to get in the Nutcracker Shop on the famous Shambles street, as well as at the Käthe Wohlfahrt store, an idyllic shop covering three stories of a centuries-old building dating to 1434, selling hand-painted German ornaments and cuckoo clocks. 

A medieval street in York, decked out for Christmas. 

Be a tourist

The granddaddy of all English Christmas markets is Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park. This enormous festival runs from mid November to early January and is known for its spectacular size and audacious holiday spectacle. It isn’t cheap – we spent 66 GBP or about $84 each for festival entry, to get into the Magical Ice Kingdom, and to visit the Ice Bar (free cocktail included!).

Lights and rides at Winter Wonderland. 

Truly Winter Wonderland is next level. The rides are ginormous and look vaguely horrifying. The vendor area is impressive and comprehensive, with endless arrays of trinkets to commemorate your time there. And the food was off the charts. We had roast baby potatoes covered in melted raclette cheese, cheese-filled German Kasewurst sausages at the thematic Bavarian Village, and of course, festive beverages!  

The wild crowd at the Winter Wonderland beer tent. 

 At one point, we found ourselves in the humongous beer garden tent, an Oktoberfest delight. A silver-haired man on stage spun crowd-pleasing tunes like Abba while revelers hoisted beer mugs and sang along merrily. Everywhere you looked, people sported antler headbands, Santa caps and cheesy holiday jumpers.  

Impressive ice sculptures in the frosty ice kingdom. 

The Magical Ice Kingdom was impressive, a chilly little enclave of shimmering ice sculptures adhering to a Nordic Viking theme. The highlight was an ice slide which of course we took a turn on. After the Ice Kingdom, it was on to the ice bar. 

Katie and Joe in the ice bar. 

Upon entering, staff outfit you in a fur-trimmed parka, so you’re nice and snug while you sip your holiday cocktail out of a glass made of – of course – ice. The bar had an après-ski 1980s vibe complete with on-theme tunes from energetic DJs.

Joyful décor at the Churchill Arms pub. 

Prepare to be simply amazed by the decorations 

Another touristy excursion we invested in: a double decker bus tour of the holiday lights of London! We boarded near the London Eye on the South Bank (again, making our way through a holiday market with more cute things, more good food, and more festive drinks!). The tour narrator pointed out landmarks as we wove along Bond Street, Oxford Street, Picadilly Circus, and other city highlights that are completely transformed in the evening holiday hours. Sparkling garlands of lights, dangling illuminated stars, and giant lit-up angels stretching across the iconic roads and cast a festive holiday spell. 

Holiday lights as seen from the top deck of a bus. 

London really does go over the top with holiday decorations. Between the lights, the giant and ubiquitous Christmas trees, and the pop-up markets and festive drink stands, it’s hard to turn a corner without a splash of holiday glitter and cheer. We made a special trip to see the tree made entirely of books at St. Pancras station; and on another occasion, found ourselves on the hour in Covent Garden when they make it “snow” on the pretty square with its giant Christmas tree and other cheery décor. 

The book “tree” at St. Pancras.

Sample the festive menus 

I can’t say enough about the festive food and drinks England had to offer. Virtually every restaurant and pub publishes a special “festive” menu through the month of December. Those open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day likely have special menus just for those occasions as well. This was a unique feature of being in England during the holiday, with the opportunity to sample various roasts and Yorkshire puddings, Christmas puddings and mince pies, and mulled wines.  

Roasts and Yorkshire puddings for Christmas dinner. 

Many pubs and restaurants will up the holiday ante with special touches like offering “Christmas crackers” – which are essentially giant paper tubes that two people simultaneously pull on, resulted in a “crack!” sound. One person will inevitably get the larger end of the cracker and therefore its inner spoils, which typically include a paper crown, a cheesy joke, and a trinket of some kind. Crackers were everywhere at restaurants and bars this time of year and it was very common to see entire tables of folks wearing paper crowns, if they weren’t already decked out in the aforementioned Santa hats and holiday headwear. 

We’ve got crackers!  

Leave the city 

Of course, London was a delight, and we could spend a dozen Christmases there and never run out of things to do and new things to see. It’s also nice perspective to go deeper into the city’s neighborhoods to experience how communities celebrate the holiday, which is why we spent a day in Greenwich.

Scotch eggs at the Greenwich Market. 

