London: so immense that it can be hard to know what to see or do first…so here’s hoping we can narrow it down for you. Pick a park in which to while away a summer afternoon, a museum or gallery for a rainy Sunday morning, or hit a market for picnic provisions or knick-knack perusing. In summer, there’s glorious outdoor swimming; in winter, al fresco ice rinks. Better still: many of these activities don’t cost a penny, let alone a pound.
If, however, you’re planning on hitting lots of the big-ticket sights, it’s worth investigating The London Pass, which offers decent savings on multiple attractions, or consider a Combi-Ticket, which covers several of the biggest-ticket attractions, including the London Eye, Sealife Aquarium, and London Dungeon (all listed below).
The London Underground (the Tube) is easily conquered if you’re stroller/pushchair-free and don’t mind the crowds. You can also navigate the Tube with stroller/pushchair if you’re well-prepared: download the “Step-Free and Avoiding Stairs Tube Station” guides here. The London bus system, meanwhile, though often slower due to traffic, is great for seeing the city go by from the top deck of a double-decker: for both Tube and bus, check whether a top-uppable Oyster Card, or a Day Travelcard would suit your needs. Children under 5 ride free on all forms of transport; up to four 5-to-10s are free on the Tube and buses with an adult with a valid ticket; 11s-and-over will need a child ticket or Oyster Card (which still allows them some free travel).
1. Nature, Stuffed
While most family visitors to London have heard of the stellar (and free-entry!) Natural History Museum, there are several other options for observing the ruination of Victorian wildlife reserves.
- (free) Natural History Museum The capital’s heavyweight option for dinosaur-viewing, Victorian dioramas, earthquake simulation, and a host of incredible, changing exhibits. There’s an online parent’s survival guide and ‘Kids Only’ area; check for monthly ‘Dino Snores‘: sleepovers, Night-at-the-Museum style.
- (free) Horniman Museum Opened in 1901, and housed in a wonderfully whimsical building, the Horniman is supremely family-friendly: spend rainy days exploring its galleries and aquarium, or head outside to visit the untaxidermised goats, llamas and other friendly residents amid its 16 acre gardens.
- (free) Grant Museum of Zoology Visit the dodo and the quagga (both, sadly, deceased and extinct) at this old-fashioned university zoology museum at University College London, with plenty of things (including brains and moles) floating in murky jars. Note that it’s only open in the afternoon.
2. Things That Make You Go “Whir”
- (free) Science Museum Along with the neighbouring Natural History Museum (see above), London’s Science Museum is one of the biggies. From good, old-fashioned suspended-plane-type exhibits to hands-on galleries and an R.A.F jet simulator, there’s plenty to keep your little ones entertained for hours – if not all day. Sevens to thirteens can also participate in fabulous Science Night sleepovers.
- (free) Imperial War Museum For a taste of how London’s children lived during World War II, take your little ones along to the museum’s “A Family in Wartime” exhibit, which even recreates a bomb shelter. Note that it’s closed for extensive redevelopment until July 2014, when it reopens in time for the centenary of the First World War.
- London Transport Museum Home to a number of London’s historic forms of transportation – including its first underground electric train – little train- (and bus-) spotters will enjoy wandering the vehicles in the Transportorium, while the under-6s play Conductor in the All Aboard area. Check the website for ongoing family activities.
3. “I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates…”
Make like Morrissey with a wander around one of these lovely London spaces, watching out for wildlife, contemplating the nature of life, the universe and everything – or playing hide-and-seek behind the stones.
- Highgate Cemetery Easily the most famous, and arguably the most atmospheric, of London’s great cemeteries (with residents including Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti and Douglas Adams), Highgate’s East Cemetery is open daily for wandering (adults £4, under 18s free), while its West Cemetery is visitable by guided tour, to which only the over-8s are admitted.
- (free) Abney Park Cemetery Built in 1840, this grand old Victorian cemetery, in its new carnation as a nature reserve (look out for birds, bats and butterflies), makes for a truly lovely meander; there are guided walks on the first Sunday of every month at 2pm.
- (free) Brompton Cemetery Yet another of London’s fine Victorian cemeteries, Brompton today is a lovely, leafy place full of birds and darting squirrels, and well worth a stroll-through if you’re in the Kensington area.
