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.