Britain doesn’t have a particularly family-friendly reputation abroad, unlike Italy or Spain for example, but as an American mother of two living in the U.K. since 1999 I can say with confidence that this reputation is quite undeserved.
The United Kingdom (made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is always among the top destinations abroad for families due to our shared language and history, and it is not as long a flight as you might think, being about a 7-hour nonstop flight between New York City and London.
In fact, I can’t think of anywhere I have been here where the children have been unwelcome, and that includes many pubs!
The facilities for families here are widespread and of high quality; I even have had friends from Italy, France and Spain compare the U.K. favorably with their own countries in this regard. Clean and modern baby-changing facilities are everywhere, as are high-quality indoor “soft play” centers (due to the poor British weather, no doubt). Cafes and restaurants are always happy to heat up baby food or a bottle for me, and I have never had a problem getting a high chair. A word of caution, however, with regard to family restaurants: U.S.-style diners (e.g., Denny’s) do not exist here, and anything that calls itself a “diner” is more like a greasy spoon and should probably be avoided. If your hotel does not have a restaurant (see below), visiting families with small children are probably better off sticking to McDonald’s, Burger King (these are everywhere), or TGI Friday’s and Subway sandwich shops. I would also highly recommend several nationwide chain restaurants that don’t cater specifically to families but are nevertheless very kiddie-friendly and have pretty good food besides: Pizza Express, Est Est Est and Bella Pasta, which can be found in most medium-sized (or larger) British towns (for locations, see www.pizzaexpress.co.uk; www.estestest.co.uk; www.bellapasta.co.uk).
Most hotels have cribs (call them “cots”) available; a good nationwide budget hotel chain to try that caters to families is Premier Travel Inn (see www.travelinn.co.uk for locations and reservations). These are budget hotels similar to Travelodge in the U.S., but which also have “family suites” available if, like mine, your children refuse to sleep when they are in the same room with you. There is almost always a family-friendly restaurant attached to the hotel as well. In London, the Travel Inn near Waterloo station is in a great location, as it is right next to the London Eye, a huge Ferris-wheel type of tourist attraction (built and operated by British Airways) that has large “capsules” which hold about 15 people each. The wheel rotates very slowly and offers breathtaking views of London. The capsules can also easily accommodate a large stroller; see www.ba-londoneye.com; to book or for more information. As mentioned, the hotel is also within walking distance of Waterloo train station, which has Eurostar (Channel tunnel) trains to Paris (2 hours), Brussels and Disneyland Paris, so you can avoid the hassle of airports and flying with the kids. There is also a Legoland in Windsor, which is about a 1 hour drive west of London. Windsor Castle is there as well, parts of which are open to the public for tours.
As for getting around, the huge London subway system (the Underground or “Tube”) is generally quite stroller-friendly (by the way, your stroller is a “buggy” or “pushchair” here). Most major Tube stations have either elevators (“lifts”) or escalators. In the absence of both, I have never had to ask for help lifting the stroller up the stairs, as someone always offers to help first. With regard to car rental, U.S. drivers shouldn’t be intimidated by the idea of driving on the left, as I (not the most confident driver) found it a much easier adjustment than I expected.
Finally, Britain’s best-kept secret for families, in my opinion, are the Centerparcs family resorts (www.centerparcs.co.uk). These are upscale vacation “camps,” for lack of a better word, which are set in beautiful forest surroundings and cater to families. You can book anything from a no-frills cottage to a large “executive” chalet or villa, and all come fully equipped for children: high chairs, cribs, stair gates, and microwaves are standard in every rental. No cars are allowed in the village. The outdoor facilities are too extensive to cover fully here, but may include an indoor/outdoor water park with wave pool and slides, bicycle rental and pedal-boat rentals on a manmade lake, guided hikes, miniature golf, adult golf, tennis, quad-bike rentals and windsurfing. There is a wide variety of themed restaurants (ranging from Burger King to a Hard Rock-style place to a rather formal Indian restaurant), all of which welcome — rather than allow — children. In fact, almost all the restaurants, including the “olde English pub” and the sports bar, have indoor soft-play areas with ball pits, etc., to keep the kids entertained. All restaurants also have self-serve microwaves to heat bottles and baby food, as well as high chairs, of course. Best of all for frazzled parents, babysitters are available in the evening, and there is a children’s club (certified nursery with qualified staff) where you can leave children for a couple of hours to be entertained with various activities while you enjoy a massage at the Aqua Sana day spa (me) or a beer at the Sports Bar (my husband). While not cheap, these holiday villages are well worth the price, in my opinion, for a stress-free holiday that all family members will enjoy equally.