London is a child's paradise, and not just because so much of it seems to come out of favorite books—the Hyde Park of Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear's station, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. It's the size of the place: this is a city of neighborhoods, buildings that sprawl rather than climb. And there are countless small delights. You can joggle along in a red double-decker bus, pass bobbies in cute helmets, count ghosts at the Tower of London, and listen to the natives speak their funny English. The only burden?Choosing from the vast number of museums, historic houses, broad green parks . . . and shops full of teddy bears and toy soldiers.
- Before leaving home, cruise the London Tourist Board's Web site (http://www.londontown.com)—it has information on accommodations, attractions, restaurants, and activities.
- Once in town, call 0839/123-404 to hear about events for children. Updated daily, the Where to Take the Children service costs 50 pence (about 80 cents) a minute and can't be accessed from abroad.
- Stop by the tourist board information centers (they're at three different Underground stations: Liverpool Street, Victoria, and Heathrow) to check out the extensive supplies of maps, leaflets, and guidebooks.
- At any newsstand, pick up Kids Out, a magazine that lists every imaginable activity.
- Buy the London White Card—it gets you into a variety of museums. They're sold at tourism offices and the participating museums. A three-day family card, covering two adults and four children under 16, costs $60; a one-week pass, $90. It's almost worth it just for the easy bathroom access.
But you can certainly try! In the Changing the Guard (11:30 a.m. daily May through July, on alternate days all other times), guard brigades leave Wellington Barracks for Buckingham Palace. There's less pomp—and fewer crowds—at St. James's Palace: you may even get a private moment with a guard. The mounting of the guard takes place at the Horse Guards, Whitehall, each day at 11 a.m. (10 on Sundays). Look for the plumed helmets. The Queen's Life Guard is changed each day at 10:28 a.m. (9:28 on Sundays); they proceed from Hyde Park Barracks to Horseguard Road. To see all the queen's horses, and some of her men, visit the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace (Buckingham Palace Rd.; 44-171/930-4832).
The Earl of Sandwich really started something—the art of the sandwich is explored here as nowhere else. Bluebird (350 King's Rd.; 44-171/559-1000) is a regular restaurant in a lofty light-filled space, but if you don't have time for a full meal, pick up sandwiches in the svelte food store on the ground floor. There's also good take-away from Boots pharmacies and Tesco Metro (locations throughout the city), and from the food halls at Marks & Spencer (47 Baker St.; 44-171/935-4422). Sit down at Seattle Coffee or Pret A Manger—the very successful chain that serves up superb sandwiches, sushi, and slushies--one of which is bound to be a block away. Homesick?Try Fatboy's Diner (23 Horner Square; 44-171/375-2763) for hamburgers and milk shakes.
Portobello Road is still going strong every Saturday—and though the fads of this moment (inflatables, anything gothic) will pass soon, what's next is certain to be here first. It's great for techno tapes. And don't forget Portobello's vintage shops (they're open every day). There's more street cred at Camden Market, on weekends, and at Covent Garden, which always buzzes. The Dr. Martens Department Store (14 King St.; 44-171/497-1460) is near the latter. Girls should check out Topshop Oxford Circus (Oxford St. at Great Portland St.; 44-171/636-7700) for cutting-edge gear, as well as the Oasis, Warehouse, and Miss Selfridge chains (even if just for trying on nail polish)—they're all over town. Urban Outfitters (3638 Kensington High St.; 44-171/761-1001) heads the list of musts on Kensington High Street. And everyone will find Lush (123 King's Rd.; 44-171/376-8348) a hoot—a beauty shop passing as a grocery, it sells bath gels and soaps packaged like food.
A London ritual, afternoon tea is a good excuse to rest and refresh—and eat to your heart's content. The grand hotels do it right. Many require reservations; expect to pay about $25 per person for the privilege. At the Lanesborough (1 Lanesborough Place; 44-171/259-5599), good little girls and boys nibble their way through towering tiers of sandwiches, scones, and tarts to the tune of a tinkling piano. Other top pots: Claridge's (Brook St.; 44-171/629-8860), Brown's (between Albemarle and Dover Sts.; 44-171/493-6020), the Savoy (Strand; 44-171/836-4343), the Ritz Hotel (150 Piccadilly; 44-171/493-8181), and Le Meridien Waldorf (Aldwych; 44-171/836-2400), where there's a chocolate buffet— yes, a chocolate buffet—on Fridays.
If your hotel doesn't start you off right, pop into a corner shop selling breakfast bites. A handy one is the Coffee Gallery (23 Museum St.; 44-171/436-0455), near the British Museum. South of the river, Boiled Egg & Soldiers (63 Northcote Rd.; 44-171/223-4894) serves breakfast all day. Or dip a croissant at Patisserie Valerie (105 Marylebone High St., 44-171/935-6240; 44 Old Compton St.,44-171/437-3466).
For a grounding in city history, spend a morning at the Museum of London (150 London Wall; 44-171/600-3699). Exhibits dollop out information in the most entertaining way—a model of the old City of London, for instance, "burns down" every 15 minutes. The British Museum (Great Russell St.; 44-171/636-1555) has to be taken in small bites: feet will drag after the third mile of Greek vases. Instead, pick up one of the maps outlining a route like the "Egyptian Sculpture Gallery Trail." The British Library (96 Euston Rd.; 44-171/412-7000) is fun for its Beatles lyric sheets and Winnie the Pooh memorabilia. The Tower of London (Tower Hill; 44-171/709-0765) offers a chance to revel in tales of villains and heroes; what child can resist the Bloody Tower?If that palls, there's always the Crown jewels.
. . . and makes some of the best: Corgi cars, sturdy toy soldiers and farm animal sets, teddy bears, rocking horses, marvelous books. An old Victorian gallery, the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (Cambridge Heath Rd.; 44-181/980-2415) houses the Victoria and Albert Museum's toy collection, with a whole suburb of dollhouses. The problem with toy museums is that kids want to own the exhibits. Cheerful Daisy & Tom (181 King's Rd.; 44-171/352-5000) has all the English reliables, a mechanical puppet show upstairs, and an enormous book section where children can flop and flip ). Truth be told, the museum shops—at the V&A, the Natural History and Science museums, the Museum of the Moving Image—are the source of some of the best children's souvenirs.
London transportation can be entertaining in itself—watch the inevitable squabble over who snags the cab's jump seat. The tube is the most efficient way around, but double-decker buses offer the bonus of good views from up top. (And they cost much less than the tour buses.) Buy a daily family Travelcard (after 9:30 a.m.) and zones one and two of the Underground are available to you at about $13 for four travelers. Or pop for a weekly pass ($26 for adults, $9 for children), though you'll need passport-size photos. The whirling-wheeled, whistle-blowing London Transport Museum (39 Wellington St.; 44-171/379-6344) tells the story of all that's stuck in traffic.