London Stories and Tips

London with children

Photo of London, England

London is a great place to visit with children. It has a huge number of kids' activities, places to go and things to see, a surprising number of them free. London is full of life, full of history, full of culture. A multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city, and astonishingly safe despite having over ten million inhabitants, London has masses to offer to visitors of any age.

The 2012 Olympics added a spate of destinations and attractions, unfortunately I have not been to London this year and can't honestly include these.

==The Thames==

The river is still the focus of London's life, even though the docks are long gone. You can simply walk around (the South Bank is good with long pedestrianized stretches) but there are also many attractions. Many of the best are free, but one well worth paying for is the giant Ferris Wheel, the London Eye, offering a fun ride in a glass pod and great views.

Walk the Bridge, a once-wobbly pedestrian bridge between Tate Modern and St Paul's Cathedral for great views up and down the river.

Take a bus along the Thames. Kids like boat trips (don't bother with guided tours, it's expensive and unnecessary). The tickets for the river bus start at 1.70 GBP and are cheaper if you have a travelcard. The river buses go as far up-river as Putney and as far down-river as Woolwich. The best trip is from Embankment or London Eye to the historic Maritime Greenwich, via the redeveloped London Docklands.

==Museums and galleries==

All major London national museums and art galleries are free and most will have things that interest children.

National History Museum (South Kensington) starts with a huge dinosaur skeleton in the great hall at entrance and gets better from then on. You could spend days here, getting scared by robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex, exploring human body and learning about creepy crawlies. The Science Museum is nearby, as is V&A (better for older kids).

British Museum is a treasure trove of historical and archeological finds, with Egyptian mummies, Assyrian winged bulls and special tours and activity packs for kids, mostly aged five and above. There are also art materials for loan and a special childrens' library. You could spend a week here.

National Gallery offers daily art activities for children, while Tate Modern's great Turbine Hall always has fascinating installations to look at and a lot of space to run around.

National Army Museum has a popular kids' zone (free play area for under ten year olds) as well as displays that might be of interest to older children.

Further afield (going east), the London (Docklands) has play areas for under-12's, soft play area for under fives and educationaland fun Kid's Activity Packs. Museum of Childhood, at Bethnal Green, is all about children and not only displays toys and costumes but offers activities for children at weekends and during holidays.

==The parks==

London's green spaces are one of the city's best features. You can walk, run, play and picnic on the grass in the summer, and many have great adventure playgrounds. Kensington Gardens (adjacent to the Hyde Park) are famous for the Peter Pan statue and have an excellent play park (Princess Diana Playground) with Captain Hook's Pirate Ship. Diana Memorial Fountain is nearby by the Serpentine in the Hyde Park. While there, hire a boat or a pedalo and have go at boating.

While you are in the central Royal Parks, make sure you watch the Changing of the Guards – crowded but fun for older kids, who can't help to wonder about those tall, furry hats.

Coram's Field near the Clerkenwell area has a great children's playground too.

If you have more days in London, take a trip to Richmond Park, a huge, free to enter park with roaming deer and magnificent rhododendrons. The riverside in Richmond is also lovely, and in the summer they play cricket on the village green.

The world-famous Kew Gardens has beautiful grounds, wonderful greenhouses and children don't pay for entry.

In the summer, you can swim in the open at one of London's lidos or bathing ponds. Hampstead Heath has bathing ponds (male, female, mixed) for those aged eight and over who can swim. Youngsters and non-swimmers can use a lido and a wading pool at the Parliament Hill. London Fields Lido (East London) is by far the best outdoor pool in London, though it can get crowded on hot days.

==The transport==

London underground (The Tube), London taxis and London double decker buses are all world-famous. Small kids love new and strange forms of transport and they will enjoy sampling London's vehicles. Get a travelcard (kids under 11 travel free with adults) and arm yourself with a map and explore. Try Light Railway which goes overground on high-level platforms and has driver-less trains as well as the classic Routemaster double-deckers with open platforms (don't encourage jumping on and off though) on the heritage routes 9 (Olympia to Aldwych) and 15 (Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square)

==The animals==

London Zoo is world-famous but small, crowded and very expensive. For the little ones, one of the city farms is a better option, and if you have time, go to Richmond and see deer roaming freely in the park. Spitalfields City Farm is near the funky ethnic Spitalfields Market and a good choice for the eastern end of the center.

==The shows==

There is music and theater in London at every corner, much of it free. See street performers – always a winner with children – at Covent Garden, or track free music in foyers of concert halls and theaters. London has world class musicals (Lion King, anybody?), ballet and opera: see the Nutcracker at Christmas if you can. If you are in London in December or early January, do go and see a traditional British pantomime show, where audience participates not only by clapping buy booing and hissing at the baddies and cheering on the goodies.

At many venues, for one week every year (Kids' Week, normally in the summer holidays) kids go free if accompanied by an adult.

==The tourist traps==

There are also some attractions that although very popular are real tourist traps. The chief of them are the Wax Figures of Madame Tussaud's. The queues are long, the prices high and the whole thing is tacky, silly and not worth the time or money. London Dungeon is another, a kitsch and gory manufactured "attraction". Go only if you have a bloodthirsty teenager and money and time to spare. London Zoo (see Animals section) is also overpriced and probably one to miss.

==General tips==

You can stay busy with kids for weeks on end in London, so the biggest problem any visitor will have will be to choose from what is available. To get the best value for money and most fun, use public transport (but take one ride in a black cab just for the fun of it), avoid the traps, take packed lunch with you and plan your days with a map as distances are big. Have fun, and plan to come back as you are bound to only scratch a surface of this magnificent city.

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