In 2001 I lived in London, single and alone. In 2007 I visited London, married DINKS (Double Income No Kids). In 2013 we were back and this time with kids. I had never considered London as a children’s destination and were not prepared for the lows (trying to carry a double stroller down underground train stairs) or the highs (two hours in a toy store), but London did not disappoint for kids as much as it didn’t disappoint as a single or couple.
An ounce of preparation…
The first smart move was buying a SIM card for our mobiles so we had mobile Internet access when we were out and about. We got a great deal on the first day so we could stay in touch with each other and hopefully avoid getting lost (£20 for 2 pre-paid SIM with unlimited data, text and calls to each other).
Next we got our Oyster Card to travel public transport freely with no cash needed. Kids under 5 are free in London on all forms of transport – rail, tube, bus, etc. Unlimited transit in zone 1 and 2 for a week was a hefty £33 (AUD$57). The following week we did manual top ups as we travelled less by tube and more on foot. An average tube ride was £2.10 each (AUD$4).
In 2 weeks we managed to cover a lot of territory. Here is what the kids voted for in order:
#10: Thames River Cruise
When purchasing the Original Tour’s hop-on-hop-off pass, it also includes a cruise up the Thames River at any time you wish. We didn’t realize how long it went, and our jam-packed scheduled caught up with us so we had to abandon ship at Greenwich and catch the tube to our next destination. But it was a fun ride and easy way to see the sites without lugging kids around. There was plenty of room for the kids to run around inside where it was toasty warm, or head upstairs to the open-air deck. The views are unmatched as it passes under the Tower Bridge.
£15.50 return per adult & kids free Westminster to Greenwich. Or free with Hop-On-Hop-Off ticket.
#9: London Eye
While the Singapore Flyer is the largest in the world, we enjoyed the London Eye much more. The beautiful views across the Thames, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, there is a lot to see. The kids were more interested in staring at the water below and watching how high we went. The Eye also included a ticket to a 4D movie version of the Eye, which the kids wanted to watch again and again.
A fun and easy way to see all the most popular sites in London, including Buckingham Palace. Trafalgar, Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The map they provide is useful even for walking. Red busses feature a live guide, yellow buses do multilingual audio tours. There are lots of stops around town and they run every 15 – 20 minutes. The Original Tour is our choice because the kids got a little Kids Club bag and they have their own audio station on the tour. They also give out free rain ponchos, which while we didn’t need it uncharacteristically, can be very useful. The open top buses have a handy covered area at the front of the top deck, which is much warmer in cold months, with still awesome views.
Online price £25 entry per adult & kids free (<5). Currently if you buy 24-hour ticket, you get 48 hours until 28/02/14.
#7: Walk Along The Thames River
While I was having fun with Mia in Birmingham, Josh and Caius went for a walk along the Thames, west of the Founder’s Arms, near Southwark tube station. A busker blowing giant size bubbles kept our son entertained for what could have been hours. Add to this some fresh piping hot mini donuts from a nearby food van and it’s a winner.
Free, unless you’re buying fresh, hot donuts.
#6: Natural History Museum
All the museums in London are free. This makes a fantastic day out, just like the New York one without the fee. I got to meet an old friend and her kids there and they all had a lot of fun viewing the dinosaurs, life-size blue whale and other exhibits. The café, while expensive, is a nice rest with kid-friendly size snacks.
Free, unless you’re spending money at the café.
#5: Theme Parks
We ran out of time to attend, plus the season was closing, but my kids never failed to remind me daily of Peppa Pig World at Paulton’s Park. There is also the Harry Potter studio Tour and many other theme parks. If you’ve got the time, you got to go and tell me how they were.
Prices vary on park and season.
Mia and I got to visit Disney on Ice: Dare to Dream. A beautiful show with several princess stories all performed on ice, we had a great princess day. Kid friendly shows include Lion King and Willy Wonka. You can get some reasonable movie tickets, but watch out for Leicester Square where the 4 of us were charged AUD$100 to see a movie.
Prices vary, but most kids are at adult prices.
#3: Diana Memorial Park, Kensington Gardens
The Kensington Gardens are fit for royalty and the playground is no less. A pirate ship, swings, squirrels stealing food from parked strollers, what’s not to love? We met some friends there and had a nice hour of (mostly) peace. The whole place is gated as well, so although you may lose sight of the kids briefly, it is inescapable. There is also a sign on the gate refusing entry to adults without children for extra piece of mind. Located opposite the road from Queensbay tube station.
#2: Science Museum
Another free museum with a great kids section. Down in the basement is “The Garden”, which features water play area, Lego play, cubby play and a lot more. We met friends here and the kids spent hours playing in the enclosed area while we chatted. On the ground floor there is also a Pattern section, which was hands-on entertainment that the kids enjoyed too. If that fails to impress, seeing rockets and trains hanging from the ceiling surely will.
Free, with optional donation.
#1: Hamleys Toy Store
Similar to our visit to FAO Schwartz in New York, we found Hamleys even better. Over 7 floors of “I want’s”, but also boatloads of fun. There were so many toys that the kids could actually play with and enjoy, not just boxed for sale items. Mia had her fingernails painted, hair brushed, Caius pushed a pram around the whole store and heaps more. 2 hours went so fast and finally we were pulling them out the bubble-blowing door.
Free, unless your credit card jumps out of your pocket.
I am sure a city as vast as London has so much more on offer, but here are a few of our favourites. If you never considered bringing kids to London before, I am all for it. While the tube is probably the unfriendliest thing you will find in London, there are plenty of free activities that make up for that.
Tip: Check out The London Pass. It makes siteseeing around London all that much easier. It is a tourist card that includes free entry into over 60+ top London attractions and tours, plus a 160+ page guidebook, and fast track entry. There's also a version of the card which includes public transport, so that's one less thing to organise.