4. Young Masters
- (free) The National Gallery Home to such notables as Vermeer and Titian, Cezanne and Ingres, there are plenty of family activities on offer at the vast National Gallery, after you’re finished trawling its 30 must-see paintings. Look online for audio tours and printable trails, and for details of art workshops, story-times and other fun amid the masterpieces.
- (free) National Portrait Gallery Older children, in particular, will enjoy the portraits on display here, which range from historic oils to contemporary photography; there’s also story-telling and art workshops for littler ones, and regular art sessions for teenagers.
- Saatchi Gallery Introduce your budding Damien Hirst to the world of contemporary art at the Saatchi. No specific family programs are on offer, but the bright hues and bold forms of many of the exhibits are certain to capture little imaginations.
5. The British Museum
(free) Whether it’s a foggy day in London Town or no, the British Museum never loses it charm: think mummies, Vikings, Easter Island statues, the Rosetta Stone….For tours, talks, and suggestions of what to see with kids, look here; it’s also worth looking at the museum’s dedicated Family Visits page.
5. Toys, Ancient and Modern
Though not quite as much fun for parents as for their little charges, a trip to mammoth Hamleys whilst in the capital is all but obligatory. For something quainter, however, drop into Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (44 The Piazza, Covent Garden), going strong since 1856, and still vending marionettes, paper theatres and other calming, charming non-electrical creations.
- (free) V&A Museum of Childhood The permanent collection at this wonderful museum includes childhood objects from the 1600s to today: toys, games, puzzles, and England’s oldest surviving rocking horse. Frequently changing exhibitions include (until June 2014) the fabulous “Confiscation Cabinets,” a collection of items confiscated from British schools. There’s always plenty going on; also check the Visiting with Under-5s section for specific information on facilities and tips on planning your trip.
- Pollock’s Toy Museum Charming Pollock’s (related to the Toyshop above, but in a different location) features collections of vintage toys in lots of little rooms in two creaky houses full of narrow, winding stairs: perfect for little ones with large imaginations, less ideal for little ones with large strollers.
6. London Zoo
- Few can resist the perennial charms of the world-famous London Zoo. Check the daily events schedule, so as not to miss out on the Sumatran Tiger Talks or Giraffe High Tea, and don’t worry if it’s rainy: go to the zoo’s interactive Wet Weather Walk map to keep your little ones dry on even the stormiest of Sundays.
7. Wild Spaces
You might not think it, but the sprawling capital is filled with incredible open spaces, allowing your little ones to run free, whilst you make-believe that you’re miles away from civilisation.
- (free) Hampstead Heath Only a couple of miles from central London, Hampstead Heath is a beloved 320-hectare open space, of heath, ponds, playgrounds and wildlife, where it’s easy to spend an entire summer’s day. Don’t miss Parliament Hill for a picnic with tremendous views of the city, the open-air swimming ponds (especially good for older children), and the hidden treasure mentioned in our “Seven Suitcases Asks…London.”
- London Wetland Centre Voted the UK’s favourite nature reserve in 2012, this 105-acre natural paradise is a haven for a host of rare wild birds, with hides positioned around the park, allowing visitors to get up-close-and-personal. Little ones will love the otter and bird feeding sessions, the adventure playground (complete with zip-lines) and the high-tech Pond Zone, with its underwater cameras and digital pond.
- (free) Richmond Park At 2500 acres, London’s largest enclosed outdoor space is a stunning royal park, with a resident population of red and fallow deer, whose ancestors have lived in its rolling grounds for 500 years. Finish your wanderings at the Kingston Gate Playground (great for the littlest people) or the Petersham Gate Playground, and don’t forget a peek through the telescope at King Henry’s Mound, at St. Paul’s Cathedral (a protected view since 1710), more than 10 miles away.
8. A Hop, Skip and Jump
London abounds in playgrounds, and all the wild spaces listed above, and parks listed below, have areas for your little lovelies to climb, swing, slide and generally gad about. Here, however, are a few of our favourites.
