Harry Potter, Disney’s Christmas Carol, 101 Dalmations, Peter Pan: London is an enchanted city to visit with kids in tow, especially at holiday time. But it can be hard on parents’ purses – perhaps now more than ever, as a recovering travel industry sends hotel prices soaring.
Here are my best suggestions, based on 15 years experience of living in the city, of how to keep costs to a minimum and still have fun:
1. RUN FREE
- Coram’s Fields: a unique seven-acre playground and park for children in central London.
- The bronze statue of Peter Pan: Kensington Gardens, next to Hyde Park. The exact location was chosen by Peter Pan’s author, J.M. Barrie.
- Kew Gardens: The Gardens cover 300 acres. Climbers and Creepers is Kew’s interactive play area for 3-9 year olds.
- Hackney City Farm – award-winning cafe, plus pigs, goats, sheep and more.
- Mudchute Park and Farm – the largest urban farm in the London area with 34 acres of open parkland plus horse riding, a tea shop, farm animals, and a shop.
- Kentish Town City Farm – a wide range of livestock, poultry, horses, plus weekend pony rides
- Vauxhall City Farm – donkey rides, pony-care classes, milking demonstrations and lots of hands-on-work with the animals.
- Camden Lock: for quirky and fashion forward fashion. Open every day from 10am and very busy on Sundays
- Portobello Road: sells everything from antiques to silverware, to fruit and veggies and funky clothes. Open: Monday to Wednesday 8am to 6pm, Thursday 9am to 1pm, Friday – Sat 8am to 7pm
- Spitalfields: housed in a covered Victorian fruit and vegetable market selling everything from arts and crafts, clothes, furniture to organic foods. Open: Wednesday to Friday, Sunday 9am to 5pm
- Borough Market: offers incredible sights and sounds. Its imported and organic products such as cheese, wines, fish and meat are. Open: Thurs, Fri 12 to 6pm, Saturday 9am to 4pm
- Greenwich market: for classic antiques and wooden toys, designer clothes, model ships and retro clothes. Open: Saturday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm
3. A ROYAL WALK
- From: Westminster Abbey – built by Edward the Confessor. William the Conqueror was crowned here, Christmas Day 1066. Thousands of people are buried and interred here including many royal and historic figures. The funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales was held there. Try to get here for Evensong when the Abbey choir sings.
To: The home of the Queen, Buckingham Palace – built in 1703. When the Queen is in residence, the Royal Standard flag is raised. A soldier takes it down the moment the Queen leaves. Watch the Changing of the Guard at 11.30 am every morning during summer and every second morning during winter.
- To: Green Park – next to Buckingham Palace, made into a royal park by Charles II. The park was a popular place for duels during the eighteenth century.
4. SMARTY ARTY
- National Theatre, Coin Street and near Tower Bridge: free concerts, open-air films and installations along the river.
- Covent Garden Plaza: catch street performers every afternoon. Good acts draw huge crowds. All performers are licensed and have passed an audition to perform here.
- South Bank Centre: Free foyer events Mondays to Fridays at 5.45pm and Saturdays at 1pm and 5.45pm.
- Tate Modern: housed inside the imposingly spectacular Bankside Power Station building (designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the man who designed the red telephone box) This national gallery of international modern and contemporary art from 1900 onwards boasts spacious galleries, with child friendly eateries, stores and bathrooms. Straight into another century, St Pauls Cathedral is directly across from the Tate Modern, just a 5 minute stroll over the Millenium bridge (the same bridge destroyed by Death Eaters in the film adaption of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
All of London’s major museums are free, but most offer special exhibitions for a fee. The best include…
- Horniman: tucked away in south London, it offers families a chance opportunity to explore the natural and cultural world for free. Plus it has an aquarium and gardens. Founded by Victorian tea trader, Frederick Horniman, in 1901.
- Museum of Childhood: holds the largest collection of childhood objects in Britain, including toys, games, dolls houses, rocking horses and costumes.
- Natural History Museum: housed in a striking building opened in 1881, contains 70 million items, many collected by Darwin himself. Its most popular exhibits are the dinosaur skeletons.
- The British Museum: founded in 1753 it began with three privately-owned public collections. It now holds around 13 million historical items including tons of Roman and Egyptian antiquities, plus the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Athens.
- Imperial War museum: set in a former psychiatric hospital, known as “Bedlam”, it includes memorabilia from all modern British conflicts since World War I. Items range from medals, weapons and ration books through to tanks and a fragment from the Berlin Wall.