London is an expensive city to visit and one that’s large and sometimes difficult to navigate. But, it’s also packed with fascinating historic sights, bags of culture, world-class museums, parks and wide-open spaces with excellent playgrounds, and plenty of things to occupy kids of all ages.
The permanent collections at many museums and art galleries are free to enter (donations welcome) and they generally offer some kind of audio guide or experience aimed specifically at families. For older children, London’s Harry Potter connections tend to be popular, and with so many different exhibitions and theater performances, there is something to align with the passions of every teen.
Here’s everything you need to know for the perfect family day out in London.
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Getting around London with young children isn’t always easy
As with any large city, dragging small kids around in London can be exhausting for everyone. Staying realistic about how much you can see in a day and being flexible with your schedule is the key to keeping everyone happy.
Unfortunately, London is not particularly easy to navigate with a stroller or for anyone with accessibility needs. Even Tube stations with step-free access often still have a huge gap between the train and the platform, and you can walk a long way through the underground network before reaching the platform you need. The buses are likely to be better options for getting around central London. Better still, divide your visit into neighborhoods and walk between sites to minimize your time fighting the often frustrating transport system. Children under 11 travel for free with a fare-paying adult; ask about free and discounted Visitor Oyster cards for children aged up to 16. Children aged 16 and over pay adult rate.
There’s action for all ages on the South Bank
London’s South Bank offers endless family entertainment. The London Eye provides high-up views over the river to Big Ben and beyond, and the Sea Life London Aquarium, with a shark tunnel and penguin area, is particularly popular with younger kids. Shrek’s Adventure is a 90-minute theme park experience centered around the fairy tales in the Shrek movies. If you have teens who enjoy being scared, they will get a kick out of the creative presentation of gory historical events at the London Dungeon. Learn about the role HMS Belfast played in WWII while climbing down below the river’s water level and shuffling along tiny corridors (not easily done with toddlers or babies in prams). In the summer months bring a change of clothes, as your kids are likely to make a beeline for Southbank Centre‘s fountains. When you get hungry, head to Borough Market, packed full of food options from kid-friendly fish ‘n’ chips and ice cream to paella and oysters.
Have a hands-on experience in the Science Museum’s best galleries
The Science Museum in Kensington brings themes such as space, flight and climate change to life with a series of hands-on exhibits and virtual displays. Get close to a space module, track the history of aviation, and learn about the importance of ice in the Antarctic. For younger children aged three to six, head to The Garden in the basement. This free interactive gallery allows for construction with blocks and cranes, and sensory exploration with sound, touch, and water play. Those age six and above will be enthralled by the liquids, magnets, smoke and light that they can play with in the different zones of Wonderlab on the top floor. Science Museum “Explainers” will merrily chat with youngsters about anything from how a bubble is formed to how planets move around in the solar system, as well as running live demos and experiments showing science in action.
Tour London’s top parks and playgrounds
London is a surprisingly green city, with a lot of large open spaces. Regent’s Park is the biggest and most elaborate of central London’s many Royal Parks. Among its many attractions are London Zoo, Regent’s Canal, an ornamental lake, and grass pitches where locals meet to play sports. Rent a pedal boat on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, and run free in one of London’s best playgrounds, Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, in nearby Kensington Gardens. Here kids will be delighted by the large pirate ship, waterplay, and sandpits. A wander through St James’s Park is worthwhile for its lovely gardens and great views of London icons, such as the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. Teens and older children may enjoy the thrill of abseiling or sliding down the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 115m-high sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Come face-to-face with a dino at the Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is a colossal and magnificent building housing 80 million specimens from the natural world, with displays on everything from the human body to rare fossils and gems. Hintze Hall, at the center of the museum, is home to an awe-inspiring blue whale skeleton that hangs from the ceiling. This is also where pre-schoolers seek out Andy’s Clock, the magical time-traveling device from CBeebies TV show Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. The Dinosaur Gallery is packed with info and skeletons of many different dinosaurs, and is a big hit with families. The absolute highlight here is the animatronic T-rex that swings its colossal tail and flexes its jaws while roaring at the gathered crowd (beware: it can be genuinely frightening for little people). The museum is also home to the ever-popular Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit, showcasing the fragile natural beauty of our planet through 100 photos.
