My love affair with London started when I was a shy girl all of 9. Then I went back to the city when I was 23, as an independent working woman, and most recently I reacquainted myself with city with my 4 year old daughter, Anika in tow. The city blew my mind the first time I went there and it did so this time again.
Its a fabulous city to explore with children, given how easy it is to travel around the city and the number of things you can do with children of all ages in London.
If budget is your primary concern, worry not! There are many things that you can do all for FREE.
So here are my top picks of things to do in London with kids:
Discover the city's many museums:
London has some of the best museums in the world and as an adult you can spend days pouring over exhibits that are both rare and invaluable. For kids, the museums have many attractions tailored specifically for their young guests.
Go to the London Transport Museum (children below the age of 17 go FREE) that allows children of all ages to explore the heritage of London and its many modes of transport through interactive displays. Pretend to drive a real bus or wait - even repair a tube train! Children are given their own free stamper card and can go around the museum collecting transport stamps.
Anika has no idea what science is, but she loved the Science Museum (FREE for people of all ages)! Catch a show that's all about bubbles and if you are lucky you could find yourself inside one! For 3-6 year olds make the most of the garden - a play zone that allows children to learn simple concepts in the most fun manner. For older children, spending time in the museum is a great way to stoke their curiosity about science and its many facets. Marvel at specimens from the time when aviation was pioneered and see a piece of the moon.
Children of all ages enjoy dinosaurs and there's on better place than the Natural History Museum (FREE for people of all ages) to watch a life like T Rex model yowl and growl, and move its head from side-to-side and up and down. For older children there are workshops, science shows and activities specially tailored for children of different age groups.
- Museums can get very crowded with locals and tourists as well as with school children who come there with their teachers. Check online to see when the museums are less likely to be crowded as this will mean you will be able to walk around and view exhibits without having to jostle massive crowds everywhere, and yes this information is available online!
- Most museums have several cafes and restaurants as well as designated spots where you can eat food that you have brought with you.
- Often adults face museum fatigue and children even more so. So its best you research and know what exactly it is that you want to see or experience in a particular museum.
- Spend sometime pouring over individual museum websites to see what's on offer. We just happened to walk into the Science Museum in time for a fabulous bubble show. When I checked the museum's website post our visit, the show and timings were clearly listed on the site. We were lucky we caught it as it would have been a shame had we missed it. If you don't manage to do any research then as soon as you enter the museum head to the information desk and ask if there's anything special for children of the age group that you are interested in. Many museums have activity books and maps on sale.
- To visit the Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum get off at the South Kensington tube station (District and Circle lines) To visit the London Transport Museum get off at the Covent Garden tube station (Piccadilly line).
Explore London's abundant parks:
Often what children want is just some open space to run and jump around and London won't leave you wanting for this! Across the city parks are open to all, to go out there and enjoy some time in the lap of nature. If its a sunny day, let alone children, most office goers will carry their lunch out to eat under the sun, some even manage to do some quick sunbathing!
Located in the heart of the city, Hyde Park (FREE entry) is a favorite with locals and visitors. Walk, cycle or skateboard along designated paths that crisscross the park that is home to over 4000 tress. Don't know where to start, then head to the Serpentine - a recreational lake that stretches over 40 acres. Sit by the lake and feed the many feathered creatures that call it home, go boating or enjoy a meal at the Cafe on the edge of the lake.
For a smaller park that is easier to navigate, head to St. James's Park (FREE entry) that is surrounded by 3 Palaces. A water body that runs through the center of the park is the main attraction. We spent hours here feeding the many ducks and birds that are found there. Look out for the magnificent pelicans that also call this park their home. If you are looking for a nice sit down meal, make a reservation at the stylish Inn The Park Cafe.
West of Hyde Park is Kensington Gardens (FREE entry), one of London's 8 Royal Parks (Hyde Park and St. James's Park are part of this elite group). Spread over 265 acres the park is a perfect place to unwind and spend some time surrounded by magnificent trees and ornamental flower beds. But the highlight of the park is the Diana Memorial Playground. Opened in the year 2000, in the memory of the late Princess, it is a magical open air playground complete with a life size ship, tepees and a water fountain.
Want to explore more parks other than those mentioned above, click here.
- Most parks are gigantic and are often accessible via different tube stations. Do some research on which is the best way to get to the park and in there the attraction that you are looking for. The tube station closest to the Serpentine (Hyde Park) and the play area besides it is the Knightsbridge tube station (Piccadilly line).
