The 12 best places for kids in London – from toddlers to tweens
I get asked a lot of questions about the best places to go in London. And one question that keeps cropping up time and again is where to take kids. I visited London and travelled around the UK several times throughout my childhood – when I was two years old and when I was 10. In these snaps from our family album you can see that (a) I look rather pleased with myself in my natty pinstripe shirt with bow tie in front of the Tower of London; and (b) the duckpond in St James’s Park proved to be a popular destination for toddlers and tweens alike.
There are the obvious tourist attractions such as The Tower of London (can’t miss the Crown Jewels and Henry VIII’s plus-sized armour), The London Eye and Madame Tussaud’s (it’s ridiculously expensive and tacky but I remember loving it when I was 10-years-old), but there are loads of other things on offer in London that offer a real point of difference for kids than any other destination. I’m not sure if I was a particularly nerdy child (this is a real possibility) but I adored visiting museums, and was particularly fascinated by archaeological discoveries. And London has no shortage of world-class museums and galleries. Best of all? They’re free.
So with the London 2012 Olympics in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to take you on a little tour of London for kids, Wee Birdy style.
1. Need to let the kids run wild after a morning at the museum? Head to the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens for one of London’s best playgrounds. There is an enormous wooden pirate ship to explore, as well as tee-pees, sandpits and sculptures. Don’t miss the darling Peter Pan statue further along the garden path. Check the website for opening hours, which vary throughout the year. Image via Playground Adventure UK.
2. For a museum that the whole family will enjoy, check out the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. You’ll rediscover your old childhood favourites and there is always a schedule of events and activities for kids. Admission is free.
3. Got a late-tween/teen girl who loves to paint her nails? If you’re OK with manicures (go on, Mum, you’re on holiday!) make a beeline for London’s legendary Wah Nails for the coolest nail art in London – and let her choose the design of her dreams. Wah Nails has a concession located in Topshop’s flagship store at Oxford Circus, so she can go shopping for mad accessories after her nails are done. Bookings are recommended.
4. Afternoon tea is a British institution, but sometimes kids get bored in the more traditional London hotels. For a family-friendly afternoon tea, head to the Mercer Street Hotel in Covent Garden where kids can enjoy the Stupendous Afternoon Tea. Inspired by the Roald Dahl children’s classic Matilda (the musical version is currently playing in the Cambridge Theatre opposite the hotel) the tea includes Ludicrously Lovely lemon-loaf cake and Tremendously Terrific trifle. Prices are £13.75 per child and £29.50 per adult, and every child takes home a complimentary copy of Matilda. Bookings are essential.
5. Older girls will love a more sophisticated afternoon tea with a playful twist, like Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkeley, which includes exquisite cakes and biscuits inspired by the latest fashion collections. Meanwhile, the Sanderson has launched a Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea (pictured, above) that takes guests on a fantastical food adventure, including blueberry lollipops that turn your tongue from hot to cold and hazelnut praline ice cream lollipops that explode after a single bite. Fabulous. Bookings are essential for both afternoon teas.
6. Keep it simple and head to St James’s Park for a picnic and some squirrel-sighting. The grey squirrels may be one of the UK’s biggest pests, but you could almost forgive them for keeping young ones fascinated while they scamper around and chase each other. There is also the popular duck pond and you can play ‘spot the species’ thanks to the handy bird identification charts. The cafe near the duck pond, Inn the Park, is also very family-friendly and you can either eat in or get takeaway. The park makes a good pit-stop to break up some serious sight-seeing, as it’s right in the middle of the Buckingham Palace//Westminster/Trafalgar Square triangle.
7. Go treasure-hunting on the shores of the Thames! This is one that’s strictly for older kids and tweens, as it involves negotiating broken glass and jagged rocks. Just make sure you go at low tide and take the right precautions (wellies, antiseptic wash and rubber gloves are essential as Weil’s Disease is a real threat). Read more about mudlarking on the Thames – including how to declare treasure (!) – here. One of my favourite spots is the little beach right in front of the Tate Modern on South Bank. Over 10,000 years of history gets washed up on the shores of the Thames, and you can easily find Tudor roof tiles, Elizabethan clay pipes and Roman oyster shells. It’s best to go with a tour group, so you know what you’re looking for. London Walks does a good Thames beachcombing tour. Image via My 5 Boys.
8. Bounce on Stonehenge. In the middle of London. Really. The brainchild of artist Jeremy Deller, this life-size inflatable replica of Stonehenge, named ‘Sacrilege’, is touring around London during July and August 2012. Under 12s must be accompanied by an adult. For all locations and dates, check Time Out London.
9. It’s hot, tempers are frayed and you’re knackered – nothing a good ice-cream can’t fix. For a real retro treat, take the kids to The Parlour Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason for a Knickerbocker Glory (pictured above), which they’ve been serving to Londoners since 1955. The £12 ice treat boasts vanilla bean ice-cream, strawberries and 12-year old balsamic vinegar, as well as frosted strawberry and shortbread ice-cream with raspberries, pineapple chunks and raspberry coulis.
10. Get your Hogwarts on and head to Warner Bros. Studio for the Making of Harry Potter tour. Located around 20 miles north-west of London, it’s easily accessible via public transport. See all the original sets and learn how some of the Harry Potter (film) magic was created. Want more Harry Potter? Check out this free self-guided tour to the film locations around London. Kids will love discovering the real-life Potter landmarks, and you could also squeeze in a bit of real-life London history. Win-win.
11. If your daughter is interested in fashion and accessories, include these must-visit London shops in your itinerary: Lazy Oaf (pictured above, for pop-tastic graphic tees and playful accessories); Tatty Devine (for the most original and fun perspex jewellery – think giant watermelon necklaces, bow rings and cat bangles); Urban Outfitters (for cool clothes and awesome gifts); and Topshop‘s flagship store at Oxford Circus (it’s the biggest fashion store in Europe and has an entire floor dedicated to accessories). Image via Time Out London.
12. Take the kids to The British Museum and make a beeline for Rooms 62, 63 and 64. These rooms, located on the third floor, are home to the museum’s extensive mummy collection, and the exhibits are guaranteed to interest the most jaded of tiny tourists. Don’t miss the mummified animals – especially the cats. Kids are fascinated by them. (I also liked the peat bog man.)
Want more tips for kids? I heartily recommend An Uncle’s Guide to London by Herb Lester (pictured above) and checking out Time Out London‘s weekly listings for kids, as well as their book London for Children.
Have you seen Wee Birdy’s Facebook page? I’ll be posting more amusing photos featuring questionable ’80s fashion from the Wee Birdy family album this week. Come over and say hello.
N.B. All details are correct at time of publication. Some exhibitions and events included in this post are temporary or for a limited time only. Please double-check all details, (especially opening and closing times) with each exhibition or event at the time of your visit, as I’d hate to hear about disappointed little ones.
What are your best tips for kids in London?