To adapt the great Dr Johnson: ‘The family bored of London is bored of life’. Whatever age your kids are, there's more than enough to keep them entertained over as many family holidays and breaks as you care to make in the British capital, starting with such simple pleasures as a ride in a classic red London bus or a black taxi. There are also the world-class museums and the famous monuments, the mighty river and the wonderful parks, the fabulous choice of family-friendly restaurants and cafés and the amazing array of accommodation for all pockets. Indeed, your only real problem is how to fit it all in. All the more reason to keep coming back for more…
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Start with the London Eye, a must-see and a must-see-from: on a clear day it offers spectacular views over the Thames and many of the landmarks of London, as far as the arch of the new Wembley Stadium and Windsor Castle. Right by the Eye in the old Country Hall building are family attractions including the London Aquarium and the London Film Museum.
Take a boat-trip from the Eye to maritime Greenwich or even the mighty defence system of the Thames Flood Barrier, a journey that takes you past many of London’s most famous sights. In Greenwich itself you can explore the World Heritage site of the Royal Observatory, home to Greenwich Mean Time and a state-of-the-art planetarium, and the National Maritime Museum, with interactive galleries where kids can learn all about the history of seafaring.
Discover the other family attractions on the stretch of river between the London Eye and the iconic Tower Bridge, known as the South Bank (a great place for a stroll): the Golden Hinde, a replica of the 16th-century ship in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, the HMS Belfast, a retired World War II cruiser with decks you can explore, the ghoulish London Dungeon, and the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, with a hands-on exhibition and kids’ workshops.
But if you only have time to see one thing on the South Bank, make it the Tate Modern, a world-class modern art museum in an old power station, with a Family Zone full of books, quizzes and games. There’s normally a huge installation in the main hall space that is worth the trip on its own, and multimedia handhelds for both adults and kids help you navigate the collection. To top it all, the Tate has good restaurants serving quality kids’ fare (see below).
Explore the City, London’s Roman heart, easily accessed from the Tate Modern over the gleaming silver 'wobbly’ Millennium Bridge – which, happily, no longer wobbles. It takes you almost as far as St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and famous for its Whispering Gallery, where you can hear someone whispering at the walls at the far side due to an acoustic weirdness.
From here it’s a short hop to the ever-expanding Museum of London to learn all about London’s history since prehistoric times, including the big nasties such as the Black Death and the Great Fire. Try to coincide your visit with one of the plentiful family-oriented events.
Have great days out in ‘Museumland’, otherwise known as South Kensington, where ‘the big three’ of the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) rub shoulders. In fact, since all of them are gargantuan, you’ll need much more than a day to do justice to any single one. One of the most popular spots in the Science Museum is the Launch Pad, where visitors of all ages get to learn all about the forces of nature by playing with gadgets and watching free 20-minute shows. The museum’s touchscreen info terminals suggest itineraries for families, teenagers, and those with special interests. The Science Museum is also home to one of London’s two IMAX cinemas.
Head for the Natural History Museum, which is similarly exciting – and overwhelming. Depending on your kids’ ages, you might want to focus on the animatronic dinosaurs, the hands-on science lab, the earthquake simulator, the Mammals Gallery, or the Darwin Centre. Note that both the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum host excellent changing exhibitions in addition to their (free) permanent collections, so make sure to check their websites regularly.
Make time for the V&A decorative-arts museum (which includes displays on fashion) – while not as immediately family-friendly as its neighbours, it has discovery areas for kids, a Free Art Fun desk running family activities, and themed backpacks and trails. And one of London’s best-kept secrets is the V&A’s Museum of Childhood out in Bethnal Green to the east.
Don't miss other TaketheFamily favourites: the British Museum, the Tower of London, the Peter Pan/pirate-themed Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens, the London Transport Museum, and London Zoo in Regent’s Park, which has been wowing families more than ever since opening its Animal Adventure children's zoo; and the tree top adventure course Go Ape! in Trent Park, Enfield.
Be West End boys and girls. London is red hot for family-friendly musicals and shows, especially the feline fantasia of the long-running Lion King. See Official London Theatre (officiallondontheatre.co.uk) for listings of both West End shows and performances at London’s wealth of smaller theatres (some of them specialist kids’ theatres), searchable by age suitability.
In addition to the sights mentioned above, we highly rate the following for family holidays with the given age groups:
Battersea Park Children’s Zoo, a well-kept secret south of the river, with small animals (otters, owls, lemurs and so on), a farmyard and a superb playground.
Coram’s Fields, a wonderful Bloomsbury playground with a huge sandy play area for under-5s, an adventure area for older kids, an animal-petting enclosure, a summer paddling pool and a café.
