Guide to London with the Kids
Published: May 2009
By Catherine Calvert
Our essential guide to the world's most supercalifragilisticexpialidocious city.
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.
Gawking at the royal jewels in the Tower is one thing; finding the royals in the flesh takes some doing. If the standard is flying at Buckingham Palace, then the queen is at home. (The daily Court Circular in the Times notes who's where, but Wills-and-Harry watchers have to go to Eton, 40 minutes away.) You can see the graves of an array of ex-monarchs at Westminster Abbey (Dean's Yard; 44-171/222-5152), or visit the museum, which has the waxen death effigies of Elizabeth I, Charles II, and others. For more contemporary royalty, tour Kensington Palace, where Diana lived after her separation from Prince Charles. Mourners still hang flowers on the fence, but the state apartments have been redesigned to downplay her time there. Buckingham Palace is open for only a few months, in the summer (call 44-171/799-2331 for a schedule). Hampton Court is remarkable, in children's minds, mainly for its garden maze. The newly restored Windsor Castle has a nice moment in front of Queen Mary's dollhouse, but the rest is an endless shuffle through rooms that resemble a well-done Hilton.
The bugs-in-the-home exhibit at the National History Museum (Cromwell Rd.; 44-171/938-9123) will make you itch; the Earthquake Room will make you shake, rattle, and roll. In the basement of the Science Museum (Exhibition Rd.; 44-171/938-8080), around the corner, hands-on galleries could well occupy half a day; there's even one for tinies. Costumed interpreters wander the whole building—if you're lucky you'll bump into Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the flush toilet. Across the river is the London Aquarium (County Hall, Riverside Building; 44-171/967-8000), where you can pet a ray. Outside, walk along the river for a gee-whiz view of Big Ben and Parliament.
Cure a sightseeing slump with a run through one of London's prize parks. Kensington Gardens blends into Hyde Park for long walks, with stops at the Peter Pan statue, the Fairy Oak, the boats of the Serpentine (you can swim here in season), and the shiny gold statue of Prince Albert, around which there are chubby squirrels to feed. The newly reopened Serpentine Gallery (44-171/402-6075) is a good family stop, since it's small, and the often controversial art exhibits can be very amusing. And you can hire a horse at Hyde Park Stables (44-171/723-2813) or Ross Nye's Riding Stables (44-171/262-3791), both at Lancaster Gate, across Bayswater Road from the park. (Rollerblades can be rented on neighboring streets, but bicycling in most parks is strictly regulated, and rentals nonexistent.) Hampstead Heath ranges from the wild-and-woolly to the Kenwood House, with its collection of 18th-century art. Take a kite to Parliament Hill—the skyline view is a bonus—or check a listings guide for one of the fun fairs sometimes held on the heath. Regent's Park has both rose gardens and wide-open spaces, as well as boating ponds and playgrounds and kiosks with snacks. In summer, the outdoor theater alternates Shakespeare with musicals. The London Zoo (Regent's Park; 44-171/722-3333) presents both animals to pet and animals to admire, such as the rare black rhinos. To get there, hop on one of the traditional wooden boats that ply the Regent's Canal (London Waterbus Co., 44-171/482-2550; or Jason's Trip, 44-171/286-3428).
At the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Rd.; 44-171/416-5000), there's a harrowing trip through a World War I trench, where you pass a soldier frying up breakfast while shells whistle by, as well as a goose-bumpy World War II air raid that fills a London street with smoke and sirens. The National Army Museum (Royal Hospital Rd.; 44-171/730-0717) has a new army of 75,000 toy soldiers that re-enacts the Battle of Waterloo. Most evocative are the Cabinet War Rooms (Clive Steps, King Charles St.; 44-171/930-6961), the underground bunkers from which Churchill ran the war. They remain as they were on V-E Day, with ringing phones, clicking typewriters, and the maps on which armies' movements were traced.
In general, good child-friendly restaurants are found wherever families live—Fulham, Notting Hill, Kensington—as well as in tourist centers near the theaters. A traditional Italian restaurant with a tented garden, La Famiglia (7 Langton St.; 44-171/351-0761) is jolly but deeply chic (is that Princess Michael of Kent in the corner?). Another first-class Italian very welcoming to children is Bertorelli's (1923 Charlotte St.; 44-171/636-4174). Good behavior might merit one of the scrumptious gelati. At space-age Mash (1921 Great Portland St.; 44-171/637-5555), order a rocket salad—rocket is what Brits call arugula. Royal China (13 Queens Way; 44-171/221-2535) is bright and dazzling and filled with flashing chopsticks. It's especially known for dim sum. For classic bistro food, try the informal Francofill (1 Old Brompton Rd.; 44-171/584-0087). Forget the queen—God save the restaurateur who first thought to put crayons on the table. Indian food is an important part of the London restaurant scene—La Porte des Indes (32 Bryanston St.; 44-171/224-0055) is in a beautiful space with tumbling fountains that might intrigue children enough to make them try the tandoori chicken.
