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London: there’s nowhere like it. Consider the rich history, the architecture, and the crazy cast of characters: King Henry VIII and his six wives, the WW2 Blitz, the Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed 87% of the city’s homes, Sherlock Holmes, Abbey Road, Westminster Abbey, James Bond, and Jack the Ripper. Consider too the city’s well-known icons: Big Ben, doubledecker buses, and red phone booths. London continues to be a place of art and culture, with a vibrant theater scene, a love of pubs, and a foodie paradise around every corner. As the old saying goes: Tired of London, Tired of Life. There’s just so much to do.
It’s clear that the above will keep the adults interested, but what about the kids?
Yes, they might roll their eyes at the historical “fun facts” you might toss their way. They may fail to appreciate the grandeur of St. Paul’s Cathedral or the significance of Winston Churchill’s War Rooms. But there’s so much to do for visitors of all ages, and kids in particular.
I may be slightly biased, since I lived in London for a couple of years when my oldest two kids were small. But we had a blast with them all over town. We’ve since moved back to the USA, and I miss London every single day. It’s just that special.
This is SUCH a fun way to begin your trip! The massive Ferris wheel sits perched on the edge of the Thames right across the water from the iconic sights of Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben. (Any tour guide worth their salt will tell you that Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the tower. Regardless, you’ll get a great view of all of those landmark spots – and a good deal more to boot.) Instead of a Ferris wheel you might find at a small town carnival, this one boasts good-sized pods that lock from the outside. It’s very safe for visitors of all ages, and the younger ones in particular may appreciate the ability to walk around during the ride.
There’s also small playground near to the London Eye that offers a spot for little legs to stretch, climb, and run around before or after you visit the Eye. It doesn’t look like a traditional playground; more like a bunch of logs that have fallen over. The kids don’t mind this at all!
After your half-hour ride, you can cross over the bridge and take your favorite snapshots of the famous buildings. There are even a few red phone booths nearby. Everyone needs those photos in their London scrapbook, right?
The London Eye costs £25 per adult and £20 for kids 3-15. Go online beforehand for slightly better prices, as well as the ability to combine your ticket with other attractions you might be interested in.
More classic London! Head over to Buckingham Palace via St. James’s Park; it’s a pretty quick walk from the London Eye and Big Ben. Check to see if the Queen is at home by noting the flag flying atop Buckingham palace. If it’s the Union Jack, she’s away, but the Royal Standard (blue, red, and yellow squares) indicates that she’s in residence. If you arrive before 11am on certain days of the week, you can catch the Changing of the Guard, a 40-minute ceremony, complete with highly trained guards in scarlet uniforms and bearskin hats. If you’re in the area, St James’s Palace (the old royal residence) and No. 10 Downing Street (the home of the British Prime Minister) are within a stone’s throw. Looking for more royal pomp? The Horse Guards Parade is also on the way.
Most helpfully for young children perhaps, the area offers a lot of open space for them to run around: St. James’s Park and Green Park sit next to the palace on two sides and the roads in and out are often closed to vehicle traffic. Kids confined to strollers (in England they’re referred to as “buggies” or “pushchairs”) will appreciate the opportunity to roam around safely.
Covent Garden was once the home of a famous fruit and vegetable market, but today it’s filled with shops, restaurants, and street performers. The courtyard space is dedicated to classical music, but surrounding the market you’ll find magicians and all manner of musical acts. We once came across a massive bubble machine – very popular with the younger crowd!
It’s easy to grab a quick bite, kids in tow, in or near Covent Garden. Check out Battersea Pie Station, serving up popular British staples, Sweetheart Cakes for bakery treats, or stop at Shake Shack for a little taste of the USA, our family’s all-time favorite place for a hamburger and milkshake. (More on food in London in the section below!)
Looking for a museum that’s sure to be a hit with younger kids? Our favorite one in town is the Transport Museum, located right in Covent Garden. It’s probably best for the 8-and-under crowd, and the focus is all transportation, all the time. And it’s very London-specific, so great for a family trip to the city! Kids will appreciate the ability to explore old Tube trains, horse-drawn carriages, and doubledecker buses, and they’ll get a feel for what the city was like in the past. Kids even get handed their own “map” and will enjoy finding the various spots along the route to get it stamped. Parents may gravitate toward my favorite place for a non-cheesy London souvenir: the well-stocked gift shop. Admission price for adults: £17.50. Kids are free. It’s also free to shop (unless you’re tempted to make a purchase).