- Combine a visit to St. James's Park with a visit to Trafalgar Square or the Buckingham Palace, both of which are very close to the park. The tube station closest to the park is the St. James's Park tube station (District and Circle line).
- There are cafes, restaurants and kiosks within the parks that sell food and beverages. We often carried sandwiches with us that saved us the trouble of having to look for food.
- Almost all parks have toilets but they may be located at a good distance away from where you are. You might want to locate the toilets nearest to you as soon as you arrive at the park to be able to make a dash for it when you have too.
- Many people bring (mostly) bread with them to feed the ducks and other birds at the parks. You might want to carry some with you to avoid having to buy food (which most often is expensive) to feed the birds or to have to deal with your unhappy children.
- Carry a change of clothes if possible, especially when visiting the Diana Memorial Playground that has a large sand pit as well as a fountain.
Stroll down South Bank and beyond:
Located along one side of the River Thames, South Bank is a vibrant entertainment and commercial district. Stroll down South Bank and you will be amazed by how much there is to do! Sea Life London Aquarium, the London Eye, the Royal Theatre Hall, the South Bank Center are some of the noteworthy sites found here.
If you approach South Bank by walking over the Westminster Bridge chances are you will find yourself in one of the more touristy parts of the area. Walk further (towards the Royal Festival Hall) leaving the crowds behind to truly discover the nicer parts of South Bank. If you fancy a meal, then eat from one of the many quirky food trucks that are found there, or if you want some air conditioning and access to toilets, head into one of the many restaurants around the Royal Festival Hall.
South Bank is ever changing and always buzzing with activity and life. Catch live performances, walk through book sales or watch people do crazy things with their skateboards all right there. There's a sand pool that little children may enjoy. Do make sure to look out for the fountains close to the Royal Festival Hall that let you step into them and out of them. Let alone Anika, we were thrilled to walk in and out of the fountains ourselves!
A popular way of seeing the famous landmarks that are located besides the River Thames is by cruising down the river with one of the many cruises that are on offer. Choose ones that last for a couple of hours, include meals to ones that will let you hop on and off.
We did a cruise that started from near the Royal Festival Hall and took us right up to the Tower Bridge, passing by TATE Modern, the Globe, the stunning St. Paul's Cathedral, the Shard and the HMS Belfast - a permanently moored ship on the river Thames that is now open to visitors.
For Anika the highlight was seeing the Tower Bridge. Approaching it from one side of the river and going under it gave her unimaginable amount of joy. If only we had managed to see it open, I think that might have blown her mind away! Click here to see when the bridge is likely to open on the dates that you will be in London.
- Spending a day at South Bank can be exhilarating and extremely exhausting. Pick and choose what you would like to do most and what you are happy to leave out.
- There are benches at regular intervals that you can use to take a break.
- There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and food trucks so you don't have to worry about carrying food with you.
Hope to catch a glimpse of the Queen:
I do say hope, because you would indeed be very lucky if you did manage to catch a glimpse of the 90 year old monarch! Almost every visitor to London heads to Buckingham Palace and one of the most popular activities there is to see the changing of the guards ceremony (FREE for all ages), where the old guards hand over the responsibility of protecting the Buckingham Palace and St. James's Palace to the new guards. There's a lot of pomp and show on offer much to the delight of both young and old. Anika was thrilled to see the immaculately dressed guards and the majestic horses that are part of the cavalry.
With children its best you make your way to the Wellington Barracks by 11:00 a.m to watch the regimental band perform before they lead the new guard to Buckingham Palace. Once the new guard leaves the Barracks you can follow them all the way to Buckingham Palace. By doing this however, what it means is that you won't have a prime spot to watch the ceremony that happens within the gates of the Palace. People gather around the surrounding areas of Buckingham Palace as early as 9:30 a.m to watch the ceremony. With kids I wouldn't recommend standing or waiting that long. Watching the band perform is a lot more fun then watching some marching and seeing the guards exchange words, none of which you can hear.
To plan your visit and to find out about the schedule of the changing of the guards, click here.
Visit farms across the city:
London boasts of some fabulous farms, many in the heart of the city that allow children to come and experience life on a farm firsthand. Home to numerous furry, feathered, naughty but adorable animals, spending a day at the farm is a great activity for the entire family. Pick your farm and plan your visit to enjoy a farm fresh breakfast, go horse riding, have a picnic or take part in the many activities that each individual farm conducts including cooking classes, gardening activities, yoga and more. Most farms are FREE and are happy to have you donate a small amount that goes towards maintaining the farm and the animals that live there.
