London is one of my family’s favorite cities. Our family has visited London several times, beginning when our kids were little. Here are tips I wish I’d known before our first family trip to London, from ideas for building anticipation before the trip to free things to enjoy with kids, to suggestions for what to pack. London is expensive, but the good news is London has lots of free things for families to do.
Take a tour bus around London
Sure, a guided tour bus may seem hokey. But London is a sprawling city, and starting with a bus tour can give you a feel for the city’s layout. The guides are chatty and share useful information. A real benefit is getting an overview and a sense of which tourist sites you might want to explore.
Take a double-decker bus
Especially on the top level, and especially at the front of the top level, it’s a classic London experience, and the views are fun. An inexpensive but enjoyable way to give your kids a break from walking.
Museums are free in London
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London has lots of museums that kids enjoy. At ages 6 and 3, our kids loved scaring themselves at the British Museum by staring at the real mummies and sneaking around the nude Greek statues, pointing out the naughty parts. At the same ages and again when they were a little older, our kids enjoyed the costumes and jewels at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the awesome toys and books in the museum store. Last summer, when my daughter was 20 , all of us were curious about the gemstones and archeology at the British Museum.
Donations are encouraged, but museums are free. So parents don’t feel pressure to “get their money’s worth.” If a museum just isn’t clicking with your kids, there’s no waste in leaving after a short visit.
Plus, if you want a full English tea, with clotted cream, scones, and cakes, no need to break the bank at a fancy hotel. Instead, visit the cafeteria at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s pretty affordable, and delicious.
Harry Potter and Platform 9 3/4
It’s free to visit Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station, where you can take a photo with a sculpture of Harry Potter’s shopping cart as it smashes into the wall. It says a lot about London’s love of fiction that this is a sculpture inspired by a story. But Harry Potter is no ordinary story. My kids and I are big Harry fans, and all of us enjoyed visiting. Expect a line, now that there’s a store selling Harry Potter products.
Walk across a London bridge
It’s free to walk across the Millenium Bridge, a gorgeous steel suspension bridge that is for pedestrians only. You’ll get a sense of London’s layout, but mostly it’s just fun for the people-watching and the view.
Visit Fortnum and Mason
This 300-year old food store in Piccadilly is beautiful and old fashioned, with piles of quintessentially English treats, like toffee, homemade chocolates, marmalade, and lemon curd. Harrods department store is another fun place for families.
London’s parks are free
London’s many parks are fun for people-watching. With a ball or a Frisbee, a park can give your kids a short break or be a relaxed way to picnic and have some downtime. A favorite memory is watching my kids, at 6 and 3, chase each other around the park and elaborate wrought iron gates in front of Kensington Palace, Princess Diana’s former home.
Tower of London
It’s worth it, especially if your kids are old enough to appreciate its gory history or be dazzled by the Crown Jewels. Prepare for a long wait, unless you are visiting off-season. A guided tour helps the horrifying history of the Tower of London come to life. We’ve had mixed experiences with the audio guide. Once, the audio guide used actors’ voices and was an excellent way to get a sense of the tragedies that have unfolded in its cold stone walls – the disgraced imprisoned royals, the daring but failed escapes, the executions. (For why big tourist attractions often are worth battling the crowds, click here).
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum
If you don’t mind standing in line, and you’re willing to pay the hefty entrance fee, consider a visit Madame Tussaud’s to gawk and pose with the surprisingly realistic wax reproductions of the Royal family, movie and music celebrities, and some historical figures. But it is not unique to London, and several American cities have a Madame Tussaud’s. One tip: the Chamber of Horrors was too scary for my son when he was 8 and we should have skipped it.
Build anticipation before you visit London
Luckily, there are plenty of ways for kids to learn about London. Picture books like Paddington the Bear, youth fiction, biographies—all give insight into London’s culture and history and build excitement before the trip. Your kids probably have seen London popping up in Harry Potter movies, and might have seen Mary Poppins, Oliver or other movies set in London. The irreverent Horrible Histories—such as The Terrible Tudors—are accurate but play to kids by emphasizing gruesome facts and scatological humor.
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Packing tips for London
Pack comfortable shoes. London is a walking city. If your kids aren’t up for walking long distances, you might want to pack a lightweight stroller so your kids can get a quick nap or some down time.
Be forewarned, it’s chilly, and it drizzles a lot. A raincoat is helpful. One with a lining can be even better. Your hotel may have umbrellas to loan you. Even in the summer, I’ve been grateful to have a lined raincoat handy. (For family travel tips to cities on Travel and Leisure’s list of top cities in 2015, click here.)
If you plan to visit London one day, what are you curious to see? If you’ve been, do you have suggestions of what to do or see?