Update: I wrote this post in 2012 while we were living in Australia, it’s one of my first ever. Since then we have returned to live in London for 8 months as part of our full-time nomadic travel lifestyle. We’re loving being back, London is kid paradise. Some of my more recent posts, such as London for kids, for free, may interest you.
Visiting London With Children, It’s a Dream Destination.
There is so much to do that is child friendly, educational and fun in London. There are parks and free museums, historical landmarks and entertainment, enough to keep your family busy for months, maybe years!
I’ll stick to my family’s favourites, the things we always enjoyed when we lived in London years ago and the things we’re enjoying now, during our 8 month stay. If you are visiting London with children I hope you will enjoy them, too.
I think the key to children getting the most out of travel is preparing them. Show them pictures, tell them stories, watch videos. When they get there they will be excited to see what London has to offer and know a bit about the landmarks.
Getting Around London With Children
The tube system is fantastic, people love to hate it but it makes getting around so easy. Trains are regular, frequent and the city is well covered. Avoid peak hours, it can get very crowded and little people can get frightened in the crush. Take advantage of day passes which allow you to switch between buses and tube trains. A ride on the top of a London double-decker or a bendy bus is fun for the children. They may enjoy seeing the occasional mouse on the tube track, Oxford Circus and Leicester Square are good stations for spotting subterranean wildlife.
There is a children’s book about the mice Underneath the Underground – West (Puffin Picture Story Books) (No. 2) by celebrity Anthea Turner and her sister, Wendy.
The city is actually pretty small, you are often better off walking than taking the tube. I used to walk for miles in London when my children were small enough to push or carry, it’s easier than taking the tube and if you are visiting London with children you may well get more out of wandering the streets than being crammed into a tube train.( For example, Covent Garden, along Regent St to Oxford Circus, isn’t far at all.)
If you are a single Mum or Dad with children in strollers or buggies, there are a couple of tube stations wth steep stairs, no escalators or lifts. Strangers will almost always help you carry your buggy, plus child, up the steps. Londoners may not smile or chat much, but they like to help.
London black taxis are everywhere, they aren’t cheap, just flag one down, they are metred.
Bicycle Rickshaws are a new phenomenon I’ve taken one all the way from Covent Garden to the London Palladium. I didn’t realise it was so far, or that we’d be in heavy traffic on the Tottenham Court Rd. It was scary, but great fun. There were 2 adults and 2 children in our party and it cost about $20. I would stick to using them in areas with light traffic, they are popular around Soho. They have been criticised for being dangerous and uninsured. Maybe it’s a risk, but it was fun as a one-off.
Boris Bikes as they’re called by the locals, are an initiative to get Londoners cycling.You’ll see stands of chunky-looking silver and blue bikes all over the capital. Cycle helmets are not a legal requirement in the UK, but take on the London traffic at your risk. I wouldn’t do it! They can be great for exploring the parks, particularly Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which interconnect. For 10 pounds you can use them as many times as you like for a week. ( half an hour each time). My 10 year old is big enough to ride them, my 8 year old isn’t.
Free Things To Do In London With Children
Most museums in London are free, which is brilliant! It’s one of the main things I miss about living there. Our favorite museums are:
The Natural History Museum. You could spend a week here and still not see everything. It is incredible. The building itself, with its magnificent Victorian architecture, is impressive, you step through the main doors and come face to face with the iconic replica Diplodocus. On your left is the dinosaur exhibit, complete with an animatronic T Rex, huge skeletons and a number of interactive displays.
Tip: The museum can be busy in term time, when many school groups visit, it has often been quieter for us in school holidays.
The mammal hall is spectacular, the life sized blue whale suspended from the ceiling is a memory from my childhood that still impresses me forty years later.
There are cafes, excellent washrooms and cloakrooms. The food is extremely good quality, but more expensive than elsewhere.