Visit the TimeOut London site to see a list of the farms in the city.
Watch a musical:
One of my most vivid memories of my first trip to London was watching Starlight Express, a fabulous musical. The performers, the setting, the level of acrobatics on display, the music and just about everything else was simply phenomenal. Theatre tickets cost you a bomb but they are totally worth it! The Lion King and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are the two most suitable musicals for children, especially for those below the age of 12. Scour the Internet to get some good discounts and offers on shows.
- Individual shows have different durations and each theatre has their own rules, so do find out about these to plan your visit accordingly.
- If your child's meal time happens to coincide with that of the show, you might want to feed your child before the show or check beforehand if you can carry food and drink into the auditorium.
- Children younger than 5 may get overwhelmed with the loud sounds and the visual assault of live performances, so you may want to prepare them beforehand.
Spend a day at London Zoo:
Located in the heart of the city, the London Zoo is home to lions, Sumatran tigers, giraffes, penguins, gorillas, lemurs, hippos, monkeys, tortoises and more. Plan to spend a whole day at the zoo and participate in the daily activities, including watching animals being fed and demonstrations.
Don't want to leave the zoo - then stay for the sunset safari or even better spend a night or two at the recently opened Gir Lodge. The design of the lodge has been inspired by Gir in Gujarat, India, which happens to be the only remaining home of asiatic lions in the wild.
On weekends and during peak holiday season (June to August) it might be best to buy tickets online to beat the queues at the ticket counter. You also get a small discount by buying tickets online.
To plan your visit to the zoo click here.
- Most visitors to the zoo who are using the tube to get there, alight at the Regent's Park station. At the station towards the exit there are signs that give you directions to the zoo as well as that suggest bus numbers that you can take to get to the zoo. I would highly recommend taking a bus from the station as its a good 25 minute walk to get there otherwise.
Experience the city's iconic landmarks:
If the weather is good then head to Trafalgar Square (FREE for all ages), a public square in central London that has featured in many Bollywood movies. Between the National Gallery and Nelson's Column are two enormous fountains, which is where we spent most of our time and where Anika had a lot of fun.
At one point in time there were 35000 pigeons found in the square and feeding them was a big tourist draw. Given the mess that the pigeon droppings made and the subsequent health hazard that it posed, the pigeons were slowly eliminated from the square.
Outside the National Gallery you will find live performances and a host of other activity, including people demonstrating for a cause. Trafalgar Square can get very crowded so be careful with your belongings and keep a watch on your kids while they run around.
Piccadilly Circus (FREE for all ages) is the other popular attraction close to Trafalgar Square and we did go there as well, but for a little child all the crowd and the big screen with lots of neon signs wasn't exciting.
Instead spend an afternoon at Covent Garden (FREE for all ages), in the heart of London's West End. Full of bars, restaurants, shops, open air entertainment and well turned out people, Covent Garden is a fun experience for both the young and old. There are some fabulous performances that take place around the area that are worth stopping and watching. Shop for handmade jewelry, photographs, paintings, souvenirs and vintage artifacts in one of the three markets situated there.
For more information on events, listings, places to eat and drink click here.
In London most likely you will end up using the tube and walk a lot. Do make the effort to take the city's iconic double decker buses on some routes just to experience them. If you ask Anika sitting on the top deck of a bus right in front would be one of her most memorable experiences of the trip.
- You can spend a lifetime in the city and still not see it all! To make the most of your visit know beforehand what you would like to see and do, and plan for it.
- Discussing the weather is possibly the most common preoccupation in England and not surprisingly so! You can step out of your house dressed for what seems like a warm, sunny day and find yourself caught in a torrential downpour that sends the temperature downwards. Ask any Londoner and they will tell you that the trick is to layer, so you can put on and take off clothing depending on the weather.
- Carry a plastic packet to put your trash in. We often found ourselves frantically looking for a dustbin to dispose of Anika's half eaten melting ice-cream.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes as you will be walking a lot.
- Get an Oyster Card that allows you to use the tube and buses across the city. The card costs 5 pounds and you can then top up as much as you want depending on your use.
Planning a trip to London, do tell me if you found this information useful!