- (free) Holland Park Adventure Playground Gorgeous Holland Park, which once comprised the gardens of a Jacobean stately home, is nowadays home to a stellar adventure playground. Visit the slippery koi carp in the Kyoto Garden too.
- (free) Coram’s Fields Seven acres of Bloomsbury play-space – including a little inner-city farm – are only open to adults if accompanied by a child. So here’s your chance! (closest Tube station: Russel Square)
- (free) Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground Probably London’s most impressive playground – with a clamberable pirate ship, plenty of sand, and tepees – this wonderful space in the middle of the stunning 275-acre Kensington Gardens, with its hints of Peter Pan, is one not to miss. There’s a cafe on-site for hungry tinies, too. Note, though, that there can be queues to get in – come early, or on weekdays, during the summer, to avoid melt-downs. Later, take your tinies to sail boats on the Round Pond, as London children have done since Victorian times. (closest Tube station to playground: Queensway)
- (free) Jubilee Gardens Playground A fab new playground under the shadow of the London Eye (see number 9, below), your kids will forget about wanting to wait for the Ferris wheel once they start clambering, with tourist children from the world over, on the great play structures. Our little ones especially love the rocking wooden chickens. (closest Tube station: Waterloo)
- (free) Wellington Barracks Playground In tranquil St. James’s Park this lovely little play-space has a magical feel about it. Bring some bread to feed the ducks afterwards, or watch the wildlife wardens feeding the pelicans at 2.30pm daily.
9. Reach for the Skies
- London Eye An iconic way to see London from the air, the giant Ferris Wheel (Europe’s tallest) on the South Bank of the Thames is not one for the claustrophobic or vertigious, but is a capital treat for everyone else. Beware the long line-ups: it might be well worth shelling out for “Fast Track” tickets if you’re visiting in summer, during UK school holidays, or on other public holidays.
- Royal Observatory at Greenwich Search the skies whilst staying on ground level at the Royal Observatory, home to London’s only Planetarium. Check the website for the schedule; “Space Safari” is a special presentation aimed at children aged 7 and under.
- Tower Bridge Panoramic views of London from another of the city’s landmarks, albeit at a lower altitude than the London Eye. At a fraction of the former’s cost, however, it makes for a great, atmospheric alternative. Download the free Guy Fox Explore Kit for kids before you visit.
- The Monument Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the 1666 Great Fire of London, a trek up 311 steps (great for parental arm muscles) is rewarded by fabulous views, and a real sense of stepping backward – whilst stepping upward – into history. Adult entry is just £4, and children £2 – an added incentive, considering all that money left over for ice cream rewards.
10. Old MacDonald Had A…
With lemurs and monkeys in residence, Battersea Park Children’s Zoo is far more than the average city farm, and makes for a great place to while away an easy afternoon. Another lovely option for a little interaction is Vauxhall City Farm (free), with its winsome Webster the Duck, Edward the Pig and Jerry the Alpaca – amongst others – along with Kentish Town City Farm (free), which has lots of kids’ activities on offer year-round, and Hackney City Farm (free), which has been providing a touch of the country to city kids for twenty years.
11. Swim Outside
London abounds in lidos? Absolutely: outdoor pools just dandy for hot summer days when seeing the city sights simply doesn’t appeal.
- Hampton Pool Heated year-round (December dip, anyone?) Hampton Pool, outside central London in Hampton, Middlesex, is understandably popular, with a small children’s pool and more than half the main pool given over to family swims. Hop on a train at (), to take you to Hampton Station.
- Serpentine Lido Open daily for swimming from June to September, Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake – unheated, naturally – offers good swimming for older children (younger kids must be accompanied in a ratio of one child:two adults), whilst its paddling pool is great for little ones to splash about in.
- London Fields Lido Situated in Hackney, this heated Olympic-sized pool – though rather concrete-heavy -is super-popular come summer, set splendidly in the middle of a park, with a café and sunbathing area.
- Brockwell Lido A well-loved (unheated) lido in Brockwell Park, SE London, its Grade II-listed Art Deco pool building has been hosting swimmers since the 1930s. Take a seat at the poolside Lido Café for a veggie Halloumi and Tomato Relish burger, or a nice, warming bowl of pea soup after a chilly dip.
