London is buzzing with excitement about the Olympics, but it isn’t a city that generally buzzes with excitement about accommodating the average family traveling with small children.
Case in point: on a recent visit, as I was lunching with a girlfriend in Mayfair, London’s most expensive neighborhood where the streets are filled with Bentleys, sable coats and Russian women teetering on sky-high Louboutins, I watched as a mom tried in vain to convince the café’s wait staff to welcome her and her little ones. “That hostess was a WITCH,” the mom announced to anyone within earshot, as her husband tried to balance an infant while wrestling their screaming, hungry toddler back into his stroller. “She’s telling me there’s no room when there’s clearly empty tables!”
If that poor mother had been able to read this blog, she’d know to skip restaurants catering to hedge funders and find the ones happy to make kid-size hot chocolates instead. For all its world capitol bustle and bravado, London can be a surprisingly wonderful place to tour with a baby, if you know the inside scoop.
What to Take to London for Babies
London sidewalks are crammed with enormous Bugaboos and Balmoral prams which are fine if you:
a) know where you’re going at all times and
b) have a driver who can pick you up at a moment’s notice
As an adventurous, touring mom, you’re far better off bringing along a Baby Bjorn or sling and the tiniest travel stroller you can find.
The London Underground Tube is notoriously unfriendly in terms of accessibility – most stations don’t have elevators (lifts) and many don’t have escalators. I’ve watched countless mothers stand at the bottom of a huge flight of stairs with their buggies, waiting for some kind soul to help them ascend. Buses are often standing-room-only and London pedestrians are almost as aggressive as London taxis so leave the status-stroller at home and bring a cheap, mini-one or better yet, wear your baby everywhere.
Where to Stay in London with Kids
London hotels can be outrageously expensive. A more economical option, especially for longer stays, is to rent an apartment or studio flat. Having a kitchen, however diminutive, makes it much easier for everyone in the family to eat well for less.
On a recent trip with our 11-month-old, we stayed at Hyde Park Executive Apartments in Baywater, a stone’s throw from the celebrated London park. It was very basic, but we loved the building’s proximity to everything central. We probably wouldn’t stay there again though because of the number of hostels on the street which made for very noisy evenings, but the company has other properties that look promising. Citybase also has a large selection of serviced apartments with occasional housekeeping and other hotel-esque amenities.
Renting from an individual apartment owner can be a great way to experience life as a local. If you can swing Central London prices, the best, family-friendly neighborhoods are Marylebone, Notting Hill, Kensington, Primrose Hill and Holland Park. All are close to public green spaces and have a number of wonderful cafes and shops. If your budget forces you further out, try Parsons Green, Maida Vale or Clapham (known as “Nappy Valley” for its large number of young families.) Some of the best websites for owner-rentals include: http://www.vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/europe/england/london, http://www.nyhabitat.com/london-apartment.html, and http://www.onefinestay.com/.
Where to Eat in London with Kids
London has a number of great chain restaurants that manage to feel unique while offering good food and a family-friendly atmosphere. My favorites are the very British Canteen, the pan-Asian Banana Tree and the Belgian bakery, Le Pain Quotidien. The Daylesford Organic cafés in Pimlico and Notting Hill are delicious and chic. The Natural Kitchen in Marylebone and Planet Organic in Westbourne Grove have wonderful, fresh fare in a casual setting, plus a good selection of baby food, wipes and diapers should you run out. The enormous, three-story Whole Foods in Kensington is also a fantastic place to eat and shop, even if it is an American import.
What to do in London with Kids
Sure, the Big Bus tour of London is touristy, but you’re a tourist with a baby and you’ll both love a bird’s eye view of the city. It’s a great way to get oriented if you’ve never been to London before and the hop-on, hop-off aspect means you can duck out whenever someone gets too tired or too hungry.
Battersea Park Children’s Zoo is open year-round and boasts a decent number of animals, as well as a number of playgrounds geared toward specific ages so your little one won’t get trampled by older creatures of his/her own kind.
Holland Park in West London has a fantastic preschool playground conveniently located to a bright, welcoming café. The café is part of the Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme, a collection of businesses that explicitly encourage nursing mothers. And if you do happen to find yourself in Mayfair, site of the aforementioned NO KIDS lunch incident, walk over to the absolutely lovely and somewhat secret Mount Street Gardens where children from the adjacent Anglican school play tag in the afternoons.
London guard photo from DavidDennisPhotos.com via Fllickr.