Having studied the intricacies of the city from iconic Big Ben to high fashion, I can say that London is electrified by centuries of history and the energy of its forward-thinking people. Family members of any age will embrace the elegance and breadth of the city and its many attractions. And since there’s a lot to do and see in any visitor’s presumably short amount of time, allow us to help plan your stay. Here are my favorite suggestions for families visiting London. For more information on current events, check with the British Tourist Authority at Visit Britain or Visit London.
Fun for the Little Ones
(toddlers to age 8)
London W2 2UH
44 (0) 20 7298 2100
Hyde Park is not only one of the Royal Parks of London, but one of the largest parks in Central London. The sprawling grounds can provide hours of exploration. It is most famous for its Speakers’ Corner, where anyone may stand up and speak publicly. Another focal point is the Serpentine, a manmade lake that divides the park in half. In the summer months, visitors can ride the Solarshuttle ferry, swim, or rent Bluebrid rowboats. Other highlights of the park include the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial fountain, and the September 11th Memorial. Crossing the Serpentine Bridge will take you to Kensington Gardens, which used to be the private gardens of Kensington Palace. Here you can find a famous statue of Peter Pan, the boy who tried to never grow up. Check the website for seasonal events.
The Queen’s Walk
London SE1 2JH
This WW2 light cruiser, built for the Royal Navy and launched in 1938 by the wife of then prime minister Neville Chamberlain, is said to be the most decorated battleship in Britain’s history. She fought on D-Day and in Korea (her war history is well described on the free audioguide), and kids will have a blast touring below decks, where costumed mannequins are staged in the officers’ quarters, kitchen, crew cabins and even the ship’s dentist chair. (Watch out for the sound effects!) H.M.S. Belfast is moored along a lively walkway on the River Thames, has its own cafe, and has easy access to the waterfront, great skyline views, several pubs and shops.
Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre
81-83 High Street, Great Missenden, Bucks HP16 0AL
+44 (0)1494 892192
A fantastic interactive display funded by the noted author’s widow brings nature and science to life through his writings (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and others), vivid illustrations, and 3D creations, such as a walk-in peach and the great glass elevator. Great Missenden, where Roald Dahl lived and worked for 36 years, is a small, rural place that will intrigue travelers, and the museum now houses the Writing Hut he used to work in at his nearby garden. Please be sure to check the website for calendar details. As this is a popular exhibit and a fun daytrip from London, booking tickets in advance is strongly recommended.
V&A Museum of Childhood
Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9PA
44 (0)20 8983 5200
Housed in a restored space with soaring ceilings and skylights in the East End, this museum is ideal for toddlers because there’s so much room to roam. Parents and grandparents enjoy free entry, there are scheduled preschooler workshops and crafts projects daily, and there’s a pleasant cafe. Founded in 1872 as the Bethnal Green Museum, it was rededicated in 1972 to “the designed world of objects made for and by children.” That’s why this branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum has a fascinating collection of dolls’ houses, games, toys, costumes and even Victoria-era baby prams. Don’t miss the Motion exhibit, which features toys and contraptions that move by engine, spring, pedal power, gravity, manual cranking, and much more than you or the kids can imagine.
London WC2N 5BY
Considered to be the center of central London, people say it is impossible for a local to stand in Trafalgar Square and not see someone he knows. The visual centerpiece is the towering Nelson’s Column, a massive statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson who died in the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue is surrounded by four large bronze lions the kids will love climbing on and posing for pictures. Take note of Charing Cross, the original location of the Eleanor Cross placed as a memorial to Eleanor of Castile, which is now occupied by a statue of King Charles I on a horse. This location is recognized as the center of London from which all distances are measured. Trafalgar Square is also home to holiday celebrations and is located directly next to the National Art Gallery.
Fun for Older Kids
(ages 8 to 16)
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
44 (0) 20 7323 8000
This free museum (one of many in London) has more than 7 million objects with permanent exhibits about The Americas, the arts of Asia and the Middle East, changing exhibits, plus a world famous collection of antiquities from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome including the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. Its most famous treasure may be the Rosetta Stone — not the online language learning course, but the original stone stele discovered in 1799 that was inscribed in three ancient languages. Because all the inscriptions recounted the same events, scholars were able to use the the Egyptian Demotic and ancient Greek versions to decipher the hieroglyphic portion, a breakthrough in understanding the language of the ancient world. There are frequent discovery programs designed for children and a fun workbook available at the front desk. The museum is open till 8pm on Friday nights, when several cafes and a pizzeria remain open for visitors.