- Tooting Bec Lido The huge Tooting Bec Lido – the largest freshwater pool in the UK and first opened in 1906 – makes for a great day out…though the water can be on the cool side. There’s a separate pool for splashing about with the under-5s.
- Hampstead Heath Swimming Ponds & Parliament Hill Lido While the spectacular, single-sex (and a smaller mixed), all-natural ponds are better for older children and stronger swimmers, the unheated Parliament Hill Lido, open since 1937, has a paddling pool for the under-5s.
12. To Market, To Market
Our children love poking about at a market or two when in London, especially if it contains lots of free foodie samples (like Borough) or vintage bric-a-brac and handmade toys (like Spitalfields). Take it slow, brace for a crush, hold little hands tight, and enjoy the experience of squeezing through packed-to-the-gills market alleyways.
- (free) Spitalfields & Old Spitalfields Markets (open daily: check websites for times) Two large, separate markets in the same area, a short walk from Liverpool Street Station, your little ones will enjoy gazing at the vintage and hand-made goods on display, along with sampling some mighty tasty street food. Different days dish up different market specialities: Old Spitalfields is especially well-known for its antiques trade on Thursdays. Nearby Brick Lane Market; Sunday Upmarket in Old Truman Brewery.
- (free) Portobello Road Market (open Mon-Sat) Touristy, absolutely, but still worthwhile for its antiques, its fruit-and-veg, and its general sense of an old-time London. Check the website for info on which section is where.
- (free) Camden Market Another major London tourist attraction, Camden comprises a series of different markets, spread along various parts of Camden High Street. Weekends can draw crushing crowds, and beware a dearth of public toilets. Camden Stables Market, at the top of Camden High Street, is one of the best place to grab an on-the-go lunch.
- (free) Columbia Road Flower Market (8am to 3pm Sundays) Rise early and take your kids to Columbia Road Flower Market, where they can be dazzled by a riot of scents and colours. Give them your iPhone and let Instagram enjoy the results.
- (free) Borough Market Daily except Sundays, Borough Market is no longer the locals-only territory it once was. Now teeming with tourists, it’s nevertheless an incredible place to shop for picnic supplies, grab an al fresco lunch, or just sample the olive oils, bits of bread and cheese, and other nibbles on offer. Borough Market: we love you very, very much.
- (free) Broadway Market, Hackney (Saturdays 10am-5pm) dishes up great food and a calm vibe. If you’re feeling brave, stop into the century-old Fred Cooke Pie & Mash Shop for a portion of jellied eels…about as London as they come. For the less brave, Violet Cakes will do nicely.
- (free) Greenwich Market Running Tuesday to Sunday (with the largest selection of stalls at weekends), Greenwich makes another grand choice for a spot of shopping and a bite of street food (churros, vegan, Ethiopian..). Vintage and antique wares can be found for sale on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
- (free) Alexander Palace Farmers’ Market On Sundays, from 10am til 3pm, good old Ally Pally hosts a fantastic farmers’ market, well worth stopping by for. Check the website to ensure the market is running on the day of your visit.
- (free) Chatsworth Road Market Another wonderful (hipster-heavy) Sunday market (how on earth are you going to choose?), dishing up a good mix of vintage goods, bric-a-brac, jewellery, clothes and yummy food.
- (free) Maltby, Brixton Village Market, and Netil Markets. Shh. They’re secretly our faves. Look them up, shop there, and enjoy. But keep it under your sun(or rain)-hat.
13. Two Tates
(free) The Tate Britain and the Tate Modern: two of the UK’s most outstanding collections of art, conveniently linked – if your kids have the stamina for both – by the Tate-to-Tate Clipper, which runs every 40 minutes during museum hours down the Thames. The Tate Britain – with its incredible collection of Turners – is home to British art from 1500 onwards, and its Kids & Familes webpage offers plenty of ideas on how and what to see. The Tate Modern, meanwhile, hosts art from 1900, both from Britain and elsewhere: explore Surrealism, Cubism and more recent installation work with your small people, and check the Kids & Families page for a schedule of activities and events.
