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Since I'm an introvert who doesn't like crowds, I have a love/hate relationship with London. Full of fascinating history, diverse cultures, and world-class museums, London requires careful navigation.
But despite my travel neuroses, I want to make sure my kids have a great time.
Visiting a world-famous city like London can be one of the best family experiences. The key is preparation. So when planning things to do in London with your kids, let these tips from a nervous traveler and seasoned mom be your guide.
Chill In the City
So your family has arrived in London. Yes, there are more things to see and do than anyone could conquer in a year. Before getting caught up in a busy itinerary, take some time to enjoy the surroundings. With old churches, secret gardens, and historical sites around every corner, things that seem ordinary to Londoners will feel magical to visitors. My 9-year-old's favorite part of our London trip may actually be the orange marmalade from our hotel breakfast.
As you explore the city, make a game out of your journey to encourage thoughtful observations. Design your own walking tour of London with Harry Potter filming locations, create a scavenger hunt with statues, or count the number of languages you hear in crowds to keep kids in on the fun.
Easily Getting Around
The most important aspect when planning your way around London is accessibility. I can't tell you how many times we got off at a Tube station only to discover we would need to carry the stroller up dozens of steps. Eventually, we learned to check the map for handicap accessible stations. As much as we loved the London Underground, we also found it to be a challenge during rush hour when passengers are packed into each car like sardines. (This goes double for those ancient cars on the Bakerloo line!)
You'll need Oyster cards to travel on the Underground, but they're available for purchase at just about any Tube station. Children under 11 travel free with paying adults. You also can use your Oyster card for travel on London's famous red buses, which is a wonderful, affordable way to see the city. (Want an in-depth view of the city? Try a London bus tour instead.) Oyster cards also work for boat rides on the Thames Clippers.
Full of fascinating history, diverse cultures, and world-class museums, London requires careful navigation. When planning things to do in London with your kids, let these tips from a nervous traveler and seasoned mom be your guide.
Handling the Kids: Divide and Conquer
When traveling with children of different ages, consider splitting up to keep everyone content. While older kids and teenagers are examining mummies in the British Museum or visiting the Churchill War Rooms, toddlers can run around Bloomsbury Square Garden or the St. James's Park Playground.
Some attractions offer special activities just for kids. Windsor Castle hosts family activities every Saturday, and they are included in ticket prices. The hands-on arts and crafts are a great way to keep younger members of your group busy when they get impatient with the castle tour.
How to Avoid Crowds
I was shocked by the crowds during our last visit to London. We were excited to see the blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum, but long lines and tight spaces meant we didn't stay in the museum long. Likewise, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum was barely visible due to eager onlookers.
If the top spots on your itinerary tend to draw lots of people, prepare for lines and crowds by studying opening hours, ticket requirements, and busy times of the day. When possible, seek out lesser-known options. Tourist guides often will tell you to skip Buckingham Palace's Changing of the Guard due to the mobs of spectators; the Changing of the Queen's Life Guard at Horse Guard Parade is a popular alternative. We found a crowd-free experience by watching the Queen's Life Guard emerge from Hyde Park Barracks and following them through the park.
Make Food Fun
On one of our first evenings in London, we ate in the basement of a small Italian restaurant called Bizarro. The kind waiters made sure even the youngest members of our party were happy, providing plain bowls of buttered pasta on request. But the best part was the location -- gentle rumbles from the nearby Tube station reminded us we were definitely in London.
I was nervous to take our kids into a pub, equating them to bars in the United States. We soon found that most pubs in the tourist areas of London are family-friendly and easy to navigate. When in doubt about whether a pub is suitable for kids, check online for a children's menu.
Many of the museums and historic sites have their own cafes with multiple kid-friendly meal options. I find it's generally better to eat lunch on the early side of lunchtime. By 1pm, everyone has remembered they forgot to eat and is grumpily waiting in line.
Don't Miss: Dover - The Perfect Day Trip From London
So what are the essential stops on a London family vacation? In addition to the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, I recommend a trip to Greenwich. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has several children's galleries and a giant world map for kids to explore. Additionally, while in Greenwich, you can visit the Cutty Sark sailing ship at the water's edge or hike up the hill to the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian Line.
I also recommend a visit to the Lego store in Leicester Square. I know, I know, Legos aren't the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of London. But the two-story Lego Big Ben and the winding Lego dragon make it worth the trip.
For a more traditional tourist stop, the Tower of London is a good choice. With the medieval White Tower, the Crown Jewels, the Royal Mint, and the famous ravens, there's something for almost everyone. (The tours with the Yeoman Warders are entertaining and hilarious, but parents of young children need to know they do share stories of gory executions.) If you're there during winter, you can skate on the ice rink outside the castle.
When You Go
There are a variety of lodging options, from well-known American chains like Hilton and Marriott to smaller places like the Ridgemount Hotel or the Regency House Hotel. We found that staying near major train stations such as Paddington Station, Victoria Station, and St. Pancras International gave us easy access to late-night restaurants, pharmacies, and grocery stores. (Do not, I repeat, DO NOT ask the pharmacy if they have laundry detergent. They will laugh at you.)
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