Take a boat ride along the Thames
Be sure to take a ride along the Thames to spot some of London’s icons. If you’re looking for thrills, Thames Rockets has rigid inflatable boats that zip along the river and back from the London Eye Pier. For a more leisurely approach to sightseeing, take the Thames Clipper, a riverboat commuter service stopping at piers throughout the city. Admire the Houses of Parliament, speed under the Millennium Bridge (destroyed by Death Eaters in the opening scenes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and catch a glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral. As you pass the Tower of London, look for Traitors’ Gate at river-level where prisoners entered the Tower, before whizzing underneath the impressive Victorian Tower Bridge.
See wax creations of your fave celebs at Madame Tussauds
Madame Tussauds, packed with waxwork likenesses of all kinds of famous people – from royals to sports personalities – is kitschy and pricey, but makes for a fun-filled day. Music-loving teens will want to grab photo ops with top current singers, including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, and One Direction, and even legends such as Bob Marley and Freddie Mercury. Young movie fans may want to visit the heroes and villains of Star Wars, stand with Katniss Everdeen, or see E.T. up close. Book online in advance for the best rates, and then look out for your favorite celebrity.
Follow the family trails to treasure in the British Museum
The displays at the British Museum spark imaginations for visitors of all ages, with displays of Egyptian mummies, buried treasures from Anglo-Saxon times, and Samurai armor. There are various worksheets, activities and trails designed specifically for young visitors covering different themes within the museum. Follow the Twelve objects to see with children trail for a whistle-stop tour of the key exhibits.
Learn about conservation at London Zoo
Regent’s Park is home to the oldest zoo in the world, dating from 1828. The emphasis nowadays is firmly on conservation, breeding and education, with fewer animals and bigger enclosures. Highlights include Land of the Lions, Gorilla Kingdom, Night Life, Penguin Beach and the walk-through In with the Lemurs. There are regular feeding sessions and talks; various experiences are available, such as Keeper for a Day; and you can even spend the night in one of nine Gir Lion Lodge cabins.
Go to family-friendly theater shows
Big productions aimed at families include Matilda the Musical at Cambridge Theatre, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at Palace Theatre, and Disney’s The Lion King at Lyceum Theatre. Tickets need to be booked well in advance, especially if you’re on a budget. It’s often easier to get tickets to smaller productions at theaters away from the West End. Consider Unicorn Theatre near the South Bank or Little Angel Theatre in Islington, where all performances are aimed at youngsters. The Southbank Centre also runs family performances, particularly during local school holidays.
Greenwich is a good neighborhood for family activities
Greenwich in southeast London is a small area with good options for kids of all ages. It can be reached by train or DLR, but it’s much more fun to take the Thames Clipper from central London to Greenwich Pier. Younger kids are likely to love the massive adventure playground in Greenwich Park, with sand, water play, and plenty to climb on. Learn what life was like on board a 19th-century tea clipper at the Cutty Sark. For even more naval experiences, head to the National Maritime Museum (there’s a great gallery aimed at children aged seven and under called Ahoy!). The Royal Observatory on the hill offers a chance for older kids to explore space and time. Grab lunch at a stall in the food market, or head for one of the many chain restaurants.
The V&A Museum of Childhood is being transformed
Housed in a purpose-built Victorian-era building, this branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum is aimed at both kids (with play areas, interactive exhibits and dressing-up boxes) and nostalgic grown-ups who come to admire the antique toys. From teddies, doll’s houses and dolls to Meccano, Lego and computer games, it’s a wonderful toy-cupboard trip down memory lane. The V&A is currently closed for refurbishment, but expects to reopen with new galleries showcasing over 2000 objects.