Step into Christmas … the best festive days out around the UK

We all need a bit of cheer at this time of year, when nights are long and days are often dark – maybe now more than ever. Luckily, the UK’s stately homes, galleries, gardens, theatres, churches and steam trains have been planning ahead and are ready with art and music, fire and ice, and mince pies with Santa. Even the most resolute Scrooge should find something to enjoy.

Sound and light

Each year, more venues join the floodlit fun, and there are now hundreds of light shows around the country, often set to stirring seasonal music. New this year are Hatfield Park, Hertfordshire, where Elizabeth I grew up, and Leeds Castle in Kent. One of Europe’s biggest city parks, Roundhay Park in Leeds, is also launching a light trail, complete with a fairy-lit tunnel and a fire garden, that winds through the trees and past the lake (various dates in Dec).

For the 10th anniversary of the fast-selling epic light trail at Kew Gardens in south-west London, there are new features, including the illusion of a watery abyss in the lake, as well as Instagrammable projections and lasers playing over the Palm House (until 8 Jan). There’s a lantern walk at Wakehurst, Kew’s wilder sister garden in West Sussex, along with immersive soundscapes and the UK’s tallest living Christmas tree, decorated with 1,800 fairy lights (until 1 Jan).

There’s a new mile-long trail round the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire this winter, where a festoon-hung walkway leads through the after-dark gardens, lighting up natural and architectural features (until 1 Jan). In nearby Lichfield, England’s only triple-spired medieval cathedral is offering a sound-and-light show called Sing, Choirs of Angels. Frederick Oakeley, who lived in Lichfield, translated the Latin carol Adeste Fideles into the English O Come All Ye Faithful. Projection artists Illuminos have based their installations on this popular carol and the story of the nativity (16-20 Dec).

There’s a nativity-themed sound-and-light show in Sheffield too. The manger will be projected over the cathedral, inside and out, bathing the facade in sunset colours or spangling the columns with stars (29 Nov-4 Dec). The same team, Luxmuralis, are also creating a spectacular installation at Liverpool cathedral, called The Angels are Coming (2-9 Dec) and Winchester cathedral’s Star of Wonder, illuminating the high arches and vaulted ceiling (13-18 Dec).

Sparkly castles

Start with a bracing walk on the beach and a kipper stottie at the Lord Crewe in Bamburgh, Northumberland, then climb a sandy path through banks of ivy to the castle. Gold rings, partridges in pear trees, maids-a-milking … this year’s decorations in the grand hall and staterooms, with theatrical sets and lighting, are inspired by The Twelve Days of Christmas (until 8 Jan).

At Windsor Castle, Berkshire, the lampposts are wreathed in evergreens, the grand staircase is garlanded, and a twinkling six-metre Christmas tree, harvested from the neighbouring Great Park, stands in St George’s Hall, where local choirs will be carolling on 8, 9 and 15 Dec. With a festive menu in the castle’s first cafe, opened in 2020 in the medieval undercroft, the show goes on at the new king’s official residence (until 2 Jan).

The rooms inside chateau-style Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, are decked and open to the public for the first winter season since 2019. The conservatory is full of ferns and marble statues, and the Red Drawing Room has a gold ceiling, candelabras and portraits by Gainsborough. Outside you’ll find a Christmas market and a light trail through the landscaped grounds (until 2 Jan).

This year’s Kingdom of the Snow Queen at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire involves supersized snowflakes and silver-frosted forests shimmering through the procession of staterooms. Outside, there’ll be a lavish light trail (book online) and a Christmas market (until 2 Jan).

The art of Christmas shopping

Brighton and Hove Artists Open Houses are running a winter festival on weekends until 11 Dec. Alongside prints, paintings, ceramics, they will be selling jewellery, knitted hot-water-bottle covers, lambswool gloves and more. Cards and pictures are often inspired by local seascapes or Brighton’s starling murmurations, which swirl through the winter sunset over the pier.

Cockpit Open Studios in London is holding weekend sales in Bloomsbury (24-27 Nov) and Deptford (2-4 Dec) and championing the idea of sustainable slow design. The Makers Guild in Wales has a Winter Show at Cardiff Bay, with handmade decorations and stocking fillers, as well as larger works of art in glass, leather, patchwork or carved wood (until 8 Jan).

There’s a Made in East Yorkshire market in the minster town of Beverley (7-9 Dec) to kick off its Festival of Christmas (11 Dec), which will fill the town centre with more than 100 stalls, fairground rides and street entertainers.

