Dig out your scarves, grab a hot chocolate and head out with us to explore Cheltenham at Christmas with Visit Cheltenham (AD: hosted trip). The Regency town is a great place to spend the festive season, whether you live locally or are visiting for the weekend. So if you’re looking for inspiration this winter, here’s our guide to Cheltenham at Christmas 2023, featuring 10 great things to do, from fine dining to independent shopping, light trails to theatre shows … and plenty of sparkle.
Things to do at Christmas in Cheltenham
Visit the Christmas markets
With their cosy wooden cabins, colourful lights and the smell of mulled wine, we can never resist a trip to a Christmas market. And the Cheltenham Christmas markets are back this winter along Promenade and Long Gardens between 16–19 November and 14–23 December 2023.
There’s a mix of craft and gift stalls, selling scarves and candles, jewellery and prints, soap and spirits. Plus there is a selection of food and drink stalls so you can pick up a hot chocolate, crêpe or hotdog while you browse. And as well as the markets on the Prom, there’s also an artisan craft market featuring local makers on the Pittville Pump Room lawn from 25–26 November.
Get your skates on at the ice rink
The Cheltenham Ice Rink is also back for 2023 after a year’s absence. The rink is located in Imperial Gardens, the site of Cheltenham’s original winter gardens and roller skating rink in the late 19th century. It’s open from 17 November 2023 to 1 January 2024 (excluding Christmas Day).
The rink is undercover so you don’t have to worry about the weather, and you can warm up afterwards with a mulled wine or hot chocolate in the Imperial Gardens Orangery bar. It’s been transformed into a Winter Wonderland bar for Christmas, with fluffy blankets and festive décor.
Spend the night at the panto
A trip to the panto is another Christmas family tradition, and this year’s show at the Everyman Theatre is Mother Goose, from 24 November 2023 to 7 January 2024. It features local favourite Tweedy the Clown from Giffords Circus in his first outing as the pantomime Dame as well as an all-singing, all-dancing cast of West End stars, local jokes and the chance to shout ‘It’s behind you!’
The panto isn’t Cheltenham’s only festive show either, you can also see Aladdin at the Cheltenham Playhouse from 15–31 December 2023. And the Chapterhouse Theatre Co bring their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol to the Bacon Theatre on 22 December 2023.
Have a vintage Christmas at Holst Victorian House
If you want to see how the Victorians celebrated Christmas, head to Holst Victorian House at number 4 Clarence Street, the house where composer Gustav Holst was born in 1874. Inside is a time capsule taking you back to Victorian times, with recreated rooms showing you how people lived – both the Holst family upstairs and the servants in the scullery and kitchen downstairs.
Around the house are Holst’s original gramophone, photographs and even the piano where he composed his most famous work The Planets in 1916. He started composing at the age of 12 but music was in his blood, with three generations of musicians coming before him.
At Christmas the parlour is decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree and there are special events like a Victorian Christmas Day (9 December), a recital of In the Bleak Midwinter (20 December) and the museum is lit by candlelight as it would’ve been in Holst’s day on 21 December.
Take a festive walk
Another way to time travel in Cheltenham at Christmas is with a guided history tour, which can be tailored to your interests – whether that’s festive traditions or famous residents.
Our walking tour with Blue Badge Guide Anne Bartlett started at the refurbished Wilson museum and gallery, where we headed to the archives to learn about local hero Edward Wilson – the artist, doctor, naturalist and explorer born in Cheltenham who died on Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic.
Anne also took us through Cheltenham’s days as a spa resort – and how it’s all thanks to some pigeons. Pigeons helped discover the springs after they were seen pecking at the salts, and have been commemorated with the pigeon statues around town and a place on the town’s coat of arms.
You can also follow Cheltenham Christmas Lights Trail, which takes you on a tour of the town’s prettiest light displays, from Montpellier along the Promenade to the High Street and Brewery Quarter. Along the way there are illuminated buildings, sparkling trees and a ceiling of light.
And younger visitors to Cheltenham at Christmas can follow the Cheltenham BID Christmas Elf Trail. Sixteen elves are hidden in shop windows around town, and if you find them all and solve an anagram you can win a £100 gift card. The trail runs from 16 November to 22 December 2023.
