London is an amazing city. Even after living here for over a decade, I am always finding new places and things to do around town. A tourist could explore London for a month and not see everything. And few visitors can spend that amount of time exploring my adopted home. If you are visiting with kids or a multi-generational group, many of the “must see” sights and museums in London could result in boredom or complaints. Selecting the attractions that will appeal to everyone is key to designing an itinerary and a trip that your whole family will enjoy. These are my top 10 things to do for friends and family who are visiting London.
- A Walk Around Westminster
When I have visitors to London, this outing is one of my favorite recommendations. It can take most of a day, but you will see many of London’s other iconic sights along the way. My favorite route, for which I have created a printable map, starts at Trafalgar Square, goes down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, through St. James Park, around Downing Street, over to Westminster Abbey, by Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, before crossing the Thames River to see the London Eye. I have made a printable map and walking directions that you candownload here.
If you did this walking tour at a good pace without stopping to watch the Changing of the Guard, explore Westminster Abbey, ride the London Eye, or take breaks at playgrounds and cafes, you could be done in about 90 minutes. However, with stops this route could easily take most of a day.
The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace only takes place on select days. If you wanted to see this event, I would suggest starting your walking tour at Trafalgar Square about an hour in advance. Currently the Changing of the Guard happens at 11am on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The schedule and times do change, so I suggest checking the website to get the most up-to-date information. I personally find the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace to be a letdown… too many people and hard to see. However, the Guards do parade down the Mall and back to their barracks. So catching them as they walk from the Parade Grounds to Buckingham Palace can be a great way to see them in their uniforms and get pictures without fighting crowds for an hour.
The State Rooms of Buckingham Palace are usually open to visitors only from late July to October. The Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews are open most of the year, but aren’t usually what people think of when they think of visiting Buckingham Palace. If you do want to visit the State Rooms, it is important to book your tickets well ahead of time. While the tour of the State Rooms is impressive, it is unlikely to appeal to children or teens unless they are particularly obsessed with royalty. Adult tickets for the State Rooms are £23.
The walking tour goes past the Cabinet War Rooms. This underground collection of bunkers where Winston Churchill and his cabinet operated during WWII is very cool. While it is unlikely to entertain young children, older kids or those with an interest in military history will find it fascinating. It is one of my personal favorites for adults. The war rooms open at 9:30am, so you could put it at the beginning of this walking tour (before Changing of the Guards) if you wanted. Tickets for the War Rooms can be booked ahead online and start at £17.25 for adults.
Just before you get to Parliament Square you will pass several iconic red telephone booths. This spot is a great place to get a picture with both the phone booths and Big Ben in the background. Parliament Square is edged by Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. You can book tours of Parliament, particularly when Parliament is in recess. Westminster Abbey is also open most days to explore. Again, I recommend booking ahead for Westminster Abbey to save time queuing. Both of these sights can also be enjoyed more quickly from the outside, so if you don’t think your group will enjoy spending an hour or two inside just walk the grounds.
After checking out the sights around Parliament Square, you can stroll through Parliament Gardens over to Lambeth Bridge. On your way you will pass a great little playground right in the shadow of Victoria Tower, which also has restrooms. Then you cross the picturesque Lambeth Bridge over to the Southbank. There is a pedestrianized walkway along the river. From here you can get amazing pictures of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. It also takes you straight to the London Eye.
I think the London Eye should be on the itinerary for every family visit to London. It is a fun experience and gives you great views of London. Again, I recommend booking ahead. You can save money by picking a specific time slot or spend a bit more for a flexible ticket. The area around the London Eye is usually packed with street performers and food trucks, making it a great place to relax for awhile. The recently redone Jubilee Gardens next to the London Eye provides a great place for a picnic or to sit down. There is also a playground area here and bathrooms.
After taking a ride on the London Eye and exploring the surrounding area, you can take the pedestrian and railroad bridge back over the Thames and end up almost right where you started your walking tour.
On my map I also note several of my favorite photo spots in all of London. You can get some awesome pictures with London landmarks on this walking tour.
