Earnest Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”
I love my kids more than bacon-wrapped jalapenos and sleeping in on Sundays, but it’s a universal truth that traveling with kids can be challenging. That said, I’m convinced that packing your bags and taking a good wander – whether across the globe or across the state – is one of the most enriching gifts we can give our littles.
If you’ve saved your pennies and your vacation days for a trip to the land of J.K. Rowling and Monty Python – congratulations! Buckle up for an amazing time.
The United Kingdom (the island of Great Britain plus Northern Ireland) is a culture and history buff’s dream. Do yourself a favor and take advantage of the AMAZING public transportation options to explore as much of the country as you can, but don’t be intimated (as I initially was) to dig into the City of London with your kids. Yes, it’s a big city and crossing the road can be an adventure (look right THEN left), but London is safe and clean and wonderfully eclectic.
With good planning and basic safety precautions, your family can enjoy SO MUCH in England’s incredible capital city. To maximize the fun, we’ve taken some of the guesswork out of planning your jolly day out in London with our list of tried, tested, and parent-approved activities. We also opted for things that are relatively weatherproof, because…England.
Cheerio! – XO
1. The London Eye
Absolutely the best way to take in those iconic London views. Passengers ride in fully-enclosed (read: rain-proof) capsules on this ginormous ferris wheel. On our trip, there were probably around 15 people in the capsule with us. If you’re lucky you might be riding with a local…it’s always fun to hear them point out interesting sights you wouldn’t otherwise know to look for. But even if not, you’ll recognize royal palaces, the Houses of Parliment, Big Ben, and much more. The ride lasts 30 minutes and our wait time was very manageable (approx. 10 minutes); however, if you are totally line-phobic, Disney-style fast passes are available for a small upgrade fee.
2. Royal Observatory
Make time for this one, folks. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich (pronounced gren-itch) is the home of Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. Undoubtedly the most popular thing to do here is to have your picture taken standing with one foot on each side of the Prime Meridian – longitude 0° where east meets west. But don’t stop there. Your admission tickets include access to the historic home of the “Astronomers Royal”, an awesome time keeping exhibit, the Great Equatorial Telescope, clock galleries and a free audio guide. For a small upcharge you can also visit the planetarium on site; just be sure to buy your planetarium tickets at the same time as your admission tickets for the best deal.
One of my favorite parts about the Royal Observatory is its location. It’s (logically) placed at the top of a steep hill in a beautiful city park – perfect for exercising little legs. Just outside the park, it’s not uncommon to see amazing street performers, and if you walk just a few blocks you’ll reach the famous Greenwich Market – perfect for good quality souvenirs and fresh, delicious food from around the world. I am not kidding when I say I had the best churro of my life at the Greenwich Market in London. Weird.
3. Tower of London
I love the Tower of London. There is something so wonderfully British about the pomp, and the whole place just seems to vibrate under the weight of its own cool history. The Tower is most famous today for housing the Crown Jewels – which are spectacular – but if the line to get into the jewel tower is frustratingly long, it’s OK to skip it. Yes, seriously.
That’s just one of many cool experiences to be had here, and waiting in lines with kids is sometimes just not an option. There are battlements to climb, there is grass to wrestle in…little boy heaven. On the day of our last visit, there was a modern day wedding happening on the Tower grounds – kilts and hats and dresses and bagpipes, oh my! We also visited with a VERY friendly and chatty Yeoman who handled all of our boys’ questions quite admirably. (You can tell these retired soldiers have been well trained in the art of holding up under interrogation.)
But from a parent’s perspective, one of the best things about the Tower grounds is that they are relatively contained. After a day of being required to hold hands as we explored the city, our boys had the opportunity to stretch their legs without worrying about crowded sidewalks or wayward cabbies plowing them down. Get there early and take your time…tickets aren’t cheap and you’ll want to maximize the experience.
4. HMS Belfast
The HMS Belfast is a retired warship that has been painstakingly converted into a wonderful floating museum on the Thames. It’s set up to allow visitors to explore what life was like for the crew in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s…fascinating stuff. However, as those dates would imply, the Belfast saw some serious war-time action, so the museum offers a kid-version of their audio guide. While the adults get all the gory (interesting!) details, the kids get a version that is historically accurate, but elementary age-appropriate and therefore less nightmare inducing – brilliant! There’s also a small cafe on board for a quiet snack before you hit the streets again.
5. Public Transportation
Yep. As the mom of two elementary aged boys, let me tell you, exploring all the transportation options that London has to offer will be one of the most memorable – not to mention, cheapest – parts of your trip. From the iconic red double decker buses, to the Underground (mind the gap!), to the comfy commuter trains and the Thames water taxis, there are so many unique and fun options to choose from. I can say without a doubt that this is the part our four-year-old loved the most. How practical. 🙂
In London for longer than a day? Here are some more ideas for your family’s agenda:
- Sunday dinner at the pub – Yes, the ubiquitous British dining experience: the pub. Many Americans are surprised at the family atmosphere they encounter when they enter one of these iconic institutions. Most pubs have a kids menu, and your family will be heartily welcomed. Sunday dinners are special and usually feature British beef or lamb roasts with all the trimmings. Yes, going to the pub is something locals do. Yes, you will likely hear non-British accents, too – especially in London – but that shouldn’t diminish the authenticity of your experience…this is one of the most global cities in the world, after all. I recommend The Mayflower on the River Thames for its authentic old-world atmosphere, US-relevant history older kids will relate to, and a delicious roast beef dinner with Yorkshire pudding.
- Changing of the Guard – As you can probably tell from this list, it’s not uncommon for our family to save up for a while so we can spend a bit of money on vacation (experiences-not-things and all that jazz.) That said, if there’s an opportunity to do something cool that is also free, well, color me thrilled. During the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, one guard regiment takes over from another in a pageant that lasts for about 45 minutes. Crowds are a thing. But if you can handle a bit of jostling from interested strangers trying to scope a good view, I would definitely recommend it. Bonus points if you can time your London Eye ride so you can have a bird’s eye view of the ceremony. Schedules change throughout the year, so check before you go.
- p.s. When the British flag is flying over a palace it means the Queen is actually in residence at that palace. No flag means she’s traveling or at one of her other estates.
- High tea – Many of the nicer hotels and restaurants will offer a quintessential “high tea” in the afternoon. But don’t expect an afternoon snack; this is absolutely a meal replacement activity, and you’ll leave completely full. A traditional high tea menu will include lots of carbs: finger sandwiches, pastries, and scones (served with strawberries and cream) and, for the grown-ups, a cocktail or, naturally, black tea. If you are visiting one of London’s storied tea rooms, you should probably plan to “dress”. Not formal wear, but think a step above the classic “casual American on vacation” gear and you will be on the right track.
- West End show – I can’t think of a better opportunity to soak in the arts than on a family trip to London. Even if you are lucky enough to be a theater regular State-side, consider that the performance experience in another country is just simply different. My husband still talks about the incredible crowd when we saw Spamalot on the West End almost a decade ago. (Hearing thousands of Brits singing “Always look on the bright side of life” in perfect unison is something you don’t quickly forget…) These days, you’ll find Wicked, Aladdin, and The Lion King all playing on the West End. Top-notch international casts, support for the arts, and…the kids may just have the time of their lives.
Keep in mind: There are approximately one million things to do in London and about 990,000 of them you can do with kids. Want to recommend a family-friendly spot in London that we didn’t mention here? Leave a note in the comments!