This place is on my “must visit” list for any London visitor. Old, young, and anyone in-between! It’s a food-lovers paradise, with stall after stall offering fruit tarts, curries, savory pies, paella, and (our favorite) the best grilled cheese you’ll find anywhere. (Look for the Kappacasein stall. You won’t regret it.) In addition to more ready-to-eat options than your stomach can hold, you can also find fresh produce, appealing breads, gourmet spices, a fishmonger, and pretty much anything else that can be munched on. Think farmer’s market — on steroids. Give your children a few pounds and find out what appeals to them in the vast array of options. There will be something available for even the pickiest eater. Just keep close tabs on them – the market is large and confusing, and it would be easy for a child to get lost. Go Wednesday – Saturday, when all of the stalls are open.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Borough, Camden Market will not disappoint. It has a very different vibe than Borough, but you definitely won’t go hungry. It is also a great option that’s open on Sunday, and it’s almost always popular.
Built by William the Conqueror in 1078, the Tower has since served as a royal residence, a zoo, a fortress, an armory, and (most notably) a prison. It’s the site of many high profile executions and scandals, and the building has been kept remarkably intact for almost 950 years. Today it’s one of the city’s most popular destinations for visitors, and for good reason. Guards known as Beefeaters, resplendent in ornate garb, will greet you upon arrival. They’re founts of knowledge about the castle, so feel free to ask questions! They also offer a free tour, should your kids have the attention span for it. You can visit the execution site of Anne Boleyn (one of the Henry VIII’s wives) and learn about the two English princes who may have been murdered there by their ambitious uncle, Richard III (or perhaps not as there are other suspects). Kids will appreciate the ability to run around behind the walls, peek into the bedrooms of medieval kings and queens, and attempt to read the graffiti left behind by some of the Tower’s prisoners. The Tower is also home to the Crown Jewels, so adults and kids alike will enjoy marveling at the extensive collection of gold, diamonds, and gemstones (including the crown Queen Elizabeth wore at her coronation.)
If possible, group Borough Market and the Tower of London together in your plans as they’re on the same side of town. Admission prices for the Tower: Adults are £21.50, kids are £9.70, and children under 5 are free. There are also a couple of family packages that may save a few pounds.
Kensington Palace is the current London home of William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as well as numerous other royal family members. While their quarters are kept out of the public eye, visitors can enjoy touring the State Rooms as well as a variety of revolving exhibits that often highlight other notable residents (Princess Diana and Queen Victoria, to name a couple.) As for our family, we appreciated the grounds of the Palace more than the interior. Are you visiting near a holiday? Check online to see if there’s a family-friendly event taking place. We enjoyed the free Easter Egg hunt on the grounds while we lived nearby.
On the doorstep of Kensington Palace you’ll find one of the largest parks in town, Hyde Park. There are wide paths and picturesque ponds, perfect for kids wanting safe open space to run around. Visiting near Christmastime? It’s transformed into amusement park-meets-Christmas-market known as Winter Wonderland. How about a summertime visit? Don’t miss the Diana Memorial Playground in nearby Kensington Gardens, complete with pirate ship, sensory trail, and teepees, in addition to your classic slides, swings, and sand pit. Sure to spark the imagination of any child! It’s one of the more engaging playgrounds our family has ever visited.
Visitors to the museum will appreciate a few things right off the bat: First, the ornate Victorian architecture. Second, it’s free to enter (although donations are encouraged.) Third, there’s a massive whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the main hall. Her name is Hope and she’s over 25 meters long. She’s actually a new installment to the museum; Dippy the Diplodocus, an iconic dinosaur skeleton, had the spot of honor from 1979 to 2017. Most people visit the museum to view the impressive collection of dinosaur skeletons, but there’s quite a bit more there too, from volcanoes to fish.