Illuminating in more ways than one, Tate Liverpool is displaying this year’s Turner prize contenders (until March 2023), and there are interesting gifts in its colourful shop. There’s also a free light trail circling the colonnades of the Royal Albert Dock, passing a giant yellow submarine and glowing jellyfish, with bars and cafes selling everything from fresh croissants to happy hour cocktails.

Oh no, it isn’t!

Excellence in panto is recognised at the Pantomime Awards, and Morgan Brind, who won best dame last year, is back at Derby Arena, this time as Widow Twankey in Aladdin (9-31 Dec). Winner of best costumes, Celia Perkins, is doing the designs again at Oldham Coliseum, (until 7 Jan), where it’s Robin Hood this year, and Jonny Bowles is directing Cinderella at the Belfast Grand Opera House, where he scooped the choreography prize with last year’s Goldilocks (3 Dec-15 Jan).

The Lyric Hammersmith stages the coolest pantos in London and this year it will be Jack and the Beanstalk, complete with skateboarding, OTT outfits and Beyoncé numbers (until 7 Jan). There’s a new digital set, using LED screens for the first time alongside traditional elements, at the Swansea Grand for Beauty and the Beast, starring Strictly glitterball-winner Joe McFadden (14 Dec-15 Jan).

Seasonal bars and cinemas

Manchester, where the UK’s first Christmas market opened at the end of the last century, has some unbeatable venues. The city’s Piccadilly Gardens becomes Winter Gardens, and this year sees a huge new heated double-tipi bar with a fire pit. Nearby food stalls include plant-based Panc, whose colourful vegan bratwurst was given top marks last year in the Manchester Evening News. Escape to Freight Island, a bar and restaurant complex in an old depot near Piccadilly station, reinvents itself for the season as Winter Island with music and a rooftop ice rink (until 24 Dec). An abandoned Edwardian railway station above the site has become a new Backyard Cinema, opened in October, with giant beanbags for watching Home Alone, Love Actually and other festive films. The cinema itself is dressed movie-set-style, so visitors arrive through tree tunnels into an overgrown palace (until 2 Jan).

The original Backyard Cinema in Wandsworth, south London, has an Arctic voyage theme this winter.

Another venue in the cinema-as-experience trend, the Scotsman Picturehouse in Edinburgh, opened under the Scotsman hotel in 2019, has red leather armchairs, retro lamps and free popcorn. Pricey-but-fun festive packages mean customers can sip prosecco while watching It’s a Wonderful Life.

For even fancier offerings, Blythswood Square in Glasgow is offering Baubles and Brunch: screenings of Elf and Home Alone can be followed by two courses including steak and chocolate sundae.

The Luna Winter Cinema festival at Saint George’s Hall in Liverpool has a giant screen under the columns and barrel-vaulted ceiling (10-23 Dec). And Liverpool cathedral is one of 11 venues for the Snowman Tour, where a live orchestra accompanies a screening of The Snowman and Aardman’s The Flight Before Christmas for a feelgood festive show (various dates).

Take to the ice

Royal Pavilion ice rink, Brighton.
Royal Pavilion ice rink, Brighton. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The ornate domes and minarets of Brighton’s Royal Pavillion glow blue and purple while skaters circle the ice beside them on a seasonal rink powered entirely by renewable wind and solar energy (until 8 Jan).

Scotland’s biggest seasonal rink is outside the fabulous Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow with lights, music, a separate toddler rink and adults-only sessions after 9pm. There’s also a new 15-metre-high ferris wheel for a bird’s-eye view of the whirling skaters below (until 24 Dec). A short walk away, in the vaulted cloisters of Glasgow University, there’s a free carol concert on 13 Dec.

Cardiff’s free-to-enter Winter Wonderland has a skating rink, the city’s only ice bar (tickets include iced shot and rented warm coat), and an ice walk through the castle, stretching 150 metres past the Norman keep (until Jan 8). The bar is kept at -10C, so it and the frozen seats don’t melt. Even the air-hockey table is made of ice and there are ice sculptures, this year on an undersea theme. Cardiff also has a light trail in Bute Park (until 1 Jan) and a Santa’s grotto in the changing rooms at the rugby stadium (Dec 2–24).

Santa’s grotto with a twist

Thousands of Father Christmases will be donning their red coats and white beards this winter, in shops, theme parks, zoos and castles. One imaginative idea is a reverse grotto at the National Trust’s Erddig Hall in Wrexham. You bring a donation for the local food bank, chat with Santa, see the 18th-century manor halls decked for Christmas, and follow a Rudolph-themed trail around the grounds. The Erddig estate’s 1,200 acres have waymarked woodland walks to the castle mound and a cathedral-style avenue of tall beeches and hornbeams. Windows on one side of the house become a giant advent calendar and the restaurant is open for cake and hot chocolate (weekends only, 3-18 Dec).

