London with Kids
We’ve traveled to London with our three kids a couple of times now – when they were 3, 5 and 7 and again when they were 6, 8 and 10. When we’re there we stay active – there’s so much to do it would be a shame to spend too much time at the hotel (even though we loved our hotel). Here are our top ten tips for families heading to London. And if you’re worried about rain, don’t be – most of these aren’t dependent on good weather.
See London from Above
Take a ride on the London Eye – the very large ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames, across from Big Ben and Parliament. We always do this on the first day since it lets us get our bearings, and staring out over London we can plan out the next few days.
Have Afternoon Tea
My wife grew up going to Fortnum & Mason for High Tea / Afternoon Tea, and we’ve continued the tradition with our kids – both at Fortnum and also at the Milestone Hotel. We like them both a lot, but the Milestone Hotel’s is a little more kid-friendly – in terms of the setting, the food/tea served and the price. It’s worth bringing a nice outfit and letting your kids practice their best manners. One tip – there’s so much food served, if you book a tea in the late afternoon (e.g. 4 or 5pm) you likely won’t need to eat dinner. Information on Fortnum’s Tea is here. Information on the Milestone Hotel’s Tea is here.
Learn the History
The Tower of London is a castle with 1000 years of history, and if that’s not enough, the Queen’s jewels are housed there. We took a tour with Context Travel and loved how our guide Philippa tailored everything to the kids, from the starting time to the pace to the stories she told. My kids loved seeing the jewels and hearing about past kings and queens, the animals of the Menagerie, and medieval torture devices. Highly recommended!
Revisit Harry Potter
London is full of Harry Potter-related things to do, from walking tours to studio visits. We want to experience more on future trips, but for now my 10-year-old is satiated after visiting Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross railway station. I had expected to walk up and find a short casual line for photos. In reality it’s a highly-organized operation with a queue, a photographer and a person who will put you in the scarf of your favorite Hogwarts house and direct you for the best photo ops, all for free…unless you want to purchase a photo at the end. Despite the hour-long line, it was a highlight.
Let Kids Be Kids
Our favorite playground is The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. Our kids typically play for an hour or so before they’re ready to leave. Park officials limit the number of people who can be at the playground at any given time, but it’s worth the wait.
Go to a Museum
We love the museums of London since, in addition to being among the best in the world, they’re largely free. That means that you can stop in for even half an hour if you want to or if it’s raining, show your kids some highlights (a Monet at the National Gallery or the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, for example) and then continue on with your day. How kid-friendly is that – no queues to buy tickets, no hit to your vacation budget, and no pressure to stay a long time to get your money’s worth. One of our new favorite museums: Sir John Soane’s Museum, with a sarcophagus, a very unique use of space, and walls of paintings that swing open to reveal more paintings.
See a Musical
We plan our visits so that we have tickets to a play or musical every other night. In general I’ve found the New York theatre scene to be more kid-friendly (better seating, free Playbills, no charge for booster seats), but given that we live nowhere near New York or London, we can’t pass up the opportunity to see shows while we’re in either city. In London we’ve seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (mediocre), Stomp (fun for the kids), Matilda (excellent), Lion King (not quite as good as in New York) and Mamma Mia (my 10-year-old’s new favorite). I usually get tickets online well in advance, since a lot of shows sell out, but there are countless ticket booths in the city for last-minute purchases.
Take a Walking Tour and Become a Better Artist
My kids love to sketch, so I booked Context Travel’s Drawing London walking tour. Edward Collett met us at our hotel, showed us some sites around the neighborhood that we hadn’t seen yet, took us through Sir John Soane’s Museum and then walked with us over to the British Museum where he sketched with the kids. He’s illustrated for the New Yorker, Economist and newspapers around the world, and he showed the kids how he approached drawing and how to get different effects. We loved it, and our kids’ artwork improved instantly. Such a cool morning with an incredibly interesting person.
Visit a Market
Borough Market has become extremely popular, but we still like it a lot. We’ll typically walk over in the morning, buy fruits, berries and breads for snacks or to take back to the hotel, get lunch from one of the vendors and then get dessert from another vendor. A favorite stop: Neal’s Yard Dairy, where we love sampling the various cheeses before selecting a few to go with our newly-purchased baguettes.
Rest Your Legs
While London has a lot to offer above-ground, don’t be afraid to take the Tube from site to site to give your kids a little bit of a rest. Our worst days in London have been when we walked too much and pushed the kids too hard – sure we always discovered new fun things, but that’s not enjoyable if the kids are exhausted.
Where We Stayed
As a family we’ve now stayed at two London hotels, and on other trips I’ve stayed at half a dozen more. The only London hotel that’s been perfect is the Rosewood. I appreciated the kid-sized robes, the cookies delivered to the room with the kids’ names, the location – only a 10-minute walk to the West End theaters and Covent Garden – and the nearby access to the underground. My kids loved Pearl, the resident Golden Retriever. Our connecting room setup worked perfectly.
Where We Ate
London dining gets unfairly criticized. Sure there are a lot of pubs with similar dishes and a lot of chain restaurants, but with a little research, and recommendations from concierges and friends, we’ve found some places that we love:
- San Carlo Cicchetti has excellent, authentic Italian. We dined at their Covent Garden location. There’s also one on Piccadilly.
- Dishoom (Indian) was amazing – our favorite meal in London. There are often long waits, so make a reservation if you can. (They only accept reservations for parties of six or more, so we invited my cousin to dinner with us to make six. We walked past over 100 people in line as a result.)
- We always enjoyed Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks at Covent Garden – a unique take on British cuisine. Unfortunately it’s now closed.
- Paul Bakery. It’s an international chain, but it’s consistently good, and is ubiquitous in London. It’s an easy go-to for breakfasts or lunches.
What have I missed? What do you recommend for kids in London?
Disclaimer: We received media discounts at the Rosewood London, for the Context Travel tours and for Afternoon Tea at the Milestone Hotel, but all opinions are mine. We genuinely loved the hotel and those experiences.