WWT Wetland Centre, a remarkable wildlife reserve not far from the heart of London, with a ‘bird airport’ and wildlife hides for spying on birds, water voles and more, plus an adventure area for kids 3–11 and an interactive discovery centre with water games.
DLR, a driverless overland train that kids love to sit at the front of and pretend to steer as it meanders between buildings, swooping up and down like a gentle rollercoaster. It’s a good way of visiting Docklands and Greenwich.
Foundling Museum, where you can learn all about the Foundling Hospital, London’s first home for abandoned children, which stood on the site of Coram’s Fields next door (see above). Kids’ activity packs, audio-guides, story-books, drawing activities and events bring it to life.
Horniman Museum, an off-the-beaten track attraction worth the schlep for its quirky collection (everything from torture instruments to puppets and giant model insects, some of which can be handled), award-winning aquarium, family workshops, storytelling, night tours, music sessions, and arts and crafts activities. The gardens contain an animal enclosure and nature trail.
Camden and Portobello markets, the first as tacky and grungey as it comes but an essential stop for those looking for alternative clothes, accessories and magnets, the second a perennially trendy haunt for aspiring fashionistas.
Churchill War Rooms, a double-whammy of culture where you can learn about Winston Churchill not only as a politician but as a father and son, and tour the secret bombproof bunkers where the War Cabinet hid out in air raids. Kids get free audioguides, trails and holiday activities and special events.
London Walks, a company offering a number of walks suitable for kids six and up, including costumed ghost walks, treasure hunts and occasional ‘beachcombing’ walks where they can search for archaeological detritus by the Thames at low tide.
Then there's the shopping - people come to London for this alone. Hamleys ain’t what it used to be, but your kids won’t care about that as they navigate its seven floors of toys, books and gadgets. A more charming haunt is Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.
The award-winning walking tours firm Context Travel can make London more accessible to those with kids with its family walks.
Cosmopolitan London offers every conceivable type of cuisine, all-day eating options galore, and a great many child-friendly restaurants and cafés, making family holidays and breaks easy-peasy. TaketheFamily favourites include:
Indigo, One Aldwych Hotel, WC2, 020 7300 0400. A relaxed restaurant within a family-friendly luxury hotel, offering particularly good family brunches, with an excellent kids’ menu.
Carluccio’s Caffè, 8 Market Place, W1, and other locations, 020 7636 2228. A incredibly popular chain of all-day eateries serving up wonderful regional Italian food, including a great-value kids’ menu.
Ed’s Easy Diner, 19 Rupert St, W1, and elsewhere, 020 7287 1951. A small chain offering a tacky, heavily themed but fun and friendly setting for authentic American burgers and shakes, with jukeboxes and other memorabilia.
Giraffe, 7 Kensington High St, W8, and other locations, 020 7938 1221. Another ever-growing ‘herd’ where you can count on cheery décor, a world music soundtrack, and a global menu with something for everyone, from blueberry pancakes to Thai curries. The branches at Heathrow and Gatwick airports are life-savers for those flying in or out of London with kids.
Inn the Park, St James’s Park, W1, 020 7451 9999. In a city blessed with great park and great park cafés, this is top of the heap. With a grass roof and views of Duck Island and various palaces from its terrace, it divides into a very good restaurant serving Modern British food (including an excellent kids’ menu), and a self-service counter offering good breakfasts, lunches and teas.
Pizza Express, 29 Wardour St, W1, and other locations, 020 7437 7215. Another popular nationwide chain where you can count on a lively family atmosphere and reliable pizzas, pasta dishes and salads.
Wagamama, 14 Irving St, WC2, and other locations, 0207 839 2323. Yet another kid-friendly chain – this time of hectic noodle joints with communal tables, full of noisy brats like yours. Kids get a mini-menu of scaled-down noodle and rice dishes with a healthy slant, and often a free T-shirt in addition to colouring materials.
The Rainforest Café, 20-24 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1, 0207 434 3111. American-style food in animatronic animal heaven – moving elephants, gorillas and snakes move and growl as your thrilled (or appalled) little ones munch on their ribs, pastas and the like, much of it organic.
The Parlour Restaurant, Fortnum & Mason, 18 Piccadilly, W1, 0845 300 1767. A great place for a family treat – a posh ice-cream parlour in an upmarket department store, specialising in ice-creams and sorbet, including luscious stem ginger and honey (the latter produced by the bees who live on the store rooftop), although also serving savoury dishes.
Cibo Café, Mamas & Papas, 256–8 Regent St, W1, 0845 268 000. A trendy spot within the flagship store of the Italian nursery chain, offering classy Italian food, from breakfast and ‘light bites’ to full lunches. The kids’ menu is outstanding, and toys and magazines are on hand.