There’s another reverse grotto at Chirk Castle, a medieval fortress near the Welsh-English border (various dates). Winter walks in the area include the castle’s oak woods, Chirk aqueduct and the Llangollen canal towpath.

A reindeer trail through the grounds of Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire leads to Father Christmas in his cottage. Biddulph Gardens, a maze of spaces with topiary pyramids, a sphinx-flanked summerhouse, Chinese pagoda and Himalayan glen, are great for kids in any season, with bridges, tunnels and terraces to explore (various dates).

Belfast’s Titanic Experience has a Christmas package involving a trip to see Father Christmas via a wishing tree in an enchanted forest, a workshop for handmade gifts and a post office for Christmas letters (until 23 Dec). The Historic Dockyard at Chatham, Kent closes as usual for December, but – for the first time this year – is running Mission Christmas, with a visit to Santa including a submarine adventure (until 24 Dec).

Deck the halls

Long Live the Christmas Tree! is the title of this year’s arty winter festival at Harewood House in West Yorkshire. Ten artists and makers have fashioned new versions of traditional trees from upcycled bottles, intricate paper mobiles, botanical sculptures using leaves from the gardens, and a carnivalesque celebration called One Love. There’s a pagan-style tree made with antlers in the Cinnamon Drawing Room, and a rotating, crystal-studded copper tree in the Music Room. People arriving car-free get half-price entry, and there are regular buses from Leeds and Harrogate. There is also 150 acres of grounds to explore, with illuminated walks, overwintering geese and bright holly berries before the drifts of lakeside snowdrops bloom again (until 2 Jan)

At National Trust-owned The Argory, in County Armagh, the theme is Yesteryear, with the neoclassical house decked for a traditional festive season and open at weekends. The banisters are wreathed in greenery and baubles, and the grounds are home to robins, grey squirrels and a Christmas fair on 3-4 Dec.

Visitors can make their own natural Christmas wreath, decorated with berries and leaves from the estate, at Downhill Demesne in County Derry. The workshop, with festive refreshments, takes place in thatched Hezlett House, one of Northern Ireland’s oldest domestic buildings (selected dates).

Festive tram and train rides

Illuminated heritage trams are running evening tours of Blackpool’s six miles of lights, which are shining for an extended season (until 2 Jan). Originally modelled in the 1960s, the trams are shaped like steam trains or open-topped boats.

TV interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has given Blackpool’s Golden Mile an art-deco-style makeover this year. The promenade between the resort’s two piers now has what Llewelyn-Bowen calls “dynamic corridors of scintillating coloured light”. This season’s display includes a drag-themed digital show and a seven-metre-high walk-through beach balls. Blackpool’s festive village, Christmas by the Sea, includes a new free skating rink and artificial snow (until 2 Jan).

There’s a grotto inside a decorated train carriage on the harbour at Porthmadog, Snowdonia, where the Ffestiniog railway’s Winter Wanderer service sets off into the frosty hills. There are hot drinks and mince pies on sale at the station cafe to enjoy with the scenery (various dates).

A Train of Lights chugs along Dartmouth steam railway in Devon, through the 450-metre Greenway tunnel to an enchanted forest. On the way back, the town’s glowing windows and street lamps will be reflected in the river Dart (until 30 Dec).

Sculpture trails

Channel 4 first screened Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman 40 years ago and has shown it every Christmas since. Individually painted to represent the 12 days of Christmas, giant sculptures based on the Snowman form a free trail around Hitchin in Hertfordshire (until 20 Jan).

There’s also a craft fair in Hitchin’s Schools Museum (3-4 Dec) and local cafes to warm up in include Molly’s Tea Room, with its bay window full of teapots and teddy bears.

There’s another trail of snowmen at Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey. Camellias, mahonia, witch hazel and early snowdrops flower in the winter garden and down the wooded slopes, and mist rises from the reed-fringed pond on cold days. For the festive season, there are free traditional games and a carousel. Afterwards, there are mince pies and marshmallow-topped hot chocolate in the cafe, with 25p off for those who bring a reusable cup (trail until 2 Jan).

Birmingham has a walking trail of 15 emperor penguin sculptures, a huge Frankfurt Christmas market (until 23 Dec), plus a programme of ballets, concerts and pantomimes.