Go Christmas shopping in Montpellier
One of our favourite spots for Cheltenham Christmas shopping is Montpellier, where you’ll find lots of interesting independent stores for unique gifts. Like the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen, which features products from the Guild’s designer-makers, including leatherwork, ceramics, furniture and textiles, perfect for anyone who appreciates good craftsmanship.
At Edible Art Patisserie you’ll find colourful macarons and beautifully crafted Christmas tree and bauble cakes which look almost too good to eat. Pink Vintage sell quirky homeware, art and jewellery. James of Montpellier stocks high-quality menswear and gifts. And Rossiter Books is an independent bookshop full of literary treasures which hosts book signings and events.
Sparkle at the Spectacle of Light
Running since 2016, the Spectacle of Light transforms 15th-century Sudeley Castle just outside Cheltenham into a riot of colour and light. The castle ruins, chapel and grounds are decorated with light beams, lanterns, glitter balls hanging from the trees and sparkling fountains, all set to music. The trail is one of our Cheltenham Christmas traditions and we’ve visited almost every year.
Each year there’s a new design – this year’s is themed around the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and features Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion as they travel to the Emerald City. The trail is open on selected evenings from 24 November–30 December 2023 and must be pre-booked. It takes around 60–90 minutes to walk, with food and drink stalls on the Castle terrace.
Admire the decorations at the Queen’s Hotel
The historic Queen’s Hotel was one of the first purpose-built hotels in Europe when it opened in 1838, and has welcomed visitors to Cheltenham from Edward Elgar to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to stay, drink and dine with them. And it gets some extra sparkle for the winter, from the archway of baubles around the revolving doors to the giant Christmas tree in the lobby.
Victoria’s restaurant makes a great stop off for lunch in between Christmas shopping – or you can enjoy a festive afternoon tea during December. The menu features seasonal British cuisine with a view of Imperial Gardens. And don’t miss a peek at the hotel’s grand staircase, which uses the same wallpaper as the Houses of Parliament, designed by architect Augustus Pugin.
Go for 180 at Flight Club
For a more unusual Christmas activity, why not head to Flight Club in Cheltenham’s Brewery Quarter for a social game of darts? It’s a long way from the traditional pub dartboard, with a selection of different games you can play alone or as a team so more than two people can play at once – and they even do the scoring for you so you don’t need to practice your maths.
You don’t need to actually have any darts skills either (as we proved on our visit), and it’s a fun activity to do with a group of friends. There are also special festive darts brunches being held on Thursdays to Sundays in December, which include Prosecco and bottomless pizza.
Dine on the rooftop at The Nook
One of the recent additions to Cheltenham’s thriving restaurant scene is The Nook – the town’s first rooftop restaurant. It is located on the fifth floor of the Quadrangle building on the edge of Imperial Gardens. Inside it’s sleek and stylishly decorated, and there’s an extra wow factor from the roof terrace, where you can see Cheltenham lit up for Christmas stretching out below you.
The expert bar staff mix up a great selection of cocktails, and the menu features local produce in fine dining dishes (the slow-cooked beef was a favourite with our group) – as well as a good selection of local wines. And they’re hosting a special New Year’s event to welcome 2024 in style.
Where to stay in Cheltenham at Christmas
Five-star Ellenborough Park hotel lies to the north of town, close to the racecourse. It’s bursting with history and character, starting life as a manor house in the 15th-century. It hosted George III and it’s said Oliver Cromwell shot at their front door! Today it’s a luxurious country house hotel, with 61 rooms spread across various different buildings as well as a spa and swimming pool.
At Christmas it’s a cosy place to stay, with Christmas trees and nightcaps by the fire. You can dine in the wood-panelled splendour of the dining room or the more casual Horse Box Brasserie. And even if you’re not staying overnight, they do a fab afternoon tea with a festive twist.
Or if you’d rather be right in the heart of town to take advantage of all of Cheltenham’s bars and restaurants, Neptune Apartments are right on the Promenade (the perfect location for visiting the Christmas markets). Two neighbouring period buildings have been newly refurbished and converted into 12 one-bedroom apartments which are named after Cotswold towns and villages.
They vary in size but each have kitchens and seating areas, so you can self-cater if you want to. They’ve all been individually designed with velvet fabrics, high-end appliances and stylish décor to give them a deluxe feel, and would be great for a romantic break or girls’ weekend away.
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