Every winter London transforms the courtyards and front gardens of some of its finest palaces, museums, historic landmarks, and just plain appealing attractions into ice skating wonderlands. Visitors join Londoners in some of the city’s grandest and most beautiful settings to see a new part of town, and perhaps check out an unfamiliar museum. And observers like me enjoy the great holiday scene: dads whizzing by gripping wobbly kids between their knees, and giggling youngsters falling down.
In general, all of these skating venues have hourly sessions from morning into the evening; some rent skates, and some prohibit speed skates (to protect the ice). Most have cafes for a hot chocolate or hot toddy, viewing platforms, and occasionally other non-skating diversions. For specifics check the venue websites. You can buy tickets online; figure about £10-12 for adults and £8 for kids ($16-$20 and $13 at the current exchange rate of $1.61).
New to the skating scene this year is the London Eye, whose rink is set at the foot of the giant ferris wheel. This is a double header: to skate you must buy a flight on the Eye, entailing two separate admissions. The half-hour ride in one of the slowly rotating cabins, 443 feet above the Thames, has absolutely nothing to do with your skating, but the view is spectacular, and on a clear day you can see Windsor Castle, some 25 miles away. (London Eye, South Bank) .
One of my favorites is Somerset House for its grand setting, the spacious courtyard of an elegant 18th century palace, flanked on one side by a glistening golden dome and the other by one of the city’s glorious Christmas trees, this year decorated by Tiffany’s in a “Little Bluebird” motif. New this year is super chef Tom Aikens’ Tom’s Skate Lounge for daytime snacks and evening drinks. There’s a skate school for beginners, and on selected nights cool DJs and romantic torch-lit skating. For a culture break, the renowned Courtauld Gallery, with its superb collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, is at hand. (Somerset House, The Strand)
The Natural History Museum is another fave for its cosseting of young skaters, who this year get a special junior ice rink, with ice marshalls, next to the main 10,000- square-foot-plus arena, and a classic fairground carrousel. For romantic ambience at night sessions count on 76,000 fairy lights in the surrounding trees, and for sustenance the Café Bar, which I hope hasn’t displaced the wooden huts selling hot chestnuts and sausage cobs of wild boar when I was there last. (Natural History Museum, Cromwell Rd) .
For historic attractions it’s hard to beat the thousand-year-old Tower of London, a Thames-side fortress built by William the Conqueror, and one of the city’s prime draws. The skating rink is in the dry moat beneath the Tower’s Outer Curtain Wall. For a rest stop the Moat Café is close by, not to mention the Tower itself, where you can check out various prisons and Britain’s Crown Jewels. (Tower of London, Tower Hill).
For another royal experience, head to Hampton Court Palace to skate on the front lawn of Henry VIII’s red brick palace. Outside, the Frost Fayre Café serves traditional holiday fare; inside, the palace kitchen offers Tudor treats and the rooms are decorated in Christmas styles of the past, a panorama of royal celebrations from 1550 to 1950. The palace is 12 miles southwest of central London, a half hour by train from Waterloo Station. (Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey)
The most traditional of London’s skating rinks is in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, a play land, as its name suggests, of a lot more than just skating. This center of holiday fun encompasses a Giant Observation Wheel, Zippos Circus, a new Cirque d’Hiver Circus with aerialists and acrobats, a German-style Christmas market, and, no surprise, Santaland. You came for skating? You’ll be gliding around the city’s largest rink, 15,000 square feet of tempting ice. (Hyde Park, Serpentine Rd) .
Joan Scobey, an award-winning freelance writer, has covered the world from Shanghai to Sri Lanka, and Barcelona to Bangkok. Her stories have appeared in many national publications, among them Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, Diversion, Wine Enthusiast, Food Arts, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Denver Post, and Creators Syndicate. She is currently Senior Contributing Editor at Travel Arts Syndicate and Contributing Editor at Worldwide Spa Review.