I have had the privilege of living in Covent Garden for almost 10 years. This was once London’s main flower and vegetable market and made famous by the movie/play My Fair Lady. But now Covent Garden has turned into a center for shopping, entertainment, and restaurants. Throughout the day and evening there are numerous street performers (of varying quality, but interesting to children), lots of unique shops, and good restaurants/cafés of all types. The market frequently has events and fun displays such as giant Lego creations, amazing Christmas decorations, Easter egg hunts, car shows, and concerts. In addition, there are vendors selling unique (and high quality) crafts, antiques, and tourist-y items. It would be easy for groups of all ages to spend an afternoon here before visiting the theatre, enjoying the atmosphere, grabbing a bite to eat, and scooping up some unique British souvenirs. The people watching is also outstanding.
Hyde Park is the green center of London and is great for all ages. Its beautiful gardens should not be missed. My favorites are the English Gardens by Hyde Park Corner and the Italian Gardens off Bayswater Road. You can rent paddleboats and go out on the Serpentine. There is the Serpentine Art Gallery with its modern art collection. And there are three playgrounds, including the extremely popular Princess Diana Playground in the northwest corner of the park. You can rent bicycles and bike around, although sadly, only adult bikes are available. In addition, there are several restaurants and cafes in the park. Around Christmas there is a popular annual Christmas festival, Winter Wonderland, near the Hyde Park Corner entrance.
This is my favorite of all of London’s weekly markets. Borough Market offers an amazing collection of food and drink stalls, surrounded by some great restaurants, bars, and cafes. Many of the vendors offer samples of their food or sell items you can eat right away. Anyone, of any age, who likes to eat will find this to be a great place to spend a morning. We bring all our visitors here.
The market is at its peak on Saturday mornings when the most vendors are open. At this time the market is bustling with both foodie Londoners picking up food for dinner parties as well as tourists. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons the full market is also open and often full of local workers enjoying lunch. Before visiting, check the website for the most up-to-date operating hours. I would only recommend going when the “Full Market” is open.
My family usually walks to Borough Market from Central London. This is about a 2-mile walk that takes you past St. Paul’s Cathedral, across Millenium Bridge, by the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank, before ending up at Borough Market. It is a really enjoyable walk and most of it is traffic free.
Most of the market area is covered, so even if it is raining, Borough Market can still be a lot of fun. While some vendors take credit/debit cards, I would recommend bringing cash with you to purchase items at Borough Market.
Tower of London
There are many historic sites around London, and this is one of my favorite. Touring the Tower is likely to be a hit with almost all ages and interests. There is space for little ones to run around, historic suits of armour, the Crown Jewels, and lots of great stories. There is an interactive guide/game that you can download on your iPhone to keep tweens interested. The Tower also has a number of family-friendly events that vary throughout the year. I recommend joining one of the free Yeoman, or Beefeater, tours that start every 30 minutes and gives you a guided tour and history of the main sites. Tickets are available online, and buying in advance will not only save you money, but also lots of time. I would allow at least 2 hours to visit the Tower of London.
Before or after your trip you may want to walk across the iconic Tower Bridge. Either way, be sure to walk down to the river next to the Tower of London as it is one of the best spots to get a great family picture with the Tower Bridge in the background.
London has so many fabulous museums. The ones you visit, if any, depend upon your group’s interest, and importantly, what you have access to in your own community. I recommend the Science Museum for families as it has attractions for all ages, including great interactive areas for children. The “Garden” area in the basement is designed for under 5’s, the “Pattern Pod” on the main level is interactive and appeals to a wide age range, and the newly redone Wonderland, on the top floor area, has great interactive exhibits for ages 5 and up. There are also excellent IMAX films shown throughout the day and you can do Red Arrow fighter jet simulator rides.
In addition to the interactive exhibit areas, there are areas dedicated to shipbuilding, aviation, the Industrial Revolution, space, and mathematics. Entrance to the Science Museum is free and it is a great place to go if it is raining. IMAX shows, simulator rides, and entrance to some exhibition areas cost extra.
