The best festive UK days out for families this Christmas

Christmas at Kew (© RBG Kew)
Christmas at Kew (© RBG Kew)

The countdown to Christmas has begun. For a child, though, it probably still feels like an eternity until they can creep downstairs and discover what Santa has brought them. Why not schedule some family fun prior to the big day? December is bursting with ideas for festive days out, ranging from light trails to Christmas movie drive-ins and winter fairgrounds.

Make this season one to remember with one of the following events.

Illuminated trails

Cheer up dark, wintry nights by running through rainbow tunnels or by watching perfectly choreographed bulbs twinkle beneath old trees on a sound and lights trail. Christmas at Kew Gardens (until 8 January) celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2022, promising millions of lights, floating UV feathers and projections onto the Palm House. Other trails feature lasers and giant baubles, like those at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden (until 30 December), or find a gladioli tunnel and multi-coloured lilies at Cheshire’s Dunham Massey (until 2 January). Wherever you are, there is likely to be a trail not far away. Be sure to pack woolly hats and warm socks.

Festive historic houses

Immerse yourselves in Christmas tradition at a beautifully-decorated period house. At National Trust properties this year you can hear tales from the 17th-century Lord of Misrule at Corfe Castle, ride a horse and carriage up to Berrington Hall or walk through scenes inspired by The 12 Days of Christmas at Hughenden. Elsewhere, No. 1 Royal Crescent — Bath’s most famous townhouse — invites families to experience a Georgian Christmas. Elsewhere, children will adore scenes from Cinderella at Belvoir Castle, in Leicestershire, and Nordic folk tale The White Bear at Chatsworth House, in the Peak District.

Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory at The Festival of Light at Longleat (Lloyd Winters)
Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory at The Festival of Light at Longleat (Lloyd Winters)

Lanterns and processions

Christmas lanterns are popular everywhere but the biggest you’ll see are the colourful creations outside Longleat House (until 8 January) in Wiltshire. After a spin around the safari park, put on an extra layer and follow the lantern trail that winds around the house. This year’s theme is Roald Dahl: children will be amazed by Willy Wonka’s three storey-high Chocolate Factory, plus characters Fantastic Mr Fox, the BFG and even Ms Trunchbull swinging a small girl around by her pigtails.

Elsewhere in the UK, community light processions wind through towns in the run-up to Christmas. A procession of handmade lanterns snakes down from the castle at Knaresborough (25 November); lantern-bearers are accompanied by a samba band in Romsey, Hampshire (26 November) and flaming torches are held aloft during Conwy’s medieval parade (10 December).

Santa’s grottos

For the chance to whisper their wishlist directly to Santa, a trip to Saint Nick’s grotto is one of the most memorable dates in your kids’ calendar. Along with the traditional festive set-ups in local shopping centres, Father Christmas hands out gifts and tells traditional festive stories at multiple English Heritage properties — Belsay Hall, Brodsworth Hall, Kenwood House, Bolsover Castle and Kenilworth Castle — this year.

Alternatively, bring Santa’s magic to your front door, by signing up for an NSPCC Letter from Santa. Parents personalise a fun letter online, adding details about their child’s year, then it is sent home, with donations going to Childline.

Christmas drive-ins

There is nothing lovelier than snuggling up with your kids to watch a festive film. Whether it’s an exasperated Steve Martin, a winking Macaulay Culkin or Will Ferrell in an elf costume bringing the feels, outdoor screenings in winter are best enjoyed from the comfort of your car. Christmas drive-ins are planned all over the country this December, with locations from Manchester down to Truro, Cornwall, via events in Birmingham, Kent, Swindon and the Isle of Wight, the latter in aid of Wessex Cancer Trust.

Ice skating at Brighton’s Disney-palace-like Royal Pavilion (Visit Brighton)
Ice skating at Brighton’s Disney-palace-like Royal Pavilion (Visit Brighton)

Winter wonderlands

If your family loves funfairs, the UK’s winter wonderlands have you covered. These big, urban events are a one-stop shop for a host of festive experiences: at London’s Hyde Park Winter Wonderland (until 2 January), expect an ice slide, Zippo’s Christmas Circus, ice sculptures, a big wheel, rollercoasters and Santaland. In Manchester and Birmingham, twin Winter Funland parks (until 2 January) have the benefit of cover, being held indoors at an arena, with rides, ice skating and a circus to enjoy. Then there is the Christmas tree-themed wonderland in Bournemouth (until 2 January), with a pine-fragranced walkway featuring sparkling replica trees from around the globe, ice skating and a market.

Santa on the train

Steam trains and Santa are an unmissable combination for many rail-mad kids, which is why Santa Specials trains prove popular every winter. Some UK railways play on their heritage, with traditional decorations and carols incorporated into the journey; others deck their carriages in fairy lights and create illuminated displays in the fields or stations that they pass. Most throw in the opportunity for children to meet Santa, too. Essex’s Audley End Miniature Railway (until 24 December) sees young passengers led by fairies to a patch of fir trees where they can make food for Santa’s reindeers and post him letters. Meanwhile a train experience based on 2004 film The Polar Express is running on the Mid-Norfolk Railway (until 23 December), with actors telling the story in an immersive style.

Ice skating

Not everyone can glide like Torvill and Dean, but with skating aids available to hire alongside boots these days, even the shakiest of legs can give ice skating a whirl. Sure, the aids are designed for children — but if leaning on a penguin gets you round the rink without taking out the little ones, what’s the harm? Some of the prettiest skating backdrops include in front of the fairytale, uplit domes of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion (until 8 January) and beneath the huge tree in the courtyard at London’s Somerset House (until 15 January). There are a multitude of options though, most with steaming mugs of hot chocolate — or something stronger — available afterwards.