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 or 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…
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 County Hall building are family attractions including the London Aquarium, London Dungeon, Shrek's Adventure and Namco Funscape.
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, 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’ in 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, the Launchpad, has now closed in preparation for a new Interactive Gallery in late 2016. 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 nearby London Film Museum, the London Zoo in Regent’s Park, which has been wowing families more than ever since opening its Animal Adventure children's zoo, and the treetop 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-fives, 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 Rib Voyages, a high-speed boat ride along the Thames, taking in the sights to a soundtrack of funky tunes and the James Bond theme.
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 in Covent Garden.
The award-winning walking tours firm Context Travel (contexttravel.com) 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. A relaxed restaurant in a family-friendly boutique hotel, with particularly good family brunches with an excellent kids’ menu.
Carluccio’s Caffè, 8 Market Place, W1, and other locations. 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 other locations. 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. Another ‘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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Masala Zone, 48 Floral St, WC2, and other locations. 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.
Tate Modern Café, Bankside, SE1. 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. A three-course kids’ meal comes free with each adult main and dessert, and kids get crayons to replicate the artworks they’ve seen in this mighty modern art museum (see above).
Garden Café, Freightliners Farm, Sheringham Rd, N7. 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.
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 for a 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 usually great deals on hotel rooms if you shop around. And take advantage of set lunch and pre-theatre menus.
On the other hand, 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 Events (freelondonevents.co.uk). 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.By Rhonda Carrier
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