Taking kids on an overseas holiday can involve a significant drain on your resources – time, money and emotions.
If you’re heading to the sun and sands of an Asian resort, complete with hair-braiding opportunities, mocktails by the beach and affordable souvenirs, you can be pretty sure they’ll enjoy it.
But Europe is a bigger step, geographically and practically. The historic monuments, cultural offerings and buzz of one of the world’s major cities hold clear appeal for adults, but what about the kids? Not to mention the jet lag and 24 hours in transit.
But fear not – for those who overcome the hurdles, London offers endless opportunities to keep the children entertained, as we found recently on a trip with our three children, aged 10, 8 and 6.
Here are our tips for maximising enjoyment in this vibrant and varied city …
Take a Ride
London is full of simple and low-cost pleasures. Our kids loved riding upstairs on the double-decker buses, taking the Underground and even the Thames Clipper water taxis. But the most thrilling ride was the RIB Experience, a high-speed boat that chugged past landmarks such as the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge before madly accelerating, surfing over the wake of other boats and tipping from side to side like a rollercoaster on water. Our kids’ shouts of glee drowned out the background James Bond music, and I knew the River Thames would be etched in their memory in a way no tour guide could have achieved.
Expand the Mind
Many of London’s museums are free, meaning you can pop in for a few highlights and depart without feeling guilty when legs become weary.
The London Science Museum beats any other science centres I’ve been to (and that’s quite a few!) for its inventiveness and interactivity. We even attended a “show” on the science of bridge construction, which might sound dull to all except the engineers but actually had our kids absorbed for a full 30 minutes (and it amazed me how much we referred to it when we later visited churches and buildings with gravity-defying arched ceilings). The display of Egyptian mummies at the British Museum is bound to spark curiosity, with the cat mummy a sure hit. The Natural History Museum is renowned for its dinosaur exhibit, but it was the natural disasters section, complete with an earthquake simulation involving a shaking floor, that captivated our crew.
There is a charge to visit the Tower of London, but it is well worth it. Get there early to drool over the Crown Jewels before the crowds arrive, and catch a lively Beefeater tour if your children’s concentration span allows – the tours are free, so we enjoyed the first ten minutes for some scene-setting stories before wandering off to find where Henry VIII had his wives beheaded (our kids love the gore of Horrible Histories!). Across the river from the Tower, the warship HMS Belfast proved unexpectedly entertaining, offering the equivalent of an historic playground. The children were free to roam from deck to deck and clamber over the workings of the ship, even experiencing the heat of battle amidst the smoke and smells of the Gun Turret Experience.
Enjoy the View
From the Tower of London or HMS Belfast, it’s only a few steps to Tower Bridge, which is well-prepared for young visitors with a sticker-collection trail running throughout the attraction. The top walkway offers unique views down the Thames, allowing children to spot any landmarks they have already visited.
If you have cash to splash then the latest place to go is Western Europe’s tallest skyscraper, The Shard, which towers 244m above the city and offers views stretching over 60km into the distance. The prices are high to match, though, at around £25 for an adult and £19 per child over four.
It makes the London Eye seem a bargain (family prices starting from around £55, with a 4D movie included), and we opted for this modern ferris wheel with its giant glass pods and 360 degree views. The children loved seeing into the gardens of Buckingham Palace, locating the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral which they had climbed earlier and spotting a playground that looked fun to visit (needless to say, we did!).
The most memorable view for me, though, came from the 14th floor of the Lancaster London, where we spent our final night in the capital. While hardly a skyscraper, this hotel enjoys a privileged position on the border of Hyde Park, and views from the guest rooms offer a unique appreciation of the beauty of the royal park and its importance as a lung for London. Even the bathroom overlooks the uncluttered expanse of Hyde Park, with icons such as Big Ben standing out beyond the greenery – our family voted it the best loo view in London.
Savour the Spectacle
The pomp and ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is very much part of the London experience, but the crowds outside Buckingham Palace can be daunting, particularly in high season. Rather than fighting for a spot in the crush right outside the Palace, we opted for a view from the steps across the road. The elevation meant the children weren’t struggling to see over other heads or being hit by the backpacks of taller tourists, and while they couldn’t see the minutae of the ceremony, they had a great view of the guards marching past in all their finery.
For theatre of a more traditional kind, we booked tickets to the West End show Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A visit to the theatres of Covent Garden involves not only watching the show itself, but also being entertained by the many performers in the surrounding streets. As these performers have to audition for the right to present their acts, the quality is high.
Stroll the Parks
London is spoilt for wide open spaces, and parks such as Hyde Park, Regents Park and Kensington Gardens are a perfect place to relax after a morning of more intensive sightseeing. Older children might enjoy cruising the paths on a rented “Boris Bike” (the low-cost bike scheme instituted by London mayor Boris Johnson – riders must be over 14) but younger visitors will be delighted by the near-tame squirrels and the endless tree-climbing possibilities.
