Must-See London with Kids
London is a world-class city, and is great for kids with its easy-to-use transportation, picture-perfect parks, and haunted history.
But it is also a madhouse, chock full of ALL the culture and art. And playgrounds! Doing it all is exhausting, but sorting through it in the first place made me insane.
The first time we went, our plane was delayed 9 hours. When we landed and took the train to Victoria station, we’d already missed the chance to pick up our Airbnb key. We had to find wifi, a hotel, and roll with the punches, which meant we completely tanked our recover-and-tour plan. We ended up losing valuable time wide awake, wandering aimlessly around at midnight (or was it 3:00 a.m.? Sunrise? Who knows).
After THAT fiasco, try figuring out what to see in the next 48 hours and what to let go.
This “must see” guide helps you focus your precious time in the places where it counts.
Visiting the world-class city of London with kids is both a wonderful and overwhelming planning challenge. It is here that my daughter coined the term “art fatigue.” Since we arrived from New York, it was obvious that the commotion of the city, its museums, its sights, and its crowds of tourists (at all times of the year) was a growing problem for our happiness-levels in spite of the polite-sounding accents.
Building in breaks, green spaces, and room to spread out and avoid the tourist crowds is #1 in keeping kids excited about this beautiful place and its amazing sights. Thank goodness London accommodates — the sites near the green spaces are amazing. You get to local-watch AND keep everyone happy, while hopefully keeping the art fatigue to a minimum.
So where should we go in London with kids?
London is very much a land of too-much-fun. How old are the kids? What do they like? How long do you have?
Some must-see attractions include:
1. The Markets!
On this trip, we wound up staying in a great Airbnb at the top of Notting Hill close to the Portobello Road market and a couple doors from the Ladbroke Grove tube station. Normally, the tube took us everywhere in the city we wished to g o (with its convenient pay-as you-go Oyster card and FREE travel for accompanying <11 year olds). But on one sunny Saturday morning, we ventured down the road as trinket sellers lined up and street performers (no heads! Yellow violins!) entertained us along our leisurely stroll.
British antiques! They’re so different and cooler than an American flea market would be! There are things to see everywhere! Alice bought herself a treasure chest necklace and her first-ever Nutella crepe (making her first trip to Europe official, right?).
I ate red currants.
We marveled at flowers, rusty double decker bus toys from the 40’s, and took pictures in front of Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill house and Alice’s antique store (no pictures allowed inside, even if your name is Alice). You can sing the Bedknobs and Broomsticks song ad nauseum, which is fun, and makes you feel like you’re in a timeless London tradition rather than a random farmer’s market, which you are.
Not into antiques? Other famous London markets have different specialties:
Camden market is known for clothes and vintage, but has Camden lock and a bit of everything if you’re looking for a general London market adventure
Borough and Broadway for food
Greenwich for local artisans. A good place for souvenirs, toys, and colorful over-stimulation
2. The literary sights to see
Since we already did up Portobello Road, we might as well continue the pop culture binge. I have found that whenever I can introduce Alice, who is ten, to film, books, and music of the destination, she’s 300% more enthusiastic about wherever we go.
Truth be told, so am I. Being an expert just feels good. So we hopped the Harry Potter bus out in Watford (you can but a ticket and bus pass combo). We took the tube to the easy-to-find bus stop and hopped the embarrassing “You’re a tourist” bus (yes, they play the film, and yes, I felt sick on this journey). But honestly, unless you have a day to kill, and want to deal with getting off in Watford and heading over to Leavesden, this done-for-you option makes sense.
The tour was frankly cool, and I think may give Alice bragging rights at school for the next 8 years (perhaps also in college).
There are plenty of more “authentic” Potter experiences scattered around London for those for whom Warner Bros. is too commercial or too off the beaten path:
St. Pancras station (where the Eurostar takes you onward to Brussels or Paris, played the part of King’s Cross in the second Potter film. It’s gorgeous. King’s Cross itself is just next door, and also gorgeous, and houses a trolley you can steer into the wall on your way to Hogwarts. You will likely venture across the Millennium bridge (blown up in movie 6) by foot marching between the Tate Modern and St. Paul’s cathedral (sing the Mary Poppins song while you’re at it…”all around the cathedral the saints and the paupers…”).
Diagon alley was located in Leadenhall Market in the first Potter book. Piccadilly circus is featured in the 7th film when the gang escapes the wedding and finds trouble in London. With younger kids, the London zoo promises to be a great stop and a relaxing day — the reptile house is in the first Potter movie. Please try not to release any snakes. Finally, I also told Alice that Voldemort’s orphanage was buried under the hotel. She didn’t go for it but perhaps you’ll have better luck.
