It goes without saying what an amazing, world class city London is. Having visited many times prior to having a child, I was excited to see it anew through my son’s eyes. There is no shortage of things to do in London with or without children. Rather, the challenge is to narrow down what you can reasonably accomplish in a short visit. Coming from another major metropolis, I tend to shy away from things that can be found in many cities – zoos, aquariums, etc. Instead, I look to do things that are unique about the destination. Even taking things like the Natural History Museum (which I hear is fabulous still!), the zoo, etc off the table, we were still overwhelmed with how much there was to do in London. Loving everything we did in London, it’s hard to come up with just a few, but below are our favorites from this visit.
London Transport Museum
Having a little boy obsessed with all things that go, this was a no brainer. The London Transport Museum is a super kid friendly museum with tons of hands on activities, things to climb and touch. There is also a fun scavenger hunt that keeps the kids engaged through the exhibits. Kids of all ages will love the collection of buses, trains, trams, and subway cars. There is an under-fives play area with dress up materials, a bus the children can ‘drive’ and more. Make sure to look in all of the little nooks and crannies for the old school train simulator and fun simulators. It is super cool for both kids and adults! Be warned, the very cool museum shop at the exit will suck you in!
Kids under 16 go free, while adults cost £17 each. The one time admission fee actually provides visitors with a year membership. Go early during your London visit in case you have a rainy day or are just in the area and want to go to again!
Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground
I have been a Princess Diana fan for as long as I can remember. I aways make time to visit her memorials in London and Paris and couldn’t wait to add her playground to the agenda. This area of Kensington Gardens will be a hit with kids. The huge pirate ship, surrounded by other ‘secluded’ play areas like the tepee camp, make this a fun and engaging playground for all ages.
This park is unique in that it does not allow unaccompanied adults who are not with children. This is important considering the size of the playground. There are many ‘hidden’ areas where kids enjoy exploring on their own. Knowing there are no adult stragglers wandering through gives parents some peace of mind when they can’t see their kids every second! Bring a book, take a seat and relax while the kids run around in a safe environment. Note that on weekends or during school holidays, there are likely to be lines to enter. Grab an ice cream, go on the carousel and enjoy the park while you wait.
One of the most recognizable bridges in the world is Tower Bridge. Apart from seeing the iconic bridge open and close (which kids find extraordinary!), the Tower Bridge Exhibition provides a great view from the bridge’s top (partially glass) walkway. Learning a bit more about the history of the bridge as well as checking out the steam-powered machinery that raised the bridge for the first hundred years of its existence is worth the admission price. Shockingly, the bridge only opens and closes about 1000 times a year (schedule posted here and at the bridge), which averages out to less than 3 times a day. Note, that it does not open every day, so be sure to check the calendar well in advance to plan your visit.
Hoity-toity art museums are not usually on the top of a family travel checklist, however the Tate Modern is definitely an exception. It continues to be one of the most memorable attractions from my first visit to London in the early 2000’s and I knew my art loving child would be mesmerized. My son particularly loved the Digital Drawing Bar where you can draw pictures on a computer screen that are then displayed on the large overhead screen. Enter your email when you complete your picture and you will get a link to their flickr page to download your creations.
In addition to the fabulous modern art on display, there are several child friendly services to make it even more accessible for little ones. There is a detective box (called the Collection Case) that can be checked out at the lower level information desk which has a fun interactive ‘game’ for families to play while learning more about the Materials & Objects display on level 4. Additionally, there is a Family Trails guide that leads children through the museum, pointing out the different works of art with information geared to their level. Don’t forget to visit the Turbine Hall!
London is synonymous with theater. There are theaters, acting studios and actors every where you look in the city. My son wasn’t quite ready to attend the major productions, but still wanted to experience a bit of English theater. We found a super kid friendly theater near London Bridge to fill our need. The Unicorn Theater is amazing for children, and has shows for all age ranges. During our visit, we saw the hilarious “Septimus Bean and his Amazing Machine”. This turned out to be one of my son’s favorite activities during our time in London. He still talks about it, laughing away while remembering it. Another popular children’s theater is the Polka Theater. I am sure there are many others, but these were the two child focused theaters were were directed to. Time Out London also have a great up to date list on family friendly shows.
Tower of London
I will admit, I was not looking forward to visiting the Tower of London. I thought it would be super boring for my son (and myself), but my son really wanted to go, so we paid the hefty entrance fee to check it out. It was amazing and continues to be one of my son’s highlights of his time in London. The Tower of London is always busy, so if you can, get there early to avoid some of the later day crowds.
Start your visit off with a free Beefeater tour of the facilities before venturing around on your own. Tours meet at the front lawn inside the gate. If the kids get bored during the tour, you can easily break away and do your own thing. Mine was obsessed with being front row (no small feat with summer crowds!) to observe our Beefeater guide in all his glory.
Before you enter, make sure to pick up the Family Trails booklet from the visitor center to keep the kids even more engaged during your visit. The booklet does not follow along with the Beefeater tour, rather it takes you along different areas of the Tower of London. A visit here is expensive, but it well worth the time. Of particular interest to my son was seeing the Crown Jewels, watching the Busby guardsman marching out front of the Jewel house as well as hearing all of the history of the place during our Beefeater Tour.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
One of the things we loved the most about London were the abundance of neighborhood parks. My son continues to say “they are spoiled for good parks in London”. It is true. In addition to the creative and entertaining neighborhood playgrounds, there are also a ton of larger playgrounds that are well worth traveling to. One of our favorites was the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the newly renovated grounds where the Olympics were held in 2012.
There are several play areas here, depending on where you enter. Our favorite was the Tumbling Bay Playground in the north of the park. It has rock pools, sand pits with elaborate pulley systems, tall tree houses connected by wobbly bridges and plenty of place to run in and out of bushes. In addition to Tumbling Bay, there is a large climbing wall and the pleasure gardens on the south side of the park with a sand pit, slides and swings.
Another fun aspect to this park is the Explorer’s Guide to Adventures in the Park trail map. With this activity guide, you will have tasks to do, stamps to collect and adventures taking you along through the park. Another fun way to experience everything the park has to offer.
With several play areas and the explorer’s guide, you could easily spend all day here! Not only do you get to explore the public transport systems more, you also get out of the major tourist zones to experience London like many locals do, seeing a side of the city that has a much different feel than old London.
Routemaster Double Decker Bus
My son was obsessed with the double decker buses in London, but even more so with the old school buses that he saw at the Transport Museum. Once he learned that there were a few still in rotation on the London roads, he had to find one! So we set off an adventure to ride one of the last routes of the old fashioned routemaster bus with the door in the back by the staircase. London Transport runs a heritage routemaster bus on route 15 between Trafalgar Square and the Tower of London via St Paul’s Cathedral. Heritage buses run from 9:30 to 6:30 pm every day (except Christmas). Ride the entire line or hop off at different scenic points and find another bus when you need to move on. It’s a fun way to see some London highlights.
London is such a magical city and is a wonderful first destination for any family looking to travel internationally. After 16 countries, leaving London was the hardest for my little guy. He actually cried as the plane took off! London turned out to be the perfect place for my son to experience his unique mix of interests in art, nature and history. It really is a city that has something for everyone.
Have you been to London? What are your favorites?
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