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD
44 (0)20 7942 5000
This enormous museum has over 70 million specimens, including the popular 90-foot-long diplodocus dinosaur, Dippy, who’s touring the U.K. through 2020. We love the Earth Galleries that lead kids through the creation of the planet earth. Follow an escalator into a revolving globe to view the earth’s core, then experience the eruption of Mt. Fuji, as part of the museum’s exploration of environmental issues. The Darwin Centre epitomizes this museum’s rejuvenating focus on kids and STEM projects, and scientists based there share findings on disease, food security and conservation with the public. Admission is free.
London SE1 9TG
44 (0) 20 7887-8888
On the south side of the Thames sits a bold adaptation of an old red brick power station housing the contemporary branch of the Tate Galleries. A collection of Picasso, Matisse, Carl Andre, Francis Bacon and other contemporary paintings and sculptures will keep your family wandering through the Tate Modern until sore feet cause you to stop. Ask for special kid-friendly features, like activity sheets, art lessons and the Children’s Audio Guide. When you need a break, head to the rooftop dining room for an overpriced sandwich. From this vantage, you can admire the Millennium Bridge, the only one built this past century over the Thames. It leads across the river to architect Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, a church whose aesthetic influence on London’s skyline was so profound that any structure that attempted to be taller than its dome was banned. Free entry.
London W15 3DL
London is an oft-overlooked sea of high fashion. One cannot walk down the street without passing hundreds of fashionistas, the women with stick-straight hair and heels, the men in slim knit sweaters and styled tresses. Carnaby Street is an organized fashion paradise with everything from large chain stores to unique boutiques and used clothing. The Carnaby Street area spans 14 blocks in the West End with more than 60 shops and 100 pubs and cafes, including a Starbucks to give a caffeine-kick to your shopping spree. Despite London’s high prices, this area is definitely worth checking out.
Imperial War Museum: IWM London
London SE1 6HZ
44 (0)20 7416-5320
One of London’s most popular museums honors the weaponry, bravery and folly of war in great depth, from the Britain’s military involvement with its colonies, to WW1 and WW2, the Cold War and the UK’s famous military espionage team. The Imperial War Museum’s main branch on Lambeth Road boasts a huge atrium packed with a V2 rocket and gunmetal gray bomber fuselages, primitive to sophisticated examples of armor, exhibits enlightened by well done videos, galleries of propaganda posters, news headlines and photographs. Multi-generational families will especially relate to the overall war material on display, so it’s a good first stop before heading to the other IWM branches, such as Churchill’s Cabinet and War Rooms, or a tour of the ship H.M.S. Belfast.
Churchill War Rooms
Clive Steps, King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AQ
44 (0)161 836 4068 for private tours
In a year that’s seen Sir Winston Churchill’s remarkable character starring on TV in Emmy award-winner “The Crown” and in movie theatres with Academy Award nominated “Dunkirk” and “The Darkest Hour,” any family with older children is probably very curious to learn more about Britain’s Prime Minister during the years 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. Having seen any Churchill portrayals makes a tour of the claustrophobic, underground bunker known as the War Rooms even more fascinating. Deep beneath Westminster, the staff work and living quarters were designed to safeguard the British Cabinet from German bombing during WW2. The audioguide with participant’s recollections helps visitors understand what it would have been like to live there, without sun or wind or family, for weeks on end. Be sure to use to allow some time for the Winston Churchill Museum exhibit, although it contains more information about the statesman’s life than any non-British visitors is likely to be curious about.
Fun for the Whole Family
London SW1A 1AA
44 (0) 20 7766-7324
Buckingham Palace will be a highlight of any family vacation; it is a must-see for both the inside tour and the changing of the guard that takes place outside. Changing Guard occurs at 11:00 am Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday and daily in the summer. Be sure to get there early to get a good view; otherwise, your visit will be futile as you try to see over the hundreds of other visitors gathered to watch. The precision and grace with which this tradition is executed is truly marvelous. An equally exciting activity is the tour of the State Rooms inside the palace (open during 10 weeks of summer and select dates in December, January and at Easter). Plan for at least two hours of walking, with an audio guide. The ornate beauty of the palace — plus the “Family Multimedia Guide” loaned out on iPads — will awe even the most sullen travelers.