14. A Walk in the Park
- (free) Greenwich Park A lovely London Royal park with a herd of deer, a playground, the White House Bakery for tea and cake (or organic hot chocolate), stunning views over the River Thames, and the Royal Observatory, with London’s only planetarium, where you can explain to your little ones the concept of the Prime Meridian.
- (free) Kensington Gardens Graceful, glorious Kensington Gardens, with its Peter Pan Statue, commissioned by J. M. Barrie himself, and its amazing Princess Diana Playground (see Number 8, above), makes for a super summer afternoon. Pack a picnic and stay for supper.
- (free) Hyde Park Swim or boat on the Serpentine, check the calendar for a Royal Gun Salute, recline in a deckchair, or visit one of three playgrounds: there’s lots to keep everyone entertained at London’s most popular park.
- (free) St. James’s Park How we love wonderful little St. James’s Park: visit the lovely little playground (see number 8, above) and bring a bag of bread to feed the ducks, geese, squirrels and swans – there are pelicans too, but you’re not allowed to feed those (their keeper feeds them between 2.30 and 3pm daily). At the eastern end of the park, you’ll find Horseguards Parade, where the Trooping the Colour military ceremony is held each June, to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday. Note that a week before the real event, there’s a rehearsal, which is far less busy (though the Queen herself won’t put in an appearance.)
- (free) Regent’s Park Vast and stunning, Regent’s Park is home to London Zoo (see number ..above), as well as a boating lake, four cafes, four playgrounds, a wildlife garden, a huge population of waterfowl, and lots of summer activities, including brass bands and puppet shows. Check what’s on here.
- (free) Battersea Park Without the crowds of many of London’s other popular parks, Battersea retains an old-fashioned neighbourhood feel, with its zoo (see number 10, above), adventure playground, and rowing boats. Don’t skip a visit to the Buddhist Peace Pagoda beside the river.
15. London of Yore
- Tower of London Why, yes, it’s packed with tourists…but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t succumb and be one too. Beefeaters. Ravens. The Crown Jewels. The torture-heavy White Tower. What child (and parent) wouldn’t want at least a peek? Beware that some parts – the torture, for example – might be a little frightening for the tiniest visitors, and, as with all major London attractions, try to visit mid-week, early, outside school holidays.
- (free) Museum of London Uncover the history of London right back to prehistoric times at this fab museum, which includes a reconstruction of a Saxon house, and a “Victorian Walk,” past Victorian-era shop fronts. There’s lots of family info on offer here, and a list of upcoming family events and activities too.
16. Water, Water Everywhere
- Sealife London Aquarium Pirhanas and clownfish and sharks – oh my! A top London attraction, just down the river from the London Eye, and a good bet if you can brave the queues and the prices. Book Priority tickets, if you’d like to line-jump, or visit on weekdays – go early or late – outside school and public holidays.
- Jason’s Canal Boat Trip Climb aboard a century-old canal boat for a charming tour of London’s other waterway, with no River Thames in sight. A sweet, slow-paced way to see a little bit of the city.
- Emirates Air Line Take a cable-car across the Thames between the Royal Docks and North Greenwich for a bird’s eye view of the river. It’s relatively pricey for so short a trip (it takes 5-10 minutes one way, depending on the time of day), but there’s plenty to do on both sides of the river once the ride is over.
- Thames Clippers Journey up and down the river by Clipper boat, great if you’re going between a couple of London’s many riverside attractions. It certainly beats waiting in a hot, sweaty Tube station for a hot, sweaty train…
17. Hey Presto!
Vending magic tricks for more than a century, pocket money can be easily spent at the wonderful Davenport’s Magic Shop, which also offers children’s (and adults’) magic lessons. Now where did our pocket-watches go…?
18. Museum Obscura
So you’ve had your fill of art and nature walks, and your kids are dying for something with something more of a a gentle frisson: head to one of the destinations below to satisfy those things-that-go-bump-in-the-night curiosities.
- (free) Wellcome Collection “The free destination for the incurably curious”….how can we not? Currently undergoing development, not everything’s open, but when it’s all back up and running, expect fascinating, medical-themed exhibitions, definitely most suitable for older, unsqueamish children.