If your kids tend to be more interested in science and machines, skip Natural History and go next door to the Science Museum. Kids can view space capsules, steam engines, and helicopters to their heart’s content. It’s also free to the public, as is the Victoria and Albert Museum across the street. The V&A, however, with its appalling lack of dinosaurs and hands-on exhibits, probably won’t capture your kids’ interest like the other two.
For any fan, a visit out to the studios is a must! You can walk through the sets of the Hogwarts Great Hall, Gryffindor Common Room, Ministry of Magic, and the Weasley’s kitchen. Ron, Harry, and Hermione’s Yule Ball outfits are on display, alongside countless other costumes and props. Harry’s Quiddich supplies? Of course! Walk through Diagon Alley, “ride” on the Hogwarts Express, and knock on the door of Number 4, Privet Drive.
The only trouble is that the Warner Brothers Studio isn’t exactly in Central London. It will take about about an hour to get out to the suburb of Leavesden. You’ll want to take a London Midlands train from the Euston Station to Watford Junction. From there you can take a bus out to the studio.
Tickets for adults are £39, kids £31, and under 5 are free. If you plan to go, be sure to book in advance.
This is such a special treat on any visit to London, and can be really memorable for kids. Book a table for tea and enjoy the dainty petit fours, beautiful desserts, and scones with clotted cream alongside a tea of your choice. The afternoon tea options in London range considerably, from extremely high end to mom-and-pop. If you’re going with kids I’d recommend the Chesterfield Mayfair, where they always offer an especially fun themed tea just for kids. You may not have too many outfit choices packed, but afternoon tea is usually a fancier experience. Choose to wear something on the dressy side if you can.
This is our family’s very favorite London Palace (and there are quite a few to choose from!) Get lost in the historic maze – the most famous in the world. Stroll the impeccable grounds, noticing the precise position of every bush, plant, and flower. You’ll get a chance to walk all around the massive building. The architecture changes dramatically as you go as different monarchs added on wings and sections over centuries. Check out the kitchens where royal feasts were prepared and consider the enormous task it was to feed a king and his court. The hearth itself contains enough spits for dozens of roasts – it’s enormous. If you’ve seen photos of Henry VIII, you’ll understand why a massive kitchen was essential.
See if you can spot the venerable old monarch (okay, so it’s an actor dressed in period clothing) walking around his old home. Or perhaps Queen Caroline from another era? Your whole family can dress up in robes, too, if you’d like! I personally made some friends don them when they came over to the UK to visit us. The cafe on the grounds has great food if you’re in the market for a meal or a snack.
If you’re visiting during the summer, don’t miss the Magic Garden, where your kids can pretend they’re knights of old, besieging towers and storming battlements. It’s definitely one of the best playgrounds in town.
Palace: £18.40 for adults, £9.20 for kids 5+ if you book online (this includes the Magic Garden & Maze)
Magic Garden & Maze only: £7.00 for adults, £5.00 for kids
To get to Hampton Court, take a South West Train from Waterloo Station. It’s a 50 minute ride.
There are tons of options for getting around London, and so many of them are pretty fun. If you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B, we’ve found that good old Google Maps works well. Just plug in your destination, adjust the setting to public transportation, and see what comes up. You’ll probably get some combination of the following:
The London Underground (also known as the Tube) is an institution, and young kids will enjoy riding around town on its trains as much as any other tourist activity. We’ve found it to be one of the cleanest and timeliest subway systems we’ve been on anywhere in the world. It’s also one of the most cost-effective ways to get around, especially as children under 10 are free.
The biggest challenge with the Tube is that only a handful of stations are wheelchair (or stroller) accessible. For this reason I’d recommend bringing your smallest, lightest stroller. If you have to heft it up and down flights of steps, you’re going to want something small. Bringing two stroller-age children? Consider bringing two umbrella-type strollers.
Your easiest option for the Tube fare is buying an Oyster Card at a station and loading it up with funds as needed during your visit. The one day passes aren’t usually worth it. Oyster cards can also be used on all London buses.
2. On Foot/Scooter
London is safe and beautiful, so embrace the ability to walk around and take in all the sights! When it comes to babies and toddlers, bring a stroller and/or backpack carrier. For slightly older kids, consider bringing lightweight scooters. You’ll see them everywhere around town. Our six-year-old will fuss, complain, and feign exhaustion when told she needs to walk a half mile. Give her a scooter? She’ll happily roll along for hours.