Coca Cola London Eye
Riverside Building, County Hall
Westminster Bridge Road
London SE1 7PB
44 (0) 870 500-0600
Opened for the Millennium in March 2000, this huge Ferris Wheel style attraction was designed as a metaphor for the turn of the century. Since then, it has become a symbol of modern Britain and is one of its most popular tourist attractions. Moving at a quarter of the average person’s walking speed, the capsules transport as many as 60 riders each on a 30-minute ride high above London. I remember staring down at the famous city icons my first night in London, excited to explore up-close the wonderment I saw from above. The London Eye can provide a great opener to any trip, or a last night closer where you can recall visiting all the places you tower over. Also you can take a London Eye River Cruise down the Thames for another view of the city. Opening times vary by season.
Tower of London
London EC3N 4AB
44 (0)20 3166 6000
This classic London attraction is a favorite for many visitors. A World Heritage site, the complex of six palaces and other buildings used as castles, palaces, an armory, a treasury and a prison, was part of the Norman Conquest dating from 1066. During your tour, take note of the Ravens. Their wings are clipped so that they cannot fly away, due to a centuries-old prophecy that when Ravens leave the Tower, the British Commonwealth will fall. Especially for families are the ‘blood and guts’ Yeoman Warder-led tours (recommended for ages 13+ according to the Tower press office, I’d say 8+ for American kids). There’s also a self-guided, free Family Trails treasure hunt quiz (ages 4-12) and convenient snack outlets. The Crown Jewels of London, a highlight of the tour, are displayed in clear theft-proof cases viewable only from the briskly moving sidewalk which ushers tourists past. Be sure to ask the guards after your first go-round about the world’s largest diamond, the 530-carat Star of Africa, which crowns the scepter tucked among the many other glittering prizes of the Royal Family. Also take a few moments to admire the nearby Tower Bridge. Often confused with the less-impressive London Bridge, Tower Bridge is a truly breathtaking. Buy your tickets in advance online (there are discounted Family Tickets) to avoid the long lines, and definitely stay away between noon and 2pm when it’s most crowded. A spooky bonus with older kids are the weekly Twilight Tours given at certain times of year.
London SE1 8XX
44 (0) 20 3879 9555
Similar in scope to New York’s Lincoln Center, the Southbank Centre is a 17-acre cultural complex across the Waterloo Bridge that’s been a hotbed of family fun since the 1950s. The 5,700 events held each year include contemporary art shows at the Hayward Gallery, concerts at the London Philharmonic and several venues, children’s theater, traveling exhibits and festivals. Infants and toddlers have lots of family programming such as theater, hands-on activities, world music and storytellers several times a week, often free. Checkout their online schedule for more. And if you’re there on a Saturday, definitely stop by the picturesque Borough Market, where meat, cheese, produce and dozens of other vendors offer mouth-watering readymade foods and gourment ingredients.
21 New Globe Walk, Bankside
London SE1 9DT
44 (0) 20 7902-1500
Theatre, and of course Shakespeare, are so much a part of British culture that a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre will enhance your experience tenfold. Open-air, it’s a faithful reproduction of a Shakespearean theatre with live performances in summer. Families with young children are advised to skip the lengthy productions and instead attend a brief group tour of the theatre and a visit to the Globe Museum. In interactive and participatory activities, you can volunteer for a sword fighting demonstration, visit the Joinery and see how the theatre was built without nails, listen to music of the period on classic instruments, watch videos made by cameras hidden in the actors’ costumes, hear the great play and film recitations of some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, and then try it yourself. If your teens are interested in Shakespeare, the productions can bring his text alive. If you wish to further experience London’s wonderful theatre, there are dozens of commercial productions on the West End and several local playhouses that your concierge can arrange.
Walking and Bus Tours
London is a much larger city than most visitors expect, so you may want to consider a guided tour. Several neighborhoods, such as Holborn, have a small Visitors Kiosk outside the main Tube Station, with schedules of free guided tours in their own borough. Dozens of commercial tours also exist, and can be found online, organized by theme such as Harry Potter, Punk Rock Music, Food Tours, Jack the Ripper, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens… the list is very long. Most are well done for real fans of these subjects. London Walks has almost a half-century of experience leading walking tours on several topics; we know the guides are well trained and well armed to answer any questions your kids may come up with. The Original London Sightseeing Tour is a long-time purveyor of hop-on, hop-off doubledecker bus tours with live English commentary, recorded guides in 10 other languages and a “Kids Club” commentary and activity pack specifically designed for children. However, all those doubledecker buses originated with the city’s excellent transportation network so actual London buses are not only great for sightseeing, they also get you where you want to go. Travelers will need an Oyster Card, the transport system’s smartcard. Note that the Tube or subway costs about twice what the buses do and, though quicker during rush hour, they’re just not as much fun.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.