If you visit around Christmas time you should find an outdoor ice rink and carousel in front of the museum. These photos were taken in November, the weather was beautiful, we didn’t need coats at all. We were lucky, you have to prepare for anything weather wise.
I must also mention the Rothschild Collection out in Tring, north of London. It is now owned by the Natural History Museum, and is free. It is a compact, yet vast, collection put together by Walter Rothschild, a notable eccentric, famous for having a stable of zebras to pull his carriage. They have the most enormous stuffed seal I have ever seen up on the top floor, it’s well worth a visit.
The 2010 BBC TV documentary series, The Museum of Life, is one of our family favourites. It’s a behind the scenes look at the work the NHM does, it would be great to watch before you go if you can get hold of a copy.
The British Museum. The Egyptian artifacts are amazing, not as good as Cairo and, arguably, some of the exhibits should be sent back there, but if you are into Egyptology, mummies and hieroglyphs you will be in museum heaven. They have the Rosetta stone, how cool is that?
Just about every culture is represented, from Ancient Greece to Asian civilizations, Egypt is my favorite.
It’s an incredible building with good facilities, food is great, but pricey, washrooms are good. I really like the gift shop too, so much stuff , from the arty and unique to kids books and toys.
There are so many museums I can’t list them all, those two are my favourites, I’d also recommend The Science Museum for children.
Shops and Markets
Harrods. It’s worth a visit just for the food hall, an amazing array of the unusual and the expensive, plenty of eating opportunities here too, at a price. There is a dress code, they don’t admit scruffs.
Hamleys. Maybe the greatest toy shop in the world. It’s on Regent St. just a short walk from Oxford Circus. There are five floors of awesomeness with lifts and escalators. A cafe, restrooms and baby changing facilities are on the top floor along with the Dr Who toys (wow!). Staff stationed all over the shop keep kids entertained with toy demonstrations. The window displays at Christmas make things extra magical.
Covent Garden Markets. The Covent Garden tube station is strange, it’s the only station I remember where the access is via elevators. As you come out and walk right towards Covent Garden you are surrounded by buskers, mostly performance artists standing still pretending to be statues, waiting for you to throw them coins. They are extremely good, most kids love them. In Covent Garden proper you will find more buskers, these are more likely to put on shows, gathering a crowd around them, again, they are excellent, magic, fire tricks, uni-cyclists, jugglers or, my favourite the guy that puts on the Charlie Chaplin show. My son got involved with him last year, it was amazing. They usually pass a hat round for donations at the end.
In the central part of the market are the market stalls, surrounding this are regular high street shops housed in the old market buildings. I LOVE Covent Garden. Look out for the Christmas fairs and food fairs, there are often special events.
Parks, Gardens and Open Spaces
London is absolutely crammed with parks, lakes and playgrounds, the wild squirrel population is a big hit with those that aren’t used to them. My husband and I used to laugh at tourists taking photos of the squirrels, now my children chase them around with cameras, too. You will find them wherever there is grass and trees.
The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Gardens is a magical playground, a lovely reminder of a special lady. It is only open to children under 12, and features a huge central pirate ship. You can find it near her old home in Kensington Gardens. The Diana memorial fountain is in Hyde Park, the two parks are side by side, another lovely spot, children and adults like to paddle on hot days.
Regents Park You can see some of the zoo animals for free from Regents park, certainly the camels in the old, listed, elephant building and the farmyard animals in the petting zoo. It’s an enormous area of grass and gardens, take the kids for a run around, to feed the ducks or for a rowing boat ride on the lake. It is beautiful in autumn when the leaves are turning. There are a number of cafes serving ice creams, cakes and hot snacks along with rest room facilities.
London Attractions You Have to Pay For, But They’re Worth it!
My favorite places to visit in London with children ( or without!)
London Zoo is a big day out, a must do if you are visiting London with children. I used to take my preschoolers almost every week on our local’s annual pass. Unfortunately, it is a little expensive for one-off visitors. You can see my post on London Zoo here, I’m a zoologist and passionate about animal welfare, I have no time for those who consider zoos cruel, the work they do is vital for conservation and London is a shining example of this.