3. The Train
If your family is headed out to the Harry Potter Studio tour, Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle (another worthwhile day trip!), or, say, Paris, you’ll have to take a proper train. London boasts 10 major stations around town, and each offers routes in different directions. Check with Google Maps or train station employees to determine which station you’ll need for your trip. You can’t pay with your Oyster card for longer trips, so will need to purchase a separate ticket before you head onboard.
4. The Bus
It’s cheap and easy! Board the doubledecker bus with your Oyster Card and head right up those stairs. Try for the front seat for a unique view of the city!
5. A Black Cab
Another classic London experience! The city’s cabbies are incredibly knowledgeable about the city, and it’s fun to take at least one ride. The interior is shockingly spacious!
Since our kids are still pretty young, we steer away from fine dining. However, we’re always on the lookout for a place with great food that’s casual enough to handle our family’s level of noise and bustle. And bonus points if they can bring out the food quickly. Here are our favorite options for that:
1. Belgo Centraal: Belgian restaurant with lively atmosphere and fantastic food. Does anyone if your group love beer? Be sure to make a stop. There are seven locations around town, and we frequented the one located near Covent Garden. Don’t let the fact that it’s located in a basement scare you away. It’s fun.
2. My Old Dutch: Dutch pancakes, served savory or sweet. Three locations around town. Don’t miss the poffertjes
3. Wahaca: Mexican? In London? Yes to both. This was one of our favorite restaurants in London, and, to our taste buds, some of the best Mexican food we’ve had. The location on the Southbank is especially fun, since it’s built from a few brightly colored shipping containers.
Looking to pack a picnic, or just have a few things in your day bag for hunger pains along the way? Here are some grocery stores to check out:
1. Marks and Spencer: My favorite for picnic fare. Their stores are chock full of appealing ready-to-eat salads and sandwiches, along with a ton of other enticing options. It’s also another fun place to shop for souvenirs, with charming tins of cookies and candy to bring back home. If you walk in and find yourself looking at ladies’ shirts, don’t worry. Just find the food hall – it’s often in the basement.
2. Waitrose: A little more specialized and slightly higher end. Always fun to browse.
3. Tesco: It’s pretty basic, but decently priced if budget is important.
Kids are happier on vacation when fed a never-ending stream of snacks, right? If your family is like mine, you’ll hear requests for them all day long. So it’s nice to know where you can stop to get something quick.
1. Grab a baguette from any one of the wonderful bakeries lining the streets
2. Train stations often offer a wide range of pretzels, pasties (meat and vegetables wrapped up in a pie crust), and sausage rolls.
3. You can certainly find coffee shops like Starbucks, Nero, and Costa Coffee all over town. Smoothies, cookies, and cakes available for the non-coffee drinkers in your group.
4. Back to Marks and Spencer! In addition to the food halls, we’ve always enjoyed their in-house cafes. They usually offer a pretty simple menu, with sandwiches, coffee, soups, etc. Our very favorite thing on the menu: the cream tea. That’s a scone, clotted cream, and jam. Basically heaven on a plate! (It’s hard to find true clotted cream in the US, and it’s the snack we miss the most.) If you don’t have the budget for a fancy afternoon tea somewhere, you can always grab an inexpensive cream tea at M&S. Or maybe just do both. I could gush about London and its family-friendly activities all day. But here’s the main point: London is a fabulous place to travel with kids. It’s clean, safe, and picturesque with oodles of food and entertainment options. (Don’t miss that grilled cheese at Borough Market!) Enjoy every moment of royal pomp, cream teas, and red buses. Perhaps, like us, you’ll soon be planning a return trip.
Jessica Brown currently lives in Connecticut and writes at Roaming the Northeast, a website dedicated to family travel in New England, New York, and farther out. She believes that traveling with kids doesn’t have to be lame, and that it’s possible to eat good food, see beautiful places, and (most importantly) keep your sanity! You’ll generally find her listening to audio books, fixing up her 100-year-old farmhouse, and exploring the world with her husband and three kids in tow.