- Old Operating Theatre Museum Playing doctors and nurses takes on new meaning at the Old Operating Theatre, where historic surgical tools, and the oldest operating theatre in Europe, make for fascinating viewing. Another one not one for the squeamish – big or small – but an incredible insight into the days before Band-Aids and Antibiotic Sprays.
- The London Dungeon A big-ticket attraction, with lots of thrills, frights and fake gore (thus not recommended for the under-8s), the Dungeon is a perennially popular London attraction, vying only with Madame Tussauds for its long queues and photo-taking tourist hordes. But still, it’s a sight worth seeing: book online in advance to avoid the worst of the line-ups, and don’t – if you can avoid it – visit at weekends or during school or public holidays.
- (free) Hunterian Museum Extinct animals and historic medical models abound at this wonderful museum, under the auspices of the Royal College of Surgeons. find out more, watch this short film, in which a Year 10 (10th grade) student explains why it’s well worth a visit.
19. See the Sights
When our 9-year-old referred to it as “The Big Ben,” we knew, just like when your parents mention “The Facebook,” that some education needed to take place. Here’s our run-down of the must-see sights: do-able in a day, so that they know, without doubt, what’s what in London.
- Tower Bridge One of London’s most iconic sights, and a great vantage-point from which to see the city (see number 9, above).
- (free) Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament No need to climb its 334 spiral steps (tours must be booked 6 months ahead; over 11s and UK residents only): just be there on the hour to hear the chimes. The Houses of Parliament are impressive from the outside, but if you want to book a (free) tour, there are lots of options.
- St. Paul’s Cathedral Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, built between 1685 and 1710 after the destruction of the former St. Paul’s in the Great Fire of London, is simply stunning: climb to the top of the dome via the famous Whispering Gallery, or deep down into the Crypt, then recover with scones and afternoon tea. Open for sight-seeing 8.30am to 4pm Monday to Saturday, book tickets online here for savings and fast-track entry.
- Westminster Abbey Junior royalists want to see where the prince and princess were wed? Visit this Gothic masterpiece, begun in 1245 by Henry III, for a closer look. Check the website for opening times, or even plan to attend a service.
- Buckingham Palace “They’re changing guards at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Robin went down with Alice…” View the Queen’s modest little house from the outside, arrange a visit to the State Rooms (see the special info on visiting with children) indoors, say hello to a sentry on guard in his sentry box (though he won’t say hello back), or see the Changing the Guard itself.
- (free) Piccadilly Circus Take a brisk walk (amongst the tourist flocks) through Piccadilly Circus to see the bright lights and the statue of Eros. There’s no particular reason to do it – unless you’re voraciously shopping or theatre-going – but nevertheless, it’s just one of those things you ought to do, if only once.
- (free) Trafalgar Square Visit Nelson atop his column, peruse the street performances, hang out on the steps, and view the art on display on the Fourth Plinth, before taking a leisurely walk up to Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Chinatown, or through the cool corridors of the National or National Portrait Galleries (see number 4, above).
20. Little Luvvies
- See A West End Show Matilda, The Lion King, Mamma Mia…there are plenty of child-friendly West End shows, musicals and otherwise, in town, and lots of afternoon matinee performances perfect for seeing them in. If you’re flexible, book at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square for cut-price (and often half-price) tickets on the day of the performance.
- For a full run-down of all theatre performances for children in London – with reliable reviews – check Time Out London‘s listings.
+1: Fit for a Prince(ss)
- Hampton Court Palace “Wander the corridors of Royal power and pleasure…” Originally built in the 16th century, and expanded in the 17th to rival Versailles, Royal history abounds here – though your little ones might be more excited by the amazing Maze and the live historic cookery in the Chocolate Kitchen. You’ll find information about family trails, toddler sensory workshops, and lots of other great stuff on the palace’s Family Page.
- Windsor Castle The largest, oldest inhabited castle in the world, Windsor is where the Queen spends her weekends (you’ll know she’s in residence if the Royal Standard flag is flying on the Round Tower). Check out the Changing of the Guard, peep into Queen Mary’s Doll’s House (the world’s largest and most lavish), and take a free family audio tour. The castle’s Family Page lists the top five things to look out for.