Greenwich might be my favorite London neighborhood. With the Royal Observatory, the Naval Academy, and the centuries-old Greenwich Market, it has a rich history and an identity all its own. Situated on the banks of the Thames, it’s a pleasant boat ride away from central London, and seeing the city from the river is a great way to appreciate London’s architecture and history. 

The Royal Observatory is visible on the hill in rear center.

We visited Dec. 23, the last open day of Greenwich’s famed market before Christmas. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as busy as in the past, probably because at the holiday, many head out to quieter more bucolic locations. It was a boon for us, as the boats were nearly empty both to and from the Greenwich pier. 

The Royal Observatory is visible on the hill in rear center.

We shopped at the market, strolled the pretty streets, popped into an old pub for spiked warm cider, and ate beef and Yorkshire pudding, savory crepes, and spicy Asian street noodles. On the boat ride home, buildings flanking the Thames lit up with holiday lights. The Chard and Tower Bridge were especially impressive. 

The Chard and Tower Bridge all lit up for the holidays. 

Make plans on the holiday itself 

If you’re traveling abroad during the holidays, it’s more important than ever that you make appropriate plans. For instance, regular hours of things like museums, shops, and even public transit may change. Reservations for dinners become essential, especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Some bookings may require advance deposit and even advance food selections. We put in our Christmas Day dinner order at the Britannia in Kensington about two weeks before the actual meal. 

A quiet Christmas morning stroll in Hyde Park. 

It was surprising that public transit truly shuts down in London on Christmas Day. That means no Tube, and no buses. Knowing this in advance, we planned a day close to home – in this case, our usual Kensington hotel, the Holiday Inn Express on Wrights Lane. Our Christmas Day included a long walk in Hyde Park to observe the annual and insane Peter Pan Cup, where members of the Serpentine Swim Club jump into the water of the same name and cheerfully perform a lighthearted race. Hundreds showed up to enjoy the traditional show. 

A quiet Christmas morning stroll in Hyde Park. 

We also enjoyed the Britannia dinner, and later in the day, found a food hall on High Street open, and popped in for a cocktail. It was one of the only things open, save for a single corner store and hotels. London truly does shut down on Christmas Day, as many locals leave the city to spend the holiday elsewhere with friends and family. 

The Tube stations (here we are at St. Paul’s) were relatively quiet on Christmas Eve, just before service shut down for the holiday.

That said, this is a fabulous time to stroll the city’s famous parks. And on Christmas Eve day, with the city already shutting down and essentially emptied, we also had a wonderful time wandering the mostly silent streets near St. Paul’s Cathedral, including popping into the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub, dating to 1667, for (appropriately) a cheese plate and beer, and scoring a fireside table in the bar’s central, famed room.  

Katie reads a British book at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

Be flexible

Flexibility is always important when traveling internationally. That was even more true during the holidays. One of our trains was canceled, initially our luggage was lost, and we were equally surprised by how crowded and then deserted we found familiar spaces.  

Joe and stepson Dominic approach St. Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve, on what would normally be a very busy street. 

We also learned when flying on mileage tickets, which we typically do when flying internationally using our Alaska Airlines miles, that there are blackout dates that limit travel options. While we weren’t able to book a flight back to Anchorage on Dec. 26, instead we booked to Phoenix, overnighted there, then flew home the next day on the direct Phoenix-to-Anchorage flight. 

Cheery decorations in a Notting Hill pub. 

It was different to be abroad at Christmas, that’s for sure. I missed some aspects of home – cooking a Christmas dinner, calling family, opening presents in the morning surrounded by heirloom decorations. But the trade-off was worth new memories and a completely different and rewarding holiday experience. When will we again spend Christmas morning watching mostly naked grown men and women crawl-stroke across the murky Serpentine waters of Hyde Park? Then walking home past the Round Pond filled with swans, admiring a gorgeous Christmas tree fronting Kensington Palace – the place we got engaged, actually. 

Katie at the Britannia, sight of our Christmas dinner.

We watched “Rudolph” and “Frosty” on Youtube while getting ready in our very tiny London hotel room; then pulled crackers and wore paper Christmas crowns in a centuries-old pub while dining on roast beef and root veggies, with little jugs of gravy and hunks of Yorkshire pudding. We didn’t open any presents because, far from home, it wasn’t about presents at all. It was about the experience – and the food and festive drinks. Happy Christmas, England. I hope we celebrate with you again. And to those of you pondering a holiday abroad, I say go for it. Give yourself this gift of an incredible and merry cultural experience. 

Cheery décor in the Covent Garden neighborhood.

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