Check out the old elephant house, a listed building, the elephants have now been relocated to Whipsnade Zoo and Safari Park, along with the other larger mammals.( Whipsnade is also excellent) The elephant house was housing camels and pygmy hippos last time I was there.
The cafe at London zoo has a good selection of hot food and healthy snacks, they do a great coffee and cake too. It does get very busy, try to avoid peak times. Check out the area in front of the cafe for carousels, occasional face painting and a lovely children’s playground.
The giraffe house is another favourite I love the smell of giraffe and hay as you go into the enclosed area. We used to take a packed lunch and eat it in the giraffe house, sometimes.
I’ve been visiting London zoo all my life, things have changed, there are new attractions, ( such as the excellent indoor rain forest exhibit) but the old buildings and history remain.
The reptile house is another old building, if you know your Harry Potter films you’ll recognize the enclosure at the front, on the left, as the place where Harry first started talking to snakes. I need to write a separate post about London zoo, there is so much to tell.
London Sea Life Aquarium This is a great aquarium, the huge shark tank stretched over 2 or 3 stories and housed some unusual types of shark, not just the usual grey nurse sharks. You can read our 2014 review of London Aquarium here. It’s just south of the river near the London Eye( one of the very best attractions in London), you could do both in one day and save money by buying a Combi Ticket.
The Tower of London. Another big day out, highlights include King Henry VIII’s suit of amour and the crown jewels When I was visiting last year they had a special exhibition, Royal Beasts, showcasing the tower’s history as a zoo, complete with wandering actors reenacting the roles of the beast keepers. It’s still running. It was a big hit with the kids, as were the ghostly tales of the Beefeaters. These guys are all ex army, are great with the kids, and tell fantastic tales.
If you can’t make it to the tower, check out this book The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London. You can read all about the first polar bear in London, he was kept chained on the banks of the Thames, or the elephant that didn’t last long on his diet of beer and bread. (My animal enthusiasm may give away my zoologist roots, sorry!)
Theatres and Shows I have taken the children to The London Palladium to see The Wizard of Oz and to the Lyceum to see The Lion King. After much online research, we found that the cheapest way to buy tickets was to actually go along to the theater’s box office and be very nice to the man behind the desk, we got tickets for that night at the Palladium and a free ticket for my youngest, their Granny got her ticket half price as an OAP. Both were evening shows, finishing late at night, we had no issues with tiredness and fidgeting because they were so mesmerized by the performances and the theatrical wizardry going on (indoor snow and a witch flying above the audience).
The London Eye One of my favourites, this is where you see just how small London is, you can see everything from up there, I’ve not taken the children since they were babies, I have a feeling children may find it a little dull, this one is more for the grown ups.
The London Dungeon This attraction is horrible and nasty in a good way, all the gruesome gory bits from London’s history. Small boys and my husband love this stuff.
I’m not such a fan, I really don’t need to hear about medieval torture methods, thanks very much, they did a great job of making me feel quite ill with stories of red-hot tongue clamps.
The actor led tours are superb, some new rides have opened since my last visit, this is another place we will visit next time, the boys will be old enough then. You could call it educational, its history, Jack the Ripper, the plague and the great fire should be part of every child’s education. If your kids like their history horrible, they’ll love this. If you enjoy this sort of thing you could also check out the tour at The Clink prison. One of the oldest prisons in London, it gave its name to all others. It’s on the South Bank. My husband and I found it interesting, but I think for the older children, the London Dungeon would be more fun.
There are endless options when you are visiting London with children, just take a walk along the river, better still, take a cruise, get out of London, visit Richmond Park and see the herds of wild deer or visit the Botanical Gardens at Kew, their indoor soft play area is brilliant. If you are heading to London and need any help, drop me a comment, I’d be happy to help you out with anything child related, both my children were born there, we had a lot of fun.
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