The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens offers unrivalled variety, with a pirate ship, several types of swings and a verdant landscape that provides ample nooks and crannies for hide and seek. In the warmer months, from around Easter, visitors can rent pedal-boats on the ponds of Hyde Park and Regents Park. Our three had a happy half-hour on the boats at Regents Park for only a couple of pounds each.
Indulge in Afternoon Tea
If the weather precludes relaxing in the parks (and let’s face it, that’s always a risk in London), then seek respite in one of the many hotels that offer tea and treats. Afternoon tea is one of the great English traditions, so you can dismiss the indulgence as exploring the local culture. And forget the stuffy cucumber sandwiches and scones of times gone by (tasty though these may be!). London hotels are now going out of their way not just to be creative, but to appeal to families with children too. My daughter and I enjoy a girls’ treat at the Ampersand Hotel, around the corner from the Science and Natural History museums, where we were presented with mysterious drinks in beakers, chocolate dinosaurs and planet-shaped cupcakes, all shrouded in the smoke-like effect of dry ice. The “science” afternoon tea is one of a number the hotel offers on rotation. St Ermin’s near St James Park offers InfiniTea and Beyond, a superhero afternoon tea featuring Batman cakes and Kryptonite strips, while the Montcalm in Mayfair is firmly targeting families with its Teddy’s Tea Time sessions.
Staying in London doesn’t mean, er, staying in London. There are dozens of attractions within easy reach via the efficient train system, including Hampton Court Palace, The Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden and any number of country walks. But our youngsters were clear on the two places they had to visit.
The first, the Harry Potter exhibition at Warner Bros Studios, is a must-see for any Quidditch-loving master of unforgiveable curses. Tickets must be booked in advance and offer access to such memorable sets as the Gryffindor common room, Diagon Alley and 4 Privet Drive. Be prepared to lose an extra few galleons on Butterbeer, photo mock-ups and merchandise!
The second, Legoland, proved an ideal place to end our holiday. Although easily accessible from London, the resort is not far from Heathrow airport, so we instead elected to indulge the kids with a couple of nights at the Legoland Hotel. Our pirate-themed room comfortably slept five, and had the huge benefit of granting us early access to the theme park ahead of the crowds. By the time the first day-trippers enter the park, we were already onto our fourth ride. The park is best for kids up to around 11 years old, with most rides accessible for all. As well as the usual rollercoasters, boat rides and electric cars, all with a Lego twist, the resort offers the impressive Miniland, with expertly crafted replicas not just of London, but also Paris, Denmark and beyond. My six-year-old had to be torn away from watching the trains, boats and other moving parts – there’s even a Changing of the Guard ceremony complete with mobile marching guards!
Sleep in Comfort
There’s no getting around the fact that London accommodation is expensive. There is a trade-off between location/centrality and price/size, and different families will have different priorities. We found it important to be walking distance to a major park to balance sightseeing with the simple relaxation of running around at a playground, and booked an apartment near Hyde Park through family booking agency Hoseasons. This worked well for us because, as a family of five, we could all be together in our accommodation with self-catering available. But we also roadtested the family ensuite rooms at London Central YHA, a modern hostel providing a brilliant location at an affordable price – youth hostels are a far cry from what they once were, and this one offers 24-hour access, discounts on lots of attractions, and a café as well as self-catering. Smaller families may find a hotel works best, as many of the large chains will allow up to two children in a room with adults. And those prepared to stay a couple of train stops from central London will find prices significantly lower, while enjoying the added benefit of accessing the 2-for-1 deals on many London attractions offered on presentation of a rail ticket.
Plan Your Travel
Take the stress out of your arrival after a long journey by pre-ordering groceries for delivery from one of the major chains. Our Tesco load of fruit, snacks and dinner ingredients arrived as we were checking in to our accommodation and was delivered straight to our room.
If travelling outside of London, remember that booking train travel in advance not only saves pounds of pounds, it also ensures certainty of timing and usually, reserved seats. The National Rail system in Britain offers huge discounts for families who acquire a Family & Friends railcard (the cost is around £30, which is quickly recouped in discounts, possibly even on your first trip. Tickets can be booked online from Australia and collected in the UK, while the railcard can be sent to a UK address or purchased on arrival.
It helps to have an Oyster card for efficiency on public transport – these can be bought at tube stations throughout London. Children under the age of 11 travel free on buses and the Underground when travelling with an adult.
Some attractions and shows do book out (for example Warner Bros Studios) so it is worth booking well ahead if you know when you plan to visit. On the flipside, there are some last-minute bargains to be had on theatre tickets if you are prepared to risk missing out altogether. Cheap tickets are available from the stand in Leicester Square on the day.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the huge number of attractions and apparent “must-dos” in London. We found that some of the greatest pleasures were found in simply walking the streets, enjoying the different shops, architecture and surroundings. By taking our children’s interests and stamina into account, we ensured they had fun. And that pretty much guaranteed that we had fun too.
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