Having “tea” in London can be an event like no other, especially for the ladies. While most of the famous venues for afternoon tea are very feminine, there are some special ones that would appeal to guys as well. Having a traditional English high tea involves tea (of course), but often champagne as well. Coffee or hot cocoa are available at most places on request. There is usually an extensive menu from which to choose. Then you are served trays of sandwiches and other savory items. Next comes the sweets, usually with scones and clotted cream. I thought I would hate clotted cream, but it really is a lovely treat on scones… sort of like a mix of butter and frosting!
Booking well (months) ahead is essential for most of the popular big hotel teas. Afternoon tea at The Ritz, Claridges, The Langham, and the Dorchester are all institutions. The Palm Court at the Langham even offers an afternoon tea for children.
Several of the themed and special teas can also be difficult to book. The Kensington Hotel is now offering a Beauty and the Beast themed tea. It looks fabulous, but since the soonest reservation I could get was 6 months out, I can’t give you a first-hand evaluation. I have done the Mad Hatter Tea at the Sanderson hotel, and love it! My four year old liked that tea so much we had to bring both grandmothers when they visited London. Other unique options include Gentlemen’s tea at Reform Social and Grill with steak sandwiches and fish and chips, the fashion tea at the Berkeley hotel, and the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea at the One Aldwych hotel, or the vegan/gluten-free tea at Ethos.
I am a huge theatre fan. While evening (or afternoon) tickets at a West End theatre can be expensive, compared to Broadway, they are a steal. I would definitely recommend every group include one show on their itinerary, and with the right show even 4- or 5-year olds can join in the event. I have taken my 4-year-old daughter to “grown up” West End productions of Aladdin and Cinderella. For even younger children, there are often shows designed just for them offered in the morning and early afternoon, which my children enjoyed as young as 2-years-old.
The shows that are available change constantly in the West End. My current recommendations for groups with children are Aladdin, The Lion King, Wicked, and Matilda. If by some miracle you can get tickets to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, that would also be a big hit with the family. This summer (2017), Annie and The Wind in the Willows are both opening, which should appeal to families as well. You can check what shows will be on during your visit by consulting the Official London Theatre guide. What’s On Stage also has a good listing of children’s theater shows in the West End.
Tickets to London shows can sell out months ahead of time, so I recommend booking your tickets as soon as you book your flight and hotels. Friday and Saturday evening shows often command premium prices, and tickets to kid-friendly Saturday matinees book up very quickly. Weekday show and especially weekday matinees are much easier to get tickets to and will often have lower prices.
This park is my favorite of all of London’s parks. Regent’s Park has lots of stunning formal gardens and fewer tourists than other central London parks. The flowers are stunning here. If you are visiting in late spring or summer, be sure to check out the rose gardens, which are amazing. The lovely swings and benches scattered throughout are perfect for resting your feet. There are also several lakes and ponds filled with birds which are fun to watch. The large lake (on the west side) has paddle boats for rent in the summer. The smaller ponds inside the inner circle have fun islands which my kids love to explore. The park has three playgrounds, so there are lots of places for kids to burn off some extra energy while the adults rest. Plus there are several very good cafes inside the park.
Thames River Cruise
A great way to get a sense of the city is to take a river cruise or boat ride. There are several different options available. You could take one of the Transport for London ferries which shuttle commuters across the city. There are also tourist-specific boats that stop at some of the main London sights.
My favorite for a luxury family treat, however, is to hire a RIB (rapid inflatable boat) and get an exhilarating private tour of the Thames. While the ride can be bumpy and a bit wet (they give you raincoats), it is sure to be a huge hit with anyone from ages 8-58 (and maybe older). It is important to note that while there is no age requirement, all passengers must be at least 15kg (about 40 pounds). If your group or budget isn’t big enough to justify renting the entire boat, look into booking a spot on the regularly scheduled RIB tours. There are several RIB tour operators including Thames RIB Experience, Thames Rockets, Thames Jet, and RIB Tours London.
For more information on visiting London with families be sure to read my post on travel basics for visiting London.