London has so much to offer kids. The trick is actually choosing what to do and where to go, particularly when you’re there for a specified amount of time.
On our recent visit to the city, I had a few days to spend in town while my husband slaved away in the office. Since he is British, we have taken always annual trips to the UK to visit family and friends. This time, I decided it was time to show my kids the other side of London that they don’t know: the tourist side. So, we went from being glorified Brits (after all, they do have UK passports) to tourists for a few days. I really had to narrow down my list of “to do” items as I realized very quickly, that they could not -- and would not -- keep up with me.
I didn’t want to break the bank either, and it is absolutely possible to see London on a shoe-string. All of the city’s fabulous museums are free all day, all the time. The parks are like museums in a way; they have such lovely gardens and are so well maintained. Most restaurants have children’s meals which are quite affordable. Lastly, transportation is quite inexpensive; too, if you plan in advance and buy daily or weekly transit passes.
Here is a list of our favorite stops that we made in London, considered favorites by not only my children, but me, as well:
On our very first day in London, we took the tube from Belsize Park down to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard which takes place daily throughout the summer months at 11.30am, then every other day for the rest of the year and is absolutely free. This is the ceremony involving the Foot Guards. The ceremony takes about 45 minutes and includes a band playing popular classical music. If you are heading to London this summer, I have a few suggestions: get there early. It is truly a mob scene outside the palace, and if your children don't like crowds, they may feel overwhelmed. We were there on a particularly hot day, too, so it was necessary to have sun cream and bottles of water. You can also venture away from the crowds and still see the event from a short distance. We survived the crowds and saw the program, and it was definitely a memory that they'll always have.
After the Changing of the Guard, we walked to the Westminster Abbey and stood under the Big Ben Clock, ending up at the London Eye. By that point, my kids were exhausted. I knew it was time to go on a ride. While this is not a cheap activity for the budget-conscientious, kids love it and it's a great way to cool off and see the city in full view from up in the air. You can save 10% off tickets booking online in advance, which will also alleviate waiting in long lines. They have packages you can book to save money on various tourist sites, like river cruises, Madam Tussaud's, the London Dungeon, Sea Life, etc. Tickets cost £19 per adult and £11 per child. It sounds expensive, but the line was long enough to make me realize we were not only the only crazy visitors in town. The trip takes about 30 minutes and moves very slowly. You can actually remain standing the whole time if you like. My kids loved the experience, and if you ask them their favorite part of their London tour, they'll say it was the London Eye.
After our trip on the London Eye, I knew that my kids needed some playtime, so we headed over to Hyde Park for lunch in a cafe (near Baywater Tube) and then into the park. Hyde Park is a beautiful park right on top of Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived. This playground was built in her honor and memory and is quite a special place. It was inspired by the stories of Peter Pan and was built around a big pirate ship kids can climb. It's a beautiful playground with water, sand, and various playing areas and really inspires any child's imagination. There's a cafe' right outside with homemade ice-cream. I know this sounds corny, but I really think that Princess Diana would have been delighted with the way this playground turned out. It provide such happiness to the children that visit.
On another afternoon, after a stroll through Camden Market's unique stalls full of interesting fashion items and collectibles, we decided it was time for a rest. We jumped on a boat operated by Regent's Canal Waterbus which takes you for a ride through Camden Lock, Little Venice and the London Zoo. Adults cost £6.70, kids cost £5.50 (one way). For about an hour, we rested and rode through the canals past interesting architecture, industrial history, wildlife and scenery. It's kind of like going behind the scenes of London. When we got to Little Venice, we had a lovely lunch at the quaint Waterside Café, a restaurant that sits on the water in a converted houseboat. They serve traditional British cuisine. Around the canals you can visit the London Canal Museum and the Puppet Theatre Barge.
On the way to the British Museum, we made a pit stop at Coram's Fields, which was a good idea at that moment in time when my kids were not in tourist mode. They needed to run around like kids like to do. Coram's Fields is a seven acre playground with amazing equipment and a small zoo. This spot was an unexpected delight for my kids. It was exactly what the doctor ordered, as it provided the necessary change of mood and energy to keep my kids going. Coram's Field is free and located in the heart of London near the Holborn tube station.
Covent Garden is a great place to stop after a bit of shopping and browsing in the West End. It's full of great shopping, food and street performers. I got my kids something to eat and we sat on the curb watching magicians, clowns, dancers and other types of buskers. They are professionals who do this for a living and are really fun to watch. My kids were in heaven. We also watched an opera singer and a trio of violinists that were good enough to take any stage. The nearest tube is Charing Cross.
Trafalgar Square is the largest square in the city of London. The name commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, a British naval victory. At its center is Nelson's Column, surrounded by four lion statues at its base. Statues and sculptures cover the square, with a cafe and museums all along its sides, including the National Gallery. My kids loved climbing up the column and chasing the many pigeons around the square.
London Transport Museum
Located right in Covent Garden, this is a terrific museum. Kids are free, and admission for me was £6. Inside we learned the history of the London Underground and the bus system. To say that my son enjoyed this museum is an understatement. We started our tour of the museum in the Victorian age of the town's history, with carriages, horses and eventual trains. Then we moved on in time to learn how the underground system was built, all by hand. The kids were able to get dressed up as conductors, virtually drive trains and tubes, climb through double-decker buses and really experience London transport.
Royal Air Force Museum
Located in Northern London, the Royal Air Force Museum tells the story of aviation from early planes to the latest strike jets. The museum tells the story of flight history with films, artwork, engines, missiles, photos, medals, uniforms and over one-hundred actual planes, both old and new, located throughout the museum. There is also a soft-play area for kids, with experiments and educational vehicles to teach kids about aviation. The kids absolutely loved this museum and I am sure we will be back on our next visit. There is a pleasant cafe right in the middle of the airplanes exhibit for an energy boost. My family lives in Mill Hill and it was a short drive from their house. The Museum is located on the site of the original London Aerodrome, used for the great Hendon Air Shows between the two World Wars.
Located on the Northern Circular in Northern London, this is a very large indoor playground good for any rainy day or on a day when the kids are feeling itchy and need to run around. The cost is £4.95 per child. The play area including slides, aerial runways, rope climbs, ball pond, spook room and more. The food in the cafe' is very decent and reasonably priced. We went on a rainy day and it was packed but our kids had a ball, nonetheless.
I am only scraping the barrel in this short list of what to do with kids in London. There are dozens of other activities, so do your research. I wanted to hit more of the museums, including the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert, both of which have great kid's areas and are located next to each other in Nottinghill. But my daughter got a blister and we had to head home. You must expect the unexpected when traveling with kids. At the end of the day, I realized the trip wasn't all about me and I needed to focus on what they wanted to do, too, which was play and slow down, jumping on double decker buses at a moment's notice. So you may make compromises, but whatever you do, you are still in one of the best cities in the world.
After all, there's always a next time. We'll be back.