Older kids? The Jack the Ripper tours and sights sound frighteningly awful. Sherlock Holmes has a museum on Baker street.
Peter Pan flew over Big Ben and is immortalized in a statue in Kensington Gardens. There’s a pan-like playground here as well that will delight kids of all ages.
Paddington Bear might be spotted at Paddington Station.
Buckingham Palace has been frequented by several characters known to kids, from Paddington to the Big Friendly Giant. It’s open in August/September when the queen is in Balmoral, and the state rooms are fun if you plan to introduce kids to other castles.
3. The Tower of London
A must-do. The beefeaters do not disappoint, and a chill picnic on the Thames while looking out over London Bridge is a salve to all the walking and crowds. If the kids are older or less sensitive, let the beefeater guide you into the Tower and make the stories of its grisly history come alive.
My kid is notoriously squeamish about these kinds of things (listened to an iPod secretly through 95% of our walking ghost tour in Edinburgh), but she adored it. Go figure.
The Tower is another big ticket item and you may be tempted to spend time exploring all its nooks and crannies, but this is where your energy can really lag. Enjoy. Don’t feel compelled to stuff hours and hours into these phenomenal sites just because you can. Crown jewels. Lost heads. And you’re out! Happy kids!
4. The London Eye
Another big ticket item adults may want to pass over. However, I let Alice dictate our day after a cranky 10-hour flight delay from New York. She picked the London Eye (which she’s picked on more than one occasion) and it worked wonders.
For $20 American dollars, you can take a half hour single spin to get your bearings. Point out things the kids will want to know, like Big Ben, parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Shard. Walk down the Thames afterward (there’s a playground and seasonal fair just 20 steps west of the Eye). Eat doughnuts. Take it slow. We see street performers, school concerts, and wave to boats going by on the Thames.
In winter, there’s a small Christmas market in front of the Tate Modern which also promises trinkets, candy, and strolling goodness.
5. Cultural Treasures!
While there are lots of ways to spend money in London, museums are miraculously free. Go see the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum before they’re repatriated back to Greece thanks to George Clooney’s wife (and yes, I realize how wrong I am for identifying her through her hubby). See The Rosetta Stone.
The mummy collection is extensive and fascinating. Visit Gebelein Man while you’re there. I didn’t even try to make another museum into a learning moment at this point in the afternoon, but Alice immediately took issue with the curled-up Egyptian man’s final resting place being in this case while thousands of touristy kids poked at the glass.
If you think it’s fabulous, head to the Huntarian Museum where tons of cool, diseased body parts in jars await. The famed Irish giant, Charles Byrne, still awaits you, but in another Gebelein moment — he did not want to donate his body or be on display, but was stolen and displayed, where he still remains.
Decorative arts are at the Victoria and Albert, a beautiful place worth checking out. But if you have to go on a museum binge, there are far kid-friendlier options: the Natural History Museum is a far better choice. Grand and tiny specimens are on display, explorer packs make the preschool pack feel like important scientists, and dinosaurs. Everyone likes dinosaurs. The Science Museum is another state-of-the art facility more focused on tech than biology, with space capsules, computer stations, medical technology (with less graphic exhibits than the Hungarian), and the evolution of cars and engines.
The Ragged School Museum is up our Dickensian alley. Impoverished Victorian children? Yes, please! It is so interesting to learn how these kids lived in one of the least just time periods in British history.
Small kids unanimously love the London Transport Museum. Busses! Don’t be fooled by my on-line review. If you have plane, train, and automobile-loving tykes, this one will delight.
The Churchill War Rooms will give you a sense of the London bombings during World War Two and the strategizing allied forces did from deep underground.
At the end of the day, ALL of these beautiful and FREE museums were just so packed at all hours and days, and had so much to see, that they were exhausting. Picking carefully, curating the visit, and seeing just the few things you came for is key to making a trip to this culturally rich city doable.
London for kids
London has lists and lists of 150,000 things to do with kids. It’s a world-class city. There are West End shows and state -of-the-artart splash pads. In the end, curating the madness is key to making sure everyone has a good time.
Have they heard of the Beatles? Do they care about all the Queen’s horses? The choices can be endless, and planning to criss-cross the city overwhelming.
Beginning to plan for London involves segmenting the city into its east and west ends and structuring just a couple “big” outings a day, leaving room for walking and serendipity. Enjoy!