There's a fine tradition here of children's theater that goes beyond Punch and Judy. Try the Little Angel Theatre (14 Dagmar Passage; 44-171/226-1787); the Puppet Theatre Barge (44-171/249-6876), on an old canal boat moored on the Thames in summer and in Little Venice in winter; or the Unicorn Theatre for Children (6 Great Newport St.; 44-171/836-3334). Looking for more-adult fare?The Lloyd Webber warhorses still play in the West End—just try to snag seats for Phantom. Do avoid the area's ticket touts; instead, call or visit the box office, call Edwards & Edwards (800/223-6108) before you leave home, or queue up at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square. It's potluck, but armed with Time Out's reviews, you can land a terrific evening for about $20 a head. Sure things: the very scary Woman in Black and Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. It's not Shakespeare—for that, tour the Globe Theatre (New Globe Walk; 44-171/902-1500) and take in a performance; if you have the stamina, the most fun is to be a groundling standing in the pit. A dip into England's long theatrical history, the Theatre Museum (1E Tavistock St.; 44-171/836-7891) has kids' costume and makeup workshops. The television generation, however, might prefer the new BBC Experience (Broadcasting House, Portland Place; 44-870/603-0304). You can fiddle with sound-mixing machines and givea Teletubby a hug. The hugely popular Museum of the Moving Image (South Bank; 44-171/928-3535) takes up film and animation. There's lots to do here: "fly" like Superman over London, host a TV interview, star in a film.
The spook factor in London is high, and any self-respecting child is keen to the possibilities. A warning about the London Dungeon (2834 Tooley St.; 44-171/403-0606): there is no age limit on feeling queasy during the autopsy segment (the body is one of Jack the Ripper's victims). Those who want to learn what life was like in a Victorian prison can run through the actual cells of the House of Detention (Clerkenwell Close; 44-171/253-9494) and savor the torture instruments. And at the Old Operating Theatre (9A St. Thomas's St.; 44-171/955-4791), the pictures do a fine portrayal of surgery without anesthesia—and re-enactments are noisy. Anyone still seeking thrills might enjoy a tour in which a black-caped guide leads a group through back alleys, telling shivery tales (Original London Walks; 44-171/624-3978). Catherine Calvert, a writer and editor living in London, has two daughters who know the Natural History Museum well.
Catharine Calvert, a writer and editor living in London, has two daughters who know the Natural History Museum well.
City regulations limit the number of bodies—however small—that can be crammed into a room. The rule varies from hotel to hotel, but if you're told a room is for three, believe it. Ask for connecting doubles or look for "family rooms"—which typically sleep four or five. To get help, try the London Tourist Board's booking service (44-171/932-2000; http://www.londontown.com), or one of the many on-line services (two to get you started: http://www.hotelnet.co.uk and http://www.ase.net).
At the top end, the newly remodeled Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (66 Knightsbridge; 44-171/235-2000, fax 44-171/235-4552; doubles from $405) supplies in-room coloring books, toys, and videos; special menus; and a teddy bear to keep. 22 Jermyn Street (22 Jermyn St.; 44-171/734-2353, fax 44-171/734-0750; doubles from $340) is an antiques-filled, family-owned 18-room hotel. Owner Henry Togna even puts out a children's newsletter, and there are books, videos, and puzzles (and Sega games on request) to keep them occupied when they're not relaxing in their teddy-bear dressing gowns. Beautifully constructed in a former government building across the river from Big Ben, the London Marriott (County Hall; 44-171/928-5200, fax 44-171/928-5300; doubles from $305) opened last fall. Kids dig the multichannel TV's, the 25-meter-long pool, and the fact that the London Aquarium is downstairs; parents like the frequent package deals. At the spiffy Athenaeum Hotel & Apartments (116 Piccadilly; 800/335-3300 or 44-171/499-3464, fax 44-171/493-1860; doubles from $440) the Mary Poppins package puts children ages 5 to 10 in the care of a real British nanny for an extra $150 per day, with trips to all sorts of attractions. Finally, what teen wouldn't want to stay where the rock stars rock and the models promenade?Overlooking Hyde Park, Metropolitan (19 Old Park Lane; 44-171/447-1000, fax 44-171/447-1100; doubles from $340) is state-of-the-art minimalist. Besides, what could your two-year-old break that a rock star hasn't already trashed?Then there are the more reasonable options. Recently refurbished, the Basil Street Hotel (8 Basil St.; 44-171/581-3311, fax 44-171/581-3693) has family accommodations—two bedrooms sharing a bath—from $405, with discounts for stays of more than five nights. The Cranley Gardens Hotel (8 Cranley Gardens; 44-171/373-3232, fax 44-171/373-7944; doubles from $180, including tax and breakfast) is well-placed for the V&A and the Science and Natural History museums. Others to keep in mind: Five Sumner Place (5 Sumner Place; 44-171/584-7586, fax 44-171/823-9962; doubles from $199, including breakfast); Windermere Hotel (142144 Warwick Way; 44-171/834-5163, fax 44-171/630-8831; doubles from $165, including tax and breakfast); and Abbey Court (20 Pembridge Gardens; 44-171/221-7518, fax 44-171/792-0858; doubles from $215, including tax and breakfast).
Children have their own hotel at Pippa Pop-Ins (430 Fulham Rd.; 44-171/385-2458, fax 44-171/385-5706; from $123 per child), where those from 2 to 12 can overnight in a town house (the baths have rubber duckies). It might be better than leaving your kids with a sitter you don't know, should you decide to go out without them.
Renting a flat—or even a town house—can be more cost-effective. The Apartment Service (44-181/944-1444, fax 44-181/944-6744; http://www.apartment.co.uk) has studios and one-bedroom flats in 2 Hyde Park Square (from $130 a night). Go Native (44-171/221-2028, fax 44-171/221-2088; http://www.gonative.co.uk) will place you in a flat belonging to an absent Londoner, with some properties specially earmarked for families (each is stocked with a guide to area restaurants, shops, and sights, as well as a tip sheet for families—one of the owners, Guy Nixon, has kids). A flat in Little Venice, for example, opening onto acres of communal gardens with swings and a tennis court, goes for $1,320 to $1,820 weekly, fully inclusive.