Masala Zone, 48 Floral St, WC2, and other locations, 020 7379 0101. A canteen-style Asian serving Indian street stall dishes and thalis with lots of small dishes to share, Indian family style. Large Rajasthani puppets hang from the ceiling of this vibrant, sociable place.
Le Café Anglais, Whiteleys, 8 Porchester Gardens, W2, 020 7221 1415. A beautiful, buzzing Art Deco dining room serving amazing Modern European food, from omelettes to anchovy toast with parmesan custard. Fish and roasts constitute the mains, while what may well be the best kids’ menu in town includes a cold meat platter, a choice of omelettes, and roast chicken. On Sunday lunchtime a clown entertains young diners, and you're on the doorstep of Hyde Park.
Café 2, Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1, 020 7401 5014. A splendid spot for family breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas, snacks, and (on Fri and Sat) light evening meals, offering views of the Thames, the Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. A three-course kids’ meal comes free with each adult main and dessert, and kids also get crayons so they can replicate the artworks they’ve seen in this mighty modern art museum (see above).
Strawbale Café, Freightliners Farm, Sheringham Rd, N7, 020 7609 0467. A unique veggie café in one of London's cutest urban farms, built by farm volunteers from sustainable materials and serving great soups, salads and cakes and a healthy kids’ menu, with many ingredients produced on the farm itself.By Rhonda Carrier
London is fantastic for family holidays or breaks at any time of year, even in the pouring rain, with loads of museums and art galleries that will keep you entertained while providing cover. And when the sun comes out and gleams on London’s classic buildings, it is difficult to find a more inspiring city on Earth.
Summer brings plenty of tourists to the major attractions, but even then you can find a (reasonably) quiet corner of Regent’s, Hyde, Green or St James’ parks where you can enjoy a proper family picnic. Or escape to the relative wilds of Hampstead Heath.
As a Christmas destination, London offers unrivalled shopping (a trip to see Santa at Harrod’s is obligatory), glorious ice rinks that seem to increase in number every year, wonderful shows, and a host of family activities at venues all over the city.
For those coming from abroad or distant parts of the UK, London is served by five airports. Transatlantic flights arrive in Gatwick and Heathrow, and domestic and European flights additionally arrive at City, Luton and Stansted airports. All have good links into central London, with buses being the slowest but cheapest option.
Getting around by tube, bus or cab is simple if not cheap, although the tube and many buses – though now free for children – are not particularly buggy friendly, so put an infant into a sling if possible. Walking is very easy (kids' stamina and weather permitting). Check out the Transport for London website (tfl.gov.uk/) for more details about getting around the capital.
London is notoriously expensive, especially when it comes to accommodation, eating out and transport – although there are currently some amazing deals on hotel rooms for those who take the time to shop around. Look out too for set lunch and pre-theatre menus.
You may also be surprised by how many of the big attractions are free – museums, art galleries, the Changing of the Guard and much more besides. A good source of information is Free London Listings, which has a Kids section. If you're planning to visit a number of attractions over a short period of time, you can both beat the queues and potentially save money with the London Pass.
London has some of the greatest hotels in the world, and although they tend to be pricey, the current economic climate and high level of competition make for some unprecedented deals – see our recommendations below or check Expedia for rooms from just £50/night.
If you have younger children or are planning to stay a few days or more, a self-catering apartment may be your best option for family breaks, allowing you to eat what you want when you want and hence save money on eating out, and offering more space for the kids to run around. Or consider staying in a youth hostel – London has several that are very family-friendly, and well-sited for major tourist attractions.
You might also consider staying outside the centre – for example, at The Grove, a 'London country estate' 40 minutes west of the centre, with a crèche, children's activities and a spa.
Sitting beneath the streets of London, the London Dungeon offers a frightening experience for older members of the family.
The ultimate feel-good show, especially popular with mums and daughters.
Modern and contemporary art from around the globe, presented with an eye for families and free to boot.
The best views over the British capital are offered during a 30-minute ‘flight’ on the iconic London Eye.
Disney's famous tale comes to vivid life on the London stage.
Two free museums charting the fascinating history of London in general and as a port.
Fun and learning are inextricably mixed at this enormous free venue in London's 'Museumland'.
Bloodcurdling history comes to the fore at this atmospheric one-time royal dwelling.
A long-established and respected if smallish zoo in the plum surrounds of London's Regents Park.
A London institution, brilliant for introducing kids of all ages to the wonders of the natural world.
A vast repository of artefacts from cultures around the world, free to visit.
Plenty of interactives to get kids engaged by London's transport systems past, present and future.
London's vast Natural History Museum is an astonishing free resource for anyone interested in our planet.
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